One of the most common questions our sister site Cruise Critic hears time and time again is this one:
"When is the best time to cruise in Europe (or the Caribbean, New England/Canada, Hawaii or Alaska)?"
It's a question whose answer depends on many variables—meaning it's not an easy one, at face value, to answer. Fall-foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas watersports lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warm for swimming.
So what factors influence your timing? Do you need to schedule around school breaks? Is a holiday week the best time for your reunion cruise? Is your main goal to escape frigid winter temperatures at home? Or, maybe, you have lots of flexibility (or a tight budget) and don't mind making a few tradeoffs in timing for a steal on a cabin. Your answers will influence which season is your best bet to sail in.
For most cruise regions there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season). Several years ago, high season tended to be when the weather was best in a particular area (and when all the northerners flocked to the sun), but as more and more families take to cruising, the summer months have become a peak-demand period regardless of the weather (at home or in the region). Families especially need to book high-season sailings as early as possible because some cruise lines limit the total number of children per sailing, and each ship has a limited number of cabins that can accommodate three or more people.
As for slow and shoulder seasons, you'll find more bargain opportunities in year-round destinations. In places like Alaska, Europe, and Bermuda (where you have a five- or six-month sailing season), the off season is typically a matter of weeks on either end of the season. And, for regions like the Panama Canal, and Northern Europe and the Baltics, almost all sailings are priced "in season."
Low seasons have shrunk in many areas thanks to the boom in new cruising destinations and homeports, and the smart thinking of the cruise lines in repositioning ships to the places people want to sail and at the time when they want to sail them. As one cruise line representative said, "That's the great thing about a cruise ship. We don't have to sit and wait it out for the season to change; we can follow the sun and move the ships to where people want to go."
The following is a list of cruising regions where you can still find some variability in seasons, along with the advantages and trade-offs for sailing within each of them:
High Season: June to August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Temperatures are their warmest (highs: 50's to 70's), plus the further into the summer you are, the better your chances of seeing wildlife on the various expeditions. The downside: Demand is so strong, you need to book months (better yet, a year) in advance to get the best land/tour packages. Keep in mind, with so many ships sailing Alaska now, there can be a tremendous amount of congestion in small town ports. To minimize joining the masses, select a ship that sails an off-schedule (Carnival's and Holland America's Wednesday departures, or Princess' Monday departures). And, for a pricing advantage, northbound glacier routes tend to be cheaper than southbound.
Low Season: May and September
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Shoulder season perks include smaller crowds and cheaper prices as a result of the weather gamble (highs: 50's to 60's) and the possibility of snow. A few caveats to note: Shore excursions have a greater chance of being canceled than in high season, especially boat and helicopter tours. In addition, Denali National Park has been known to close in September due to snow.
High Season: June to August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: You get to pick from a wider selection of ships (and from a variety of East Coast homeports), all at a convenient time to vacation from work and school. Plus, water temperatures are ideal for water sports. Children can find fellow playmates onboard during this family-friendly season, while those craving a more adult-oriented voyage might want to select a ship that doesn't cater to kids. The trade-off: Steamy temps and more crowded ships than you'd find in the slower months.
Low/Shoulder Season: April to May; September to October
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Humidity haters will love the much milder temps and breezy weather; however, there are a few weather trends to note. While Bermuda does not have a month besieged by rain, October tends to be its rainiest. And, Bermuda's big weather caveat: hurricane season traditionally affects the island at least once a year from late August to October. Whereas in the Caribbean, a hurricane threat will have you substituting an island or two, here your Bermuda cruise can turn into a Canada/New England jaunt. If your heart is set on Bermuda, May is your best bet.
High Season: September and October
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Can you say fall foliage? This time of year fetches high prices on land and sea for quintessential autumn in New England. Here you can see the leaves at various stages of color as you cruise up the East Coast to Canada, plus the cooler temperatures make for nice strolling about in the various port cities. And, since most children are back in school, you can enjoy a slightly quieter cruise.
Low/Shoulder Season: July and August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: The excellent summer weather makes touring the Canadian towns especially nice (highs hover in the low 70's as opposed to the 50's in the fall). It's also the best time for water sports enthusiasts and families thanks to the warm temperatures in the water and out. In fact, demand for Royal Caribbean's Canada/New England cruises has grown as strong during the summer as it is in the fall, so don't expect many price breaks here.
High Season: Late June to August; Christmas and New Year's Weeks; February Through Mid-April
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: The two main groups of cruisers sailing in the peak season are families off from school and northerners seeking a respite from the cold. It's a great time to sail with kids—children's programs are in full swing, and available even on lines that don't normally cater to kids. Plus it's easy for children to make friends onboard.
The trade-off: Price, especially when you add winter flight delays that can be time-consuming and costly (though the boon in four-season cruising to the Caribbean from New York is a potential money-saver for residents of the region; same applies to folks who live near Gulf of Mexico ports of embarkation, such as New Orleans, Tampa, Galveston and Mobile).
It pays to incur the expense of arriving a day earlier than you set sail. And, at spring break, when thousands of people are flocking to Florida resorts and cruise ports, you have to think about booking your airline tickets almost farther out than your cruise. People looking for peace and quiet away from kids will want to avoid break weeks like the plague, as ships are at their highest capacity, which means crowded ports and long waits for tendering as those of us with small children coax them along.
Low Season: Late April to May; September to Early January (Excluding Holiday Weeks)
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: One of the biggest benefits of some of these months is the great weather and smaller crowds, usually at hundreds less per person than you'd pay at peak times. Hurricane season (June to November) still poses a threat; if one is brewing somewhere in Florida or the Caribbean, it can mean a change in ports of call as the ship alters course to avoid the storm. It can also mean a challenge getting to ports of embarkation that happen to be in the hurricane belt.
As well, some families can take advantage of the variation in school calendars around the country. Those heading back after Labor Day or getting out in early June might find great bargains in those weeks before and after the summer season is in full swing.
High Season: March to April; June to August; Holiday Sailings
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: As is the case in the Caribbean, if kids are out of school, it's high season. Norwegian Cruise Line offers the only Honolulu-based, week-long cruises (all year around) on Pride of America. Other lines offer more sporadic sailings, usually influenced by the repositioning of ships. For example, Carnival offers two April and two fall sailings. Royal Caribbean offers two sailings, one in April and one in September.
Low/Shoulder Season: Late August; Late November; February (Minus Holiday Weeks) and May
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Great weather and less crowded ships (less 3rd and 4th passengers since kids are back in school) can be found on autumn sailings. If you have children, and are able to take them out of school, autumn sailings are a great time to get more individualized attention in the children's programs since there are far fewer children onboard. Keep in mind: January is one of the coolest and wettest times of the year in Hawaii (yet land and sea water temperatures still average in the 70's); sometimes you can even see snowfall on higher peaks! At the same time, the winter months are prime whale watching times.
Hurricanes rarely affect the islands; August and September are when they come the closest, stirring up hot, humid weather and tropical storms.
High Season: Holiday weeks; Late January to Mid-April; June to August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Here too, holiday sailings and break weeks continue to be in high demand with families. The weather is in the 70's to 80's, making it a popular escape for northerners. In addition, the summer season continues to be popular with families, but offers a lot less choice because most lines reposition their ships in Alaska for the summer. Carnival is the exception, offering year-round Mexican Riviera sailings.
Low/Shoulder Season: Early January and May; October to November
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: A more adult-oriented atmosphere can be found, along with a variety of cruise options since most of the major cruise lines offer at least a few sailings in the autumn months. Early-January and late-April dates can be an especially good value with smaller crowds and fewer kids, since school is back is session after holiday or spring break times.
Eastern & Western Mediterranean
High Season: May to August; Spring and Fall Sailings for Lines Offering Only Those Dates
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Both European and American families flock to many of the summer sailing dates (especially August), making for a nice cultural mix of passengers. As with all places in season, the trade-offs will be bigger crowds, higher prices and steamy temperatures.
Low/Shoulder Season: March to April; September to November; Some Year-Round Sailings
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: This is the time to cruise the megaships minus lots of kids. Plus, the weather is ideal in late spring and early fall (note: November can be rainy in some areas of the Mediterranean), and great deals can be found with some of the luxury lines offering "2 for 1" or free airfare specials. Not all lines consider this low season though; some ships are sent to the region only for the spring and fall months and sell out their sailings without much discounting. And get this: Some parts of Europe are in-season all year long! Among those lines with ships in Europe year-round are Costa and MSC Italian Cruises (during the deepest, darkest winter months itineraries tend to focus on Morocco and the Canary Islands) and, even better, they often deploy their newest and splashiest ships here.
High Season: June to August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Northern Europe is at its loveliest during the summer months, with ports that line the Baltic Sea and Norway's fjords. Temperatures are balmy (even occasionally steamy), skies are generally sunny, and the cities turn themselves inside out—life is lived out of doors, whether it's getting out on the water or sipping beers at sidewalk cafes.
Low/Shoulder Season: Early June, September
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Kids are back in school, ports are less frenetic, and the weather—and foliage (whether spring-like or autumnal)—is still lovely. Plus, prices are lower.
High Season: May to September
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: We consider the Southern Mediterranean to feature destinations such as Malta, Tunisia, Egypt and the Canaries. School holiday season is prime time for this newly popular cruise region—and ships representing all styles and budgets offer itineraries here. On the other hand, it gets really steamy here in summer—and crowds descending from numerous ships docked in smallish ports can be irritating.
Low/Shoulder Season: Winter
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Some cruise lines are actively promoting the Southern Mediterranean as a fantastic winter destination—Costa and MSC are among the lines putting new, amenity-laden ships in the market on a year-round basis. Temperatures are cooler, but still comfortable. And the crowds that plague these ports in spring, summer and fall are all but gone.