Choosing a Caribbean Cruise Itinerary

Eastern Caribbean or Western Caribbean - Which Is Best for You?

Typical view on a Caribbean cruise vacation
••• Typical view on a Caribbean cruise vacation. Caribbean Cruise Photo (c) Linda Garrison

Caribbean cruises are the most popular cruise destination for cruise travelers. Choosing where to sail - the eastern or western Caribbean - is one of the first decisions made when planning a cruise vacation. Most cruise travelers select a 7-day Caribbean cruise for their first experience at sea. Seven days gives cruise travelers the opportunity to see more places and become adjusted to life on a cruise ship.

Shorter 3- or 4- day cruises cost more per day, and often leave travelers not knowing for sure if a cruise vacation is a good travel option for them. 

When you search the Internet or read cruise brochures, the most common itineraries offered are Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean. Which is better? The answer is either! It all depends on what your interests are, so in addition to selecting the right ship, you need to research the ports of call before you book your cruise vacation. Both itineraries will provide cruisers with opportunities to sail, swim, snorkel, and shop. But there are differences. Let's take a quick look at the two most popular Caribbean cruise itineraries.

Eastern Caribbean Cruises

Most cruise ships sailing to the eastern Caribbean on 7-day itineraries embark from ports in Florida like Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Miami, or Tampa, but ships also sail to the region from Charleston, SC, and the New York City area.

Ships sailing to the eastern Caribbean often stopover in the Bahamas at either Nassau or one of the cruise line's private islands in the archipelago before heading further south to the Eastern Caribbean. These private islands like Disney Cruises' Castaway Cay or Holland America Line's Half Moon Cay offer guests the opportunity to enjoy all sorts of land and water sports in a pristine setting.

Ports of call on an Eastern Caribbean itinerary often include St. Thomas, St. John (USVI), Puerto Rico, and perhaps St. Maarten/St. Martin. If you want less sailing (more time in ports ashore) and more shopping and opportunities to go to fantastic beaches, then an Eastern Caribbean itinerary might be more appealing to you. The islands are relatively close together, smaller, and shore excursions tend to be more geared to beach or water activities.

Typical shore activities might include snorkeling, sunning on an amazing beach, or even racing in a sailboat. St. John in the US Virgin Islands has terrific snorkeling, as do the other islands (both British and USA) in the group. One of the most memorable shore excursions in the eastern Caribbean is racing in an America's Cup yacht in St. Maarten. 

Western Caribbean Cruises

Cruise ships sailing to the western Caribbean usually embark from Florida, New Orleans or Texas. Ports of call on a Western Caribbean itinerary often include Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Grand Cayman; Key West, FL; the Dominican Republic; Jamaica; Belize; Costa Rica; or Roatan. If you look at a Caribbean map, you will see that since the ports of call are further apart, more time at sea is usually involved on a western Caribbean cruise.

So, you may have more time on the cruise ship and less time in port or on the beach.

The ports of call in the western Caribbean are sometimes on the mainland (Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica) or at larger islands (Jamaica, Dominican Republic). Therefore, the shore excursion options are more varied since the islands and mainland are more diverse. You can explore ancient Mayan ruins, hike the rain forests, or go snorkeling or SCUBA diving in some unforgettable locations. Of course, you'll still find opportunities for shopping or just sitting on a spectacular beach watching the azure blue Caribbean. Many travelers identify swimming with dolphins in Cozumel as a favorite shore excursion on western Caribbean cruises. A second is cave tubing in Belize. And, most people never forget visiting Stingray City on Grand Cayman Island.

If you are now thoroughly confused, that's okay! The Caribbean Sea is a cruise lover's heaven--blue seas, sunny beaches, and interesting ports of call filled with history and fascinating cultures. You will get all of these whichever direction you cruise. East and West are both great--and then there's the Southern Caribbean, but that's for another day!