Winter is coming. Soon our sunlit morning and evening commutes will be a distant memory and icy patches will catch our unwary feet by surprise. It's time to check the status of our shovels, stock up on ice melt and plan for how we're going to escape the worst the season has to offer -- on a cruise, of course. Whether you want to get away from the cold, take advantage of low offseason pricing or visit the Southern Hemisphere during their summer, there are a number of destinations that shine during the winter months.
Here are our picks for the six best winter cruise destinations.
Caribbean & Bahamas
Why: In a word: warmth. If you need a second: sunlight. Months of gray, cold days get tiresome but the Caribbean and Bahamas offer the perfect antidote. Forget all about snow and sleet as you snorkel past bright fish or steer your 4X4 over sand dunes in the bright sun. Multiple itineraries of varying lengths are available, so you can take as few or as many days as you want. With ships leaving from ports as far north as New York, down the East Coast to Florida and spread across the Gulf of Mexico, most U.S. and Canadian residents are within driving distance or a short flight of a warm-weather cruise vacation.
When to Go: For an escape from the cold, any time during the winter is a good time to visit the Caribbean or the Bahamas. You'll find sunny weather and temperatures in the 80s throughout the season. But as winter is the high season for both destinations, you'll also find high prices. Some of the best pricing (for the season that is) can be found immediately after the New Year when most people are returning to work and getting back into the swing of things. Watch out for late February and March sailings, which could have a higher percentage of spring breakers (and therefore a more raucous atmosphere).
Why: The Galapagos cruise season runs year-round, but if you're looking to escape the cold weather in your hometown, why not tick off this bucket list destination at the same time? Other reasons the Galapagos is a great winter cruise destination (it's actually summer in the Galapagos) are the calmer seas and excellent underwater visibility you find during these months, which make for great snorkeling. December through February are also mating season for turtles, tortoises and sea lions, so lots of opportunities for wildlife spotting. You've got a few options when it comes to Galapagos cruises, from tiny 16-passenger boats to the 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition cruise ship.
When to Go: Which winter month you choose to visit the Galapagos can depend on how much you want to spend as well as what type of wildlife you want to experience. Late December to January is part of the destination's high season, so you'll find the highest prices and more crowds. If you want to save a little money -- remember the Galapagos is always expensive -- wait until February or March for your cruise. Late December and January are when green turtles are laying their eggs; from February to April many of the islands' land birds, sea lions, sea turtles and tortoises are breeding; and March when the baby green turtles and giant tortoises begin hatching.
Photo taken by Cruise Critic Member Christine311 on a Celebrity Xpedition cruise
Why: For lower pricing and smaller crowds in Europe, winter can't be beat. With just a few exceptions, winter cruising in Europe is confined to the Mediterranean where you'll be able to visit Rome, Venice, Barcelona and other iconic Med cities without long queues for the main attractions. While the Med is not toasty during the winter, the temperatures aren't usually much lower than you'll find in much of the United States and Canada. Another winter option in Europe are the coastal Norwegian cruises offered by Hurtigruten, which guarantees sightings of the Northern Lights on any classic round trip 12-night sailing between October 1 and March 31. (If you don't see the Lights, you'll get a free cruise.)
When to Go: Any of the winter months are a good time to visit Europe if you're seeking lower prices and smaller crowds in the Mediterranean. Prices are also lower on the Northern Lights sailings, especially in January and February as Hurtigruten knows not everyone likes to travel in the deep freeze of a Scandinavian winter. Another winter option are holiday market river cruises -- offered from late November through the end of December -- which take cruisers to the traditional Christmas markets of Germany and France.
Australia & New Zealand
Why: It's summer Down Under, and while certain parts of Australia might be too hot for an extended visit (namely the country's center and north), its high tourist season in both countries, with cities on New Zealand's South Island and along Australia's eastern and southern edges featuring some of the best weather of the year. Whether you're checking out the stunning natural beauty of New Zealand or taking in the culture of Australia's major metropolises like Sydney or Melbourne, there's no shortage of sights to see and activities to participate in during a shore excursion in either country.
When to Go: Once the cruise season gets going Down Under in October, any time is a good time to visit. You'll find the warmest temperatures between December and March, with average temps in the upper 70s in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. But you'll also find temps of 90 degrees and above in places like Darwin and Cairns from late December through early to mid-February (though with snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef a major attraction in Cairns, hot temperatures might not be such a bad thing). If you're planning on staying on after your cruise, consider timing your sailing to end in late February or even in March when hotel pricing goes down.
Why: Some cruise destinations are just too hot to visit in the summer. The Middle East is one such region, with average temperatures in Dubai in July hovering near 105 degrees. And while the height of the Mideast cruise season is in late fall (mostly November), cruisers can still find plenty of sailings from December through March (and even into April) visiting ports in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most cruises to the Middle East are one week in length and operated by European lines like MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, although you can usually also find sailings from Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity and Crystal's yacht division. The Nile River cruising season is also at its peak in the winter.
When to Go: With daily temperatures ranging from the upper 70s to the mid-80s, winter is the best time of year to visit the Middle East by cruise ship. Not only can cruisers escape the cold back home, but with a cruise there's no need to worry about expensive, fully booked hotels during the region's high season. One thing to keep in mind: winter is rainy season in the Middle East, but showers tend to be short-lived and sporadic. If you want to avoid the rainiest days, look for cruises in December.
Why: Like the Middle East, Southeast Asia (comprising countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) is hot, humid and downright uncomfortable to visit in the summer. Cruise lines know this and time many of their sailings in the region for the late fall and winter months. Both ocean and river cruises spend time during the winter in Southeast Asia with ocean lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess visiting Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, among others and river cruises plying the Mekong in Vietnam and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma).
When to Go: Which month you head to Southeast Asia for a cruise can depend on what type of cruise you're looking to take. While Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar (Burma) river cruises kick off in December and run through March, most ocean cruises don't hit the waters of Southeast Asia until January. Additionally, if you're looking for the warmest temps you can find in Southeast Asia the ocean cruises are your best bet, visiting ports with temperatures in the upper 70s to mid-80s in January and February (late February into March sees temps jump). On the Vietnam river cruises, temperatures tend to be no higher than the low 70s throughout the winter. Myanmar (Burma) sailings can get hotter as the winter months go on, so December is your best bet for cooler temperatures.