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Edinburgh (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)
Edinburgh (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)

Everything You Need to Know About British Isles and Ireland Cruises

Edinburgh (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)
Edinburgh (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)
Contributor
Jeannine Williamson
Contributor
Kerry Spencer

Last updated
Oct 24, 2023

Read time
8 min read

The British Isles, including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and all the offshore islands, and Ireland offers an enormously varied cruise experience.

Beautiful coastlines are punctuated by historic ports and cities — including Cork, Liverpool and Dover — leading to castles and stately homes rich in culture and heritage. There's green countryside filled with chocolate box villages, rolling vineyards and dramatic mountain landscapes, plus traditional pubs and exciting capital cities like London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

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. The unspoiled Isles of Scilly are a thrilling place to visit on a cruise, too, with gin-clear waters and sandy coves, lying off Cornwall in the southwest of England.

From the best time to take a cruise to the kind of itineraries you can expect and the cruise lines sailing, here's everything you need to know about a British Isles and Ireland cruises.


A Seasonal Guide to British Isles and Ireland Cruises

White Cliffs of Dover
The spectacular White Cliffs of Dover (Photo:GlennV/Shutterstock)

With four distinct seasons, the British Isles and Ireland are best seen in spring through to autumn (fall), though most cruises depart in summer, when temperatures average 75°F, though some parts of the south of England, including Southampton and London, can reach as high as 90°F in the peak of summer.

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. In cities, in the countryside and on the coast, cherry blossom, wisteria, blue bells and wild garlic are blooming, though the weather is often wet, with April showers prevalent.

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. Pub beer gardens fill, garden estates are filled with beautiful flowers and beaches around the islands fill. 

Fall, or autumn (September, October and November), sees fewer British Isles and Ireland cruises, though there are still itineraries available in October into early November, when the countryside is 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.


A Plethora of Cruise Lines Offer British Isles & Ireland Cruises

Hebridean Sky
Hebridean Sky in the tranquil waters of Scotland (Photo: Noble Caledonia)

Take your pick from a wide range of ships of all shapes and sizes sail that around the British Isles and Ireland. Most tend to be midsize and small ships and Southampton, Britain's largest cruise port, offers the widest choice of itineraries. This south of England cruise port and is home to British lines Cunard and P&O Cruises (though they are owned by American cruise giant Carnival Corp.), which offer a classic British cruise experience.

Other British lines sailing the British Isles and Ireland includes Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Saga Cruises and Ambassador Cruise Line, including sailings from Dover and London Tilbury.

Upscale lines include Hebridean Island Cruises, specializing in luxury small-ship sailing around Scotland and the Scottish isles, and Silversea, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania offers around-Britain voyage.

Other lines operating cruises around the British Isles and Ireland include big names such as Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises. Hurtigruten, Aurora Expeditions and Noble Caledonia also offer British Isles cruises, while The Majestic Line also specializes in small ship sailing around Scotland and the Scottish isles.


British Isles & Ireland Cruise Itineraries

Kirkwall (Photo:johnbraid/Shutterstock)
Kirkwall (Photo:johnbraid/Shutterstock)

A full British Isles and Ireland cruise is typically 14 nights, with shorter variations from three nights that might skip on Ireland or stick to a swathe of the UK, rather than all of the British Isles. You'll find five- seven-, 10- and 12-night variations also available.

The compact nature of the British Isles and Ireland means you'll never have more than two sea days on longer cruises, with a maximum of one day at sea on shorter itineraries, leaving plenty of time to explore the ports of call.

Mini cruisesFred. Olsen Cruise Lines is the main line that offers regular short break sailings, including roundtrip voyages from Liverpool 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 heather-covered moorland, coupled with a fascinating history and prized whiskies. 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 lines offer 7-10-night itineraries that circumnavigate Britain and include a visit to one or more outlying islands. For example, Saga's cruise from Tilbury call at Belfast in Northern Ireland, 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 in the Irish Sea, which has its own language, Manx (although everyone speaks English).

British Isles & Ireland: A 13- or 14-night itinerary, generally departing from London Tilbury, Dover, 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.


British Isles & Ireland Cruise Port Highlights

Titanic Museum Belfast
The extraordinary Titanic Museum, Belfast

British Isles and Ireland cruise ports range from major cities on the respective mainlands to small islands with villages fit for a postcard.

Highlights include London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Cork, each with excellent museums, shopping, thriving food scenes and some of the world's best pubs. There's more. Liverpool has a fantastic museum scene; in Dover you have the spectacular White Cliffs and access to some fantastic vineyards in the Garden of England (Kent). While the Orkney Islands and Scilly offers show-stopping nature, including a wealth of marine and bird life.


Essential Tips for Passengers on a British Isles & Ireland Cruise

Portsmouth, UK (Photo: stocker1970/Shutterstock)
Portsmouth, U.K., under a blue sky (Photo: stocker1970/Shutterstock)

British weather can be unpredictable. Whatever the season, there's always the chance of a rain shower, so don't forget an umbrella or purchase an inexpensive one upon arrival and a light rain jacket. The south of England's weather can vary considerable from say, the Scottish Highlands and islands, so you may need to get creative with layers. It's not uncommon for example for beaches and city parks to fill with sunbathers on the south coast and in London, Oxford and Bath, whereas you might be in for a more windswept beach walk in the far north.

Consider school holiday periods. 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, they are usually in late May, late July through to the first week of September and mid-October.

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. The Majestic Line and Hebridean Island Cruises do not accept children under the age of 12 and 9, respectively.

Check inclusions and currency. Lines that mostly cater to British passengers, including P&O Cruises and Saga, include tips in the fare. On others, such as Fred. Olsen, gratuities are not included, though they are low. On ships operated by all of these lines, 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, the British pound is used in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the Euro in the Republic of Ireland.

 

Tower Bridge raised for as passing cruise ship
A cruise ship sailing beneath — or through — Tower Bridge, London

"Onshore tipping isn't expected in the U.K." is somewhat of a myth. While it's fair to say the U.K. and Ireland do not have the same tipping culture as in the United States, most restaurants expect a small gratuity gesture. Almost all restaurants in the British capital, London, will add a 12.5 to 15 percent service charge. It's less common outside of London, but it does happen and when it is not included, it's still fine to tip in the region of 12.5 to 15 percent.

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.

Consider the distance from the port to the destination. By this, we mean Cobh into Cork (15 miles) and London Tilbury into London (27 miles). It's also 26 miles from Greenock into Glasgow and 15. miles from Rosyth into the center of Edinburgh. If you're making plans independently, consider how long it will take you to return to your cruise ship.


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