An Insider Guide to Choosing your Panama Canal Cruise

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The Panama Canal lends the perfect opportunity for cruisers to experience one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in human history, all from the decks of a ship. There are multiple ways to transit the canal, but each offers different benefits and trade-offs. Don’t wait to figure it out on your own. Read along for our tips on what to expect from the three types of Panama Canal itineraries.

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Repositioning Cruise

These are the longest itineraries to feature a Panama Canal transit. Depending on which cruise line our route, these cruises cross regions by design. They will often start in Seatle, include stops along the Pacific coasts of California, Mexico, and Costa Rica, and then make port at popular Caribbean islands on the way to Miami. They can be over 17 nights long. They can also be part of a Grand Voyage or World Cruise, making its normal progression between regions.

This option gets you the most stops but requires lots of free time, which is less than ideal for some who can’t commit the time.

Another thing to consider is the size of the ship. To sail through the historic canal, you must be on a smaller ship. A larger ship will almost certainly transit via the modern canal. While still an incredible feat of engineering. If you are going down to Panama for a historical experience, it feels more powerful sailing through the swinging lock gates and seeing the original mechanical tractors as they pull the ship through the original channel.

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Partial Transit

If you are strapped for time, the best way to experience the canal is to take a “touch the Canal” itinerary. These are usually around ten days long and will follow a route through the Southern Caribbean before entering the Panama Canal. Instead of passing through to the Pacific side, the ship will enter the man-made Gatun Lake before exiting the canal the way it came. 

Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Lines are good options for this style of a canal cruise. The trip to Gatun Lake offers the chance to experience a complete waterway transit on a shore excursion via boat or narrow-gauge train.

A Partial Transit of the Panama Canal allows you to experience the original canal via a narrow-gauge train
A Partial Transit of the Panama Canal allows you to experience the original canal via a narrow-gauge train

Panama Canal from Florida

These are the most commonly booked itineraries to transit the Panama Canal. The route is most often from a South Florida port like Miami or Fort Lauderdale through the southern Caribbean and South America before passing through the canal to visit the pacific coast of Mexico and Costa Rica before disembarking in San Diego, California. Most cruise lines offer a similar itinerary in each direction.

If your goal is to see the original canal in all of its glory, remember that the ship’s size matters here too.  Make sure to confirm with your agent.  This itinerary is often a “mini-graduation” for cruisers who have done all major Caribbean routes.  

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If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Panama Canal before your cruise, I highly recommend doing some research on the geopolitical and engineering history of the canal. There are many exceptional books available on the topic. The context garnered from your research will guide you when choosing the correct itinerary for your interests.

No matter your goals for choosing to sail through the Panama Canal, there is an itinerary for you. The popularity of the trip and the necessity of transit through the canal to move ships means that every cruise line has an option. Luxury Cruise Connections works with every brand, and our knowledgeable team is expert at matching guests to the best products.
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