Cruising through the Panama Canal is one of the most unique travel experiences around, offering vacationers an up close and personal look at Central America's preeminent engineering marvel. But traversing the 50-mile canal only takes an average of 8 to 10 hours, according to the Panama Canal Authority, which leaves travelers with a lot of extra time on their hands. Luckily, the journey from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean (or visa versa) is brimming with remarkable destinations to explore, from the pristine beaches of Isla Coiba to the lush rainforests of Chagres National Park.
Like any seafaring voyage, the perfect Panama Canal cruise is one that aligns with your specific travel goals. Cruise lines feature different ports of call and shore excursions, so it pays to compare all the available options before booking your trip. Most full-transit Panama Canal cruises make stops on both sides of the isthmus, allowing travelers to tour Western Caribbean locales, like the Costa Rican port of Limón and Cartagena, along with Pacific-side destinations like Puntarenas, San Juan del Sur and Acapulco, per Cruise Critic. While the peak of Panama Canal cruise season lasts from October to April, vacationers who enjoy hot weather can find affordable deals during the summer months.
International cruises are one of the most convenient and safest ways to visit exotic locations, but like any form of travel, cruising the Panama Canal does come with some potential risks. According to the most recent U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory, Panama is considered a Level 1 destination, meaning that travelers should exercise normal precautions during their trip. However, there are some regions that authorities have identified as high risk, including parts of the Mosquito Gulf and the Darién region. The good news is that cruise lines do not make stops in these areas, but passengers should still pay attention to their surrounding both on and off the ship. Here are four safety tips to keep in mind before you embark on a Panama Canal cruise:
While some cruise lines continue to operate in the Panama Canal throughout the summer, many close down in anticipation of hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th in the Atlantic and May 15th to November 30th in the Eastern Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If you choose to book a cruise during this time frame, it's important to pay close attention to any tropical storm warnings and sign up for weather alerts on a mobile device. It's unlikely that your cruise ship will be caught by a severe storm while it's at sea, but preparing for the worst can give you significant peace of mind.
Whether you're relaxing onboard or disembarking for a land-side adventure, it's important to store your expensive belongings in your cabin, including any unneeded credit cards, jewelry or high-end electronics. Nearly all cruise lines provide passengers with electronic safes, so be sure to lock up your valuables before heading off for the day. This not only minimizes the risk of theft, it can also prevent you from forgetting your personal items by the pool, on the beach or at the dinner table.
Cruise itineraries provide a wealth of shore excursions that are officially sanctioned by the cruise line, though some passengers want to explore ports of call on their own. Guided tours and activities are typically safer than self-directed outings, as cruise companies are responsible for the health and safety of their passengers during all organized events, whether they're held onboard or ashore. This accounts for why many cruise lines only work with licensed and reputable tour operators.
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service offered by the U.S. Department of State that allows you to notify U.S. embassies of your travel plans. Registering your trip can help you quickly get in contact with embassy officials in the event of an emergency, whether you're caught by a severe storm or your passport is stolen. Enrolling in STEP also signs you up for automated safety alerts that are specific to your travel destinations, ensuring you're one step ahead of any serious risks.
To learn more about vacation safety, read through some of our other useful travel tips