A cruise through the Panama Canal, from the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean, is a trip of a lifetime for many travelers, who geek out over modern engineering as well as thrill to the extraordinary biodiversity and lush landscapes and rainforests of Central America.
The height of Panama Canal cruise season runs October to April, but the best month to travel will depend on how much you expect to be active and outdoors. The year-round tropical climate of Panama and bordering countries of Costa Rica and Colombia get unbearably hot and humid, with a dry season and a rainy season.
We've listed the pros and cons of travel by each month so that you can make the best of your Panama Canal cruise. Prices quoted are per person, double occupancy.
Why: These months are part of the dry season in Panama, with February being the driest month of the year. January and February also have more moderate temperatures than much of the rest of the year, so it's the optimal time to engage in active outdoor activities such as hiking and kayaking.
Pricing: Cruise-only fares start around $70 a night for an inside cabin in January, but more choices are available at $100 per night. February rates are slightly higher depending on the cruise line you choose. With limited selections on lower fares, these will sell out more quickly.
Temperature: Temperatures range from the mid-70s to low 80s in both January and February.
Rainfall/sea conditions: Expect some rainfall, but it's mostly dry during these months. The Caribbean Sea is calm this time of year, but it can occasionally get a bit choppy during any month where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet.
What to pack: Bring lightweight summer clothes for your time in Panama and add layering pieces for when you're onboard the ship.
Festivals: The Panama City Jazz Festival takes place mid-January. This five-day event features live performances by international jazz artists, all-day jam sessions and music clinics. The last day's outdoor final concert brings all of the participating musicians together on one stage and it's free to attend.
Watch out for: This is a favorite time of year for travel to Panama. The snowbirds from the U.S. and Europe flock here to escape the cold, so book your cruise and onshore activities early. This is also the time when Panamanians celebrate the most holidays. The celebrations can result in significant shutdowns with restaurants, banks, offices and stores being closed Monday, even if the holiday falls on the weekend.
Why: This is still the dry season, although some years it ends mid-March. March and April offer pleasant weather and sunshine ideal for active outdoor pursuits, birding and photography. It's also the perfect time for diving and snorkeling in clear waters while there's no rain. For surfing enthusiasts, March is the last month to ride the biggest waves on both the Pacific and Caribbean side. Catch the best waves between December and March.
Pricing: You can still find a few cruise-only fares under $100 night in March for interior cabins, but most prices run higher. The itineraries in April also offer inside cabins below $100 a night, but these sell out quickly at it's still considered the dry season.
Temperature: March and April both have morning lows in the upper 70s, but temperatures begin to rise in April. Expect afternoons in April to be in the mid to upper 80s. April can even be the hottest month of the year. While average highs are in the 80s, temperatures can reach into the 90s from spring through fall.
Rainfall/sea conditions: While still considered the dry season, expect some rain. The seas should still be calm this time of year.
What to pack: Bring a lightweight packable raincoat or small umbrella for the occasional shower or thunderstorm.
Festivals: Semana Santa takes place between Palm Sunday and Holy Saturday. This Holy Week celebration features parades and processions throughout the country. Look for festivities in the ports of call in Panama.
Watch out for: Expect store, bank and restaurant closures during the Holy Week festivities. Also, as warmer weather approaches, look for pop-up afternoon thunderstorms beginning in April and lasting through July. They can be intense but are short. If you're cruising on the Caribbean side of the canal, you can count on more rain than you'd receive in Panama City.
Why: May is the start of the wet season, so it's a good time to look for cruise deals. The crowds begin to subside in the major tourist areas heading into summer, and it's the beginning of the “green season.” This is the time when the rainforests and lush vegetarian are at their most spectacular. Also, it's the best time for white-water rafting excursions as the rivers begin to rise.
Pricing: You can find cruise-only fares as low as $60 a night for an inside cabin with most prices less than $100. There are fewer cruises at this time of year, so book in advance for the lowest fares.
Temperature: The temperatures in May are comparable to April with lows in the upper 70s to highs in the upper 80s. The humidity begins to increase with the rainy season.
Rainfall/sea conditions: There will be more showers this time of year, but that's what makes this part of Central America so beautiful. The seas should still be calm in the spring.
What to pack: Sunscreen and bug spray should be on the top of your list. To protect your face, bring a good sunblock, lip balm with SPF and a lightweight sun catcher hat that has an SPF of 50+. Also, invest in several pieces of clothing with an SPF rating.
Festivals: There are no major festivals at this time of year near the ports of call in Panama.
Watch out for: There are a limited number of cruises in May, so book yours far in advance if this is the month you want to travel.
Why: Sailings are limited in the summer months because it's the wet season and the beginning of hurricane season, and many cruise ships reposition for the summer. Also, even though temperatures aren't historically higher, it feels more hot and humid in June and July due to the extreme rainy conditions. Oceania and Cunard are the two lines offering the occasional summer sailing.
Pricing: With limited availability, prices are higher for these cruises. You can book a cruise-only fare with Cunard for less than $230 a night for a Britannia Balcony stateroom from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale. Oceania's interior accommodations average $240 per night on a cruise from San Francisco to New York.
Temperatures: June's temperatures are consistent with those in May. Lows will be in the mid-70s and highs in the upper 80s. July highs can be a little lower than June with averages in the mid-80s. Remember that humidity will be very high during these months.
Rainfall/sea conditions: Expect showers, especially in the afternoons. July is also considered the cloudiest month of the year. June is the beginning of hurricane season, so ships sailing into the Caribbean or across the Atlantic Ocean might be at risk for encountering storms.
What to pack: Bring a plastic bag or a protective cover for your camera. You'll want to have this on hand during the rainy days when you're out exploring.
Festivals: There are no major festivals at this time of year near the ports of call in Panama.
Watch out for: Don't forget sunscreen and have access to plenty of bottled or purified water. With the extreme humidity, you need to stay well-hydrated. It's also a good idea to bring electrolyte supplements, especially if you're engaging in active outdoor activities. Even walking in the heat and humidity can be exhausting and dehydrating.
Why: No cruise lines are currently scheduled to set sail for the Panama Canal in August.
Why: Cruise lines resume their Panama Canal itineraries in September. These months are a great time to visit major attractions and see famous sights with schools back in session and fewer tourists. Remember that it is still rainy season and September can be the warmest month of the year (trading off with April for that distinction). The good news is that fall is when the rainforest is spectacular and the rivers are brimming with rapids, so it's the perfect season for outdoor adventure seekers.
Pricing: Cruise-only fares in September, October and November are available for as low as $60 per night for an inside cabin. There are quite a few sailings during this time of year, so it's a good time to look for less expensive fares.
Temperature: Expect mornings to be in the low 70s and afternoon highs reaching to the upper 80s in September. October is traditionally the coolest month of the year with highs dropping back down into the low 80s. November heading into December can be a little warmer, so pack accordingly.
Rainfall/sea conditions: The fall is still the rainy season, so there will be rain and cloudy days. November is also the wettest month of the year. Hurricanes and storms are more likely during this time of year as the waters have warmed up over the summer, so be prepared if you're on an extended cruise in the Caribbean.
What to pack: It's good to have a few shirts with sleeves and long lightweight pants to protect you from the sun and bugs. SPF-rated clothing is recommended in these conditions. In addition to protection from the sun, these clothes protect against mosquito bites, which are a concern with the transmission of malaria and yellow fever.
Bring hiking boots or athletic shoes, not sandals, for some of the excursions. It's best to keep your feet and ankles covered on the ground as you watch for howler monkeys, toucans and scarlet macaws in the trees. There are crocodiles, snakes and things you don't want to step on, especially wearing sandals in the forests and jungles.
Festivals: Some of the most celebrated days in Panama occur in November. Nov. 3 and 4 are Independence Day and Flag Day and have festivities with parades, fireworks and entertainment. Nov. 10 celebrates "First Call for Independence” and Nov. 28 honors Independence Day from Spain. The early November dates are the most significant events, especially in Panama City and other larger cities.
Watch out for: The festivals during November may impact shopping and dining options in specific destinations, so plan if you need something while in port. Even with all the overcast and rainy days, be sure to use sunscreen. Cloudy skies are known to cause some of the worst sunburns.
Why: December is the start of the dry weather and the beginning of the busiest season for Panama. A holiday cruise is a perfect way to spend time with family and friends, especially when it's one of the best months to visit the Panama Canal and this part of Central America.
Pricing: There are options in all price ranges for a December sailing. Some are under $100 a night for the cruise-only fare; we found a 15-night sailing with Royal Caribbean at $69 for an inside cabin. Luxury line, Crystal Cruises, offers a 10-night sailing at $388 per night for an outside cabin.
Temperature: Expect low to mid-70s in the mornings and low 80s in the afternoons.
Rainfall/sea conditions: This is the dry season, so you should have sunny weather most of the time. There's always a possibility of an afternoon shower in a tropical climate but plan on sunny days. It is still possible for a hurricane to occur in December, although November is considered the end of the season.
What to pack: In addition to everything recommended above, bring a few festive selections for holiday celebrations onboard the ship.
Festivals: Panamanians celebrate Christmas, much as we do in the U.S., so expect some closings around the holiday. There are no other festivals or celebrations scheduled in December.
Watch out for: Ideal weather and one of the best months to cruise the Panama Canal. Book as many excursions as you can and bring your camera to capture the extraordinary scenery, unique wildlife and natural beauty of the region.