How to Choose a Panama Canal Cruise

A Panama Canal cruise had been on my bucket list for a long time. Not only would it be transportation for me to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific and onto Alaska, the canal itself was a huge curiosity for me.

After 35 years of grueling construction in horrible conditions, the Panama Canal was completed in 1914. All the canal-building stories I learned about in school stoked my imagination. It was an adventure I had wanted to do for years. 

But when I started to look at possible cruise itineraries, it was a bit confusing. While there aren’t a zillion cruise ships heading to the canal, the ones that offer a Panama Canal cruise have a variety of itineraries. 

There are basically three itinerary choices to decide on for a Panama Canal cruise. It all depends on how much time you have for the trip and of course, how much you would like to spend.

What if you really want to see the Panama Canal but time and/or money are a concern? Here are the choices to help you decide which amazing experience to do along this 48-mile man-made wonder. 

When I found Crystal Serenity had a less-expensive repositioning coast-to-coast Panama Canal cruise, the decision was easy. Luckily, I had the time to spend 20 days from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles. But not everyone has the time or budget for 20 days. Then, what are your choices?

How to Choose the Best Panama Canal Cruise For You

There are three ways to “do” a Panama Canal cruise. All three types of Panama Canal cruises are offered by a handful of mainstream, premium and luxury cruise lines.

Not all cruises offer the same ports of call, either. So it’s important to study itineraries and not just price-shop. 

Princess does several Panama Canal cruises throughout the year as does Norwegian. Also, when repositioning to or from Alaska, Australia or on a world cruise, you’ll find Carnival, Cunard, Holland America and others (including my Crystal cruise) sail the full 48-mile, coast-to-coast canal transit.

cruising through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean
It’s hours to the Pacific Ocean just cruising through the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal Cruise Options

1. PARTIAL TRANSIT FOR THOSE WITH LESS TIME OR BUDGET

On a partial transit of the Panama Canal, you cruise through the first set of locks followed by a day spent on Gatun Lake. You can purchase a ship shore excursion and there are always several options to choose.

If you’re on a shore excursion from your partial transit, you might have to re-board your ship in Colon, Panama rather than be onboard for the 180 degree turnaround in Gatun Lake to exit the canal.

2. FULL PANAMA CANAL TRANSIT

The second option is a full transit of the Panama Canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa. These cruises tend to be seasonal and are at least 14 days in length. Generally, they will be even longer when the ship is continuing north along the California coast.

Arrival and departure ports on the west coast include either Seattle, Los Angeles or San Diego. Departures on the east coast usually begin from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami in Florida, sometimes in New York City.

If you love sea days, this could be your dream cruise. You can even include a cross-country Amtrak train from your cruise port after the cruise to return home. 

Ports you might visit on the Atlantic side include Key West, Cartagena, Colombia, Aruba or St. Thomas in the U.S.V.I.

On the Pacific side, you might visit one or two ports in Costa Rica and Central America. Three ports in Mexico seem to be the standard and might include Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas. Then it’s north to San Diego and onto Los Angeles or Seattle.

Panama Canal Locks
Standing at the bow of our ship, waiting for the lock to fill so we could continue westbound.

3. FULL TRANSIT BUT REQUIRES A FLIGHT OUT

Your third choice is also a full transit but it’s shorter in length. These usually start or end in Costa Rica or Colon, Panama. Air arrangements can be a little more involved but it’s easily set up. This is one time where booking cruise line air might be the least stressful option, especially for newbie cruisers.

READ MORE: What to do in Cartagena, Colombia on a Panama Canal cruise

Panama Canal cruise
A beautiful Key West sunset on our way to the Panama Canal.

Planning a Panama Canal Cruise

I think a Panama Canal cruise is similar to an Alaska cruise for several reasons. 

  1.  It’s a bucket list cruise for many
  2.  Splurge and reserve a balcony stateroom
  3.  Do a little research before the cruise
  4.  Go to the enrichment presentations

If your ship makes a port call in Cartegena, Colombia and Panama City, Panama, you’re in luck. These were my two favorite ports on my Panama Canal cruise. Why? Cartegena is emerging as a world-class vacation destination with great restaurants, historical sights and fabulous shopping. 

Panama City seems to rise out of the sea with unexpected ultra-modern skyscrapers that extend along the shoreline. Panama City is very modern urban city, and was a total surprise for me. 

Panama City skyline on a Panama Canal cruise.
Appearing out of nowhere, the Panama City skyline looked like Miami.

Despite a Panama Canal cruise being a bucket list vacation, I would go again without hesitation. Especially because now I know what to do in some of the ports of call that I missed doing the first time.

READ NEXT:  My Panama Canal Cruise Review with Crystal Cruises

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Wayne,
    Thank you for your note and for reading my article. Sorry about the delayed reply. For smaller ships along the lines of Oceania, there’s also Viking Ocean with 900 passengers, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent all have smaller, upscale ships. There’s also Windstar with sailing ships and over-sized yachts. While I still need to cruise aboard the mega-ships for work, I also am leaning more towards smaller ships of the sizes you mentioned. Also, remember there are river cruises in the US with only a few hundred passengers or less. Happy cruising! And thank you again.

  2. Exciting! WE are in our 60’s and prefer smaller ships … along the lines of Oceania. 600-1000 passengers.. Which cruiselines should we be focusing on? Thanks!

  3. Hi Jeffrey,
    Thank you for reading my article. That’s a very interesting question and one to which I don’t have an answer. My only guess would be that as long as you’re aboard one of the Panamax ships (the older ships) and not Post-Panamax like Royal Caribbean’s newer ships. The ships also cannot be taller than 201-feet to fit under the Bridge of the Americas. You could probably send an email to the Panama Canal Authority with any questions and they may even have a list of ships slated to use the original canal locks for 2022-23. Basically, the smaller the ship, the more likely it will transit through the old locks.
    Last but not least, whatever cruise line you choose, you might be able to reach someone that is knowledgable on which locks a specific ship will use.

    Have a wonderful cruise! It’s an amazing experience, for sure. Thank you again for your question.

  4. hi, as a retired engineer making a transit via the old canal locks is a must. Please advise how i can be assured the ship i choose will in fact be using the old canal?

    thanks …

  5. Hi Deb,

    Thank you for your wonderful email! It made my day. I will be posting more about my Panama Canal cruise when I’m back on land. Onboard Wifi is good…but still spotty at times. I am not familiar with David McCullough’s book, but it sounds interesting and I’ll look for it on Amazon. Thanks again for listening to Cruise Radio! If you have time, I’m the new host of River Cruise Radio so please listen in!

    Sherry

  6. Hi Sherry. We will be following you on your journey of the Panama Canal as we plan on booking for 2020 when the dates for fall are released. We are reading David McCullough’s book, Path Between the Seas, to prepare ourselves for this epic adventure.

    I feel like you and I are old friends. I have been listening to you for a few years now on Doug Parker’s Radio show. You sure provide a great summary of all cruise news be it positive or negative. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and enjoy your trip along the canal.

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