North, South, East or West, Which Caribbean Cruise Itinerary is Best?

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Jan 14, 2007 (Updated Jan 21, 2007)


The Bottom Line You really can't lose if you pick the right cruise!

No doubt about it, a cruise provides one of the best vacation values available. Cruising allows you to see three or more different destinations without unpacking, repacking, and driving or flying from one place to the next. Most first-time cruisers opt for a Caribbean cruise. The variety of itineraries has greatly increased since my first cruise about ten years ago. Should you go Western, Eastern, Southern, or Bahamas? The answer really depends on what you are looking for in your vacation, but the following information should help make your decision easier.

Bahamas
Common Ports of Call – Nassau and Freeport, Bahamas; cruise ship private islands
The Good– Bahamas itineraries typically run three to four days and provide an excellent starter cruse. For cruisers with concerns about sea sickness or being bored at sea, taking a brief Bahamas cruise allows a glimpse of cruise life without the time and expense of a longer voyage. Disney cruise line pairs these vacations with a three or four day hotel stay to make for an excellent land and sea combo vacation. The Bahamas are beautiful and provide a great first impression of the islands. Shore excursions are well developed and varied. Bahamas cruises are also a great pick for anyone with a very limited supply of vacation days.
The Bad – The most unpleasant parts of any cruise are boarding and debarking. A short itinerary, particularly three nights, means you will spend a huge percentage of your vacation doing these tasks. Just when you get in the cruising mood, it will be time to get off. For any sort of meaningful relaxation to occur, a five day itinerary is just about the minimum.

Western
Common Ports of Call – Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; Ochos Rios, Jamaica; Belize City, Belize; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; Key West, Florida
The Good – Western Caribbean routes provide a fabulous itinerary for first time cruisers. Not only are the seas traditionally smoother, but western routes traditionally include good port variety. Our most recent trip on the Carnival Glory’s western itinerary took us to Key West, Costa Maya, and Belize City, three very different locations. Most western routes offer access to Mexico’s Mayan ruins, which always make for a wonderful shore excursion rich with history. Many western ports have been receiving cruisers for a very long time, so the kinks have been ironed out and tours operate with ease.
The Downside – There are simply fewer islands on the western side of the Caribbean, so no matter which line you sale on, the western route will be substantially similar. We considered a western route for our most recent cruise but could not find one with more than a single port that was new for us. Additionally, many of these cruises, such as our most recent route, don’t actually include a single Caribbean island.

Eastern
Common Ports of Call– Nassau, Bahamas; Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.; St. Marteen, Netherlands Antilles; Tortola, B.V.I.
The Good – These eastern routes take you primarily to islands, many of which are very beautiful and all of which give a real sense of getting away from it all. Most eastern routes make a stop at St. Thomas, which is the favorite island of many cruisers and offers something for everybody. Turks and Caicos is also fast increasing in popularity. On almost all of these destinations you will find pristine beaches and a variety of other natural attractions. Most of these islands are small, meaning that any activity you select will be within a very short distance of the dock. As with western routes, eastern itineraries are accessible from a wide variety of ports. You will see beautiful beaches, lush foliage, and lovely ocean views, as well as many, many branches of Diamonds International (a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it!)
The Downside – The water can be just a little choppier on the east side than the west side. If you are nervous about your first cruising experience, the west side might be a better pick. After a while, the islands of this area can all start to blend together. The itinerary here simply doesn’t have as much variety as routes in the west or south. Also, these are small islands, and more popular ones such as San Juan or St. Thomas can easily become crowded when a half dozen ships are in port. If you don’t want so much tourist traffic an off time of year or a Southern itinerary would probably be a better pick.

Southern
Common Ports of Call – Aruba; Bonaire; Grenada; St. Lucia; Barbados, St. Kitts & Nevis; Curacao, Antigua
The Good – Southern Caribbean itineraries tend to be very port-intensive, due to the number of southern islands and their close proximity to each other. Some of the Caribbean’s most interesting and beautiful islands are located in the south. These islands are an optimal place for diving and snorkeling, as they offer more biodiversity than the northern islands and less cruise traffic. Most southern routes stop in at least one of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao), which are known as some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. We loved Aruba so much we will be trying to pick another route that stops here. Switching to a southern route also provides a nice change for frequent cruisers who have been to Cozumel one time too many. Some southern routes even visit portions of South America, such as Margarita Island in Venezuela. Finally, a southern itinerary is perfect for those who are looking for a cruise that is longer than the traditional seven days. It is not uncommon to see southern itineraries as long as nine to eleven days.
The Downside – Because it takes a while to get to the southern portion of the Caribbean, cruises with a southern itinerary tend to leave from ports outside the U.S. such as San Juan, Puerto Rico. We enjoy having San Juan as sort of a bonus port, but cruising from here means more expensive plane flights to get to the point of departure. Additionally, fewer options are offered for Southern Caribbean itineraries and some cruise lines don’t have them at all. This means that date and ship selection is more limited than with an eastern or western route and prices can be higher.

Final Thoughts
I have never had a bad cruise, but after five I have found some itineraries I have enjoyed much more than others. Overall, I have enjoyed my exciting and varied western and less commercialized southern routes the most. Hopefully this information will help you pick the right route for you! Happy cruising!

*Check out my specific Cruise Ship Reviews!
Crown Princess Southern Itinerary
Carnival Glory Western Itinerary

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