Tips for Cruising the Panama Canal

By Jordan B, Online Vacation Center Marketing Coordinator & Designer

Connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, the Panama Canal is one of the largest artificial waterways in the world. Panama Canal cruises are offered from late August through May with the most ideal time to go being after rainy season ends in November. If crossing the Panama Canal is on your bucket list, here are some tips to ensure you make the most of your experience.

Educate Yourself

What do you know about the Panama Canal? It is likely that there will be someone narrating during the crossing over a loud speaker onboard your ship, but it’s always nice to feel prepared for new experiences. To begin, the Panama Canal was a project taken over by the United States and constructed between 1904 and 1914. Its purpose was to assist vessels in transiting from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea without having to circle South America. In 2017, the expansion of the “Neo-Panamax” Locks was officially completed—allowing the first large cruise ships to complete the crossing.

The entire Panama Canal is approximately 48 miles (77km) long. Average transit time is between 8 and 10 hours without port stops. The canal is made up of three locks—Gatun, Pedro Miguel and Miraflores—with three chambers on each side of the ocean, totaling six. By force of water, the ship will be physically raised and lowered within the locks to make the voyage.

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Weigh Your Options

How long of a cruise do you plan on taking? There are two main options to experience one of the world’s most coveted engineering marvels. If you’re looking for a shorter cruise, you might want to consider a Partial Transit. On a partial transit cruise, the ship will cross through one lock (Gatun) and make its way through the breathtaking Gatun Lake—this is also where you will turn around. Many partial transits anchor up in Gatun Lake and passengers have the option to take tenders to Panama excursions.

If you have more time to cruise and are interested in crossing the full experience off your bucket list, a Full Transit crossing is for you. Full Transit crossings pass through all three locks, sail through Gatun lake and the Culebra Cut; most full crossings are 14 days or longer.

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Pack Sensibly

Just in case! High humidity and occasional rain showers are common in Panama due to its rainforest environment and proximity to the equator. You will, of course, be able to bask under cover and in the air conditioning aboard the ship, but be sure to pack appropriately for excursions. Light rain jackets are always a good idea—and you know what they say, if you bring it, you won’t even need it! In addition, be sure to pack a hat and sunglasses—the sun exposure in Panama is relatively intense; don’t forget to hydrate!

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Plan on Waking Up Early

Do it for the views! Partial or Full Transit, if you want to make the most of your canal crossing, plan on getting a good night’s rest and rising early. Many ships have seating and open areas for standing on the bow, stern and near windows for viewing the wonders of the Panama Canal. If you are doing a Full Transit crossing, the ship will be raised and lowered by water through all three locks. Keep in mind, some of the larger ships squeeze through the canal with two feet or less on each side of the ship, so viewing from your balcony might not be the best option in this case.

If possible, it is highly recommended to check out the lock action from different angles—a lower deck will let you see the lock walls as you rise up, a stern view will let you see other vessels behind you and a higher, forward deck will give you more of a bird’s eye view.

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Be Adaptable

Cruise ships make reservations for transiting the canal, but depending on the ships ahead of you, the timing for crossings and excursions often fluctuate. Patience is also key for other modes of transportation surrounding excursions due to regular highway traffic and congestion within the city. Timing and weather are something to be considerate of and flexible for on any vacation. The ability to adapt under various unexpected circumstances will ensure a more enjoyable time for all.

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Interested in using these tips on a Panama Canal crossing? Contact a Personal Vacation Manager at 800-709-9507 for more information and availability.