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Planning: Western Caribbean vs. Eastern Caribbean Cruise



Imagine that there are two things in life you know for certain: One is that you want to go on a cruise, and the other is that you want to go to the Caribbean. You tell a friend who happens to know a lot about traveling in general and they say, “Do you want to go on an Eastern or Western Caribbean cruise?” If you’re anything like I was not so long ago, you might look at them blankly and say, “Is there a difference?”

As it turns out, there is more than one. And while chances are you’ll have an amazing time eating great food and visiting beautiful ports no matter which you opt for, it’s worth taking the time to figure out which itinerary — Western or Eastern — is right for you.

Difference Between a Western and Eastern Caribbean Cruise

Caribbean cruise

It’s perfectly understandable that one might have questions regarding the Eastern and Western Caribbean. So let’s start with the basics. Generally speaking, the most popular itineraries to either side of the Caribbean tend to range from 7-10 nights. Both routes will include incredibly popular destinations, and both will guarantee that your feet wind up on a sandy beach.

The most popular stops on cruises bound for the Eastern Caribbean include Nassau, St. Thomas, St. Marteen and — on longer voyages — Barbados. There are, of course, other ports to be visited — including Dominica and Puerto Rico. In fact, many people — in order to spend as much time as possible island hopping, opt to sail out of Puerto Rico instead of wasting time traveling between Florida or one of the Eastern seaport ports. For others, the journey — including the sea days spent going back and forth — is just as important as the destination.

As for Western Caribbean sailings, among the most popular stops on these trips include Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Belize, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya and Cozumel.

It’s worth noting that many Western Caribbean cruises departing from ports such as Boston or New York City stop at Key West, while those heating for the Eastern Caribbean usually stop at Port Canaveral.

When Is The Best Time To Take a Caribbean Cruise?

Caribbean cruise

Both itineraries are great year-round, although you’re likely to pay more during the winter months. Why? Because of all those people looking to trade their snow-slogging boots for beach-friendly sandals! As soon as the temperatures begin dropping in the north, people began dreaming of sunny shores, making trips to the Caribbean crazy popular. And as we all learned in high school, the law of supply and demand tells us that when a whole lot of people want something, you’re going to wind up paying a premium price for it!

This means that from around late-November to early May, you’re going to see higher prices and fewer great bargains available. On the other hand, you’re also going to have amazing weather… not only because it doesn’t snow in the Caribbean (D’uh!), but also because there’s generally very little rainfall in the forecast, making just about every day a perfect one to hit the beach. (That said, even if it does rain? You’re on a beach in the Caribbean, not back home shoveling snow so… )

If there’s a less-than-awesome time to visit, it would probably be during hurricane season, which runs from around mid-May until October. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you’re going to run into rough seas if you decide to take advantage of the lower prices offered during this time of year, but it means the chances of you doing so — or at least having some wet weather — are much greater.

One thing many people don’t think of with regards to hurricane season is the impact stormy weather can have on the beaches you visit. Know that sometimes when winds whip up the water, it can result in the sandy bottoms of the sea being churned, meaning that the infamous blue waters of the area can wind up losing some of their luster. The other side-effect of choppy water is that beaches can wind up covered with much more seaweed than one might normally encounter.

No matter which Caribbean you opt for, you’re going to have a plethora of activities to choose from. If you think all the area has to offer are beaches — not that there’s anything wrong with a day spent doing nothing more intense than gazing at the ocean while sipping a drink with an umbrella in it — you’re definitely mistaken. There are a slew of fantastic shore excursions available to be booked, whether through the cruise line or a service such as

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Among Our Favorite Eastern Caribbean Cruise Excursions

Baths (photo: flickr/David Stillman 805)

  • The Baths at Virgin Gorda
    One of the most popular tourist destinations in the British Virgin Islands, this national park offers the opportunity to swim, snorkel and explore one of the most unique terrains on the planet thanks go giant granite boulders which have, over time, formed a maze of tidal pools, tunnels and caves.
  • BOSS Underwater Adventure, St. Thomas
    Think of this as scuba diving for beginners. After a 20 minute boat ride to the Buck Island National Wildlife Rescue, guests board their individual BOSS (Breathable Observation Submersible Scooter) vehicles to do some exploration. And yes, they’ll take pictures of you and your crew with your underwater camera (or sell you one on board, if you forgot yours).
  • The Butterfly Farm, St. Maarten
    La Fermes des Papillons is a gorgeous garden populated by, as you might guess, a whole lot of gorgeous winged insects. The guided tour is relatively short at only 15 minutes, but guests are welcome to explore and interact to their heart’s content.

Among Our Favorite Western Caribbean Cruise Excursions

  • Dunn’s River Falls in Ocho Rios, Jamaica
    There’s a reason this is one of the most popular tourist spots in Jamaica. Whether hiking up the 600-foot waterfall or enjoying the beach below, this is nature at its best. It’s also just a hop, skip and a jump away from an amazing zipline and bobsled experience. For more, see our our Dunn’s River Falls review.
  • Chacchoben Mayan ruins in Costa Maya
    If there’s one thing Western itineraries have over Eastern ones, it’s some of the opportunities to explore incredibly sites such as this. While these excursions involve traveling and hiking– you can’t just step off the ship and onto the grounds of a temple, after all — they offer an opportunity to walk away with something more valuable than any souvenir: a sense of having intimately experienced a long-gone culture.
  • Snorkeling in Belize
    It’s easy to find an excursion that will take you to the Barrier Reef, an awe-inspiring coral formation with an abundance of marine wildlife. Follow that up with a trip to Shark & Ray Alley for an incredible opportunity to interact with a variety of sea creatures.

Final Thoughts on Caribbean Cruises

Caribbean cruise

Clearly, both Western and Eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries have much to offer. Some think of the Eastern sailings as being a bit more sedate with their emphasis on beaches and shopping, while the Western itineraries are a little more off the beaten path and can offer more for the adventurous traveler. And that is, of course, exactly why we put together this guide… to help you decide which type of cruise is more your style.

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Ultimate Guide To Booking Your First Cruise



Booking your first cruise can be a daunting prospect. Sure, you could just randomly pick a stateroom on any old ship and you’re likely to have a decent time. However, if you do a little research to make sure you book the right stateroom on the right ship, you’re going to have the best possible vacation. But how does a first-timer know what to ask? By reading on as we look at the questions we wish we’d asked before our first cruise!

Part 1: Figuring Out What Type of Cruiser You Are

Nassau Bahamas

This might be the most important series of questions, because it will help put you on the right ship. Ask anyone in the travel industry – whether a travel agent or the president of a cruise line – and they will tell you that finding the right ship is crucial. (It’s worth noting that for the purposes of this article, we’re looking at the mainstream lines such as Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean as opposed to their smaller, more expensive offshoots like Regent or Seabourn.) Studies show that the vast majority of first-time cruisers have such a good time that they decide to take another… but that good time is dependent on them being on a ship which meets their particular vacation needs. So here are some things to ask yourself in the planning stages.

1. How laid-back do I want to be?

Finding the cruise line which you’ll be most comfortable on can, in some ways, be as easy as looking at how they market themselves. Carnival plays up on its reputation as being more laid-back by dubbing its line the “fun ships” and running ads (featuring “Chief Fun Officer” Shaquille O’Neal) suggesting you “Choose Fun.” Norwegian’s promotional materials play up their freestyle concept, which basically advocates you be as flexible as you choose to be. For example, Norwegian does not offer an official “formal night” but rather features Norwegian’s Night Out, where guests are free to dress up or not. Looking for something a bit more upscale? Princess and Holland America trend in that direction, with the former skewing a bit younger than the latter.

2. How important are “bells and whistles”?

Are you the type of person who wants to simply relax… or are you looking for some adventure? Do you want to sit and stare at the ocean… or are you afraid that without the ability to race a go-kart or jump on a surf simulator, you’ll be bored? Even within individual cruise lines, the options vary from ship to ship. For example, Norwegian Gem is a smaller, older ship where the most exciting feature is probably the rock climbing wall. But the line also has ships like Norwegian Breakaway and the upcoming Bliss on which there’s everything from freefall waterslides to laser tag and the aforementioned go-karts. The same is true of Carnival Cruise Line, where smaller ships like Sunshine offer fewer thrills than do the new Vista class ships.

3. Who do I want to cruise with?

If you’re looking for fewer kids, it’s a pretty safe bet that Disney Cruise Line is not going to be for you. Likewise, cruisers who aren’t looking for onboard go-karts, thrills, and spills are likely to gravitate toward a line’s older, smaller ships.

4. What am I willing to pay extra for?

If you’re a first-time cruiser poking around message boards, you’re going to come across the phrase “nickel-and-dime” quite a bit. This phrase is most often used by people complaining about things cruise lines charge extra for on top of the initial price. It’s important to know exactly what is – and what isn’t – included in your cruise price, especially if you are someone who is budget conscious. Don’t get excited about the fact that a ship has 30 restaurants if 24 of them charge a fee and you only want to eat in the complimentary venues.

Part 2: Narrowing Down Your Choices

Carnival trip report

With any luck, answering the above questions has helped you at least narrow your choices down to a particular cruise line. The next step is figuring out which ship you want to be on… and where you want to go. If there’s one thing we would definitely advise against, it’s making decisions simply based on price point. What good is getting a great deal if you wind up going somewhere you have no interest in on a ship that doesn’t offer you the amenities you want? That brings us to our next set of questions.

1. Where do you want to sail from?

The answer to this question will have a major impact on your final destination and ship. Why? Let’s say that New York City is the most convenient port for you, and you’d rather not fly somewhere else. Well, only a few ships sail year-round out of Manhattan’s main port (or the nearby port in Bayonne, New Jersey). If, however, you’re near (or willing to fly to) a port such as Miami or Fort Lauderdale, you’ll have far more options to choose from.

2. What size ship do you want to sail on?

Given that we are talking about the mainstream lines, this really becomes a question of “big” or “mega.” For example, Norwegian’s Jewel class ships carry around 2,500 passengers each, while their Breakaway Plus class ships ferry over 4,000 passengers. Similarly, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas welcomes over 6,000 passengers on each sailing, while Empress of the seas sails with under 2,000 passengers. As we mentioned before, the older, smaller ships tend to have fewer bells and whistles. But a first-timer wanting to get their sea legs before tackling one of the megaships might very well enjoy something a little more old-school.

3. Where do you want to go… and for how long?

Another crucial element is figuring out your itinerary. Many first-timers – worried about whether they’ll get seasick or perhaps be bored – decide to try a shorter sailing. While that’s not necessarily possibly out of all ports (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sailing of less than seven days out of Manhattan, for example), there are plenty of three and four-night options available, especially out of Florida. As for where you’ll go, statistics from the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) indicate that a majority of first-time cruisers head to the Caribbean. And this isn’t particularly surprising. After all, who doesn’t think of blue waters, white beaches, and tropical cocktails when they think of cruising? Another popular destination for first-timers: Alaska.

Part 3: Picking a Stateroom

nice sized stateroom

Answering the questions above should help you narrow down your cruise line choice and, beyond that, point you toward a ship. But this next set of questions will help with a really specific topic: What type of cabin should you book on the ship?

1. How much time do I plan to spend in the room?

For some folks, a stateroom is where they will sleep, shower, and change clothes. It’s basically a pit stop as they race about enjoying their vacation. For them, an inside or perhaps oceanview stateroom is fine. But others know they will spend quite a bit of time in their room and want something more… like a balcony on which they can sit and read, enjoy their morning coffe,e and just contemplate life. And those who figure “What the heck, let’s do it up right” can consider taking things to the next level with a suite… although warning: Most people we’ve talked to said that once you live “the suite life,” it’s tough to do a lesser category stateroom!

2. Where do I want to be… and just as important, where do I not want to be?

When it comes to stateroom selection, we have two words for you: Deck plans. Seek them out (they are easily accessible on the Web) and utilize them. If you are using a travel agent, make sure they know that you’d prefer to be in a cabin “sandwiched” between other cabins. If you’re booking the cruise yourself, take a look at the deck plans to see if there is a nightclub above you, or a theater below, or any other venue which might result in your late-night or early-morning beauty sleep being disrupted.

READ MORE: Why Stateroom Location is Important 

3. Should I expect an upgrade?

Basically… no. Longtime cruisers will wax poetic about the time they booked an inside room and got a free upgrade to a balcony but, for the most part, those days are over. Booking a stateroom in hope of being upgraded to a higher category is a foolhardy risk. This is especially true as cruise lines have begun looking at ways to monetize upgrades. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line now offers cruisers the opportunity to “bid” on available upgrades. But even those come at a risk, as you are bidding on a specific category, but have no control over the actual stateroom’s location. Translation: You could wind up in a better category, but in a stateroom that isn’t in an ideal location. At the end of the day, booking the stateroom you want is the surest way to make sure you get the stateroom you want!

Part 4: Other Questions to Consider

The above categories should help guide you toward making some of the basic decisions regarding a cruise line, a ship, and even a stateroom. Finally, let’s look at some of the other, more generic questions you should ask yourself during the planning stages. We know it seems like a lot to process, but think of it this way: You’re spending a fair amount of money on your cruise… you want to make it as special as possible, right? And if that means taking the time to do some research – whether on your own or with the help of a travel professional – that’s what you want to do… right?

1. Should I buy trip insurance?

If you ask us, this is a no-brainer… and the answer is yes, every day and twice on Sundays. Many first-time cruisers assume that this is unnecessary or even a way for someone to make more money off folks who don’t know better, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. While you hope that nothing bad will happen during your cruise, it’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. If you’re wavering even a little bit, click here for more information on why you should definitely be purchasing insurance.

2. Should I purchase a drink package?

This is one of the most-asked questions on every cruise-related message board and Facebook page, and with good reason. Drink packages are popular, but they’re also pricey. Obviously, folks want to know if they are going to get their money’s worth. Unfortunately, it’s a question each individual cruiser has to answer for themselves. The best advice we can offer is to check and see what the package offered on your cruise does and does not offer, and then think about how much of that applies to you. If you’re the kind of person who has a glass of wine at dinner and a Bloody Mary at breakfast, it’s probably not going to work out in your favor. It also might depend on how many sea vs. port days you have, and whether you plan to spend more time exploring ports or staying on board during those visits.

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READ MORE: Why I Always Buy A Drink Package

3. Do I want an early or late dinner seating?

Granted, this question is increasingly becoming unnecessary as more and more cruise lines offer their passengers flexibility when it comes to dining times. But for those who prefer traditional dining – meaning that on nights you choose to eat in the main dining room, you have an assigned table (and tablemates) at the same time each evening – there is the question of early or late seating. Some prefer an early seating so that they can do a show after dinner. Others prefer going to the early show and then doing a late dinner. There are all kinds of reasons to pick a particular dining time, from wanting to be on deck (as opposed to in the dining room ) when the sun sets to feeling as if there is less rush to a late dinner seating (as there aren’t people waiting to take your table once service is finished).

Final Thoughts

Maya Chan

Obviously, a first-time cruiser will have all kinds of other questions not covered here. But we thought this might be a good primer to get things started. And we know, it might seem daunting and like a lot of work. But here’s the funny thing: By taking the time to do it right, you’re going to have an amazing cruise… and you’ll immediately want to start planning your next one. And when you do, you’ll realize that all this “work” is actually a lot of fun. For most people, the planning actually becomes something they look forward to… in many ways becoming an “extension” of the cruise itself!



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5 Waterproof Travel Items You Cannot Forget On Your Next Cruise



The blissful view of an endless horizon, the sound of the ocean and the constant excitement of a new destination are all part of the reasons why we love cruise vacations so much. But this blissful existence can be shattered in the event of bad weather and the ruin of some of your most precious belongings. By their very nature, cruises bring you in close contact with water so it’s best to always be prepared for the worst. Thankfully, there are now many ingenious and attractive ways to weather-proof all of your packing items. Here are some of our favorite objects you shouldn’t leave land without.

Be Ready For Anything


When we think of cruises, we think of glamour and fun, not soaked-through clothes and malfunctioning electronics – and that’s the way we want to keep it! Firstly, it’s as important to know what not to pack as what is essential, and how to ensure everything will return in one piece. These are our best bets on things that can withstand even the most severe sea-dunking while offering daily usefulness.

1. Aqua Shoes

Flip flops might suffice while on deck but if you disembark and are hoping to indulge in some rock pooling or water sports then a pair of aqua shoes are an excellent all-weather option. Sturdy, light and easy to slip on, these specially designed shoes offer enhanced grip on slippery surfaces while protecting your feet from sharp rocks. What’s more, they are comfortable, quick to dry, and take up far less packing space than traditional chunky sandals.

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2. Underwater Camera

The fine sea mist that feels so refreshing on your skin in the hot sun is the same damp air that can ruin your expensive digital SLR camera. Moreover, as anyone with kids knows, you are never safe from a hefty splash when sat by the pool. For these reasons, having an underwater or water-safe camera is a great addition, meaning you can keep your high-quality shots for the safety of land and still have fun on the beach and at the pool.

3. Dive Watch

Just as you might be worried about fine jewelry tarnishing amongst the waves, so too might you be concerned about wearing your expensive watch. However, many elite brands sell models that can operate at great depths. For instance, HydroConquest models from Longines are renowned dive watches that can be submerged at depths of up to 300 meters, and are actually cheap to pick up if you know the right place to look.

4. Water-Tight Phone Case

For many of us, it has become our most treasured item, so don’t run the risk of breaking it on your first day by the pool deck! A waterproof phone case is essential when aboard a cruise ship, where your general proximity to water makes all electrical items potentially disastrous. Tough, durable and letting you move with confidence, many of these watertight pouches are large enough to let you even keep all of your belongings, not just your phone, in a safe place.

5. Water-resistant Sun Cream

It’s important to distinguish between sun creams that can withstand exposure to moisture and those that can’t, as a nasty burn could be awaiting you otherwise. Look out for labels marking the product as ‘water-resistant’ and clearly stating the period of time they can be relied upon to withstand water contact, such as 30 minutes or 60. Moreover, if you plan to be doing some scuba diving or snorkeling excursions as part of your cruise, take a look at these reef-safe sun creams that will ensure you won’t be damaging the delicate ecosystem with harsh chemical agents.

What do you take on your cruise? 

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Review: Maya Chan Costa Maya Beach Excursion



If you plan on taking a Western Caribbean cruise, there is a good chance that your ship will be stopping in Costa Maya, Mexico. Located on the Southern end of Mexico, just north of Belize, you will find the Costa Maya Cruise Port. As with any port, you’ll find that the ship offers a wide variety of excursions. (This is, after all, another way for them to make money.) But if you’re the type who doesn’t mind breaking free from the heard — and are responsible enough to get yourself back to the ship on time so as not to be left behind — the all-inclusive resort of Maya Chan might be a good fit.

The price for all-day access is $59 per adult. The price per child is $19 for those up to three years old; $39 for kids aged 3-17, and $49 for those between 8 and 17 years old. (They do offer a bit of a discount if you have a large group. To find out if you qualify, contact them directly when you’re making your plans)

And what do you get for the price of admission?

Maya Chan

  • An English-speaking Maya Chan representative who will meet you at the port
  • Round-trip transportation from the pier to the resort and back
  • Beach chairs and day beds
  • A pre-assigned, private shaded area for each party
  • An all-you-care-to-eat Mayan food bar as well as open bar
  • Free WiFi
  • Changing areas
  • Facilities
  • Kayaks and snorkel gear

It’s worth noting that for planning purposes, they request that guests make reservations in advance. Once you do, they’ll generally respond within 24 hours and request payment via Paypal.

Upon Arriving in Costa Maya 

Maya Chan

On many itineraries, Costa Maya winds up being the final port of call before the ship begins heading home. It also often ends up being a relatively short visit, with the ship both arriving and departing earlier than it does other ports. It’s not at all unusual for the all-aboard time to be around 1:30 p.m. That was the case during my recent visit, when the ship arrived at port before I was even awake, and we set sail again at 2 p.m.

The pier is Costa Maya is pretty long, so give yourself plenty of time to disembark and make your way down the pier. Once you exit the cruise terminal gates, you’ll see someone from Maya Chan waiting for you at a clearly marked tent where guests board shuttle buses. And while the resort is only about four miles away from the actual terminal, it can take almost a half hour to make the journey. Because of this, the folks at the resort makes sure to stay on top of the departure time of your ship so that they can have you on a shuttle back in plenty of time.

Welcome to Maya Chan

Maya Chan

Once we arrived at the resort, we were immediately greeted by a guide who took us on a quick tour of the property. Given that we had pre-paid before even setting foot on the ship, we were able to bypass that step and head straight for the beach. There, we were introduced to our servers and brought to the private area where we would be spending the day. There were a line of chairs and two day-beds, and the area had our name on it so we knew it was intended for us. The sun was shining, the water was sparking and it was clearly going to be a great beach day.

Food & Drinks

The food was very impressive (and gluten-free). The chef, who has been cooking authentic Mexican cuisine at Maya Chan for years, fires the grill up around 9:00 a.m. and they begin serving foot at 11:00 a.m. Trust me, by then you’ll be salivating thanks to the incredible smell of the steak, chicken, pork and fish coming from the grill.

Maya Chan

Unlike some resorts where the drinks come at an additional costs, they were included here. And this isn’t a situation where they basically limit you to a pre-made rum punch. In fact, we had quite a bit of fun getting creative with the bartender, who whipped up all kinds of frozen concoctions for us.

A Few Useful Tips About Maya Chan

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  • Get there early. Like I said before, many ships wind up having relatively short stays in Costa Maya, so you want to make the most of the time you have available at the resort. Consider getting off the ship as soon as the gangway opens. Yes, that could mean that you’re walking off the ship at sunrise, but it also means you’re sitting on the beach sipping a drink that much sooner. (Hey, you’re on vacation!)
  • Bring sunblock. The Western Caribbean sun can be brutal. Even though there are umbrellas and plenty of shaded area throughout the property, it doesn’t hurt to be protected. Especially if you plan to walk the beach or go for a swim!
  • Take advantage of what’s available. Heck, take one of the floating mats out on the water and the staff will even bring you out a drink! (Did we mention you’re on vacation?)
  • Pamper yourself. Massages are available on site for a nominal fee.
  • Bring your appetite. If you’re hungry — and you definitely will be — head for the lunch line a little bit early. They start serving at 11, and the line can get long really quick. Since most items are made-to-order, it can take a bit of time… although it’s definitely worth the wait!

Final Thoughts

I thought this was a great excursion if you’re looking to experience the authentic Costa Maya. The resort has character, friendly staff, amazing food and is far enough away from the cruise terminal that it tends not to be overly crowded, and yet doesn’t take forever to get to. It’s worth noting that like Costa Maya in general, the Maya Chan does not have the most pristine beaches. But the staff works very hard to keep it clear of sea grass so you can enjoy the property.

I’ve only been to Costa Maya a handful of times, and this is the first trip on which I’ve had a chance to experience a port day that wasn’t experiencing the area immediately around the pier. The chances I’ll be returning to Maya Chan are very high.

Read More: Carnival Magic in Costa Maya


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