Sailing through the Panama Canal makes for a cruise itinerary like none other. For one thing, passengers on board get to witness the mechanics and science of an engineering marvel that’s been deemed one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. And by the end of the day, they’ll have crossed from one ocean to another — truly an amazing feat.
But since a Panama Canal cruise is unique, you’ll encounter some logistical considerations that you won’t on other itineraries — including the fact that your debarkation and embarkation ports might be different.
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Here are some Panama Canal cruise tips to help you plan and get the most out of this bucket list experience.
Understand the two main itinerary options before you book
Panama Canal cruises come in two flavors: full transits and partial transits.
On a full-transit Panama Canal cruise, the ship enters the first set of locks (usually from the Atlantic Ocean side, as most cruises originate from there or the Caribbean). It then travels through Gatun Lake and the other sets of locks to exit the canal on the Pacific side.
Partial transits often originate in Florida or the Caribbean, enter the canal at Limon Bay and travel 7 miles to the Gatun Locks. They then turn around at Gatun Lake, heading back to Colon and continuing on the itinerary.
There are pros and cons to both options. A full transit allows you to experience the entire canal and all the locks. But while it’s fun to start at one location and finish at a completely different destination, purchasing two one-way plane tickets per person can be pricier compared to round-trip fares for a cruise that embarks and debarks from the same location.
The partial Panama Canal experience isn’t much shorter than a full crossing, but you’ll experience the Caribbean-side locks twice and miss out on the Pacific side. On the flip side, the ship will often sail round-trip from Florida, allowing passengers to enjoy various Caribbean ports before and after the transit. Passengers can purchase round-trip airfare or even drive to their departure port, which can be cheaper and logically easier than ending up on the opposite coast than you set out from.
Regardless of transit type, keep in mind that Panama Canal cruises can be longer-than-average sailings. Most cruises shorter than two weeks are one-way sailings, often beginning or ending in Panama. The shortest sailings are predominantly offered by small ships, and they begin and end in Central America. The shortest round-trip Fort Lauderdale partial transits are 11 nights; full transits that start on the U.S. East Coast and end on the West Coast (or vice versa) will be at least 14 days long.
Even if the canal transit is what you’re cruising for, don’t forget to check out the rest of the stops on the itinerary. You’ll want to consider whether you’re more interested in Caribbean islands or Central and South American destinations.
Be prepared for the crossing to take the entire day
A full transit of the Panama Canal involves passing through six sets of locks, crossing an entire lake and contending with other marine traffic waiting to go through the lock system one at a time. It can take a cruise ship 10 hours or so to cover the 48 miles from the Caribbean to the Pacific.
And even though the crossing is fascinating, let’s be honest — it can also be tedious. Ships and passengers spend much time waiting, and 40 ships pass through the canal each day. Since they all line up in Limon Bay to wait their turn, you may be docked there the entire night and start the crossing early morning; you might even be lined up ready to go and still need to wait part of the day.
Once you begin, you’ll travel 5 miles from the bay to the canal, then nearly 2 miles to the three-stage Gatun Locks; it can take more than two hours to lift your ship around 85 feet above sea level to the level of Gatun Lake — the equivalent of a 10-story building. Sailing through the artificial lake formed by the dam lasts around four hours. This is a good time to grab lunch, take a dip in the pool or just relax for a bit.
After that, you’ll traverse the Chagres River, then sail 8 miles through the Culebra Cut. The initial descent starts at the single-stage Pedro Miguel Lock, which lowers the ship 31 feet. After passing a mile through Miraflores Lake, you’ll reach the two-stage Miraflores Locks, which will descend the ship the last 54 feet back to sea level. The final step is sailing 8 miles to go under the Bridge of the Americas and finally reach the Pacific Ocean.
Stake out a spot early
Don’t miss your ship’s information session the evening before the crossing so that you can learn more about the process and find out when your ship is scheduled to begin its transit. Don’t be surprised if people start grabbing spots in the predawn hours in the best viewing areas. If you want a front-row view of the action, you’ll probably have to do the same.
Obviously, a forward location on the ship will give you a clear vantage point as you head into the locks. If possible, find a seat inside a lounge or viewing area that also has a balcony or deck right outside; that way, you’ll be able to get out of the sun and cool off in the air conditioning from time to time (and still be able to pop out and take photos and videos of the different steps in the process).
Keep in mind that die-hard canal lovers will stand on deck the entire time, blocking the view from inside, so be prepared to move around.
Since the crossing does take a while, especially sailing across Gatun Lake, you might find it fun to watch it from a different vantage point from time to time. You can enjoy views from a hot tub on one of the decks, from your table at lunch or even from a deck that’s aft, so you can see the locks after you leave them instead of when you arrive.
Unless you have a companion to save you a spot, know that you will give up your original seat if you choose to move to another area for a different perspective.
Keep your eye out for key moments
You’ll definitely want to watch for the following things during the transit:
- The lock or miter gates slowly swing open and close like double doors. (Fun fact: Their lower halves are hollow and watertight, making them buoyant and decreasing their workload.)
- Crew members in rowboats attach ropes to the sides of the ship and to the mules; the electric locomotives on railroad tracks on each side of the lock help maneuver the ship and keep it centered. This is extremely important as the clearance on either side can be shockingly small.
- Megaships pass through the parallel expansion locks that opened in 2016 to accommodate vessels that couldn’t fit through the original locks.
While passing through Gatun Lake, you’ll be amazed at how wide it is in spots. At 180 square miles, it was the world’s largest artificial lake at the time it was constructed. Don’t miss the Culebra Cut, an artificial valley through the Continental Divide made by cutting through the Culebra Mountains; it’s recognizable by the staked, stepped cuts.
You can also spot spectators sitting in the grandstands at Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side and on the balcony at the Miraflores Visitor Center on the Pacific side. The latter will wave and cheer you on since the more infrequent sight of a passenger ship with lots of people onboard is infinitely more exciting than the many cargo ships that sail through each day.
Protect yourself from the sun
While it’s enthralling to stand on the deck, watch the locks fill with water and the ship imperceptibly rise, remember that sun reflects off the water. You might have a false sense of security that just because you’re wearing street clothes instead of sitting by the pool in a bathing suit, your exposure is minimal.
Wear a hat and long-sleeved clothes if you can, apply sunscreen before heading out on deck — and reapply often — and drink plenty of water all day.
Glean info and facts from the guide on board
Passenger ships will usually invite a local guide on board to provide a running commentary of what’s happening all day; usually, their narration is piped through the ship’s intercom.
You’ll undoubtedly learn many fascinating factoids about the construction of the Panama Canal and the steps needed to cross it. This starts with the fact that the captain of the ship has to relinquish control to a Panama Canal official who is in charge of navigating the vessel through the canal the entire day.
The guide will have downtime during certain parts of the day, so feel free to ask questions then.
Look for the livestream camera
As you approach the Miraflores Locks, the last set of locks before reaching the Pacific Ocean, there is a live stream webcam by the Visitor Center. It’s often slow, refreshing only every five or 10 seconds, but it can still be fun to text or call friends and family and have them look for you.
Take the ultimate Panama Canal cruise selfie
Originally known as the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, the Bridge of the Americas connects North and South America and serves as the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. After traveling through the Miraflores Locks, which allow the ship to finish the descent to sea level, you have 8 miles to find a spot on deck, grab a flute of Champagne and get your phone or camera ready.
You’ll first see the skyscrapers of Balboa on the port side, then eventually the Bridge of the Americas will come into view. Take some photos and video as you go underneath it; if it’s too crowded with passengers jockeying for position, head aft on the ship and snap some after you pass under it.
Make time for the visitor center but manage expectations
If you are doing a full transit through to the Pacific Ocean side and you’re staying in the area, you might want to carve out some time for the Miraflores Visitor Center. However, as of press time, the four exhibition halls that portray the canal’s history, construction, biodiversity and importance are temporarily closed for renovations.
A trip is still worth it for the excellent 3D IMAX film narrated by Morgan Freeman, which does a great job explaining the trials, tribulations and perils of building this awe-inspiring feat. You can also stand on the ground-level terrace or grab a seat in the bleachers on the first level to watch ships pass through the final set of locks; sometimes, a staff member is on hand to provide commentary.
Hit the gift shop on the way out for a hat, T-shirt or another souvenir to mark the day you traveled in 10 hours from one ocean to another.
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