Ask cruisers, and most will tell you Panama Canal sailings fall somewhere on their bucket lists. There's plenty to be said for each port of call along the way, but the Canal itself is the main event, offering an up-close look at an engineering marvel that has withstood more than a century of use.
A variety of cruise ships sail through the Canal, ranging from very large cruise ships carrying 4,000 passengers to small ships with less than 100 passengers.
Which experience is right for you? We compare what it's like to cruise the Panama Canal on a "big" cruise ship vs. a "small" cruise ship.
Transiting the Panama Canal on a small ship gives you a dramatic impression of the size and depth of the canal's locks. While large ships never drop completely below the top of the lock chambers, you descend below ground level on a small ship. That means that you get ,great views of the locks' doors and dramatic photo angles of the locomotives that help hold ships in position as they move through.
In many cases, small ships are paired up with cargo vessels to move through the locks. This is good and bad. The good news is that you are able to get some great shots of a big ship from immediately behind it, and you can also watch its progress through the locks. The bad news is that a big ship will block your view looking down the canal in one direction.
Although it's difficult to get a sense of a lock's depth on a larger ship, it's easy to get a sense of its width. With just a few inches to spare on either side as big ships transit the locks, the crew's ability to maneuver in such tight quarters is nearly as amazing as the locks themselves.
If you're lucky enough to have a balcony cabin or a good viewing spot on one of the outer decks, peek over the side to see what we mean. It's also a good time to watch the electric "mules" that zip back and forth as they help to guide the ship.
In addition to size, cost is also a factor for ships. Since transit fees are assessed based on tonnage and nature of the cargo, it's more expensive for larger ships to sail through. which can, in turn, affect the cost of cruise fares.
Small ships usually have an open-bridge policy. On our small ship cruise through the canal, we were able to hang out near the captain and canal pilot, and listen as the pilot directed our captain and radioed to the four locomotive "mules" keeping our ship in position while it passed through the locks.
Our ship's naturalist, a veteran of many transits, pointed out crocodiles and toucans on shore near the canal entrance, and was available on deck to answer questions and point out interesting sights as we passed through the locks.
Almost any exterior spot on a small ship offers interesting views of some sort, whether you are at the front watching as your ship moves into position in a lock chamber; at the back, seeing the massive lock doors close; or at a side-railing, watching the water slowly rise along the depth markers. The views are all so good, and there's plenty of room on the rail, so you won't be fighting for position. Don't forget to move around the ship's decks to take it in from different vantages and heights. It's easy to dash from fore to aft to catch all the action.
As most mainstream cruisers know, it's nearly impossible to gain access to the bridge on larger vessels, so viewing the transit from there isn't a feasible option. In contrast to smaller ships, bigger ones offer more outdoor deck space, but the ratio of that space to the number of passengers might be a lot less favorable, leaving thousands vying for prime spots to watch the action.
On large ships, local experts are usually brought onboard to narrate the Canal transit over the intercom system in most public areas so you'll know exactly what you're seeing, but you'll generally have to wake up early to find a spot from which to snap decent photos.
Weather can also play a role in how easy it is to find room on deck. In the early morning hours of our transit, a steady rain kept many inside; by lunchtime, the sun was out, and the decks were crammed with passengers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, three people deep. Tip: Keep in mind that you can see as much from the back of the ship as you can from the front, and it's usually far less crowded.
Regardless of ship size, you may want to take into consideration what time your ship is scheduled to transit, although the times your ship is given aren’t set in stone.
Ours finally got the nod to enter the canal at sunset (a couple of hours later than it was scheduled), making most of the transit in the evening. While we didn't see much of Lake Gatun, the locks were all brilliantly illuminated and we were able to stay on deck for hours without roasting under the fierce Panamanian sun.
We took our place in a line of vessels sometime around 5:30 a.m. and hit the first lock three hours later at about 8:30. We waited at the beginning of the lock for about an hour, watching the lowering of a cargo ship immediately in front of us, before we received the go-ahead to enter. As is the case with transiting on smaller vessels, don't take the scheduled times too seriously.
Because our ship was of a larger size, with just a foot or two of clearance between the sides of the ship and the walls of the locks, we didn't have to pair up with another vessel to move through the locks.
Small ship transit cruises tend to begin and end in Central America, rather than the longer itineraries of bigger vessels that either leave from Florida roundtrip or go from West to East Coast (or vice versa).
Besides the standard trip to the canal visitor center at the Miraflores Locks, a small ship will generally give you more opportunities for water sports, soft adventure and visits to pristine, uncrowded beaches. For example, several small-ship cruises stop at islands in Panama's Coiba National Park for a beach barbeque, snorkeling or kayaking.
On our small ship, snorkelers had the opportunity to spend the morning on one of the park's uninhabited islands surrounded by teeming reefs. The ship's naturalist dove in and helped show passengers the best sights. We also called on Panama City, the San Blas islands and several ports in Costa Rica, with opportunities to visit national parks.
Our big-ship Pan Can crossing was preceded by a call on Colon, allowing for in-depth exploration of Gatun Lake and the Gatun Lock, which can't always be seen during the actual canal transit.
Because of its size, a larger ship will call on standard ports, rather than off-the-beaten-path ones found on the itineraries of smaller vessels. However, shore excursion options are plentiful, exposing visitors to canal history, gorgeous colonial towns, expansive shopping and active pursuits like snorkeling, horseback riding, zip-lining and hiking.
Onboard activities run the standard and sometimes cheesy gamut from bingo, trivia and jewelry making to belly flop contests and production shows.
Independent travelers will fare well on small ships. Waits are minimal to go ashore, and the hassles are few. It's likely that small ships will use zodiacs as tenders, so be prepared for some wet landings. It's all part and parcel of the more casual atmosphere on these vessels. You'll probably start to feel like crew are family by the end of the trip, and you'll likely have met everyone onboard.
Larger ships feature more onboard offerings and amenities, but you'll have to fight for space almost everywhere -- the buffet, the pool deck, the prime canal vantage points and, of course, the tenders in some ports.
Still, most people onboard a Panama Canal cruise chose it because they have interest in this extraordinary engineering marvel. That makes it a bit easier to strike up a conversation about your shared experience and make friends.
Most small ships on Panama Canal itineraries have a naturalist aboard, who provides briefings on the abundant wildlife, peoples and landscapes of the region. Our naturalist also offered a detailed presentation on the canal, including showing videos from Nova and the Discovery Channel.
While some ships carry lecturers from time to time, don't expect the parade of speakers you may be privy to on a large ship. There happened to be a professional photographer on our cruise, who gave four excellent lectures -- but he was only aboard for one sailing. Lindblad Expeditions offers perhaps the most extensive enrichment, with "a diverse team of experts--from naturalists to regional specialists," according to the company.
On "Canal Day," local experts often come aboard during the transit to enlighten passengers with fun facts and figures, as well as narration about what they're seeing as they're seeing it. Beyond that, there's not much available to learn more about the canal, unless you take a related shore excursion before or after the transit.
As far as non-canal enrichment, quirky and sometimes useful options like fruit carving, napkin folding, Spanish lessons and computer classes are often available on larger ships. Sadly, many lectures on bigger ships -- including spa seminars, port shopping talks and the like -- focus on generating revenue for the cruise line instead of enriching the experiences of the passengers.
The passenger mix on small ships tends to be eclectic, slightly younger and a bit more fit (particularly true if there's no elevator between decks) than on a larger vessel. Aboard our ship, Variety Voyager, the majority of passengers were from the U.S., but England, France, Spain and South America were also represented.
While many of the guests were in their 50s, 60s and 70s, there were also young couples aboard. Passengers were well-traveled, but not necessarily serial cruisers. They were also more destination-oriented, aboard for the canal transit and shore trips, rather than evening entertainment or a dazzling array of dining choices.
Passengers on our larger ship voyage were a highly diverse and international mix, speaking to the truly global appeal of the Panama Canal. Most were avid cruisers, some of whom had already done the Pan Can transit several times.
Because of the long (and subsequently pricey) nature of the itinerary, the number of children onboard was noticeably low. Most passengers were older and fairly active.
Because of the heat, the rugged nature of the ports on the sailing and the high activity levels of most of the passengers, nightlife wasn't a huge draw. Most people went to bed especially early on the night before the transit, likely in an effort to claim a spot on the top deck at the crack of dawn.
"Even more amazing than we expected," was the consensus of the passengers aboard our ship after transiting the canal. Being aboard a small ship really brings home the locks' massive scale. It's a "sense-surround" experience, where you have easy access to views from every angle.
We felt like we experienced the best of one of the world's great engineering marvels, while also getting close to the natural environment of Panama and Costa Rica. Congenial, curious fellow travelers became friends in the more intimate small-ship environment, and so did the crew. In truth, it really seemed as if we were aboard a private yacht. Yeah, we could get used to this!
For us, experiencing the Panama Canal on a bigger ship was much like experiencing any cruise itinerary, with the exception of Canal Day, which was the highlight. The excitement was, for us, somewhat hampered by the large number of other cruisers trying to squeeze all the way forward for the best views and photos. (The ship's photographer was one of them, asking passengers to pose at the bow of the ship so the line could make a buck or two.)
We had never been on a sailing quite that long, so we had more time to make friends, and it was bittersweet to say goodbye at the end of our journey.