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BEFORE YOU CRUISE

Southern vs. Eastern Caribbean Cruise: What’s The Difference?

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You know you want to sail to the Caribbean, but do you want to take a Southern or an Eastern Caribbean cruise? 

When people think of a Caribbean cruise, Puerto Rico and Aruba typically come to mind. But it’s such a large area that most cruises don’t even scratch the surface of the dozens of cruise ports the region has to offer. 

Disney Fantasy in Tortola. (Photo courtesy of Disney Cruise Line)

Here, we will take a closer look at the Southern and Eastern parts of the Caribbean — both the differences and similarities — in an effort to help you decide which is right for your upcoming cruise. (Trust us, you’re going to want to eventually hit both, so we’re really just helping you figure out which one to do first!)

Caribbean Cruise Departure Ports

old san juan puerto rico

San Juan, Puerto Rico is not only a port of call on Eastern and Southern Caribbean cruises, but also a popular departure port.

Sailings to both the Eastern and Southern Caribbean depart from many of the same ports, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Port Canaveral in Florida, as well as Cape Liberty (New Jersey) and New York City. 

To see as much of the Southern Caribbean as you can in seven-nights, your best option is to sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico. You can also take a longer eight to 14-night cruise from Florida. 

Caribbean Cruise Itineraries

Now that we’ve got departure ports squared away, let’s discuss the actual itineraries that you’ll find for each region.

Eastern Caribbean Sailings

ruby princess

Ruby Princess in St. Thomas. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Eastern Caribbean voyages generally range in length from four to fourteen nights. This provides a wide variety of options, whether you just have a long weekend to get away or are looking for more of a bucket-list, two-week-long adventure.

Shorter Eastern Caribbean cruises often stop in destinations such as Grand Turk, the Dominican Republic, Key West, and the Bahamas. More often than not, they also include a stop at the private island or destination owned by the cruise line on which you’re sailing.

READ: Bermuda vs. Bahamas Cruises: What’s The Difference? 

Seven-night voyages tend to call in some of these destinations: the Bahamas, Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic, St. Maarten, Antigua, and Tortola. Longer voyages have more flexibility and further reach, so ports can vary depending on factors like the cruise line and specific ship. They include many of the same port stops as shorter cruises, but with more calls in a single sailing. 

Southern Caribbean Sailings

Southern Caribbean cruises range from five nights all the way up to 20+ night adventures. It’s important to mention that many (but not all) roundtrip cruises in the five to seven-night range depart from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Pointe-A-Pitre, Guadeloupe. This is simply because those cities are already in the Caribbean, therefore they are much closer to the ports and require less travel time.

So if you’re looking for a standard week-long Southern Caribbean cruise, be prepared to fly to a port to board the ship. If you’d prefer to save yourself from the hassle and expense of flying to the Caribbean, your best bet is to look at 10- to 12-night voyages departing from the mainland US, primarily Florida, although you’ll find the occasional sailings out of other areas, including New York City.

Common port calls on Southern Caribbean cruises include what are commonly referred to as “the ABC islands” (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao), St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua, St. Maarten, Grenada, Martinique, St. Thomas, the Bahamas, Grand Turk, St. Croix, and the Dominican Republic. 

Eastern vs. Southern Caribbean: Cruise Pricing

Eagle Beach in Aruba is a popular beach for cruise passengers.

When speaking in terms of price differences between the eastern and southern Caribbean, it’s only fair to compare based on price per night. If we didn’t, the eastern Caribbean would almost certainly win by default just because those voyages tend to be shorter on average than southern Caribbean ones.

Whenever you’re trying to determine which itineraries will give you the best bang for your buck, always sort by price per night on any cruise search tool if that’s an option, like the one found on Cruiseline.com.

To put it simply, cruise pricing is pretty comparable between the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. That being said, you’ll usually find a slightly larger variety of lower fares to choose from on Eastern itineraries. 

For example, as of October 2020, there are 26 Eastern Caribbean cruises and 11 Southern Caribbean cruises that cost between $40 and $70 per person, per day (not including taxes and fees). 

That demonstrates there are great fares to be had on voyages through both regions, but you’ll find a larger variety of itineraries to choose from at lower prices in the Eastern Caribbean. Just remember that most of the ports are different, and you’ll probably want to choose your cruise based on a lot of different factors — not just getting the absolute best deal. 

The good news is that one-way cruises are not very common in the Caribbean, so nearly all of these voyages are roundtrip to and from the same home port — even the most affordable ones — which makes transportation to and from your vacation a bit easier. Of course there are exceptions to this and one-off cruises. For example, in the past, Carnival Cruise Line has sailed 14-night Carnival Journey voyages between San Juan, Puerto Rico and Port Canaveral, Florida. 

It’s also possible to find great deals on seven-night Southern Caribbean sailings from San Juan — just make sure you factor in the cost of airfare.

Caribbean Beaches

St. Maarten

Maho Beach in St. Maarten is a 20-minute ride from the cruise pier.

It’s the Caribbean, so of course there are beaches to be found practically around every corner. However, you’ll soon learn that not all beaches are created equal, and that some ports have a better array of sandy stretches. It can also depend on how far from the port you’re willing to explore. Many people opt to head for the closest beach possible in order to maximize their relaxation time. But that also means you’ll be dealing with crowds, since a lot of your fellow travelers will have the exact same thought.

Popular Southern Caribbean Beaches

Beach highlights in the Southern Caribbean include:

  • Palm Beach, Aruba
  • Crane Beach, Barbados
  • Playa Cas Abao, Curaçao
  • Grand Anse Beach, Grenada
  • Pinney’s Beach, Nevis
  • Cockleshell Bay Beach, St Kitts
  • Sandy Point Beach, St. Croix

Palm Beach on Aruba regularly tops “Best Beaches” lists not only in the Caribbean, but around the world. The sand is “soft as talcum powder,” according to Frommer’s Travel Guides, as the hotels that line the beach rake the sand daily; head to the northern or southern reaches of the beach to avoid the crowds.

Playa Cas Abao on Curacao offers great snorkeling opportunities among the reefs, a more subdued atmosphere perfect for relaxing, and great amenities including bathrooms, showers and a bar with wi-fi.

Pinney’s Beach on Nevis is large — stretching about 4 miles — and is public, so there’s no cost to enter. Vendors on site will rent chairs and umbrellas, and an abundance of snack shacks ensures you won’t go hungry.

Popular Eastern Caribbean Beaches

trunk bay st. john

Trunk Bay is a popular beach for cruises who call to St. Thomas.

Beach highlights in the Eastern Caribbean include:

  • White Bay Beach, Jost Van Dyke
  • Trunk Bay, St. John
  • Maho Beach, St. Maarten
  • Governor’s Beach, Grand Turk
  • Lindquist Beach, St. Thomas

READ: Getting To Trunk Bay By Cruise Ship

White Bay Beach on Jost Van Dyke regularly makes the ‘best beaches’ lists. While Jost Van Dyke is typically only a direct stop on small luxury cruises, it’s a shore excursion option for other cruisers to visit from nearby Tortola.

In either case, you likely won’t be competing for space with 3,000 of your shipmates. Be sure to stop at the famous Soggy Bottom beach bar for a legendary Painkiller cocktail made with dark rum, cream of coconut, pineapple and orange juice, and topped off with grated Grenadian nutmeg.

Maho Beach, often called Airport Beach, sits at the end of the runway of St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport, offering jaw-dropping views of planes literally feet above your heads as they come in for a landing.

There’s a beach bar with free wifi for customers, plenty of room to spread out and, of course, the azure blue waters you expect to see in the Caribbean.

Things To Do

The twin pitons in St. Lucia are an unforgettable sight

Southern Caribbean

Beyond some of the best beaches in the world, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the Southern Caribbean. Must-see sites include Brimstone Hill Fortress in St. Kitts, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) are hot spots for snorkeling and diving, and the tram tour of Harrison’s Cave in Barbados is a highlight for many. The Tet Paul Nature Trail in St. Lucia offers incredible views and the “stairway to heaven” for a one-of-a-kind look at the pitons.

Eastern Caribbean

The Eastern Caribbean has no shortage of things to do and sights to see. St. Thomas, one of the most popular Eastern Caribbean ports, is famous for duty-free shopping, but Blackbeard’s Castle, Coral World Ocean Park, and the Pirates Treasure Museum are also worth a visit.

Tortola offers options to visit the Baths of Virgin Gorda, charter a sailboat, or explore a tree canopy. In Puerto Rico, explore Old San Juan, discover El Morro, or tour the Bacardi Rum Factory (there are three tour options, and all include a welcome drink or samples).

Best Time to Visit

It’s best to visit the Southern Caribbean, like Fort James Beach in Antigua, during the winter months… there’s still plenty of sun, but the temperatures and humidity are lower.

In all of the Caribbean, generally, the best time to visit is over the winter, when the weather tends to be less stiflingly hot and humid. Just be sure to avoid grade-school and college spring break weeks (typically March) unless you absolutely do not have a choice. Those holiday cruises will be substantially more crowded.

Even though isn’t technically in the Caribbean, Eastern cruises 0ften call on the Bahamas because of its close proximity to Florida ports. The Bahamas and the surrounding cruise line private islands can get somewhat cool there in the winter — some Bahamian islands are actually slightly north of and parallel to Miami.

If you’re wanting hot weather and bath-temperature water throughout your whole cruise, you may want to head out on an Eastern Caribbean itinerary in the spring or fall months. 

As for the Southern Caribbean, temperatures stay pretty hot all year round. Because of that, we highly recommend that you take a cruise there in the winter as we mentioned — there will be lower humidity, but the water will still be warm and comfortable.

Written by Sarah Bretz and Orlando Martinez

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