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‘Best’ times to cruise

Travelers who may be thinking about a first cruise often aren’t sure about when to give cruising a try. One reader recently asked, about as succinctly as anyone could pose the question, “When is the best time to cruise?” Unfortunately, what’s best to one traveler may not be best for another. Given the wide range of possibilities, here are some guidelines about what might be best for different sorts of travelers.

Lowest prices

I’m sure lots of travelers would equate best with lowest prices. Here, the answer is that, generally, the lowest cruise prices are in the fourth quarter of the year, specifically October, November, and the first three weeks in December (give or take a few days). With the exception of the Thanksgiving weekend, that’s a slow season for almost all travel destinations for U.S. residents, and cruising is no exception.

Obviously, when you factor in the cost of air travel to/from your port of departure, you’ll find that cruises departing from a port within the continental U.S. cost less than cruises that start in, say, Puerto Rico, Barcelona, or Honolulu.

Repositioning cruises in spring and fall (see below) usually offer the very lowest costs per day. But since most of them take up to two weeks, the total cost can exceed the cost of a more popular one-week trip.

Best climate

Climate, of course, depends on where you want to cruise. Here are some guidelines for the most popular cruising areas:

  • The Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico generally enjoy comfortable-to-hot weather all year, although days are longer and temperatures generally higher in the summer than in the winter. However, late fall is hurricane season, so you’re more likely to encounter a storm at that time than you are in winter and spring. For the most part, hurricanes are pretty localized, so cruise lines can change itineraries to avoid serious problems. Even then, your chances of hitting foul weather are small.
  • Alaska cruises operate only from late spring to early fall and peak in midsummer. In the Panhandle, you’re apt to find fewer rainy days in June than in the months on either side, but the differences aren’t great. June, July and August are warmest, and, of course, you get the most hours of daylight in late June and early July. On the other hand, if you want to see Mt. McKinley on a clear day, your chances are better in March and April than later in the summer.
  • As with Alaska, Mediterranean cruises are pretty much confined to the summer. Fortunately, summer weather is usually quite good throughout the season.

Itinerary options worldwide

You have your widest choice of cruising region in the summer, when you’ll find all sorts of destination possibilities. You can select from multiple departures for the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii, northeastern U.S. and Atlantic Canada, the Mediterranean, and the Baltic Sea, among others. River and canal cruises are also seasonal, operating mainly in the summer.

Most options in the Caribbean

When summer seasons shut down in Alaska, the Mediterranean, and the northeastern U.S., the ships that sail these waters all head for warmer climates, mostly in the Caribbean and Mexico. In winter, then, although you have a more limited choice of cruising region, in the Caribbean and Mexico you have more choices of ship, sailing dates, local itineraries, and U.S. ports of departure than you do in the summer.

Repositioning cruises

When cruise lines move ships south from Alaska, the Mediterranean, and northeastern U.S. to the Caribbean and Mexico in the fall and back north in the spring, they promote those trips as “repositioning” cruises. That’s when you find lots of Panama Canal transits and transatlantic trips. Transatlantic trips, especially, have become popular in recent years. Typically, they last 10 days to two weeks; they may stop at the Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Azores, and they may make a few local stops in Spain or Portugal.

Best time to get away

That’s a no-brainer. For the majority of Americans who live in the Northeast, Midwest, or Northwest, chances are that the “best” time to cruise means the “best” time to get away from the snow, slush, rain, and cold. That means January, February, and March. Conveniently, that’s when they’ll find the greatest concentration of cruise options in the warm-weather seas of the Caribbean and Mexico. If, on the other hand, you want to avoid summer heat, head for Alaska, where cool is the watchword most of the season.

My favorites

Clearly, the “best” time (and place) for a cruise is matter of taste. Here are my personal preferences:

  • My top choices for scenery are the Alaska Panhandle in late May or June, when the days are longest, and a river/canal cruise in Europe, again in May or June. Weather is usually good, and you’re ahead of the midseason crowds so prices are also below peak. You’re almost always within easy sight of land—on a river cruise, often no more than a few yards—so you enjoy a constantly changing panorama of natural features and cities. Although you have far fewer cruise options, the Norwegian fjords in midsummer also provide spectacular full-time scenery.
  • For ports of call, my favorites are the Mediterranean in early spring or late fall—again, when the weather isn’t too hot and I can enjoy early- or late-season prices, as well as that river/canal trip in Europe during the same periods. From Barcelona and the Balearics in the West to the Greek Islands, Istanbul, and Alexandria in the East, a Mediterranean cruise gives you a day, almost every day, in some of the world’s more interesting and historic cities. And whether along the Danube, Rhine, or Volga, a river cruise also usually puts you in an interesting city every day.
  • Finally, I’ve always wanted to do a transatlantic repositioning cruise, but so far the timing hasn’t seemed right. My preference would be an early spring eastbound cruise, mainly to avoid sitting up all night on a plane flying to Europe to catch a westbound cruise.

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