14 Cruises You Should Only Take in Winter
Some destinations are best explored by boat just as snow begins falling in North America—so grab your passport and hit the high seas before spring arrives.
Costa Rica and the Panama Canal
The best time to visit Costa Rica is from mid-December to April. Why? Because it’s the dry season, making it the perfect time to explore rainforests or lounge on the beach without weather interrupting your fun. “You can hike through Manuel Antonio National Park in search of its lovely beaches and abundant animal life, soar high above the Quepos jungle floor as you zipline past monkeys and sloths, and then explore Golfo Dulce’s rainforest landscape,” says Jess Peterson, director of itinerary planning at Windstar Cruises. Because this small ship cruise line carries about 300 passengers, it’s able to access smaller ports and islands away from the typical high-season tourist crowds. Plus, you’ll take a daylight transit through the massive Panama Canal, one of the world’s most stunning feats of engineering. Check out these cruise ships with crazy cool amenities.
Norway’s Northern Lights
While this may not be the warm-weather destination you’re craving in the middle of winter, it’s absolutely the best time to see the Aurora Borealis due to the long nights above the Arctic Circle. “The eight-day cruise begins and ends in Tromso, Norway, circumnavigates the island of Senja stopping at fishing villages, passes through the Andfjorden area, and also stops on the small island of Sommaroy,” says Mary Curry, voyage product director and trip planner at Adventure Life. “There are opportunities to see the Northern Lights, whales, and Norway’s rugged coastline and fjords. Stopping in small villages, away from city lights, and going on short hikes along the coast offer excellent chances to see the glowing sky.”
European Christmas markets
If you’ve never experienced the timeless tradition of Europe’s Christmas markets, then it’s high time to join in the festivities. “With colorful market stalls offering whimsical handicrafts, a cup of hot mulled wine in hand and twinkling lights overhead, Christmas Market river cruises transport travelers to the heart of the holiday with the beauty and romance of Europe as the perfect backdrop,” says Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, a luxury river cruise line that is redefining holiday travel for those seeking Christmas magic. “We also host many seasonal traditions onboard, such as a tree-trimming party and Christmas caroling.” Learn the 15 reasons why river cruises are Europe’s best-kept secret.
Thailand and Malaysia
If humidity is not your friend, then you’ll want to visit Southeast Asia during the winter months, when the region’s climate is more temperate. “With forest-clad mountains, traditional villages, bustling cities, spread out archipelagos and coral-filled waterways, Southeast Asia is arguably best explored by boat, especially with the dry, warm weather in January,” says Darshika Jones, Intrepid Travel’s director of North America. For an immersive and authentic experience in Southeast Asia, she recommends an eight-day cruise to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia. “Between the more popular holiday destinations of Phuket and Penang, there’s a medley of smaller islands and villages to explore, each with their own charms,” she explains. “Live it up in postcard-perfect Langkawi, choose from leisure and adventure activities in beachside Ao Nang, join in the relaxed pace of local life in Koi Yao Yai, and visit waterfalls hidden in the jungle.” Each morning you’ll awake to the clear azure waters of the Andaman Sea, which you’re free to swim in right off the back of the boat.
India can be a harsh, hot climate most of the year—which is exactly why the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s India’s Golden Triangle & the Sacred Ganges itinerary is only offered October through March. “The winter months are the best time to sail the Ganges river when the weather isn’t sweltering hot, and the crowds are smaller at iconic sites,” says Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of Uniworld. “On this itinerary, guests will witness both sunrise and sunset at the Taj Mahal, venture through the Delhi spice markets, and explore the Amber Fort in Jaipur. The ship will dock in remote Indian villages like Murshidabad and Mayapur for unique cultural excursions opening guests’ eyes to local life.” Use these expert travel tips to book the right cruise for you.
Looking to escape North America’s plummeting temperatures and explore South America during its summer season? Then a 20-night cruise on the Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Explorer will allow you to truly immerse yourself in the rich culture of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Mexico. “From watching surfers effortlessly ride the roaring waves of the Pacific while enjoying typical dishes from one of the many restaurants lining San Juan Del Sur’s shoreline to walking through Santiago’s well-preserved Mayan Temples, adventure-seeking travelers will not be disappointed,” says Joseph Chabus, director of public relations for Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
On the Galapagos Islands—a province of Ecuador, located in the Pacific Ocean—winter means very warm temperatures, perfect for snorkeling with sea turtles, penguins, iguanas, and dolphins. Plus, you might even see a blue-footed booby. Sail around the islands on Quasar Expeditions’ newly renovated yachts, the M/V Evolution and the M/Y Grace (formerly owned by Princess Grace Kelly of Monaco). “During their cruise, guests spend a week getting up close and personal with the islands’ amazing animals, snorkeling, swimming, hiking, and kayaking,” says Fernando Diez, marketing director for Quasar Expeditions, which is known for incorporating the more remote sites and outer islands in their itineraries, including landings in places like Tagus Cove and Bartolome Island so travelers have access to amazing hiking trails and beaches.
Lots of people think of cruising in the spring and summer, but Tanner Callais, editor of Cruzely.com, explains that winter is actually the best time to take many of the classic Caribbean cruises. “Time it right and you can get a mix of the best prices and the best weather while avoiding the worst winter weather back at home,” he says, pointing to a 12-night cruise aboard the Celebrity Summit from Celebrity Cruises. “This cruise departs Puerto Rico and then does a sample of nearly every major island in the Eastern Caribbean. You’ll depart historic San Juan before making stops in St. Croix, Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and more. It’s a ‘who’s who’ of tropical paradise islands with pristine beaches that would normally cost a fortune to visit all on your own.”
Australia to the South Pacific
Start your winter where it’s summer—in the Land Down Under. “Some ships relocate during the southern hemisphere winter, meaning this trip isn’t available at other times of the year,” says Callais. “Plus, this cruise starts at just $1,100 per person for an interior cabin if you sail in January, which means you can visit some of the most beautiful spots in the world for less than $100 a day.” On the two-week trip that leaves from Sydney, you’ll have eight different ports of call, stopping in remote island outposts in New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Many of the spots are places that few people have ever heard of—such as Ile Des Pins, Tadine, and Noumea—much less visited. “They share that idyllic South Pacific landscape of electric blue water, white sand beaches, and green tropical lushness,” says Callais. “Imagine the Caribbean, but still largely unspoiled by development due to its remote location.” Be sure to arrive in Australia well ahead of your cruise, so you can explore the continent before setting sail—here’s a guide to the most popular destinations in Australia.
If you’ve been itching to start a new tradition for celebrating the holidays, then Rio de Janeiro might be just the spice you’re looking to add to your life. When it’s winter in the United States, it’s summer in South America, and Brazil is the place to be. The 15-night New Year’s Eve in Rio Voyage on Azamara Club Cruises begins in Buenos Aires and sails to Paraty, where guests will have the opportunity to tour the Cachaça distillery, home to the national liquor of Brazil. You’ll also see Christ the Redeemer—the cultural icon of Brazil. “In order to allow our guests to dive deeper into Rio, we made sure this trip provided an overnight in Rio,” says Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara. “Travelers can partake in shore excursions during the day, such as a cooking class to learn how to make Mocqueca—a savory seafood stew that has been passed down for generations—or drive through the Tijuca Rainforest, the largest city rainforest in the world. They’ll also experience the night events of Copacabana Beach, known as the official party and celebration headquarter for New Year’s Eve in Brazil, to ring in 2019 with fireworks.” Don’t miss these things cruise lines won’t tell you.
Myanmar (formerly Burma)
One of the world’s last uncharted seas, Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago comprises 800 islands, atolls, and coral reefs in the Andaman Sea off southern Burma. “Because of the monsoon season between May and October, the seas are rough—sailing is therefore restricted to a period of cool dry season between November 1 and April 30,” says Eric Poepper, operations director with Burma Boating. “This is a family-friendly cruise, but better for the intrepid traveler due to the mystique and lack of infrastructure.” Electricity and Internet at the port are variable, and, in general, Myanmar infrastructure is about 30 years behind that of neighboring Thailand. What else is in Myanmar? Bagan, one of the richest archeological sites in Asia—it’s one of the 15 natural wonders you’ve never heard of.
Think the Mediterranean is only for summer? Think again. David Yeskel, aka The Cruise Guru, says that sailing the region’s shores during the off-season offers several benefits that beat traveling during high season. “Over-tourism is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than during mid-summer in busy ports like Barcelona and Venice,” he says. “Although most U.S.-based cruise lines pull back their Mediterranean capacity completely during the winter months, European-based operators MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises maintain a year-round presence. Plus, their onboard experience reflects the local culture, which is a boon to travelers seeking a more immersive, authentic European experience.” So, enjoy the cooler temperatures while touring archaeological sites and the extra elbow room at popular museums and attractions. Keep your camera ready, so you can capture one of these 15 breathtaking views you can only get on a Mediterranean cruise.
South Pacific: Tahiti through French Polynesia
Take a break from your winter blues by exploring exotic locations in the South Pacific. “It’s best to travel to the South Pacific during this time as it is their summer —temperatures are at their highest,” says James Rodriguez, executive vice president of Oceania Cruises. “This is also a perfect time to cruise and one of the only times per year guests can get to these destinations.” Guests will experience some of Tahiti’s national treasures such as the Papara Surf black sand beach and catamaran cruises through the crystal clear waters. While in Moorea, guests can snorkel in the shallow waters on an uninhabited island nearby. Guests looking for more adventure will find their thrill in Bora Bora, where island-exploring ATV rides and survivor challenges are available. Find out the best cruise for every type of traveler.
Yearning for penguins and icebergs? Thanks to opposite seasons in the southern hemisphere, winter is the only time of the year to cross Antarctica off your bucket list. “The cruises all leave from southern South America and visit various spots in Antarctica, usually along the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Mero Geesey, owner of adventure travel company Carpe Mundo and former Travel Insider for American Express. “Itineraries vary based on the trip and the conditions, but travelers can expect to see an incredible amount of wildlife, such as whales, seals, and penguins, and will visit a variety of scenic landing spots. It will still feel like a winter wonderland with all the snow, icebergs, and glaciers, but with usually moderate weather.” Because Antarctica cruises are pricey, Mundo says you’ll find significant discounts by booking far in advance or at the last minute. He recommends booking with Quark Expeditions due to their more reasonable prices, departure date options, and because they are one of the companies that makes it easier for solo travelers without a single supplement — plus, passengers have the option to camp overnight in Antarctica and go kayaking or paddleboarding, which are really exciting ways to experience Antarctica that other companies don’t offer. Next, learn what to pack for a cruise—and the things not to bring.