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Summer Cruises vs. Winter Cruises: 6 Things You Should Know

Grand Turk Port
Grand Turk Port
Lori A. May

Last updated
Nov 27, 2023

Read time
6 min read

Summer sailings may be top of mind once vacation season sets in, but cruises in December can offer enticing deals. Plus, cruising is a year-round activity with twelve months to explore the Caribbean islands, endless Mediterranean itineraries to enjoy and year-round Hawaiian itineraries, too. The best season to cruise is the one you choose.

While there are notable differences between taking a cruise in December versus a hot sunny summer, each season offers its own set of perks. From shoulder season deals to weather fluctuations, there are a few considerations before settling on a cruise in winter.

From where to cruise, what to expect when cruising and how to save money, review our six things to know before booking cruises in winter or the summer.

1. Winter Cruise Itineraries You Could Experience May Surprise You

Nassau, Bahamas (Photo: Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock)
Nassau, Bahamas (Photo: Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock) (Photo:Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock)

While you can generally find year-round cruises to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Hawaiian Islands, Mexican Riviera and Mediterranean, many other destinations are seasonal. You can only sail to places such as Alaska, Canada/New England and the Baltics during warmer months.

Other destinations available for cruising in the winter months include Antarctica, Australia, South America and Panama Canal sailings, the latter often including visits to Costa Rica and Colombia.

Travelers accustomed to summer sailings may be surprised to find Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Virgin Voyages all offer exciting alternatives to the Caribbean in December, January and March.

So whether you’re keen on booking the best family cruise or a romantic cruise for two, your destination possibilities are nearly endless.

2. Winter Is the Best Season to Cruise for Avoiding Crowds

There's no doubt that summer is peak travel time. Expect crowds ashore, onboard and at the airport. It also might not be the best time to cruise to all destinations, weather-wise, but that doesn't stop all the families and countless others who can only take vacation during the summer months.

With the exception of Christmas and New Year's cruises, and possibly late-winter sailings to warm-weather destinations, you'll find fewer crowds cruising in the winter months. Early cruises in December offer shoulder season deals pretty much everywhere, so you'll have more breathing room and find fewer lines at the ship buffet.

Depending on the warmth of your destination, you’ll have less deck chair hogs to contend with, perhaps more space in the solarium, and even families will find less congestion in the kids club during a cruise in winter.

In the summer, families are everywhere -- in the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe and so many more destinations. If you and your kids want to make friends, this is the time to cruise. Just note that even the best cruise ship water parks can be brimming with crowds, particularly on sea days.

If what you seek is a kid-free cruise experience, though, the best season to cruise is during the winter months. November through February, apart from school breaks, most youngsters are sitting dutifully in class, and cruise ships are populated mainly with adults. Of course, as cruise line Wi-Fi service improves, it is more common to see kids attending class virtually.

Taking a cruise in December -- prior to the busier holiday season -- is one way to see less families and school-aged children. Seeking out the best adults-only cruise ship sun decks will also give a little extra quiet on sunny sea days.

3. Packing for Cruises in the Summer Is Easier than for Cruises in the Winter

What Should I Wear on a Cruise? A Guide to Cruise Line Dress Codes (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)
What Should I Wear on a Cruise? A Guide to Cruise Line Dress Codes (Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line)

Summer itineraries are so easy for packing. Throw in shorts, T-shirts, sundresses and bathing suits, and you’ll meet the cruise line dress code. Of course you’ll also want to remember hats and sunscreen, and perhaps something warm in case your cruise ship turns up the A/C onboard.

Cruising in the winter months can be trickier for packing light. Even packing for a Hawaiian cruise or the South Pacific can be a challenge with breezy sea days. When in doubt, opt for wrinkle-free layers you can easily mix and match throughout your voyage. Ship laundry services are often available.

Don’t forget an umbrella, either. Between the occasional rain in Australia or during your Viking river cruise along the Rhine, it’s best to anticipate some wet weather during a cruise in winter, or you just may find yourself shopping in port for basics.

4. Taking a Cruise Anytime May Involve Weather Troubles

Beautiful view of the harbor of Funchal, Madeira, seen from the Atlantic ocean, with ominous clouds and a cruise ship
Cruise ship in stormy weather (Photo: Dennis van de Water/

No matter when you cruise, severe weather can interrupt your plans. In the summer, hurricanes can put a damper on a weekend getaway or Southern Caribbean sailing. Sunny U.S. homeports can be impacted by flooding and high winds, causing embarkation delays.

Cruises in December, January, and February come with their own weather risks. Snowstorms and blizzards can cause flight cancellations and delays. Rough seas or strong winds can cause cruise itinerary changes. Even driving to a local port can be complicated by poor weather.

While travel insurance can offer peace of mind, when planning a cruise in winter it’s best to give yourself extra time.

Booked on NCL’s Pride of America? Before heading to the Port of Honolulu, give yourself time for pre-cruise island exploration. Add a pre-cruise stay in Galveston, cushion your Sydney sailing with land time, or extend your visit in Barcelona before and after visiting the Western Mediterranean.

5. Excursions May Differ While Cruising in the Winter Months vs. the Summer Months

Wooden booths offering souvenirs during Christmas Market in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)
Wooden booths offering souvenirs during Christmas Market in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)

Cruise throughout summer, and you'll find the top selection of shore excursions, with ideal weather for water sports and hiking, or simply lounging at the beach. Just be sure to book early for the most popular tours; tickets can sell out quickly.

When taking a cruise in December or January, you'll perhaps have less exploratory options, especially in cooler locales like Europe. Some attractions are limited to the summer tourist season; others simply aren't suitable for chilly weather.

On the other hand, Christmas markets and seasonal festivities can add some celebratory flare to your cruise during the winter months.

6. Cruises in December or Other Winter Months Can Be Great for Your Travel Budget

Winter can be the best season to cruise for your vacation budget. While it’s often a challenge to find a bargain for summer sailings, cruises in December and January tend to offer incredible deals. The exception to this, of course, are tropical cruises with limited availability.

To plan for the biggest savings, keep an eye on cruise deals year-round and note when pricing dips in your favor. Then you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether seasonal fall promotions or last-minute fares during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales offer the best value for cruising in the winter months.

Publish date January 08, 2020
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