How to Choose a Cruise Itinerary
With so many incredible destinations and experiences to choose from, finding the perfect cruise itinerary isn’t always easy. Dreaming of a glamorous island-hopping vacation? Try the Caribbean, Greece, or the South Pacific. Are you fascinated by history and other cultures? The Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Asia, or South America might be the place for you.
If you’re looking for a nature-inspired getaway, you’ll find it in Alaska, the Norwegian fjords, and New Zealand, where breathtaking landscapes and unforgettable experiences are all part of the journey.
Whether your ideal getaway consists of lounging on pristine beaches, exploring UNESCO World Heritage Sites, or tasting some of the best food in the world, there’s a cruise itinerary that will satisfy your vacation needs. Follow the steps below to find the ideal itinerary and start planning your dream cruise today.
Pick a destination
When it comes to cruise itinerary choices, the world is your oyster. Unlike hotels, cruise ships move and can get you to several exciting places in one vacation. Ships sail to some of the most remote corners of the Earth, affording passengers the opportunity to explore cultures and magnificent natural sights along the way. Each region has its own unique appeal.
The most popular cruising region for first-time cruisers is the sunny Caribbean, where the temperatures are warm. Year-round, you can dip your toes in powdery sand and clear blue sea when you’re not lounging under a palm tree, sipping a frosty rum drink, and listening to a steel band. Go for a few days, a week, or longer, and come back completely refreshed.
Eastern Caribbean cruises and Western Caribbean cruises deliver you to islands where you might explore rainforests, go snorkeling to see colorful fish, or dive into local culture. The difference is which groups of islands you visit. For instance, Eastern Caribbean itineraries typically bring you to St. Thomas and St. Maarten, while Western Caribbean itineraries include stops in Grand Cayman and Cozumel.
If you’re deciding between The Bahamas vs Bermuda, Bahamas sailings offer a short introduction to cruising, while Bermuda cruises typically lasts for seven to ten nights.
For a different type of experience, Alaska is a cruise destination where Mother Nature delivers wondrous sights. Look up at the huge blue walls of a glacier and hear a sound like thunder as a house-sized chunk of ice breaks off and crashes to the sea.
Your ship will pass through glorious natural areas where wildlife abounds, and you can get even closer with shore excursions like kayaking, deep-sea fishing, bear observation, and dogsledding on top of a glacier. In fascinating frontier towns, you’ll gain insight into Gold Rush history and Alaska Native culture.
If you have your vacation sights set on Europe, where the sunny Mediterranean is particularly popular with first-timers, you’ll find cruise ship itinerary choices abound, and you have easy access to several countries on one cruise vacation.
Perhaps your goal is posing like a gladiator at the Roman Colosseum or viewing Antoni Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona. Maybe you want to follow the glamorous crowd to the French Riviera, with a stop in Monte Carlo and the Grand Casino.
Maybe you’re dreaming of the Greek Islands, with ancient ruins from some of the world’s greatest civilizations and picture-perfect views in such dreamlike places as Mykonos and Santorini. Or you have your sights set on seeing some of the most breathtaking coastlines on earth on a one-week cruise to Italy, Croatia, and Montenegro.
In addition to Caribbean, Alaska, and Mediterranean cruises, there are other cruise itinerary choices perfectly suited for both novice cruises and repeaters. Explore the pink sands of Bermuda, try surfing and attend a luau on the islands of Hawaii, or learn some American history, eat lobster, and see leaves in their colorful fall display in New England and Canada.
Nature lovers with an adventurous spirit will not want to miss hanging out with blue-footed boobies and sea lions in the Galapagos, a place where the animals seem as curious about humans as we are about them.
Or you may choose a cruise ship itinerary to explore Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Russia; the fairytale-like landscapes of the Norwegian Fjords; the culinary scene and fascinating landmarks of Asia; Australia and New Zealand; ancient landmarks and modern cities in the Middle East; the British Isles (England, Ireland and Scotland); or the stunning scenery of South America.
Think about your vacation type
As part of your cruise ship itinerary planning process, consider what sort of vacation you are looking for, as well as who you will be vacationing with.
Are you looking for a romantic getaway with your loved one, where you’ll hold hands on the beach, dance beneath a canopy of stars, and share intimate meals? You’ll want an itinerary that says romance to you. Think about your favorite romantic movie and put yourself in the script.
Family vacationers will want to consider what the kids would like to do. Are you looking for adventure? Will the kids be thrilled or bored seeing cultural attractions? Onboard kids’ programs, including for tweens and teens, will keep your progeny well entertained, but you’ll want to find a cruise ship itinerary that works for everyone in the family.
Read: Best Cruises for Teens
Adventures and active travelers will find a wealth of exciting shore excursion options on all cruise ship itineraries, but if you have your sights set on a particular activity—such as hiking on top of a glacier or volcanic mountain—you’ll want to choose your itinerary wisely.
Culture vultures should research what they want to do, see, taste, and experience, whether it be UNESCO World Heritage Sites, world-class museums and galleries, or gourmet dining experiences.
Choose an embarkation port
In the U.S., cruises embark from ports like Boston, Cape Liberty, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and Tampa. Before you book a cruise, consider which departure port is located closest to you, and see which itineraries are available there.
If you don’t live near a departure port, consider adding a couple of days before or after your cruise to explore the city you embark from. Each has its own nearby world-class attractions, whether it’s Time Square in New York, Miami’s South Beach, or the high-end shops on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
In Europe, ships embark from cities like Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona, Lisbon, Rome, and Southampton, UK (about two hours from London). All are worth exploring pre- or post-cruise. On some one-way itineraries, you’ll have the opportunity to linger in two ports, such as Barcelona and Rome.
Consider time of year
When you cruise is a factor in your choice of itinerary. Some destinations, most notably Alaska, are accessible to cruise ships only in specific seasons. The Alaska cruise season is May to September.
While the Caribbean is temperate year-round, the Mediterranean is most popular in spring, summer, and fall.
When looking at cruise ship itineraries, consider when it is you are planning to vacation and check the typical weather for the period you wish to cruise. You don’t want to head somewhere where the weather is cold if you’re thinking about beach time.
You may also want to consider whether your timing is high season in the destination you plan to visit. For instance, there will be fewer crowds in St. Mark’s Square in Venice if you don’t visit in July and August.
In the Caribbean, summertime and holidays are popular with families, which is fine if you’re cruising with kids. If you are looking for more of an adult crowd, you may want to consider other time periods.
Decide how long you want to cruise
Many cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and Bermuda are seven nights long, and there are great one-week options in Europe and elsewhere as well. If you can’t take a whole week off for your cruise vacation, there are plenty of itineraries for less than a week—as well as for more than a week.
First-timers may want to test the waters with a refreshing weekend cruise to the Bahamas, with the opportunity to lounge on white-sand beaches and visit a world-class waterpark on nearby Paradise Island. Do a short four-night cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman, where adventure activities include snorkeling with friendly stingrays.
Or head off for five nights to explore Mayan culture in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico. There are short cruises in other parts of the Caribbean as well, and some visit Key West, where you can walk in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway and savor a slice of key lime pie.
Cruises of more than a week go farther afield, with plenty of time to explore new places and enjoy your ship’s onboard attractions. Longer cruises tend to draw more adults and fewer families and include exploration of the Caribbean as well as Europe, the Panama Canal, Asia, South America, and Australia and New Zealand.
Evaluate time at sea and in port
An important factor when you look at a cruise ship itinerary is how much time the ship spends in ports and how much time it’s at sea. It pays to look carefully at itineraries to compare.
Ask yourself if you want to wake up to gorgeous, uninterrupted views of the sea or the landscape of exciting cities ripe for exploring. Some itineraries are more destination-focused and may even visit a port of call each day. Others include days at sea, so you’ll have time to enjoy more of the ship’s onboard amenities.
Some itineraries will spend a full day in a destination, and some include late-night or even overnight stays in port, which provides an opportunity for a deeper dive into the culture—perhaps a meal or nighttime entertainment ashore.
Experienced cruisers know, and first-timers quickly learn, days at sea are not to be feared but rather bring both exciting onboard activities and uninterrupted time to relax. Head the gym, visit the spa, read a book, attend a wine tasting or cooking class, play a game at the casino, take a nap, and otherwise enjoy your version of a perfect cruise vacation.
Ready to take the next step in planning your perfect cruise? Browse itineraries on our website and book your dream getaway today.