Cabo, Mexico
Central America,  Travel

Everything You Want to Know About a Panama Canal Cruise

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If you asked me at the start of 2019 what my travel plans were, I would have told you nothing. After a busy 4th quarter in 2018, I was planning on spending a few months at home catching up on work, getting new clients, and saving money for upcoming adventures. But, as is usual, things never quite work out as planned. Halfway through January my friend Nicki reached out to me with an opportunity to join her on a Panama Canal cruise: 14 days from LA to Miami with stops in Central and South America.

Clearly, I said yes.

Old town Cartagena

The opportunity presented me with a lot of firsts. Despite the fact that I have been travelling for 7.5 years, I hadn’t yet been to Central or South America. I’d also never done an Ocean cruise, only a European River Cruise with Viking, a short Halong Bay Cruise in Vietnam, and a 5 day Nile River cruise in Egypt. While I loved all of these experiences, they were very different from the huge, oceanic cruise ship I would be sailing on for this Panama Canal cruise and, while I was definitely excited about the opportunity, I was also a bit nervous. Would I like this style of cruising?

Turns out that I did. It also turns out that that a lot of people are interested in this cruise and had plenty of questions (well, at least those that follow me on Instagram and Facebook did when they watched my stories and saw my photos). So, with that in mind I’m sharing all the important things you need to know about a Panama Canal cruise so you can determine if it deserves a spot on your travel bucket-list.

Keep in mind this is based on my personal Panama Canal cruise experience which was the 14-day option with Norwegian Cruise Lines (our ship was the Star). Panama Canal cruises are offered by different cruises as well so the routes/costs/ship experiences will be different.

What’s the Panama Canal Cruise Route?

Panama Canal

Our route went from Los Angeles to Miami (though Norwegian also offers the route in reverse). The Panama Canal cruise was a total of 14 days and we visited six different ports: Cabo San Lucas and Acapulco in Mexico, Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala, San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, Puntarenas in Costa Rica, and Cartagena in Colombia. Of course, we also sailed through the Panama Canal but there is no port stop- just scenic sailing.

What Are the Ports and Excursions Like?

Cabo, Mexico

This was my first time cruising so I was under the impression that if I wanted to get off and sight-see, I had to do an excursion. For anyone else who thought the same- this is not the case. You can get off at any port and explore on your own, even hire a local driver or tour company to show you around, as long as you get back to the boat on time.

Of course, arranging your own tours is cheaper than the tours that the cruise offers, however if something should go wrong- the ship will not wait for you. They will only wait if you are on an excursion or tour offered by the ship. For this reason, it’s recommended that you spend the extra money and use the ship’s tour providers. After all, it’s cheaper to spend an extra $40 on a tour than a couple hundred dollars to fly to the next port of call to get back on board.

Granada, Nicaragua

The cheapest excursion I saw offered was $30USD- a transfer from the ship port to the Old Town Cartagena by boat. There were some pretty expensive ones too costing a few hundred dollars for more luxury activities like helicopter rides or sailing tours.

The tours I did ranged from $65USD-$129USD, though most of them were 5 hours+. The shortest one we did was the Party Bus in Cartagena- which lasted 3.5 hours. If you’re wondering why it was so pricey for such a short amount of time, well we had plenty of rum, coke, and beer supplied to us along the route. It was definitely a party and, yes, I felt very good after.

Cartagena Party Bus

Of course, as mentioned earlier, you don’t have to take a tour if you don’t want to. You can get off and explore the port on your own. All the ports we went to had a couple of bars and restaurants nearby, places for shopping, and a few spots even had some nice beaches. They are very touristic- clearly catering to cruisers, but if you don’t see an excursion that you love but you still want to explore a little, then it’s a good and cheaper alternative. However, in Guatemala, we had to use the shipping port rather than the cruise port because the cruise port was damaged. Which meant instead of cute bars and shops, we were surrounded by shipping containers. Not exactly the most ideal situation but I believe that a couple people were able to get local taxis to take them to the cruise port area to do a little exploring.

I’m not going to lie; I did find the excursions a bit limiting in that I wish we had more time in each port. That being said, being able to see a little bit of so many places in what was new part of the world for me was a good way to figure out where I liked and want to go back to.

What About Sea Days?

Pool on the Norwegian Star

We had a total of six sea days plus the scenic cruising through the Panama Canal. I was never bored on the sea days, but instead looked at them as providing a nice little break between the ports. Since I suffer from FOMO (Fear or Missing Out) and ran around like a maniac in the ports and on excursions, I appreciated the down time.

Our sea days on the Pacific side were my favourite. I spent most of them sitting on the balcony with a book or with my laptop doing a bit of work (when internet cooperated with me). Another one of my favourite spots was the spa area with the pools and the saunas and relaxation room. We had the day passes to the spa included in our cruise package (normally it’s $20/day) but it was the perfect place to go relax and escape the crowds.

There were plenty of things to do on board as well including a casino and an outdoor pool and patio area with plenty of beach chairs. Each day also had a number of different events from bingo to lectures to demonstrations and more (some paid, some free). There was also a walking track on the top level, gym, and the spa. Plus, every night there was a show (at two different times in the evening) and activities in the lounge. So, whether you were looking to relax, be active, or be social, there were plenty of things to keep you busy and entertained on the sea days.

Was the Water Rough?

jumping Dolphins

One of the questions I was asked the most about is how was the water- and was it rough sailing. Yes, and no. The Pacific side was a dream. It was so smooth and as I sat on the balcony I saw dozens of dolphins, turtles, whales, and even a marlin playing in the wake of the ship. However, as soon as we passed through the Panama Canal over to the Caribbean side, the conditions really changed. It was very rough with a big swell and heavy winds. The top deck of the ship was actually closed off on one of our sea days back to Miami, and I woke up one morning to discover puke bags had been distributed around the ship by the stairs and elevators.

Thankfully, I don’t get sea sick but I did have a hard time walking straight and ended up stumbling quite a bit. I never felt nauseous, but the constant lack of balance did leave me feeling a little drunk which made sleeping difficult as well. Of course, the water conditions can always change but I was told by a couple staff members that the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal is always a little dicey.

How Was the Food on Board?

Italian restaurant on Norwegian Star

One of the things I was asked about the most was: how was the food. I get it, food is pretty important and if you’re spending a bunch of money on a trip, you want to make sure you are well fed.

For the most part, our food experience was good. The free options include the dining rooms (there were 2), the Irish pub, the buffet, and an Asian fusion restaurant called Ginza. The buffet was great for breakfast and ok for lunch, but neither Nicki or I loved it for dinner. The dining room was a much better option food wise although the buffet was better for convenience.

The Irish pub was good- it had a small, set menu that didn’t change, but the food was good. Same goes for Ginza. Ginza, however, was quite small and always seemed to have a very long wait time. We once waited an hour to be seated.

There are also several paid dining options on board: a steak house, a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, a French Restaurant, an Italian Restaurant, and a Brazilian style steak restaurant. We got to try them all and I’d say the Italian was my favourite with the Teppanyaki coming in a close second.

pasta

What’s the Panama Canal Cruising Demographic?

Antigua, Guatemala

The Panama Canal cruise route is one of the longer and more expensive ones, so no matter what cruise line you take, expect it to be an older group. At 29, I was very clearly one of the babies on board and was asked a dozen times how it felt to be part of the ‘geriatric cruise’. If you are young and looking to party, then maybe not the best route for you. I’d say the main age for this cruise was probably around 65+. I did meet a few people who were in their 50s and even they joked that they felt pretty young compared to most on board.

The benefit to this was few yelling and screaming children (I think there were a total of 8 children on our cruise under the age of 18) and no crazy drunk 20 year olds which, as someone who is normally a backpacker, was actually a pretty nice and relaxing change.

How Much Did the Panama Canal Cruise Cost?

Coconut on the beach

So now, the question I know you’ve all been waiting for. How much does a Panama Canal cruise cost? Well, since I was a guest of Nicki’s who had partnered with Norwegian for work (if you have no idea what I mean by partnering with companies as a blogger, read this post) our room cost was covered. I did, however, have to pay for flights, excursions, tipping, and any on board costs. Here’s a breakdown:

Tipping: Tipping is mandatory and charged daily to your account. With Norwegian cruise lines it was $14.50 USD per person per day.

Excursions:As mentioned earlier, I did do an excursion at every port. The cheapest excursion I did was $65 USD while the most expensive was $129. I ended up spending a total of $441 USD on excursions.

Internet: Wifi is not offered on board. Which surprised me a bit because I kind of assumed it would be (it was for the Viking River Cruise I did). Since I didn’t inform my editors that I wouldn’t be available, I did have to pay for an internet package. It was $349.86 USD for the length of the trip. Which hurt, especially because it was pretty bad. Nicki had the top of the line plan that was supposed to let you stream everything- it didn’t. It worked the same as my mid-line plan so take that into consideration.

Extra Costs: While the expenses listed above were my main costs, there are additional paid-for services. We didn’t have a drink plan so any alcohol or pop (soda, for my American friends) was an additional charge. There were also specialty restaurants that you could dine at for either a fixed price or a-la-carte pricing.

Additionally, there’s an on-board spa (I treated myself to a facial thanks to a special Valentine’s Day promo) and some paid activities like wine and chocolate pairings etc.

So, despite the fact that the actual cruise cost was covered, I still ended up paying $1298.14 USD ($1733.32 CAD for me) while on board. Clearly not the cheapest type of travel, however I think a Panama Canal cruise is a unique experience and a once in a lifetime type of opportunity so, in my opinion, I think it’s worth it.

Final Word on My Panama Canal Cruise

Cartagena

So what did I think of the Panama Canal cruise? I really enjoyed it. Having the sea days, tours taken care of, and meals all done for me really made if feel like a proper stress-free vacation which, for someone like me who is so used to independent travel, was actually really nice. I do wish I had known a bit more about the excursions before-hand as I was disappointed with a couple that I paid for, but lesson learned for next time.

At the end of the day I enjoyed my time and think that the Panama Canal cruise was an incredible experience to have. While I’m not going to turn into a cruising-addict, I would definitely try an oceanic cruise again one day.

For more on this specific cruise check out this post from Nicki which gives a thorough run down about the Norwegian Star experience. 

A Note on Travel Insurance 

Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine twice before (once for damaged luggage, once because I developed a lung infection while traveling). While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance. With prices starting at $37 for 4 weeks, they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.

Considering a Panama Canal Cruise? Here's everything you need to know about one.

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