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Caribbean Cruises 101

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Given the hundreds of picture-perfect, palm-dotted, beach-fronted islands that speckle the Caribbean Sea, it’s little wonder that these turquoise waters provide haven to a higher number of pleasure cruise ships than anywhere else in the world. Though many islands are too small or underdeveloped to support cruise ship ports, countless others, each with unique personalities, landscapes, and cultural offerings, provide a wealth of choices. Caribbean cruise itineraries are typically divided into Western, Eastern, and Southern segments, with the entire region serviced by more than 20 cruise lines, offering fleets ranging from intimate, tall-ship windjammers to village-at-sea, mega-ship liners. Whether you’re in search of raucous nightlife, stellar duty-free shopping, exhilarating waters sports, rich colonial history, or pristine tropical terrain, there’s a Caribbean island itinerary to suit almost every taste.

Plan your perfect Caribbean cruise vacation by reading the answers to commonly asked questions below, as well as our tips for booking a Caribbean cruise like a pro, then scout for the best Caribbean cruise deals on the travel deals section of ShermansTravel.com. Be sure to check out our Top 10 Cruises in 2011 piece, too, for our editors’ top picks for sailings to the Caribbean and beyond in the coming year!

COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
When is Caribbean cruise season?
Can I cruise the Caribbean during hurricane season?
How long do Caribbean cruises last?
What ports do Caribbean cruises leave from?
What kind of cruise lines operate in the Caribbean?

When is Caribbean cruise season?
The highest concentration of Caribbean cruise itineraries run from late fall through late spring, safely outside of hurricane season (roughly June 1 to November 30), although abundant sailings are scheduled year round. You’ll nab the lowest rates by cruising in early fall (rainy season), just before peak season kicks in and ships are back in Caribbean waters after their Alaska and European summer runs; prices also dip for a few short weeks following the December holidays. Summer cruisers will encounter the hottest (and often most uncomfortable) temps, as well as plenty of bargains (although to a lesser degree than in fall) – expect to encounter plenty of families onboard at this time. You’ll pay the most by sailing during the December holidays or between late January and the Easter/spring break period.

High Season: December; late January–April
Low Season: June–November
Sweet Spot: Early to mid-January; May

Can I cruise the Caribbean during hurricane season?
Cruising during hurricane season, which officially lasts from June 1 to November 30, is still very much an option, so long as you’re not too attached to any specific ports of call – ships are equipped with modern satellite warning systems, giving captains plenty of time to change course if need be. As many cruisers are deterred by this possibility, this is a great time to nab discounted cruises. Note that while Southern Caribbean ports were long regarded as falling safely outside of the hurricane belt, the storms that have touched islands like Aruba and Curaçao in the last few years have led many to reconsider this route as fail-safe.

How long do Caribbean cruises last?
Most Caribbean cruises are destination-intensive, with the larger cruise lines typically cramming in anywhere from four to seven ports in the span of one week. Although the bulk of sailings are a week long, you’ll find durations of anywhere from 5 to 15 nights, as well, while shorter 4-night cruises, often touted as “Western Caribbean,” focus on ports mostly in the Bahamas, Florida, and Mexico. Longer cruises may combine Caribbean ports with stops further into Mexico, Central America, or even South America.

What ports do Caribbean cruises leave from?
Most Caribbean cruises leave from the Floridian ports of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, and Tampa, although ships also set sail to a lesser extent from other Southern and Eastern U.S. ports like Galveston, Mobile, New Orleans, Charleston, Norfolk, New York, and Baltimore. (Read our Homeport Cruising 101 Guide to discover what ships are sailing to the Caribbean – and beyond – from a port near you.) Some ships, particularly smaller adventure and tall-ship cruise lines, embark from right within the Caribbean at ports like San Juan (Puerto Rico), Bridgetown (Barbados), or Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas) – the upside to these cruises is that you’ll most likely be able to cover a more robust itinerary of ports, while the downsize is that flying to the Caribbean-based embarkation points can be complicated and/or expensive.

What kind of cruise lines operate in the Caribbean?
With more than 20 cruise lines plying Caribbean waters, you’ll find operators that run the gamut from child-friendly to adventure-driven, and from spa-focused to nightlife-oriented. Thematic cruises, ranging from gay-and-lesbian to wellness-and-health, can help customize your experience. Mainstream mega-ship cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer plenty of value and veritable villages at sea, perfect for those who want lots of entertainment and dining options to choose from while not in port. However, these mega-ships’ itineraries can be limited to only the largest of Caribbean ports, due to their sheer size. Smaller cruise lines geared toward adventure cruising or tall-ship sailing, like Arabella or Island Windjammers, offer more flexible itineraries (as they’re able to squeeze into smaller harbors) and a more intimate, hands-on approach to cruising (try out your deckhand skills and raise the sails!). Other cruise lines like Cunard and Regent Seven Seas offer the ultimate luxury experience, with five-star dining and white-glove service to enjoy between ports. Rest assured that all Caribbean cruise lines strive to give passengers ample beach, sightseeing, and shopping time.

Western Caribbean Cruises

Western Caribbean cruise itineraries incorporate ports of call on the western fringes of the Caribbean Sea such as Jamaica and Grand Cayman, although many ports are not inherently Caribbean at all, like those in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, the Bahamas (although often mistakenly clustered in with the Caribbean chain, the Bahamas are technically a separate entity), and beyond. You’ll get the trademark sun, surf, and sand, but also some exciting history, including visits to ancient Mayan ruins and temples, mixed in with eco-adventures and a little Latin America flavor. Nearly all of the big-ship cruise lines offer itineraries in this region, as these highly popular itineraries are the closest to the major Floridian ports and within a quick shot of Gulf of Mexico ports like Galveston, Mobile, and New Orleans. These sailings are doable on as little as 4- or 5-night itineraries (though Bahamas-exclusive trips can be done in as little as three), but one-week sailings are most heavily scheduled. Expect to spend some extra time at sea, since ports are further apart than those in Eastern Caribbean sailings.

Jump to:
Western Caribbean Cruise Season
Length of Western Caribbean Cruises
Departure Ports for Western Caribbean Cruises
Cruise Lines Servicing the Western Caribbean
Western Caribbean Ports
Our Favorite Western Caribbean Cruises

Western Caribbean Cruise Season
High Season: December; late January–April
Low Season: June–November
Sweet Spot: Early to mid-January; May

Length of Western Caribbean Cruises
4 to 14 nights

Departure Ports for Western Caribbean Cruises
Charleston
Fort Lauderdale
Galveston
Miami
Mobile
New Orleans
• Port Canaveral
Tampa

Cruise Lines Servicing the Western Caribbean
• Carnival
• Celebrity
• Costa
• Crystal
• Disney
• Fred Olsen
• Hapag Lloyd
• Holland America
• MSC Cruises
• Norwegian
• P & O
• Princess
• Regent Seven Seas
• Royal Caribbean

Western Caribbean Ports
Bahamas: Freeport, Nassau
Belize: Belize City
• Colombia: Cartagena, Santa Marta
Costa Rica: Puerto Limon
Dominican Republic: Cayo Levantado (Samana), Catalina Island, La Romana (Casa de Campo), Samana, Santo Domingo
Florida: Key West
Grand Cayman: George Town
• Guatemala: Santo Tomas de Castilla
• Haiti: Labadee
• Honduras: Puerto Cortes (Copan), Roatan
Jamaica: Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio
Mexico: Cancun (Calica), Costa Maya, Cozumel, Merida (Progreso), Playa del Carmen
Panama: Colon
Turks and Caicos: Grand Turk

Our Favorite Western Caribbean Cruises

GREAT VALUE:
Cruise Line: Celebrity
Ship:
Millennium
Length:
5 nights
Departure Port:
Miami
Ports of Call:
Honduras (Roatan); Mexico (Cozumel)
Starting From:
$289 per person
Book It:
www.celebritycruises.com

SMART SPLURGE
:
Cruise Line: Regent Seven Seas
Ship: Seven Seas Navigator
Length: 10 nights
Departure Port: Fort Lauderdale
Ports of Call:
Key West; Grand Cayman; Mexico (Cozumel); Belize (Belize City); Guatemala (Santo Tomas de Castilla); Honduras (Roatan); Mexico (Costa Maya)
Starting From:
$4,099 per person
Book It:
www.rssc.com


Find Caribbean Cruise Deals on ShermansTravel.com.

Eastern Caribbean Cruises

Standard Eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries feature a robust mix of stops in well-developed tourist centers like Puerto Rico, St. Maarten/St. Martin, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas (while not truly part of the Caribbean, these latter isles often make a cameo on Eastern Caribbean itineraries). You’ll encounter rich colonial history in most ports, with abundant traces of British, French, Dutch, and Spanish influence; lovely beaches; and amazing landscapes. The one downside of visiting this region is that most itineraries tend to stick to the tried-and-true, mainstream ports of call, rather than seeking out anything truly exotic – happily, a handful of luxury and adventure cruise lines do offer up more diverse itineraries. There are a multitude of cruise lines serving this congested area; trips range in length from 5-night to classic 7-night tours to longer, more exotic 14-night sailings. Voyages embark from all major Floridian ports, San Juan and Bridgetown, as well as other Eastern Seaboard ports stretching from New York City to Charleston.

Jump to: 
Eastern Caribbean Cruise Season
Length of Eastern Caribbean Cruises
Departure Ports for Eastern Caribbean Cruises
Cruise Lines Servicing the Eastern Caribbean
Eastern Caribbean Ports
Our Favorite Eastern Caribbean Cruises

Eastern Caribbean Cruise Season
High Season: December; late January–April
Low Season: June–November
Sweet Spot: Early to mid-January; May

Length of Eastern Caribbean Cruises
5 to 14 nights

Departure Ports for Eastern Caribbean Cruises
• Baltimore
Barbados: Bridgetown
Charleston
Ft. Lauderdale
Miami
New York
Norfolk  
• Port Canaveral   
Puerto Rico: San Juan
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.: Charlotte Amalie
Tampa

Cruise Lines Servicing the Eastern Caribbean
• Azamara
• Carnival
• Celebrity
• Costa
• Crystal
• Disney
• Fred Olsen
• Hapag-Lloyd
• Holland America
• MSC Cruises
• Norwegian
• Princess
• Regent Seven Seas
• Royal Caribbean
• Seabourn
• SeaDream
• Silversea
• Thomson Cruises
• Windstar

Eastern Caribbean Ports
Anguilla: Sandy Ground
Antigua: St. John’s
Bahamas: Freeport, Nassau
Barbados: Bridgetown
Dominica: Cabrits, Portsmouth, Roseau
Dominican Republic: Cayo Levantado (Samana), Catalina Island, La   Romana (Casa de Campo), Samana, Santo Domingo
• Grenada: St. George’s
• Haiti: Labadee
• Jost Van Dyke, B.V.I.: Jost Van Dyke
Puerto Rico: Culebra, Mayaguez, Ponce, San Juan, Vieques
• Guadeloupe: Iles Des Saintes
St. Barthelemy: Gustavia
St. Croix, U.S.V.I.: Christiansted, Frederiksted
St. John, U.S.V.I.: Cruz Bay
• St. Kitts: Basseterre
St. Lucia: Castries
St. Maarten / St. Martin: Philipsburg
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.: Charlotte Amalie
• Tortola, B.V.I.: Road Town
Turks & Caicos: Grand Turk
• Virgin Gorda, B.V.I.: Virgin Gorda

Our Favorite Eastern Caribbean Cruises

GREAT VALUE:
Cruise Line: Royal Caribbean
Ship: Freedom of the Seas
Length: 7 nights
Departure Port: Port Canaveral
Ports of Call: Bahamas (CocoCay); St. Thomas (Charlotte Amalie); St. Maarten (Philipsburg);
Starting From: $599 per person
Book It:
www.royalcaribbean.com


SMART SPLURGE:

Cruise Line: Oceania
Ship:
Riviera
Length:
11 nights
Departure Port:
Miami
Ports of Call:
St. Maarten (Philipsburg); Antigua (St. John’s); Barbados (Bridgetown); St. Lucia (Castries); St. Barts (Gustavia); Puerto Rico (San Juan)
Starting From:
$1,799 per person
Book It:
www.oceaniacruises.com

Find Caribbean Cruise Deals on ShermansTravel.com.

Southern Caribbean Cruises

Southern Caribbean cruise itineraries are among the rarest on the circuit, simply due to the islands’ distant proximity from the U.S. mainland, thus requiring much longer trips or expensive flights to the Caribbean ports of embarkation. However, for those with the time and/or money to spare, these southerly isles boast some of the most exotic and least overrun ports in the Caribbean, with natural diversities ranging from rain forests to volcanoes to deserts, as well as rich West Indian, French, British, and Dutch colonial heritages. Both larger cruise lines (i.e. Carnival and Royal Caribbean) and smaller adventure and luxury cruise lines (i.e. Star Clippers and Windstar) navigate these waters; the smaller lines tend to do a better job of mixing up the more popular ports with off-the-path harbors. Several weeklong itineraries embark from San Juan and other Caribbean ports; cruises of more than 10 nights leave largely from Floridian ports. This region is your best bet for sailing during hurricane season, with most ports falling below what was traditionally considered the hurricane belt (however, weather pattern changes in recent years have seen even southerly islands, like Aruba and Grenada, be sideswiped by storms).

Jump to:
Southern Caribbean Cruise Season
Length of Southern Caribbean Cruises
Departure Ports for Southern Caribbean Cruises
Cruise Lines Servicing the Southern Caribbean
Southern Caribbean Ports
Our Favorite Southern Caribbean Cruise

Southern Caribbean Cruise Season
High Season: December; late January–April
Low Season: June–November
Sweet Spot: Early to mid-January; May

Length of Southern Caribbean Cruises
4 to 15 nights

Departure Ports for Southern Caribbean Cruises
Antigua: St. John’s
• Baltimore
Barbados: Bridgetown
Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo
Jamaica: Montego Bay
Fort Lauderdale
Miami
New York
Panama: Colon, Cristobal
• Port Canaveral
Puerto Rico: San Juan
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.: Charlotte Amalie

Cruise Lines Servicing the Southern Caribbean
• Azamara
• Carnival
• Celebrity
• Crystal
• Cunard
• Fred Olsen
• Hapag-Lloyd
• Holland America
• Island Windjammers
• MSC Cruises
• Norwegian
• Oceania
• P & O
• Princess
• Regent Seven Seas
• Royal Caribbean
• Sea Cloud Cruises
• Seabourn
• SeaDream
• Silversea
• Star Clippers
• Thomson Cruises
• Windstar

Southern Caribbean Ports
Anguilla: Sandy Ground
Antigua: St. John’s
Aruba: Orangjestad
Barbados: Bridgetown
• Bonaire: Kralendijk
• Colombia: Cartagena, Santa Marta
Curacao: Willemstad
Dominica: Cabrits, Portsmouth, Roseau
• Grenada: St. George’s
Grenadines: Bequia, Mayreau, Tobago Cays
• Guadeloupe: Basse-Terre, Isles de Saintes, Pointe-a-Pitre
• Jost Van Dyke, B.V.I.: Jost Van Dyke
• Martinique: Fort-de-France
Nevis: Charlestown
Puerto Rico: San Juan, Vieques
• Saba: Saba
St. Barthelemy: Gustavia
St. Croix, U.S.V.I.: Christiansted; Frederiksted
St. John, U.S.V.I.: Cruz Bay
• St. Kitts: Basseterre
St. Lucia: Castries, Pigeon Island, Soufriere
St. Maarten / St. Martin: Marigot, Philipsburg
St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.: Charlotte Amalie
St. Vincent: Kingstown
• Tobago: Charlotteville, Scarborough
• Tortola, B.V.I.: Road Town
• Trinidad: Port of Spain
Venezuela: Caracas (La Guaira), Margarita Island
• Virgin Gorda, B.V.I.: Virgin Gorda

Our Favorite Southern Caribbean Cruises

GREAT VALUE:
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Caribbean Princess
Length: 7 nights
Departure Port: Fort Lauderdale
Ports of Call:
Bahamas (Princess Cay); Curacao; Aruba
Starting From:
$599 per person
Book It: www.princess.com

SMART SPLURGE:
Cruise Line: Silversea
Ship: Silver Spirit
Length: 9 nights
Departure Port:
Barbados (Bridgetown)
Ports of Call:
St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia); Dominica (Roseau); St. Kitts (Basseterre); St. Barts (Gustavia); St. Maarten (Philipsburg); Puerto Rico (San Juan); Fort Lauderdale
Starting From:
$3,638 per person
Book It: www.silversea.com

Find Caribbean Cruise Deals on ShermansTravel.com

Tips for Booking a Caribbean Cruise

Jump to:
Getting the best price on a Caribbean cruise
What the fare covers on a Caribbean cruise
Picking your Caribbean cruise cabin wisely
Tips for traveling alone on Caribbean cruises

Getting the Best Price on a Caribbean Cruise
Buy early or late. Prices can fluctuate a lot between the sale date and the sail date (usually a 12- to 18-month span). The sweet spots for purchasing are early in the process, when prices are generally favorable and availability is high, and late, when prices decrease but availability may be limited.

Use a cruise-only agency to make the purchase. Online travel engines may be the easiest way to book most trips these days, but when it’s time to buy a cruise, make sure to also try a cruise agent. They can offer you unadvertised discounts, group rates, and personalized service in case anything should go wrong.

Check out newsletters with cruise-bargain listings published by the cruise lines themselves, travel agencies, and online resources like our Caribbean Cruise Deals page.

What the Fare Covers on a Caribbean Cruise
On mainstream cruise lines, the fare includes meals, room service, entertainment, and the run of the ship. Not covered are tips, alcoholic beverages, soda, special dining venues, and shore excursions. Most ships have alternative dining venues, and service charges can range from $10 to $20 on most mass-market cruise lines. Leave room in your budget for shipboard expenses, because those extra costs – like paying for espresso with dinner, or a service charge for pizza delivery to your stateroom – can quickly add up.

Luxury lines like Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, and SeaDream Yacht Club include gratuities and all beverages in their fares, in addition to meals and entertainment.

Airfare is not included in a cruise price unless it’s specifically advertised. Some cruise lines, especially river cruises, do include airfare, which will be very clear in the wording of the price quote.

Picking Your Caribbean Cruise Cabin Wisely
Almost all advertised cruise prices are for the cheapest (often inside) cabins, so you may need to do some digging for the other prices.

Inside These have no windows but offer the same room service and room stewards as other cabins. Families often book these for the kids (many include additional pull-down beds at a lower fare).

Oceanview Also called an “outside cabin,” these have nonopening windows. The windows in “obstructed view” rooms are partially blocked by lifeboats and sell for less.

Balcony or Veranda The most popular choice: A sliding-glass door opens to a private deck with a table, chairs, and a safety railing.

Junior Suites These are balcony cabins with more square footage, larger bathrooms, a separate seating area, and larger closets.

Suites These come in several configurations but usually include separate bedrooms, larger bathrooms, walk-in closets, and extra services like butler, concierge, and Internet access. Some even have dining rooms, butler’s pantries, hot tubs, and baby grand pianos.

Location, Location, Location The smoothest sailing part of a cruise ship is on the lower decks, midship. Some ships charge more for higher-deck cabins with the same design. Book the lower deck to save money and keep seasickness at bay.

Tips for Traveling Alone on Caribbean Cruises
Cruising is geared toward couples, as the rate is for a cabin with double occupancy. A solo cruiser pays a “singles supplement,” usually a 50 percent markup of the per-person rate. Here are smart ways to go solo:

Get a roommate: Certain lines, like Holland America, will match you up with a cabin-mate.

Try a singles cruise: VacationsToGo.com and SinglesCruise.com bring singles groups on major boats for special activities, parties, dining, and roommate matching.

Go high-end: Several luxury lines like Silversea, Crystal, and Seabourn offer lower singles’ supplements than most other lines (around 25 percent).

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