For cruisers, fall and spring mean more than just transitioning wardrobes. These seasons feature the prime times of year for repositioning cruises.
Though some ships spend 365 days sailing the same itineraries or sticking to the same regions, many relocate a few times a year, depending on the season, from Canada/New England to the Caribbean or Alaska to Mexico, for example. Cruise lines sell these one-way routes (usually at a discount), rather than sail the ships without passengers. These voyages, known as repositioning cruises, are sometimes themed -- subjects can range from theater to wine -- or enhanced with enrichment options, such as guest lecturers.
As world voyages and ocean crossings grow in popularity, interest in this unique style of cruising also has piqued. The following are answers to some of the questions we're most frequently asked here at Cruise Critic:
How do I find a repositioning cruise?
Look to regions that have very specific annual seasons. For example, ships that spend summertime in Alaska have no choice but to relocate come September, and they frequently offer unique itineraries along the California coast to Hawaii or through the Panama Canal. They travel the opposite route in the springtime. Also look for transatlantic cruises as ships reposition from East Coast ports (like New York and Fort Lauderdale) to Europe for a season of Mediterranean or Northern European sailings; this often happens in fall and spring. Other repositioning itineraries journey to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Why should I take a repositioning cruise?
You can visit broad swaths of the Caribbean or an entire coastline all at once, cross the Atlantic with pit stops in off-the-beaten-path places like Greenland or hit several cruise regions and continents on one trip. Repositioning cruises often incorporate a multitude of sea days, offering a more relaxing vacation without hectic, back-to-back port calls. Finally, when ships reposition, you save: per-diem rates for repositioning cruises are often much lower than they are for "regular" sailings. However, this brings us to our next point....
What are the downsides?
Because repositioning cruises begin in one city and end in another -- sometimes many, many miles away -- passengers are responsible for picking up generally expensive one-way or open-jaw flights. (We suggest browsing diligently for the best deals at IndependentTraveler.com, which posts discount airfares, or looking for cruise deals that include airfare.) For some passengers, spending days on end in the middle of nowhere -- particularly on ocean crossings -- is more maddening than it is relaxing. Plus, repositioning voyages tend to be long (some nearly a month), which often limits them to retired seafarers and the lucky few with a decent amount of vacation time.
Intrigued? Read on for details on several of our favorite repositioning cruises for spring and fall 2013.
The Trip: New York to Los Angeles, 15-night Panama Canal cruise
Departs: March 16
Itinerary: New York, Grand Turk, Cartagena, Panama Canal, Puntarenas, Puerto Quetzal, Cabo San Lucas, Los Angeles
The Perks: The 2,124-passenger Carnival Miracle will shift from New York to the West Coast in the spring to operate the line's Alaska and Hawaii cruises. In addition to a trip through the Panama Canal, passengers are exposed to a nice mix of both tropical and historical on this trip, ranging from sunbathing opportunities in Grand Turk and Cabo San Lucas to touring colonial cities in Colombia and Guatemala before docking in Los Angeles. Miracle offers the quintessential Carnival experience -- solid dining options, unpretentious fun and affordable rates -- in a less-than-mega-sized package. A 2012 refurbishment added Carnival's Serenity deck, a kids-free retreat that features plush loungers, hot tubs and endless views.
Who Should Go: This late-winter cruise is ideal for active cruisers looking for a new adventure or travelers who don't mind some iffy weather and can factor in a cross-country flight on top of a more-than-two-week cruise. Plus, this debut cruise can be had at a big savings.
The Perks: One of Princess' largest ships, Crown Princess features 900 rooms with balconies, which are great for taking in the Atlantic sunset in private. Once this cruise reaches Europe, excursions allow for touring of some of Western Europe's main attractions in Lisbon, Brussels and Paris.
Who Should Go: This cruise is perfect for travelers who don't mind 11 days at sea and want plenty of onboard activities to keep them occupied. Crown Princess serves up plenty of entertainment: dancing in the Explorer's Lounge, live performances at the Princess Theater and first-run films at the "Movies Under the Stars" outdoor theater. There are also virtual golf simulators, a swim-against-the-current lap pool, four other pools and six public hot tubs.
The Perks: Passengers on this cruise get nearly two full days in Alexandria, which is just enough time to take in the city and head to Cairo to check out the pyramids. A couple of port calls in Aqaba, Jordan, and Safaga, Egypt, provide ample opportunity to explore resort towns that are as rich in antiquity as they are in water sports. Athletics are a big part of the average day on Legend, which features a rock-climbing wall and 18-hole miniature golf course. You'll need all that exercise to work off the sumptuous meals at Romeo and Juliet, the ship's main restaurant.
Who Should Go: Adventurous and active travelers can make the most of the onboard activities and appreciate the exotic Middle Eastern ports of call. Plus, they are less likely to be intimidated by the ship's crossing of the Gulf of Aden, an area infamous for pirates.
The Perks: After a season of Southern Caribbean sailings out of Colon, Grandeur of the Seas will sail a quick repo cruise to Puerto Rico with no port stops. The short trip is just enough time for adults to hit up Grandeur of the Seas' rock-climbing wall, Vitality spa and casino; kids will enjoy the arcade, teens-only hangout spots, pools and Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar.
Who Should Go: This cruise is a great add-on to Grandeur's April 14 Southern Caribbean seven-night cruise or an on-land vacation in Panama. With two days at sea, passengers will have a chance to rest up from their vacations before returning to the daily grind.
The Trip: Fort Lauderdale to Montreal, 15-night Eastern Seaboard cruise
Departs: May 3
Itinerary: Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, Newport, Bar Harbor, Halifax, Sydney, Charlottetown, Gaspe, Sept-Iles, Saguenay, Quebec City and Montreal
The Perks: With a port call almost every day, this cruise travels up the U.S. Atlantic coast, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. Passengers can enjoy scenic cruising in Gaspe Bay and Saguenay Fjord, as well as visits to unusual ports like Gaspe, with its 800 square miles of preserved parkland along a rocky coastline, and Saguenay, home to stunning scenery and a variety of artisans. Because you'll be spending more than two weeks onboard, take advantage of Maasdam's cabins, which are among the more spacious offered by a major cruise line.
Who Should Go: This is a great trip for foodies. Lobster finds its way into excursions at half the cruise's ports, and Montreal, the cruise's final destination, is arguably Canada's culinary capital. The onboard Culinary Arts Center program, presented by Food & Wine magazine, keeps the food fun going between ports with tastings and cooking classes. History buffs will also enjoy ports full of historic mansions, villages, farms and forts, while the beautiful coastal landscapes make perfect subjects for photography buffs.
The Trip: Vancouver to Los Angeles, five-night Pacific Coast cruise
Departs: September 9
Itinerary: Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles
The Perks: With three days at sea and one in San Francisco, travelers have time to explore every inch of the ship. Onboard entertainment includes performances of "Toy Story -- The Musical" and other original productions, Disney movies, interactive games in the Studio Sea entertainment center, wine-tastings and cooking demos, character meet-and-greets and Disney's famous deck parties. In San Francisco, excursions include tours of the city aboard a fire engine and visits to the Walt Disney Family Museum, as well as day trips to the Muir Woods National Monument redwood forest, wine country in Sonoma and the seaside towns of Monterey and Carmel.
Who Should Go: This is an easy cruise for West Coast residents looking to save on airfare. The sailing features an all-ocean route, so travelers will endure rolling seas (pack that bottle of Dramamine). While Disney is always a hit with kids, parents probably would need to pull school-age kids from their first week or two of classes to make this trip. Disney does plan plenty of fun for adults, too, with 18-plus venues that include Italian restaurant Palo (fee required), the Route 66 nightclub district and the Quiet Cove pool.
The Perks: Take a survey tour of Western Europe with port calls in Copenhagen to the north, Cherbourg to the west, Lisbon to the south and Genoa to the east in the Mediterranean. On this fall trip, travelers can explore the castles of Kiel, wander the narrow Galician streets of Vigo or take in the mournful strumming of a fado musician in a Lisbon cafe. MSC Poesia offers many of MSC Cruises' staple amenities -- such as high-quality nightly productions and the line's signature Mediterranean ambience -- with a battery of stylish upgrades, including a wine and antipasti bar, a world-class spa and Vegas-style private gaming rooms in the casino.
Who Should Go: MSC Cruises is an Italian line, but it attracts a fairly diverse set of travelers; French, Spanish, German, British and American passengers all mingle onboard. This cruise is best for those who relish cultural differences regarding smoking, queuing, dining and partying throughout the cruise.
The Trip: Los Angeles to New Orleans, 16-night Panama Canal transit
Departs: September 27
Itinerary: Los Angeles, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, Puerto Chiapas, Puntarenas, Cartagena, Cozumel, New Orleans
The Perks: The itinerary features a full daylight transit of the Panama Canal, plus a nice mix of Pacific and Caribbean Central American ports. Sea days are liberally sprinkled between ports, and travelers can choose to rest up from port adventures or take advantage of Jewel's onboard attractions -- karaoke, Nintendo Wii, cooking and dancing classes, Ping-Pong, a spa and a casino. Restaurants range from Latin and Asian to French; after dinner, you can visit the martini bar and whiskey lounge or any of the nearly dozen other watering holes.
Who Should Go: NCL sailings are ideal for travelers of all ages, especially those who like the flexibility of multiple activity options, the choice of when and where to eat and relaxed dress codes. This cruise is particularly suited to those looking for a thorough introduction to Mexico and Central America with plenty of time to spare.
The Trip: Boston to Tampa, 13-night Eastern Caribbean cruise
Departs: October 27
Itinerary: Boston, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Barbados, Curacao, Aruba, Tampa
The Perks: This autumn cruise starts in chilly Boston and, after three full days at sea, begins a whirlwind, three-day tour of the West Indies -- a day each in St. Kitts, St. Lucia and Barbados -- before continuing on to the Dutch islands of Curacao and Aruba. Then there are three more at-sea days before ending in Tampa. On the beginning (cooler) sea days, travelers can seek solace in the ship's Latte-tudes coffee bar, the Internet cafe with gorgeous sea views or the Solarium, which, with its sliding roof, is a perfect place for any-weather lounging.
Who Should Go: Flexible souls who don't mind a chilly start and extended time at sea (seven days in total) are best suited for this October - November sailing. The port stops offer a good way to sample several very different and fun Caribbean islands during the off-season, and the easy flight back to Boston from Tampa is welcome after a long vacation. This midsize ship is particularly friendly to first-time cruisers, with easy-to-understand programs and an engaging staff.
--Updated by Laura Randall, Cruise Critic Contributor