Tips for a Merry Christmas Cruise

Holiday time is around the corner and these days, the holidays seem to arrive with a fair bit of stress. Mom and Dad are still living in your hometown in Vermont (albeit they’ve downsized from the house to a one-bedroom condo), your brother has moved to Florida, your sister is living in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles, your son is finishing his overseas semester in Japan, and you’re currently in Texas. How in the world will you make the holidays work this year?

Enter the holiday cruise. It’s the perfect way to gather everyone together for the holidays. Nearly every cruise ship sailing the seven seas and the world’s rivers pulls out all the stops for special days like Hanukkah and Christmas. You’ll be pampered—cruising to either a warm, sunny island or to European towns brimming with history, charm and holiday cheer. Here’s a look at how a few ocean and river cruise lines celebrate the holiday season:

It’s all about the Kids: Disney Cruise Line

Pluto waves hello next to presents and a decorated tree on Disney Cruise Line

Disney pays special attention to the entire holiday season starting in late November with its Very Merrytime Cruises.  Each cruise begins with King Triton’s tree-lighting ceremony in the atrium lobby. Your kids will even be invited to help Disney characters light the three-deck-tall tree. Characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse lead the charge at the tropical-themed Deck the Deck Holiday Party (Disney’s rendition of Deck the Halls) with games like hula hooping, limbo under gigantic candy canes and the chance to build your own gingerbread house. Holiday storytellers are on hand to share tales about Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa and there will even be “snow flurries” for those stopping at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. Santa Claus and his team of elves will greet passengers on Christmas Day and traditional meals are served in all dining rooms.

Keeping things elegant: Seabourn Cruise Line

Cruising in elegance for Christmas on Seabourn Cruise Line

Tasteful decorations for Hanukkah and Christmas are the hallmark of holidays on board luxury cruise line, Seabourn.  You’ll see menorahs and fancifully decorated Christmas trees throughout the public areas with just about every railing festooned with evergreen garlands. The onboard restaurants knocks out guests with a dazzling gingerbread village display and Seabourn makes sure to have all of your favorite holiday treats—from chocolate Santas to candy canes to dried fruit to fresh clementines—at the ready. On Christmas Eve, elves will be busy leaving special surprises in each stateroom and Christmas Day is all about a fabulous buffet brunch complete with a yuletide log cake, eggnog, and all your other holiday favorites.

Dreaming of an Exotic Christmas: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Private Christmas Cabanas rest slightly above white sand waters throughout the caribbean near a Paul Gauguin cruise ship

How does a sun-bleached, white-sand Christmas in French Polynesia sound? Paul Gauguin Cruises can take you there. Spend the holidays exploring the postcard-perfect islands on shore excursions like hiking through the verdant rain forest of Moorea's Opunohu Valley with renowned archaeologist Mark Eddowes, swim with graceful stingrays in the turquoise waters of Bora Bora, or dive Rangiroa’s Outer Reef. The intimate m/s Paul Gauguin will dress the part with holiday garland, Christmas trees, and special chocolate displays throughout the ship. Les Gauguines, a troupe of Tahitian singers, storytellers, and dancers, will wow guests with a unique holiday performance after a decadent meal punctuated with delicacies like foie gras terrine, gravlax, pumpkin bisque, candy cane sorbet, and broiled lobster tail with a shrimp and scallop stuffing.

Traditional Winter Wonderland: European River Cruise

River cruise tour along many ports with Christmas Markets

Cruise to some of the oldest and most revered Christmas markets in Europe like those in Nuremberg, Germany, and Salzburg, Austria on a European river cruise. There will be no cheesy cover versions of traditional Christmas carols or giant inflatable Santa’s here, as Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt protects the sanctity of the holidays by banning fake wreaths and garland and ruling against gaudy décor and recorded music. More than 180 stalls are decked out for the season with tiny twinkling lights and fresh greens. Christmas trees are decorated with ornaments of all shapes and sizes, games are played and traditional holiday treats are prepared around every corner. Don’t miss the spicy glühwein (mulled wine), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and bratwurst with spicy mustard.

Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg, Austria has been enchanting visitors with the charm of its smaller, intimate Christkindlesmarkt since the 15th century. The 85 stalls are brimming with ornate Christmas decorations, old-fashioned toys, carved nutcrackers and other festive items. The setting of this beloved market—in front of Salzburg Cathedral with the snow-topped Hohensalzburg Fortress perched on a cliff above town—is just magical! And the sweet scents from the Christmas cookies and roasted chestnuts fill the air just in time to enjoy the tunes of live carolers singing traditional Christmas songs.

Many river cruise lines explore these and other markets from Thanksgiving through Christmas each year. Viking River Cruises is a popular choice as it offers 13 different itineraries that visit dozens of cities in Europe from Vienna to Cologne, Budapest to Nuremberg and even Rüdesheim—each with its own take on the Christmas market. AMA Waterways offers three itineraries focused on the markets in countries from Austria to France and Germany to Switzerland.

No matter which cruise line you choose, keep these tips in mind:

  • Get everyone in your family to commit to a holiday cruise as early as possible. The best staterooms get snapped up quickly on holiday sailings.
  • Consult with cruise advisors to book all the staterooms you need and remember that there may be special pricing offers when groups book eight or more staterooms.
  • Book your vacation during the cruise sale seasons, which typically spans January through March and one week in October. You’ll get better pricing on cruise fares as well as potential perks like upgraded staterooms, prepaid gratuities, complimentary shore excursions, or beverage packages.
  • Buy your plane tickets early as well. Airfares skyrocket when the calendar closes in on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
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