Panama Canal Cruises - Three Ways to See the Canal from a Ship

Panama Canal
••• Holland America Veendam passes through Panama Canal lock. Linda Garrison

A Panama Canal cruise is on the bucket list of most travelers. This engineering marvel is fascinating, and its construction is particularly amazing since it was completed in 1914. The amount of rock and dirt moved to build this big ditch has fascinated travelers for over 100 years.

Those considering a transit of the Canal should understand the three different types of Panama Canal cruises. They also should read the best book about the history and construction of the Panama Canal, "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914", by David McCullough.

Panama Canal Cruises - Full Transits

Cruise travelers have many options for transiting the Panama Canal. Passenger ships of 20 guests up to 2,800 guests currently pass through the Canal. Vessels must generally not exceed the Panamax standards set by the Panama Canal Authority--965-feet long, 106-feet wide, a 39.5 foot draft, and a 190-foot air draft (water line to highest point). Examples of cruise ships that are 965 by 106 and are considered Panamax ships are: Norwegian Pearl, Island Princess, Queen Elizabeth, and Disney Wonder. As discussed in the last section of this article, this Panamax size has changed with the Canal-widening project completed in 2016. Much wider ships (post-Panamax) can now transit the Panama Canal.

Although full transits between the Caribbean and Pacific through the Canal are available most of the year on ships of all sizes (except the mega-ships), many people opt to take a repositioning cruise on one of the ships that is either on its way to Alaska in the late spring or returning from Alaska in the fall.

These cruises usually travel between Florida and California, stopping in the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico along the way. These same cruise itineraries are popular from October though April, and I sailed a relaxing 17-night late fall voyage from Ft. Lauderdale to San Diego on the Holland America Veendam.

Full transits are also available as part of longer voyages like world cruises, circumnavigations of South America, or other extended length journeys. For example, I cruised from Lima, Peru to Ft. Lauderdale on the Regent Seven Seas Navigator, and we transited the Canal from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Panama Canal Cruises - Partial Transits

Most of the full transit cruises through the Panama Canal take at least 11 days or more. Since many cruise travelers do not have time to take such a lengthy vacation, some cruise ships offer partial transits of the Panama Canal, usually as part of a western or southern Caribbean cruise. Ships pass through the Gatun locks, enter Gatun Lake, and then exit the same way.

Although these cruises aren't as satisfying as transiting the entire Panama Canal, they do provide a taste of what the Canal looks like, and passengers can learn about the operation of the Canal first hand.

Panama Canal Small Ship Cruise Tours

Those who enjoy small ships can also experience a full transit of the Panama Canal as part of a Panama land/cruise tour with companies like Grand Circle Travel. These combination tours feature several days touring Panama via coach in addition to a full transit through the Panama Canal on a small ship.

Since large ships do not stopover in Panama City, this is a good way to see part of the rest of this fascinating country.

New Locks Will Attract More Cruise Travelers

Even those travelers who have passed through the Panama Canal in the past might want to book another cruise that includes a Canal transit. The first major expansion project in the Panama Canal's history was completed in June 2016. This project cost over $5 billion and includes a third set of locks as well as other improvements. 

These massive new locks can accommodate much larger ships. For example, the maximum size of cargo ships in the old locks was 5,000 containers. Ships carrying 13,000/14,000 containers can pass through the new locks. 

For cruise travelers, the third set of locks will allow much larger cruise ships to use the Panama Canal.

The old locks could accommodate cruise ships up to 106 feet wide; the new locks accommodate ships up to 160 feet wide! That's quite a difference. 

Since cruise lines plan their ship deployments about two years in advance, most cruise ships currently scheduled to pass through the Canal will fit into the old locks. The first cruise post-Panamax ship scheduled for the massive new locks is the Caribbean Princess, which transits the Panama Canal on October 21, 2017.