12 Panama Canal Cruise Mistakes, Do’s and Don’ts

Panama Canal Cruise Mistakes, Tips, Do's & Dont's

Sharing is caring!

If you’re going on a Panama Canal cruise for the first time, these are some potential mistakes to avoid, as they can impact your cruise.

We recently came back from our first Panama Canal cruise, and there were definitely some things that I wish I would have known before I sailed. While I did a lot of research before my cruise, there were still some things I would have done differently.

In this post I share information that you’ll want to know about the Panama Canal cruise itinerary, cruise ships and what not to forget to pack for your cruise vacation.

These Panama Canal cruise tips will help you to be better prepared and avoid potential pitfalls and common mistakes.

This post contains affiliate links which means if you click and buy that I may make a commission, at no cost to you. Please see my disclosure policy for details.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Panama Canal Cruises: What Cruise Passengers Need to Know

Panama Canal Cruise

1. Will Your Cruise Ship Be Transiting the New or Old Locks

Before we went on our Panama Canal cruise, I never looked into whether we’d be sailing through the new locks, built in 2016, or the original. I found out that this is a potential mistake.

Navigating the Panama Canal presents a choice that can significantly shape the experience: the new or old locks. The modern Agua Clara locks showcase cutting-edge engineering, while the historic Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun locks embody the canal’s rich past.

Each route offers a distinct perspective. However, most cruise travelers agree that the old locks present the most interesting experience. As the ship glides through the narrow passage, you’re practically touching the walls.

Our cruise ship sailed through the newer locks. However, for those that are interested in getting up close to the historic locks, there are shore excursions available.

Panama Canal Cruise Miraflores Locks

2. Partial vs Full Transit

While there’s no right or wrong answer, there are pros and cons of doing either the full or partial transit of the Panama Canal.

A partial Panama Canal cruise usually involves a round trip, departing from and returning to the same embarkation port, providing passengers with a condensed canal experience. On a partial transit, which is what we did, you’ll navigate through the iconic locks of the Panama Canal and into Gatun Lake. After several hours, your ship will return through the locks.

On the other hand, a full transit Panama Canal itinerary is a crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean or vice versa. It encompasses the entire canal, offering a deeper exploration of the locks, channels, and the diverse landscapes encountered along the way.

While a partial round trip cruise is a shorter time commitment, a full transit provides a more extensive and awe-inspiring journey through this iconic waterway.

Related: What to Pack for Your First Cruise (Packing List & Tips)

3. Not Being Prepared for the Day in the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Cruise

Make sure that you’re prepared for an early start on the day you cross the Panama Canal. Your cruise ship will likely have an approximate schedule or itinerary so that you can plan and follow along.

Plan your viewing spot, whether at the bow, from your balcony, or on upper decks. The bow is generally the best spot to view the cruise ship enter the locks, both early in the morning and when returning through in the later afternoon (on partial transits).

Be forewarned, these spots get busy, so plan to arrive early.

On our Panama Canal cruise, I mistakenly was under the impression that our day would be similar to an Alaska cruise glacier viewing day. Instead, there are distinct times of the day that you’ll want to be more actively viewing.

Something nice is that there is a slower pace to the day and you can take advantage of the downtime.

4. Not Learning About the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Cruise Aqua Flora locks

I admit I was guilty of not learning as much as I could about the history of the Panama Canal. Thankfully there are educational cruise talks and guest lecturers who will be onboard most cruise ships. It’s a mistake not to attend some of these talks to be better prepared and enhance your experience.

A book you may wish to read ahead of time is “The Path Between the Seas,” by historian David McCullough.

Recommended: Panama Canal book (check price & reviews on amazon here)

5. Cruise Port Mistakes

Cartagena Old Town

When it comes to shore excursion planning, be sure to research the ports of call. Be cautious about wandering off on your own and consider booking cruise line excursions or reputable tours.

Even if you’ve been on Caribbean cruises before, you may find the port areas in Central America have a less developed infrastructure and local vendors can try and take advantage of cruise travelers.

Be cautious when it comes to travel scams and tourist traps, that you can encounter in ports of call including Old Town, Cartagena.

That said, you’ll also meet many lovely local people and be able to see and experience the natural beauty, as well as wildlife, of the destinations. Don’t forget to try some of the local food when in port.

6. Forgetting to Pack these Panama Canal Cruise Essentials

Panama Canal cruises tend to be hot and humid, so it’s essential to bring the following items. On our cruise, there were many cruisers who didn’t consider the weather or the mosquitos!

Don’t forget to pack:

Related: 50+ Must-have Cruise Essentials from Amazon

7. Expecting a Caribbean Cruise Atmosphere

When talking with some fellow passengers, some people were surprised to find that a Panama Canal cruise had a quieter and more relaxed atmosphere than a typical 7 day Caribbean cruise.

Longer cruises tend to be a bit slower paced and attract a somewhat older passenger demographic. We also find that on longer cruises, people don’t stay out late every single night.

We really enjoyed the relaxed pace and chill vibe during our 12 day cruise. However, I could see how it could a surprise to those who are expecting a more party like atmosphere.

Get The Ultimate Cruise Planner

Regular price: $27 Now just $17!

8. Not Using the Cruise Ship’s Laundry Services

It can be hard to avoid overpacking for longer cruises. However, planning what to wear and using the cruise line’s laundry services can really help.

While some cruise ships have a self serve laundrette for passenger use, this isn’t the case on all cruises. Many cruise lines offer convenient laundry packages. This includes a laundry bag special which can be used once or twice during the cruise, or an unlimited laundry package.

Be sure to check out your cruise line’s laundry options so that you’re prepared before you go.

Panama Canal Frequently Asked Questions

9. Why Do Cruise Ships Go Into Gatun Lake on a Panama Canal Cruise?

Cruise ships enter Gatun Lake during a Panama Canal transit, utilizing the Gatun Locks to reach the lake’s elevation. This artificial body of water facilitates the canal crossing, aiding ships in traversing the continental divide and transitioning between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Gatun Lake’s inclusion enhances the scenic experience for passengers, showcasing the engineering brilliance of the Panama Canal.

Panama Canal Cruise Tips & Mistakes ton Avoid
Please PIN to save to Pinterest

10. When Is the Best Time to Go on a Panama Canal Cruise?

The best time to go on a Panama Canal cruise is during the dry season, which typically spans from mid-December to mid-April. During these months, the weather is more stable, with reduced chances of rainfall, providing the best conditions for a pleasant cruise and travel experience.

11. Which Side of the Cruise Ship is Best for Panama Canal Cruises?

Choosing the best side of the cruise ship for a Panama Canal cruise depends on the direction of the journey. For transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific (or vice versa), the starboard side (right side when facing forward) is often preferred by cruise passengers.

This allows passengers to have prime views of the canal’s intricate locks and operations. However, for round-trip itineraries or partial transits, either side can offer great views.

Keep in mind that you can watch from your balcony or window, but you’ll likely want to view the Panama Canal crossing from the ship’s bow or stern as well.

How Long Is a Panama Canal Cruise?

The duration of a typical Panama Canal cruise can vary, but it generally ranges from about 10 to 16 days. Shorter cruises might focus on specific regions, such as the Caribbean or Central America, while longer ones could encompass a more extensive itinerary, including both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

The actual time spent transiting the canal itself is usually a day or two, depending on whether it’s a partial or full transit.

Get The Ultimate Cruise Planner

Regular price: $27 Now just $17!

Final Thoughts

A Panama Canal cruise is one that should be on every avid cruiser’s bucket list. Whether you do a partial or full transit, go through the older or newer locks, cruise solo or with friends, you’re sure to come back with amazing memories!

Happy Cruising!


If you found this article helpful, please pass it along. Please feel free to share on Facebook or PIN to your favorite Pinterest board (share buttons at the top). Thanks so much!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.