How to Choose a Cruise Itinerary
With so many incredible destinations and experiences to choose from, knowing how to choose a cruise 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.
Pick a Destination
When it comes to choosing a cruise, 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 Colosseum in Rome or viewing Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. Maybe you want to follow the glamorous crowd to the French Riviera, with a stop in Monte Carlo and its famous 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 beautiful cities in Scandinavia; 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 the exercise of figuring out how to pick a cruise, 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.
Having said this, don’t be too quick to dismiss a cruise that’s heavy on culture if you’re traveling as a family. Many cities have fantastic museums, attractions, and antiquities that kids will love.
In Singapore, the Gardens by the Bay is great for families. Thailand’s floating markets and gleaming malls are a delight for teens.
Stockholm has the ABBA Museum and the Vasa Museum, both of which are very family-friendly. Dubrovnik is where a lot of scenes from a certain hit fantasy drama were shot. Naples has Pompeii, and Barcelona has the Ramblas and the atmospheric Gothic Quarter to explore.
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.
Match a Cruise to Your Mobility
Cruising is a wonderful vacation choice if you’re less mobile as it’s such an effortless way to travel from one destination to the next. But if you are a wheelchair user, or a little unsteady on your feet, there are considerations to bear in mind.
If you plan to go ashore every day on your cruise, look for an itinerary with as few tender ports as possible. A tender port is where the ship drops anchor offshore and you are shuttled to the dock and back using the ship’s tenders, usually the lifeboats.
While these are comfortable and stable in themselves, it can be difficult getting on and off the lifeboat if you use a stick or are in a wheelchair, and the sea is a little choppy.
In some ports, you will always be alongside (cruise-speak for docked next to dry land). In Athens and Istanbul, for example, you will always be able to step straight off the ship onto the quayside.
However, Santorini is always a tender port, and Mykonos usually is, too. In the Bahamas, Key West, Nassau, and Bimini are ports where you’ll be alongside, but Grand Cayman is a tender port.
If you’re unlikely to be disembarking the ship much, consider a destination where there will always be something to see. The Norwegian Fjords is a great example; you can sit on deck, gazing at tumbling waterfalls and green meadows as you sail each tranquil inlet, looking out for mountain goats and seals.
Alaska is another prime example. The Inside Passage is wonderful for spotting whales and dolphins from the ship, and for most of your cruise, you’ll be sailing against a backdrop of dense forest, vast glaciers, and snow-covered mountains. Alaska is exceptionally well-equipped for cruising, too, and in most ports, you’ll be alongside.
Read: Accessible Travel Guide
No Passport? No Problem
You can leave the U.S. for exotic destinations even if you don’t have a passport thanks to closed-loop cruises. A closed-loop cruise is a cruise that departs from and returns to the same port, and visits places that share a common border with the United States. So Mexico and Canada are included, as well as several Caribbean islands.
As an example, you could choose a round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle, or a sunny getaway from Fort Lauderdale to The Bahamas, and travel only with a government-approved ID.
Check Off Your Bucket List
You’ve made your travel bucket list, so now it’s time to find the itinerary that checks off the most destinations. This is where you’ll need to do your research.
Let’s say you want to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Michelangelo’s David, the medieval walls of Dubrovnik, and take a ride along the canals of Venice in a gondola.
Plenty of cruises combine Italy and Croatia, but you’ll need to pick one that overnights in Livorno, the jumping-off point for Florence and Pisa. This way, you can do Florence one day, for the Accademia gallery and Pisa for the Leaning Tower the next.
As for Venice, the trick here is to pick an itinerary that starts or finishes in the beautiful old city of Ravenna. You can add a day to your vacation to spend more time in Venice.
This is a double win; you get your gondola ride and you’ll also be in the city after dark, when the day-trippers have left, and the atmosphere is magical.
Here’s another scenario. You want to go to Asia and experience the legendary nightlife of buzzing Bangkok. So when you’re researching your cruise, pick an itinerary that overnights in Laemchabang, the port for the Thai capital.
But don’t stress about finding a taxi to take you the 79-mile journey between the two in the middle of the night. Jump ship instead and take a mini-break from your vacation by spending the night in a hotel in the heart of the city. Do your homework and you’ll find that this is offered as an organized shore excursion, with the cruise line making all the arrangements.
Choose a Balanced Itinerary
There’s always the possibility that you’ll get carried away with excitement on your cruise and completely over-schedule your days.
This is especially true of Europe, where you’re likely to be packing in sightseeing as a new city reveals itself every day. It’s all too easy to end your vacation more exhausted than when you started it.
If you’re cruising with teens, you’ll want to bear in mind the likelihood of getting them out of bed for an 8.30 a.m. start every day, too.
So plan to mix up busy sightseeing days with beach days, or days simply wandering around a new city to explore. Figure out which ports lend themselves to a lazier day and which are essential for sightseeing.
From Naples, for example, you’ll most likely want to visit Pompeii. This is usually a half-day tour, so book it for the afternoon and relax on board during the morning. In Palma, Mallorca, you’ll have time to wander around the Gothic Quarter and also go to the beach.
Mykonos, too, allows you time for a half-day tour and then a long, lazy lunch in the waterfront taverna of your choice. Just don’t feel you have to fill every minute of every day.
Pick an Embarkation Port
In the U.S., cruises embark from ports like Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and Tampa. Before you book a cruise, consider which embarkation 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 port cities like Amsterdam, Athens, 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 from May to September.
Do your research on the best time to go on a cruise. 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 fact, many places in southern Europe are better in the shoulder season, right up to late October, provided you don’t have your heart set on the beach.
In the Caribbean, summertime and holidays are popular with families, which is fine if you’re cruising with toddlers or older kids. If you are looking for more of an adult crowd, you may want to consider other time periods.
The Galapagos, for many the ultimate bucket list experience, is a year-round destination. There is relatively little variation between the seasons, as it’s close to the Equator. You’ll see different animals at different times of year, but the iguanas, sea lions, sharks, penguins, and giant tortoises are always present.
Find Out What’s Going on in Your Destination
We tend to choose vacations based on our own availability. But think about what will be going on when you arrive in your chosen cruising area. If you want to see the famous cherry blossom in Japan, for example, you’ll need to travel in March or April.
July is the best time to see and smell the glorious purple lavender fields of Provence. For whale-watching in Iceland, June, July, and August is the peak season.
For fall foliage cruises, time your leaf-peeping in New England for late September. In the Caribbean, if you’re restricted by school vacations to July and August, then head south to the ABC Islands, which tend to be dry and sunny year-round.
In Europe, especially in France and Italy where a lot of people like to vacation in their own country rather than going abroad, there’s a mass exodus to the beaches in August. So there will be a lively buzz wherever you go, but it will be busy. Pick July or September if you prefer to avoid crowds.
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.
Choose long weekend cruises from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman that only last for four nights, 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.
Or why not opt for the bliss of a much longer voyage, of two weeks or more? If you’re an experienced cruiser, perhaps you’ve always wanted to do an ocean crossing. Sail all the way across the mighty Atlantic, for example, and you’ll gain a whole new perspective on the sheer vastness of the ocean.
Or perhaps you like your ocean crossings to be tropical, in which case, why not sail between Hawaii and Sydney, Australia? You’ll enjoy long, relaxed periods of crossing the warm Pacific, with calls at dreamy tropical islands to break the journey.
Evaluate Time at Sea and in Port
An important factor when you’re working through the process of how to choose a cruise is the amount of 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 things to do on a cruise and uninterrupted time to relax. Head to 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.
Consult An Expert
There’s no doubt that the choice can be bewildering if you’ve never been on a cruise or if you’re hoping to visit somewhere that’s completely new to you. So don’t forget that a good travel agent should already have the knowledge and expertise to help.
Pick an agent who specializes in cruising and who can demonstrate experience of the destination you’ve chosen. Give them a detailed brief, and if you like one another, put them to work.
Your specialist can book the cruise for you, as well as flights, any transfers, and pre- and post-cruise hotels. A good agent will also come up with alternative suggestions if they think you’d benefit from tweaking your plans.
Ready to take the next step in planning your perfect cruise? Browse itineraries on our website and book your dream getaway today.