Despite their small size, the British Isles provide an enormously varied cruise experience. Beautiful coastlines are punctuated by gateway ports that lead to castles and stately homes rich in culture and heritage; rolling green countryside, the dramatic mountain landscapes of Scotland and north Wales, traditional pubs and exciting capital cities like London, Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Post-pandemic travel in 2021 saw a huge upsurge in round-Britain cruises with at least 20 cruise lines including Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, MSC Cruises, P&O Cruises, Princess and Virgin Voyages, sailing out of the U.K. These sailings proved so popular that several lines -- along with established ones based in the U.K. -- are continuing to offer the U.K. sailings.
But first, what's in a name? The British Isles is the geographical term that includes Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and all the offshore islands, including Ireland. (This only refers to geography, not nationality.) Outlying islands include diverse destinations like the Isle of Man, off northwest England; the Outer Hebrides, the Orkney Isles and Shetland Isles, off Scotland; and the Channel Islands, self-governing British Crown dependencies near France, which include Guernsey.
A cruise offers a hassle-free and enjoyable way of seeing some of the British Isles' best features, eliminating the need for lengthy and tiring road and rail journeys or domestic and short-haul flights with baggage weight restrictions. Unlike many other cruising destinations, the compact nature of the British Isles means you'll never have more than two sea days on longer cruises, with a maximum of one day at sea on shorter itineraries. This leaves plenty of time onshore to explore the ports of call.
Best Time for British Isles Cruises
With its four distinct seasons Britain is best seen in spring through to autumn (fall). Spring (March, April and May) is generally mild and a beautiful time to see the countryside in full bloom and to visit towns and attractions when they're less crowded. Summer (June, July and August) is the peak vacation period with the warmest weather. Days are long from May until late summer, with darkness falling well after 9 p.m. Fall (September, October and November) sees the countryside lit up with orange, red and yellow tints. Winter (December, January and February) is the coldest season and very few if any cruises operate round-Britain at this time (most head to the Canary Islands for winter sun).
Summer temperatures can reach 90 degrees F but generally average 70F. In winter, temperatures can drop below freezing with some snow, mostly in northern England and Scotland, although the average temperature is around 38F.
British Isles Cruise Lines
Midsize and small ships dominate the British Isles cruise market. Southampton, Britain's largest cruise port -- with the new Horizon Terminal that opened in 2021 -- offers the widest choice of itineraries and is home to Cunard Line and P&O Cruises, which offer a classic British cruise experience. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Saga Cruises and Princess Cruises are among the lines that operate cruises from Southampton. Other main departure points include Dover and Tilbury, the latter just 25 miles from London. A small number of ships sail from the River Thames into the heart of London, offering a spectacular embarkation point.
Launched in 2022, Ambassador Cruise Line offers U.K. itineraries sailing from Tilbury at the value end of the market, while upscale lines include Hebridean Island Cruises, specializing in luxury small-ship sailing around Scotland and the Scottish isles, and Silversea, which offers a round-Britain voyage. Other lines operating cruises around the British Isles include Atlas Ocean Voyages, Hurtigruten, Aurora Expeditions and Noble Caledonia. The Majestic Line also specializes in small-ship sailing around Scotland and the Scottish isles.
British Isles Cruise Itineraries
Typically covering 14 nights, a round-Britain cruise will appeal to passengers making the cruise the main focus of their vacation. For those looking to add a cruise to a land-based stay in Europe, or a visit to friends and family in the U.K., there are shorter itineraries starting from three nights.
Mini-cruises: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines is the main line that offers regular short break sailings. These start with a two-night cruise from Liverpool to Southampton and also include itineraries such as a five-night sailings focusing on either Scotland or Ireland. Keep an eye out for lines that occasionally fill the gap between longer overseas sailings by offering short voyages, such as a three-night sailing from Liverpool and around the coast of Scotland to Newcastle.
Scotland: It's famous for dramatic landscapes of lochs, mountains and moorland, coupled with a fascinating history. Three- to 10-night Scotland trips with companies like Hebridean Island Cruises and The Majestic Line take in inspiring destinations, including the Isle of Jura, where the 200 residents are outnumbered by more than 5,000 deer, and Skye, famous for its connection with Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Round-Britain: Most of the lines offer eight- and nine-night itineraries that circumnavigate Britain and include a visit to one or more outlying islands. For example, Saga's cruise from Tilbury takes in Ireland with a call at Northern Ireland's Belfast, with its maritime history, the Isles of Scilly lying off the coast of Cornwall on the southernmost tip of England -- which have some of the highest concentrations of prehistoric remains in Britain -- and the Isle of Man, which is located in the Irish Sea, has its own currency and Manx language (although everyone speaks English).
British Isles: A 13- or 14-night itinerary, generally departing from Southampton or Portsmouth, covers all the highlights. Following the east coast, cruises sail north to Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands, which are home to fabulous castles, before moving to the Orkney Islands and Glasgow on the west coast. Sailing south to Liverpool, these itineraries will then take in Dublin and Cork, where passengers can kiss the legendary stone at Blarney Castle to be blessed with the gift of eloquence. Other itineraries include the Channel Island of Guernsey, with its charming capital St. Peter Port and the completely refurbished home – Hauteville House -- of French author Victor Hugo, who wrote "Les Miserables", and lived on the island for 15 years. There are excursions to the fascinating small sister island of Sark, which is free of traffic, apart from tractors and the horse-drawn carriages that provide its main form of transport.
British Isles Cruise Port Highlights
Encapsulating the diversity of the British Isles, ports of call range from major cities on the U.K. mainland to small islands with villages fit for a picture postcard.
Belfast. Famous as Titanic's birthplace, the spectacular Titanic Belfast is a six-story visitor attraction next to the slipway where the liner was built. A tour can be combined with a visit to SS Nomadic, Titanic's tender and the world's last remaining White Star Line ship which is now illuminated by a new light installation that changes colour. Shore excursions visit the Giant's Causeway, a geological phenomenon caused by volcanic eruptions (although some say the coastal basalt columns were the work of a giant called Finn McCool). Back in Belfast, see the murals on the Belfast peace wall, and have a drink in the ornate Victorian Crown Liquor Saloon.
Edinburgh. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, split between the medieval old town and the Georgian "new town," the capital of Scotland is overlooked by imposing Edinburgh Castle. (Every day, except Sunday, listen for the "One O'Clock Gun," first fired in 1861 as a time signal for ships on the Firth of Forth.) The grand Royal Mile leads to Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official Scottish residence, and shore excursions include visits to the beautiful royal yacht Britannia, now permanently berthed in Edinburgh's historic dockyard.
Glasgow. Culture-rich Glasgow, with its legacy of buildings by renowned Art Nouveau Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has more than 20 museums and galleries, including the Riverside Museum, housing a world-class transport collection. You'll also find the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Scotland's most popular free attraction with 22 galleries dedicated to diverse collections including social history, art, animals and Ancient Egypt. A landmark of Glasgow's shipbuilding past is the giant Titan crane on Clydeside.
Liverpool. It's the home of The Beatles, where fans of the Fab Four can take a tour around famous locations that include the Cavern Club, where they once played. The regenerated Albert Dock, on the waterfront has the U.K.'s largest group of Grade I listed heritage buildings, including the iconic Liver Building at Pier Head. Attractions include the Merseyside Maritime Museum, thought-provoking International Slavery Museum and Tate Liverpool art gallery.
London. Royal palaces, world-class shopping and colorful districts packed with character are just some of the things that make London great. Many of the top museums and galleries, including the British Museum, National Gallery and Tate Modern. A Thames river cruise is a wonderful way to see all the main sights, including Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Visitors can hop on and off at Greenwich, home of the Cutty Sark, the last surviving tea clipper. For a different view of the capital head up The Shard tower block, where the viewing gallery on the 72nd floor is the highest in London.
Editor's note: It's worth checking where you are docked on your cruise itinerary. Many lines state "London" and you could find yourself in the Port of Tilbury (see below), which is some 25 minutes by train to the center, but billed as a London cruise terminal.
Newcastle. Newcastle, on the north bank of the River Tyne, and Gateshead, on the south bank, form a single cultural and cosmopolitan visitor destination. The twin cities are linked by seven bridges, including the pioneering Millennium Bridge, known locally as the "blinking eye bridge" because of the way it tilts to allow ships to pass. From Newcastle, cruise passengers can also visit "The Angel of the North," Britain's largest sculpture, which stands 66 feet tall with a wingspan of 177 feet.
Orkney. Lying off the northeast coast of Scotland, Orkney is an archipelago of about 70 islands renowned for a wealth of archaeological sites and birdlife. Of the 20 inhabited islands, Mainland Orkney is home to the majority of the population. The capital, Kirkwall, has Britain's most northerly cathedral founded by the Vikings, a whisky distillery and attractive arts and craft shops. Orkney's geological marvels include "The Old Man of Hoy," a 450-foot sea stack formed by cliff erosion.
Southampton. One of Britain's most historic ports, the SeaCity museum traces Southampton's connection with all things maritime, including the Titanic, which set sail from the port on its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. The old town includes the 800-year-old Bargate, once the main entrance to the town, and 15th-century Tudor House, a timber-framed medieval merchant's home. When it's time to shop, WestQuay is a modern mall overlooking Southampton's tidal estuary.
Tilbury. Located on the River Thames, Tilbury is the principal port for London and just 25 miles from the city center. While the majority of cruise passengers head straight to the capital, Tilbury has an impressive fort that was built in the 16th century to defend London from an attack by sea. It was there that Queen Elizabeth I rallied her army to face the Spanish Armada.
Tobermory. Built as a fishing port in the late 18th century, Tobermory is now the main town on the Scottish Isle of Mull. The waterfront is lined with brightly painted cottages, and whisky enthusiasts can visit the distillery, founded in 1798, which produces a single malt. Mull is a premier wildlife-watching destination, and visitors might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of rare golden and white-tailed eagles. Cruise passengers can also take boat trips to spot whales, dolphins and seals, which feed in the seas off the island.
British Isles Cruise Tips
Pack for the weather. British weather can be unpredictable. Whatever the season, there's always the chance of a rain shower, so don't forget to pack an umbrella or purchase an inexpensive one upon arrival. Onboard dress codes -- casual by day and more formal in the evenings with some lines, such as Cunard -- will be advised by the line. For shore excursions, pack layers, an outdoor jacket and comfortable shoes.
Consider school holidays. If you prefer to travel in the company of other adults, check out British school vacation and half term dates in advance. While holiday dates can vary slightly from school to school, the main summer vacation time is July and August. Alternatively, book with adult-only lines like Saga, or lines such as Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines and Ambassador Cruise Line that attract seniors and more mature passengers. Child-free ships include P&O Cruises' Aurora and Arcadia. The Majestic Line and Hebridean Island Cruises do not accept children under the age of 12 and 9, respectively.
Lines that mostly cater to British passengers, including P&O Cruises, Marella and Saga, include tips in the fare. On others, such as Fred. Olsen, gratuities are not included and the line will advise on the suggested rate. On ships operated by all of these four lines the onboard prices are in pounds sterling. On lines that are not based in the U.K. the onboard currency will be Euros or U.S. dollars.
On-land tipping isn't expected in the U.K. Cruise lines will advise on the onboard policy, but on dry land, tipping isn't the same way it is in the U.S. It's not customary to pay a gratuity for fast food, self-service or a takeout meal. In coffee shops, tipping is not usual, although you can leave £1, or your change, in appreciation. In restaurants, it's customary to leave 10 to 15 percent of the bill. However, check your tab carefully as some restaurants automatically add a 12.5 to 15 percent service charge, and if you don't spot this you'll end up tipping twice.
Bartenders in pubs and bars don't expect to be tipped. However, if you've developed a rapport with the bartender or have received exceptional service, you can show your appreciation by saying "and one for yourself," which is an offer to buy him or her a drink. Usually the bartender will take the money as a gratuity, rather than pouring a drink.