When it comes to cruises, there are so many choices on the oceans and rivers of the world that simply picking a destination can be a real challenge. Some destinations, like Alaska, are seasonal, with cruises that are only scheduled for a few months out of the year. Others, like the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, can be visited practically year-round – though some months will be better than others.
If you've always wondered where to cruise and when, fear not: we've come up with a handy month-by-month list of our favourite destinations – and the best time to visit them.
With warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine, January is the perfect time to take a river cruise along the mighty Mekong. Sailing between Cambodia and Vietnam, these historic river cruises visit well-known places like Siem Reap (for Angkor Wat); Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In addition, stops are made along the way to visit small towns, floating markets, and to experience the rural ways of life in both countries. January is free from the heavy downpours that characterize the shoulder months here, and days are long and sunny. It's the perfect escape from winter.
February is ideal for a cruise through South America. Still very much summer for the Southern Hemisphere, expect warm temperatures for much of the region to make for pleasant days by the pool deck, and warm days of strolling through historic cities like Rio de Janeiro; Buenos Aires, and Santiago. For those headed to Antarctica, February sees more of the shoreline clear of the snows that blanket the region in November and December, and February tends to be ideal for whale-watching in the region.
Put this one down to timing. The vibrant tulips found in Belgium and the Netherlands are in full-bloom between March and April, and this is the only time of the year that these picturesque river cruises are offered. Typically departing roundtrip from Amsterdam, or between Amsterdam and Brussels, the main focus of these cruises is the natural beauty of the Tulip Time season. It's also the best (and only) time to visit attractions like the Keukenhof Gardens near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Even if you're not crazy about flowers, these scenic river cruises are not to be missed.
We like cruising the Caribbean in April. The crowds of the winter months are long gone, and the craziness of Spring Break is but an alcohol-fueled memory. While it's true that April doesn't offer the variety of ships and itineraries that the more common winter months do (many ships have begun to reposition by April to Europe and Alaska), let's be honest: there are still plenty of ships that make their homes in the Caribbean year-round. April is ideal in many ways for a cruise to the Caribbean. The weather is still good, hurricane season hasn't yet begun, and the islands are, for the most part, delightfully uncrowded. If you don't want to elbow your way through every port of call, consider these spring shoulder-season voyages to the Eastern and Western Caribbean.
May is a great time to sail the historic Mediterranean, for many of the same reasons we described in visiting the Caribbean in April. In the case of the Mediterranean, temperatures in May are generally quite pleasant – hot, but not stifling. The winter storms that can affect off-season Med voyages are generally gone, and the bulk of the tourist season has yet to hit the region's most popular embarkation ports: Athens, Greece; Venice, Italy; Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Barcelona, Spain. You'll find costs are lower across the board for these desirable sailings when compared with the summer months, not just for your cruise, but for your air, hotels and other incidentals, too. Why travel with the masses in the summertime if you don't have to?
Poor Bermuda. It's always forgotten, overshadowed by its close cousin, the Caribbean, and neglected in the rush to start cruising to Europe and Alaska. The fact of the matter is that June is a great time to visit Bermuda. Hurricane season isn't in full swing yet (though there have been exceptions), and seas – not to mention temperatures – from the most common departure ports of Boston; New York; and Baltimore are still very favorable.
Alaska is always hit-or-miss in terms of weather, but out of the entire season that spans from May to September, July makes for a great time to visit The Last Frontier. Every cruise line that sails to Alaska is operating at its peak in July, and you can be assured that every museum, attraction and shore excursion will be operating – weather permitting, of course. That's not always the case in the shoulder months of May and September, when some attractions may still be closed, and when ice conditions will be the most prohibitive for visiting attractions like Tracy Arm Fjord. On the downside, July is one of the most expensive months to cruise to Alaska, with premium prices for hotels and airfare. Still, there are deals to be had, even on these prime voyages.
The cruise season for much of Northern Europe is fairly short, but August is our favorite time to cruise there. In August, you can find voyages to the Baltics, the fjords of Norway, the British Isles; and even Iceland, Greenland, and expedition cruises to Arctic Svalbard. For cruises that visit more northerly latitudes, you'll be treated to a bit of dusk by the time August rolls around; much of June and July are spent within the grasp of the beautiful (but insomnia-inducing) Midnight Sun.
Come September, European-based ocean cruise ships start making their way over to North America for the winter season. This is the time to get on a transatlantic voyage – but these aren't your ordinary weeklong runs with no ports of calls. Instead, expect an eclectic mix of itineraries each September, particularly for ships departing from ports like Southampton, England; Copenhagen, Denmark and Amsterdam, Netherlands. A North Atlantic crossing might include a handful of ports in the British Isles before heading over to Iceland and Norway and, finally, Atlantic Canada, where most will include a stop in St. John's, Newfoundland or Halifax, Nova Scotia before completing their journeys in Montreal, Canada; Boston, or New York.
The Canadian Maritimes and the New England Coast have always been about fall foliage. With its tapestry of reds, oranges and yellows covering the trees and hillsides as far as the eye can see, you've got the best chance of seeing these colors in mid-to-late October. Typical voyages can operate either roundtrip from New York and Boston; or one-way between either city and Montreal, Canada.
You could argue that it's always a good time to visit Hawaii, and you'd be right. November, however, remains our favorite time of year to pay a visit to these sun-splashed islands. The main tourist rush hasn't quite begun yet (that happens in December), and plenty of cruise lines are operating voyages that explore the Hawaiian Islands, either roundtrip from Honolulu or as longer cruises between Hawaii and the mainland United States. Prices are lower than in December (particularly over the Holiday season), and you'll find that even Waikiki isn't the madhouse it can be during the dead of winter.
A river cruise along the Rhine or Danube during Europe's festive Christmas Markets season is the quintessential storybook holiday come to life. Typically in operation between November 25 and December 24, nearly every town, village and city throughout Germany, Austria, Hungary and Switzerland has a Christmas Market of some kind. Some larger cities, like Vienna, can have upwards of 12 distinct markets, each offering their own foods, beverages (spiked or not), and crafts. What's better than standing in the middle of a square in Frankfurt, sipping hot spiced Gluhwein (mulled wine) and indulging in traditional lebkuchen (gingerbread) or some bratwurst with sauerkraut? Very few things. You'll never want to battle the parking lot at the shopping mall again – trust us.
Your Travel Specialist