12 best Panama Canal cruises for a bucket-list trip
A Panama Canal transit is a rite of passage for many cruise lovers. Experiencing this marvel of early 20th-century engineering appeals to those with a wide array of interests, from history and politics to colonial architecture and wildlife spotting. Built by the U.S. government between 1903 and 1914, this 50-mile waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans revolutionized shipping by creating an expedited route for the transit of cargo and, ultimately, cruise ship passengers.
Panama Canal itineraries are offered by almost every cruise line. Thanks to a 2016 canal expansion project, a third set of locks can now accommodate larger vessels. It’s possible to cruise the Panama Canal on ships of all sizes (from 148 guests to more than 3,000) on itineraries that range from a week in the sun to a six-month world cruise.
Some ships sail a full transit of the canal, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or vice versa. These one-way journeys between Miami or Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles or San Diego, visits ports in Central America, South America, Mexico and California.
Others sail only a partial transit, entering the locks from the Atlantic and cruising into Lake Gatun before turning around and exiting again. These itineraries, sailing round-trip from Florida ports, combine the canal experience with island-hopping in the Caribbean.
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The array of options means that a Panama Canal cruise experience is possible even if you’re short on time or have a limited budget — and chances are high that your favorite cruise line offers one or more itineraries. Most sailings attract couples, typically retirees, but if the timing is right a Panama Canal cruise can also be a great multi-generational experience.
Here are a dozen of the best Panama Canal cruises to consider.
Holland America’s 14- to 16-day Panama Canal cruises
Holland America offers a variety of Panama Canal cruises, but the most popular itineraries span 14 to 16 days. They offer a full transit between Fort Lauderdale and San Diego, or vice versa, and are offered on multiple ships, including Zaandam, Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Volendam. These sailings call on Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Huatulco and Puerto Vallarta or Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Who should go: Holland America ships sailing a full transit are popular with retired couples who appreciate the cruise line’s consistency and good value. All four ships accommodate between 1,432 and 2,106 passengers and offer signature onboard experiences that include the Greenhouse Spa and the BBC Earth in Concert multimedia performance. The larger Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam feature additional specialty dining options, such as Tamarind and Nami Sushi, as well as B.B. King’s Blues Club, Lincoln Center Stage and Billboard Onboard.
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Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 16-night Los Angeles to Miami cruise
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ newest ship, Seven Seas Grandeur, debuts in November 2023 and its first two Panama Canal itineraries in early 2024 are already waitlisted. For those planning ahead, the 16-night Miami to Los Angeles (Dec. 13-29, 2024) and 16-night Los Angeles to Miami (Jan. 8-23, 2025) transits offer luxurious all-inclusive pampering, plus port calls in Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco, Mexico; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; Corinto, Nicaragua; Panama City, Panama; Cartagena, Colombia; and George Town, Grand Cayman.
Who should go: This itinerary can be a wonderful splurge for a couple seeking to celebrate a milestone anniversary or birthday in a memorable way on a luxurious new ship. Prices start at a hefty $10,399 per person for a spacious balcony suite, but they also include airfare, transfers, gratuities, dining and beverages, Wi-Fi and shore excursions — meaning you’ll hardly have any other vacation expenses.
Related: The 8 best luxury cruise lines for elegance and exclusivity
Celebrity Cruises’ 11-night Panama Canal & Southern Caribbean cruise
For a Panama Canal experience that begins and ends in Fort Lauderdale, Celebrity Cruises’ 11-night Panama Canal & Southern Caribbean itinerary is a great option. There’s plenty of time to plan ahead for the Dec. 2, 2024 cruise or the half-dozen almost identical sailings that follow through March 2025. All sailings are aboard the new 3,260-guest Celebrity Beyond and visit Cartagena, Colombia; Colon, Panama; Oranjestad, Aruba; Kralendjik, Bonaire; and George Town, Grand Cayman (Willemstad, Curacao replaces Grand Cayman on some 2025 sailings).
Who should go: Celebrity Beyond and its Edge-series sister ships appeal to Millennials, Gen Xers and young-at-heart Boomers who appreciate innovative design, entertainment and dining options. The ships are geared toward couples or groups of friends, but families with older teens might also enjoy the onboard vibe. There are no splash pools or waterslides for younger kids, although calls on three Caribbean islands offer aquatic fun.
Windstar Cruises’ 7-night Costa Rica & Panama Canal cruise
To explore the Panama Canal region in a relaxed manner aboard an intimate motorized sailing yacht, check out Windstar Cruises’ 7-night Costa Rica & Panama Canal itinerary aboard the 148-guest Wind Star. Bookable on more than two dozen dates in 2023, 2024 and 2025, the itinerary takes guests from Colon, Panama to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica (or vice versa). The ship will transit the canal and visit Panama City and Isla Parida in Panama, plus Golfo Dolce and Quepos (for Manuel Antonio National Park) in Costa Rica.
Who should go: Fans of small-ship cruising who enjoy a casual onboard ambiance, are interested in nature and wildlife and wish to sample the regional flavors of Central America should consider a Windstar cruise. All accommodations are in snug yet well-designed staterooms with windows, but no balconies. Wind Star is a cozy and social four-deck ship featuring a pool and pool bar, a lounge and two restaurants.
Related: Big vs. small cruise ships: Which will I like better?
Silversea’s 31-day New York to Lima cruise
Silversea Cruises’ indulgent 31-day New York to Lima sailing aboard its newest ship, 728-guest Silver Nova features a Panama Canal transit in the middle of the trip. The one-way itinerary departs New York City in November and visits Bermuda and multiple sunny Caribbean islands — Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Barth’s, St. Kitts, Antigua, Martinique, St. Lucia, Barbados, Bequia, Grenada, Curacao and Aruba — and Cartagena, Colombia before transiting the canal to call on ports in Ecuador (Manta) and Peru (Salaverry and Lima).
Who should go: Silversea’s clientele is mostly mature couples with a luxury mindset and an appreciation for elevated dining with a strong regional focus. They also appreciate the cruise line’s all-inclusive ease. A month-long itinerary such as this is likely to attract retirees seeking an extended warm-weather escape.
Related: The 10 best cruises for couples seeking romance and together time at sea
Carnival Cruise Line’s 8-day Panama Canal cruise from Tampa
Experiencing the Panama Canal doesn’t have to be time-consuming or budget-busting. Carnival Cruise Line’s 8-day Panama Canal from Tampa itinerary offers a round-trip, partial-transit sailing aboard the 2,124-passenger Carnival Pride with port calls in Limon, Costa Rica and George Town, Grand Cayman—beginning at under $900 per person.
With four pools (including an adults-only aft Serenity Pool), a WaterWorks aqua park, Camp Ocean kids club and seven restaurants, the ship offers enough diversions for sea-day fun, even at half the size of Carnival’s newest megaships.
Who should go: Carnival’s action-packed ships and affordable cruise fares appeal to families, friends and couples of all ages who enjoy a lively onboard ambiance and casual complimentary dining options (including a Guy Fieri burger venue).
Related: Best cruise lines for families
Seabourn’s 21-day Caribbean & Panama Canal Passage
For a one-way Panama Canal transit that visits six countries (Aruba, Curacao, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico) and offers six relaxing and luxurious days at sea, consider Seabourn’s 21-day Caribbean & Panama Canal Passage. The 450-guest Seabourn Sojourn will sail from Miami to Los Angeles in December.
Calls on Golfito and Puntarenas in Costa Rica offer access to eco-adventure. Visits to Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala and Puerto Chiapas and Huatulco in Mexico feature excursions focused on pre-Spanish-colonial culture, coffee cultivation and more, while a call on Cabo San Lucas offers whale-watching, deep-sea fishing or tequila tasting opportunities.
Who should go: Work-from-anywhere entrepreneurs and retirees who enjoy the luxury and refinement of small-ship cruising will enjoy this three-week Panama Canal transit. Seabourn Sojourn pampers its guests with attentive service, elevated cuisine and all-ocean-facing suites featuring walk-in closets and spacious marble bathrooms. Seabourn’s all-inclusive cruise fares also cover gratuities and complimentary wines and spirits.
Princess Cruises’ 10-day Panama Canal with Costa Rica & Caribbean cruise
While Princess Cruises does offer several longer ocean-to-ocean Panama Canal itineraries — including two in 2023 that transit via the historic locks — its popular 10-day Panama Canal with Costa Rica & Caribbean cruises conveniently sail roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale on more than a dozen dates in 2023 and 2024.
What’s more, you can choose from among three ships: 3,140-guest Caribbean Princess or 3,080-guest Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess. In addition to the partial transit, these sailings call on Jamaica and Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, as well as Cartagena, Columbia; Limon, Costa Rica; and Colon, Panama.
Who should go: Couples who enjoy a ship with a more traditional vibe and families with kids who are content to participate in interactive learning activities and nature-based adventure (vs waterslides) will enjoy this cruise. Princess ships are known for their Movies Under the Stars screenings, multiple pools, specialty dining options such as Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria and The Salty Dog Gastropub, and Crooners piano bar.
Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Princess Cruises ship
Norwegian Cruise Line’s 17-day South America: Peru, Colombia & Chile cruise
There’s no “Panama Canal” in this itinerary’s name, but Norwegian Cruise Line’s 17-day South America: Peru, Colombia & Chile cruise in January 2024 does a full canal transit (and spends a day in Panama City) as it sails from Miami to Santiago, Chile. The 1,936-guest Norwegian Sun sails to historic Santa Marta and Cartagena in Colombia; Manta, Ecuador; Trujillo, Lima and Pisco in Peru; and Arica and Coquimbo in Chile, before disembarkation in Santiago.
Who should go: Couples and friends interested in experiencing not just a Panama Canal transit but some of the top coastal experiences along the Pacific Coast of South America should choose this itinerary. Norwegian Sun is an older, smaller vessel that was refurbished in 2018 and features a top deck more conducive to sunning than thrill rides. The ship also has a surprising number of restaurants for its size: two main dining rooms, a buffet restaurant, a sports bar and an outdoor grill on a complimentary basis, plus eight specialty dining venues (including Mexican, Italian, French, Japanese and a steakhouse) for an added fee.
Oceania’s 16-day Miami to Los Angeles cruise
Following its May debut, Oceania Cruises’ 1,200-guest Vista — the first new-build ship in Oceania’s fleet in more than a decade — will offer back-to-back 16-day Miami to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Miami itineraries in October and November. Both sailings visit six countries with port calls that include George Town, Grand Cayman; Cartagena, Colombia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Corinto, Nicaragua; Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala; and Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada, Mexico. (The second sailing visits San Diego instead of Ensenada.)
Who should go: Oceania’s newest ship offers a great compromise between a small and medium-size vessel and is ideal for those seeking a premium cruise experience with casual sophistication. Older couples especially will appreciate the ship’s elegant stateroom decor in soft hues of wheat and seagrass, mix of grand and intimate spaces and wide array of dining options (including two new venues, Ember for inventive American cuisine and Aquamar Kitchen for wellness-focused breakfast, lunch and dinner). A more immersive mixology program features curated cocktail menus, indulgent pairing experiences and specialty beverage carts.
Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on an Oceania Cruises ship
Cunard’s 29-day Alaska & Panama Canal cruise
Talk about packing for all kinds of weather! Cunard’s 29-day Alaska & Panama Canal sailing aboard 2,081-passenger Queen Elizabeth begins in Vancouver on Aug. 7 and explores Alaska for more than a week (visiting Ketchikan, Juneau, Hubbard Glacier, Skagway, Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka). Then the ship heads back south along the U.S. Pacific Coast (stopping in Victoria, Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles) before heading to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Only then will it transit the Panama Canal. The ship makes one Atlantic stop in Aruba before passengers disembark in Fort Lauderdale.
Who should go: British cruise line Cunard appeals mainly to older travelers who savor the line’s formal traditions. This cruise is for you if you enjoy afternoon tea, dressing up for dinner, gala evenings and dancing to big-band orchestras. The particular itinerary appeals to retirees who wish to visit a variety of cruise regions in one singular itinerary.
Viking’s 180-day World Voyage
For the ultimate cruise indulgence, Viking’s 180-day World Voyage I includes a Panama Canal transit (on Christmas Day, no less) as 930-passenger Viking Sky cruises from Fort Lauderdale to New York City (Dec. 19, 2024–June 17, 2025). This round-the-world cruise will visit 37 countries as guests enjoy Viking Sky’s modern Scandinavian interior decor, soothing LivNordic Spa, two pools (including one with a retractable roof) and six onboard restaurants. Pricing includes airfare, gratuities and complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner.
Who should go: With cruise fares that start at $79,995 per person, this six-month adventure at sea requires a luxury budget. Viking’s base clientele is mostly retired or close-to-retirement-age professionals who enjoy the cruise line’s focus on educational enrichment (via onboard lectures) and serene ambiance (there’s no casino and the nighttime vibe is on the quiet side).
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