It's one of the most common cruising questions: When is the best time to cruise Alaska (or the Caribbean, Canada/New England, Hawaii or Europe)?
The answer depends on many variables. Fall foliage enthusiasts, for instance, will find September and October the best time to take that Canada/New England cruise, whereas water sports-lovers (and families) much prefer to sail the region in the summer when school is out and temperatures are warm for swimming. The best time to cruise to Alaska will vary depending on your preferences for viewing wildlife, fishing, bargain-shopping, sunshine, warm weather and catching the northern lights.
The first step is to consider the factors that influence your timing. Do you need to schedule around school breaks - or want to avoid kids? Is a holiday week the best time for your cruise? Is your main goal to escape frigid temperatures at home? Or maybe you have lots of flexibility (or a tight budget) and don't mind making a few tradeoffs in timing for a steal on a cabin. Your answers will influence which sailing season is your best bet.
For most cruise regions, there are periods of peak demand (high season), moderate demand (shoulder season) and low demand (low season). Not so long ago, high season tended to be when the weather was best in a particular area (and when all the Northerners flocked to the sun). But as more and more families take to cruising, the summer months have become a peak-demand period, regardless of the weather (at home or in the region). Families especially need to book high-season sailings as early as possible because some cruise lines limit the total number of children per sailing, and each ship has a limited number of cabins that can accommodate three or more people.
Slow and shoulder seasons yield the most bargain opportunities in year-round destinations. In places like Alaska and Bermuda, where you have a five- or six-month sailing season, the off-season is a few weeks after cruises begin and before they end. For regions like the Panama Canal and Northern Europe, almost all sailings are priced "in season."
The following is a list of cruising regions and the best time to cruise them.
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High Season: June through August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Temperatures are at their warmest (highs: 50s to 70s Fahrenheit), plus the further into the summer you are, the better your chances of seeing wildlife on the various expeditions. The downside: Demand is so strong, you need to book months (better yet, a year) in advance to get the best land and tour packages. Keep in mind, with so many ships sailing Alaska now, there can be a tremendous amount of congestion in small-town ports.
To minimize joining the masses, select a ship that sails during the week. For a pricing advantage, northbound glacier routes tend to be cheaper than southbound.
Low Season: May and September
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Shoulder-season perks include smaller crowds and cheaper prices as a result of the weather gamble (highs: 50s to 60s) and the possibility of snow. May sailings typically encounter less rain than summer cruises, and the scenery is arguably more beautiful with more snow-capped mountains; September cruisers benefit from end-of-season souvenir bargains and a possibility of catching the northern lights. A few caveats: Shore excursions have a greater chance of being canceled than in high season, especially boat and helicopter tours. In addition, Denali National Park has been known to close in September due to snow.
High Season: Late November to March
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: More lines are bringing their ships to Oz, offering cruises both within the region and as part of larger South Pacific and world sailings. Winter in North America is summer in Australia, so expect near-perfect conditions in major ports of call like Sydney, Adelaide and Perth on the western side and a sub-tropical climate in the northeast Queensland region. It's also typhoon season, however, which may affect some ports of call (such as Brisbane and Cairns) and lead to some rough sailing waters. Aussies often vacation between late December and late January, so expect big crowds and jammed ports during that time.
Low/Shoulder Season: May through September
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: While Australia's climate varies widely, winter temperatures are rarely extreme; crowds are fewer, and there are bargains to be had, especially on larger ships and Great Barrier Reef cruises that are available year-round. The downside: Expedition cruises and sailings to Tasmania are often limited during the rainier months of June, July and August.
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: You get to pick from a wider selection of ships (and from a variety of East Coast homeports), all at a convenient time to vacation from work and school. Plus, water temperatures are ideal for swimming, sailing and other sports. Children can find fellow playmates onboard during this family-friendly season, while those craving a more adult-oriented voyage might want to select a ship that doesn't cater to kids. The tradeoff: Expect steamier temps and more crowded ships than you'd find in the slower months.
Low/Shoulder Season: April and May; September and October
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: Humidity-haters will love the much milder temperatures and breezy weather; however, there are a few weather trends to note. While Bermuda does not have a month besieged by rain, October tends to be its rainiest. And, Bermuda's big weather caveat: Hurricane season traditionally affects the island at least once a year between late August and October. Whereas in the Caribbean, a hurricane threat will have you substituting an island or two, here your Bermuda cruise can turn into a jaunt to Canada/New England or the Bahamas. If your heart is set on Bermuda, May is your best bet for shoulder-season travel.
High Season: September and October
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: Can you say fall foliage? This time of year fetches high prices on land and sea for quintessential autumn in New England. You can see the leaves at various stages of color as you cruise up the East Coast to Canada, plus the cooler temperatures make for nice strolling about in the various port cities. And, since most children are back in school, you can enjoy a slightly quieter cruise. Just be careful of October cruises, when the temperatures can start getting quite chilly, especially the farther north you travel.
Low/Shoulder Season: May to August
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in the Off Season: The excellent summer weather makes touring the Canadian towns especially nice. (Highs hover in the low 70s, as opposed to the 50s in the fall.) It's also the best time for water sports enthusiasts and families, thanks to warm temperatures in the water and out. Carnival and Holland America are good bets for off-season sailings.
High Season: Late June through August; Christmas and New Year's weeks; February to mid-April
Quirks & Perks of Sailing in Season: The two main groups of cruisers sailing in the peak season are families off from school and Northerners seeking a respite from the cold. School holidays are a great time to sail with kids - children's programs are in full swing and they're available even on lines that don't normally cater to kids. Plus, it's easy for children to make friends onboard.