Guide to the Caribbean's Cruising Regions

In this article:

You can’t say the words “Caribbean cruise” without smiling, and here’s why: sugar-sand beaches, sunshine and a fascinating diversity of food, culture, language and terrain.

Cruising the Caribbean is an ideal way to see more islands in less time. The islands of the Bahamas and the Caribbean extend from 50 miles east of the Florida coast almost all the way to Venezuela in South America. To better define this vast area, cruise companies conveniently divide the Caribbean into three distinct regions: Eastern, Western and Southern. Some islands have Dutch, French or Spanish colonial influences. Over two dozen islands are part of Britain's Overseas Territories. The United States lays claim to the island of Puerto Rico, as well as to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here’s what’s where … and why you should visit.


Eastern Caribbean

What islands make up the Eastern Caribbean?

The islands of the Bahamas are not technically in the Eastern Caribbean, but a port call to Nassau is on just about every Eastern Caribbean itinerary. The Bahamas extend from 50 miles off the east coast of Florida toward the beautiful Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory, at the tip of the island chain.

Cruise ships to the Eastern Caribbean may stop at ports in the Dominican Republic; the U.S. Virgin Islands, including St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix; and the British Virgin Islands.

What type of traveler is the Eastern Caribbean perfect for?

The crystal-clear waters that surround the islands in the Eastern Caribbean attract scuba divers, snorkelers and beach bums from around the world. Don’t miss the shipwrecks and colorful coral reefs. The best part is you don’t have to purchase a shore excursion to do some snorkeling. Most of the ports have beaches close to the pier where snorkeling is easy, especially in the shallow waters.

What makes the Eastern Caribbean unique?

Unlike in the rest of the Caribbean, most cruise lines actually own private islands in the Bahamas that mirror the experience you expect from that cruise line. Each island provides something unique. Disney Cruise Line offers a 5K fun run for free on their Castaway Cay Island. Princess Cruises has great snorkeling right off the pier at their Princess Cay. And at Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay, you can relax in a clamshell lounger or choose to rent paddleboards or pedal boats for the day.

What’s a typical itinerary like?

With their close proximity to the U.S., cruises to the Eastern Caribbean can be three days, 10 days and everything in between. With a three-day cruise to the Bahamas, you will have one day at sea and one day to explore a private island or Nassau. On the other end of the spectrum there are the seven-to-ten-day cruises, during which you’ll hit up almost every island in the Eastern Caribbean.


Western Caribbean

What islands make up the Western Caribbean?

The Western Caribbean covers some of the most idyllic Caribbean ports, from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to the shores of Jamaica.

What type of traveler is the Western Caribbean perfect for?

Western Caribbean cruises offer something for thrill seekers, history buffs and beach bums. Visit Mayan ruins from cruise ports along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, or try horseback riding along the coastline. (Psst — watch out for monkeys, exotic birds and lizards.)

Considered a bit more laid-back than the Eastern Caribbean islands, the Western Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Grand Cayman are a beach-lover’s paradise. Be sure to climb a waterfall in Jamaica and feed the stingrays in Grand Cayman.

What makes the Western Caribbean unique?

Most of the ports are larger than those found in the Eastern Caribbean, so this means you will have more options when it comes to shore excursions than you would at the smaller islands, say in the Bahamas or the Eastern Caribbean.

What’s a typical itinerary like?

Departures from Miami and ports around the Gulf of Mexico — Mobile, Alabama; Galveston, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana — range in length from three- to seven-night cruises. Keep in mind that because the ports are farther apart, there is more sailing involved than port stops. Some may even include a stop at Key West. Most itineraries will include Falmouth, Montego Bay or Ocho Rios in Jamaica, and George Town in Grand Cayman.


Southern Caribbean

What islands make up the Southern Caribbean?

Starting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Southern Caribbean extends eastward into the Atlantic Ocean as far as Barbados and southwest toward Venezuela, with dozens of diverse islands in between.

What type of traveler is the Southern Caribbean perfect for?

In the Southern Caribbean you’ll find active volcanoes, rainforests and dense jungles.

In St. Lucia, you can drive right up to an active volcano. In Dominica, with its UNESCO World Heritage National Park, you’ll hike to dozens of waterfalls and freshwater lakes. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao — nicknamed the ABC islands — are 15 miles north of South America. Closer to Brazil, catch the mesmerizing rhythms of Carnival when your ship calls on the sister islands of Trinidad and Tobago in February.

What makes the Southern Caribbean unique?

While the rest of the Caribbean worries about hurricanes, Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are out of the hurricane zone. They enjoy constant breezes and perfect temperatures of 82 degrees year-round.

What’s a typical itinerary like?

Most Southern Caribbean itineraries will depart from Florida ports and sail for at least seven days, if not longer. It’s difficult to find shorter cruises to the Southern Caribbean because of the time it will take to get there. Most itineraries will include stops at Grand Turks or St. Lucia and one of the ABC islands.


Can’t decide which Caribbean cruise is for you? One solution is to book back-to-back cruises, called a “butterfly.” One week you’ll circle the Eastern Caribbean; the following week, your ship circles the Western Caribbean — like the wings of a butterfly. Bon voyage!


Are you going on a cruise?
Sign up for SailAway and receive free tips and reminders to help you prepare.
Have you booked a cruise?
Tell us when you're cruising and we'll send you everything you need to prepare.
1. Select your cruise line
2. Select your cruise ship
3. Select your departure date