Caribbean cruises: the ultimate guide

Fred Mawer
Cropover, Barbados' full-on carnival, is a big annual event culminating in early August - isitsharp

Essential advice for planning a Caribbean cruise on where to go, when to go, how to book, who to book with, and shore excursions.

Essential advice for planning a Caribbean cruise on where to go, when to go, how to book, who to book with, and shore excursions  The Caribbean is the world's most popular region for cruises. It’s not difficult to see why. The weather, is, of course, a major factor. A Caribbean cruise comes with the promise of tropical heat and sunshine – a big draw particularly in the peak-season winter months.

Then there is the Caribbean’s geographical make up – seemingly tailor-made for cruising, with the islands spaced to allow passengers to arrive at a new port on a new island most mornings. And importantly, a cruise is the best way to see several islands in a single trip. Independent inter-island travel in the Caribbean usually means flying, which can be pricey and a hassle. A cruise is likely to work out far cheaper, and more relaxing, with no need for constant packing and unpacking. 

One of the prime draws of the Caribbean is relaxing on a beach, and at virtually every port of call you can do just that. A major selling point of some cruise companies is a day at their own hassle-free beach. Often these are in The Bahamas: Royal Caribbean is introducing a new private Bahamian island with a big-thrills waterpark called Perfect Day at CocoCay in 2019. Norwegian Cruise Line has Harvest Caye in Belize.  

But most islands also offer a big selection of things to see and do. For one thing, woven into the fabric of many Caribbean islands is a rich and complex colonial heritage. Your cruise may visit islands with strong British, Hispanic, Gallic and Dutch cultures or influences – allowing you to immerse yourself in Spanish colonial cities such as Havana or San Juan, visit plantation houses on Barbados and Georgian Nelson’s Dockyard on Antigua, dine on French-Creole cuisine in Martinique, and admire the Dutch colonial architecture of Curaçao’s Willemstad. 

In terms of activities, one day you could be snorkelling with stingrays off Grand Cayman, on another climbing waterfalls in Jamaica, zip-lining over St Lucia's’s rainforest canopy, hiking in Dominica, or kayaking along Grenada's indented coast. The wide choice of non-cultural excursions makes the Caribbean ideal cruising territory for families. 

Meet the Cayman Islands' most famous residents: southern stingrays Credit: iStock

With over two dozen cruise lines operating in the Caribbean in the winter months, the choice of ship is as varied as the islands. On the one hand are vast ships, that are like floating resort hotels, and offer every conceivable facility. A case in point is Royal Caribbean's new Symphony of the Seas (royalcaribbean.co.uk). Sailing year round from Miami to the Caribbean, it is the world's largest cruise ship, rising to 18 decks and capable of accommodating over 5,500 passengers. On the other hand are intimate, luxurious craft designed to carry just over 100 passengers. 

So, where can you go? Cruise lines usually label their cruises as eastern, western or southern Caribbean. Eastern Caribbean cruises focus on The Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico (San Juan) and Dutch St Maarten. Western Caribbean means Jamaica, again the Cayman Islands, Mexico (Cozumel, Costa Maya) and sometimes Belize and the Honduran island of Roatan.

With the thawing in Cuban/American relations, Havana increasingly appears in western itineraries. Many cruise lines have also introduced Cuba-focused voyages, often circumnavigating the island, with overnight stops in the capital and other cities such as Santiago de Cuba.

Swim with pigs in warm Caribbean waters Credit: iStock

Islands on southern Caribbean cruises include St Kitts, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Dominica, St Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines and sometimes the separate cluster of so-called ABC Dutch islands, Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. Lying further from the main Floridian embarkation ports, some of these islands are less frequented by cruise ships.

While most Caribbean cruises are around a week in length, longer cruises can span eastern, western and southern areas.  

Cruising in the Caribbean doesn’t suit everyone. Ships and their passengers can completely overwhelm some ports in the peak winter months when several enormous ships may be docked in a port on the same day. Unlike on a Mediterranean cruise where independent exploring is often easy, in the Caribbean you normally need transport to get to main sights – in some cases, the ports themselves are the islands’ least appealing locations – and many passengers sign up for organised excursions. There’s also the cost of the long-haul flights for British holidaymakers, making the overall bill for a Caribbean cruise significantly higher than one of comparable standard in Europe. 

Christmas cruises are often the most expensive of the year Credit: iStock

If, nevertheless, you think a Caribbean cruise may be for you, the following advice should help you plan and book a holiday.

When to travel

December to April is the peak time for Caribbean cruises. Then, the weather is at its best – typically hot and sunny, relatively dry, with low humidity and pleasantly cool nights – and the widest choice of cruises is available. Downsides of travelling then are that prices are at their highest and ports and key sights can be very busy. In the summer and autumn the weather is stickier and wetter – though normally with short, heavy downpours rather than days of continuous rain – and the islands are quieter.

June to November is the Caribbean’s hurricane season, with September and October the most likely months for major storms (and therefore the cheapest months to cruise). Given that cruise ships can change course, the chances of being caught up in a big storm are extremely small; a more likely scenario is that your itinerary will be disrupted.

Wish you were here? Credit: iStock

How to book

Tempting, late-booking cruise-only deals for Caribbean sailings are easy to find, especially for sailings between September and November. However, for British holidaymakers, transatlantic airfares account for a large chunk of the overall cost of most Caribbean cruise holidays and fares with scheduled airlines usually increase closer to departure. Therefore, there is a strong financial argument for Britons to book Caribbean cruises well ahead. 

With so many large ships sailing the Caribbean, cabin availability is rarely an issue, except at Christmas/New Year and Easter, when you should book well ahead. 

Given the daunting number of ships and itineraries on offer in the Caribbean, turning to a specialist cruise agent makes sense. Two of the largest agents are Cruise.co.uk and Iglu Cruise (iglucruise.com); their websites are good places to start for deals with all the major cruise lines operating in the Caribbean. Mundy Cruising (mundycruising.co.uk) is good for luxury options.

Bamboo Rafting on the Martha Brae River in Jamaica Credit: iStock

Which ship?

Caribbean sailings on large ships are possible with almost all the major cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Fred Olsen, Holland America Line, Marella Cruises (formerly Thomson), MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

A week-long Caribbean fly-cruise from Fort Lauderdale on Holland America's new ship Nieuw Statendam costs from around £1,250pp (hollandamerica.com). For a week from Miami on Celebrity Edge, launched late 2018 with lots of cutting-edge design features, including flights you're looking at from £2,500 per person (celebritycruises.co.uk).

On more luxurious cruises you can expect fine dining and excellent service, and many of the ships are small, so they can visit off-the-beaten-track islands whose harbours are unable to accommodate the big cruise ships. Lines to turn to include Azamara Club Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Viking, and for intimate ships Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea Cruises. With Seabourn (seabourn.com), prices for a week-long cruise between Barbados and St Maarten start at around £2,500 a head, without flights.

Much of St Lucia is mountainous and covered in a blanket of thick rainforest Credit: iStock

Another option is a voyage on a majestic rigged sailing ship, which will move under sail when wind permits: turn to Star Clippers and Windstar Cruises. With Star Clippers (starclippers.co.uk), a seven-night cruise of the Grenadines, round trip from Barbados, costs from £1,500pp, excluding flights.

Shore excursions

Don't automatically opt for the cruise line's own expensive excursions. If you just want to head to a beach, see if it's possible to hop on a bus, or take a taxi. Also consider taking day or half-day island tours in a taxi. Drivers can make good guides, and compared with group excursions such tours can be more personalised and the cost per person can work out far cheaper, particularly with four in a taxi – though do fix a price in advance. Also compare prices and options on cruisingexcursions.com and viator.com.

Safety and health advice

Crime is a thorny issue on some Caribbean islands, and cruise-ship passengers can be seen as easy pickings. Holidaymakers have occasionally been subjected to armed attacks on popular islands such as Barbados and St Lucia. Leave valuables on board the ship; if nervous, consider sticking to guided excursions; and consult gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for up-to-date information specific to the islands you are visiting.

Credit: iStock

Getting there

Most Caribbean cruises start from Florida (from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Tampa). However, some sail from a Caribbean port, which allows you to spend more time in the heart of the region. Bridgetown (Barbados) is the most popular Caribbean departure point for UK cruise passengers, but there are also cruises from Montego Bay (Jamaica), Havana (Cuba), San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Castries (St Lucia). Non-stop flights are available with: British Airways (ba.com), London to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and Barbados; Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com), London to Miami, Orlando, Barbados and Havana, and Manchester to Orlando and Barbados; and Norwegian (norwegian.com/uk), Gatwick to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.

A flight specialist such as Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) can help find best fares and cheaper, indirect options to Florida. Tui (tui.co.uk) offers charter flights to Barbados and Jamaica's Montego Bay, tied in Marella Cruises from there.

Top tips

Repositioning cruises between Europe and the Caribbean in the autumn and spring, crossing the Atlantic by sea one way, flying the other, can be remarkably good value. P&O Cruises (pocruises.com) and Saga Cruises (travel.saga.co.uk) also offer a few long Caribbean cruises departing from and returning back to Britain.

A few nights on land – for example on Barbados or in Miami, where there’s a good choice of hotels and lots to see before your cruise departs – will help you acclimatise and recover from the long flight. Specialist cruise agents are good at arranging tailor-made cruise-and-stay packages.

US dollars are widely accepted on most Caribbean islands. However, you’ll often be given change in local currencies. To avoid ending up with unwanted currency, go armed with small denomination US dollar notes.

In September 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage to some Caribbean islands on cruise-ship itineraries, among them Dominica, the US and British Virgin Islands, St Maarten/St Martin and Puerto Rico. All are back in business and enthusiastically welcoming cruise ships (and their passengers), but, as of late 2018, the islands are still in varying states of recovery.