How to Choose a Panama Canal Cruise

It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while.  So when I had a chance to jump on Crystal Serenity for a Panama Canal cruise that included a full transit of this feat of engineering, the decision was easy.  But it wasn’t until I really started to look at several other cruise lines’ itineraries that I realized there are choices when it comes time to choose a Panama Canal cruise.

What if you really want to see the Panama Canal but time and/or money are a concern?  Read on as I explain your options to experience this 48-mile man-made wonder.

There are three ways to “do” a Panama Canal cruise.  These are offered by a handful of mainstream and premium cruise lines.  Princess does several throughout the year as does Norwegian.  Also, for repositioning to Australia or a world cruise, you’ll find Carnival, Cunard, Holland America and others heading out on a full transit.

Panama Canal cruise choices

1.  Partial transit

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-boardyour ship in Colon, Panama rather than be onboard for the 180 degree turnaround in the lake to exit the canal.

2.  Full 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.  Arrival and departure ports on the west coast include either San Diego or Los Angeles and of course Ft. Lauderdale or Miami in Florida.  If you love sea days, this could be your dream cruise. Other ports en route could include a stop at Cartagena, Colombia on the Atlantic side.

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

3.  Full transit with a twist

Your third choice is also a full transit but it’s shorter in length and starts or ends 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.

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

Tomorrow we’ll dock in Cartagena, a strategic port city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Dating back to the early 1500’s, massive stone walls that surround the Old Town welcome tourists to explore this UNESCO-designated historic city, rich in Spanish colonial history, centuries-old architecture and of the indigenous Zinu people.

Read next:  My Panama Canal Cruise with Crystal Cruises

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2 thoughts on “How to Choose a Panama Canal Cruise”

  • 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!


  • 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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