Travel Tips for your Panama Canal Cruise
If you are planning to cruise the Panama Canal, be sure to read through our Travel Tips for your Panama Canal Cruise!
I continue to be amazed by this big, incredible world. The more I see, the MORE I want to see MORE!
Our most recent family trip took us cruising through the spectacular Caribbean for 10 days, with the grand prize being a front row seat through the Panama Canal. It felt like we experienced a major part of world history that day, traveling through the locks of this man-made wonder.
Until we were on our own Panama Canal cruise, we never realized how many people have the Panama Canal on their bucket lists. You could feel the excitement in the conversations heightening as we got closer each day.
If you are planning to cruise the Panama Canal, be sure to read through our Travel Tips for your Panama Canal Cruise. Besides some specific tips to better enjoy the canal, we have included some helpful tips for cruising in general and cruising with kids.
* This is a sponsored post, created in partnership with Princess Cruises.
TIPS FOR PRE-TRIP PLANNING
Have a current passport.
First things, first. Make sure you have current passports for all people traveling in your party, as this is a requirement to visit countries in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America.
Choose your itinerary.
I initially had a little anxiety about being on a ship for 10 days (our longest cruise previously had been 8 days), but by the time our final day at sea rolled around, I was wishing we had a few more days. We enjoyed this Panama Canal cruise itinerary so much!
Book your (balcony) room.
I may sound like a cruising snob here, but I don’t want to cruise unless I can enjoy a room with a balcony. The fresh air, the extra space, the just-for-you private views, the sound of the sea while you sleep with the door open…it’s a priceless addition to the cruising experience.
Book your excursions.
Before each cruise, I spend a considerable amount of time researching each port and what it has to offer. I believe that getting off the ship at each port is the only way to truly experience each location. I highly recommend booking excursions, but even if you don’t go on an excursion, many ports have at least a little shopping or dining close by that can give you a taste of the area. With a little research online, you can usually find some good tips from past visitors.
Our girls are 15 and 10, old enough to have an opinion about how we spend our time together as a family on vacation. We involved Hatti and Tessa in the whole process, which lead to more conversations and more excitement about the trip ahead.
The best advice I received for researching ports and excursions was to spend some time at CruiseCritic.com. I found many comments and opinions about various excursions that helped us decide which ones to sign up for. Be aware that some excursions can, and do, fill up. So if there are any that you know you definitely want to do, be sure to sign up in advance via your own personal Princess online account. There is also an excursions desk on the ship, with Princess personnel to help you with the excursions sign-up.
Make a packing list.
Attire: A Panama Canal cruise is definitely a warm (or should I say HOT) weather trip. We were the closest we’d ever been to the equator. Pack plenty of shorts, skirts, short-sleeve tops, tank tops, swimsuits, sandals, etc. You will be in rain forest country several times, so also take note of that if you want to pack raincoats and umbrellas. We found hats and sunglasses to be essentials. If you’re going on excursions that require alot of walking, be sure to have stable, comfortable shoes. Water shoes/sandals can also be great, as we found out when we climbed Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica. And don’t forget a couple fancier outfits for formal nights. With our 10-day cruise, there were two formal nights.
Miscellaneous: You will definitely need a good amount of sunscreen for this itinerary. And bug spray. I learned the hard way when I forgot to apply insect repellent before our Costa Rica excursion, and came away with numerous red, itchy bites. Besides the more normal electronics, you might want to think about a waterproof camera if you are partaking in water related excursions. I tucked my iPhone 7 Plus, being water resistant, into my swimsuit bottom when we climbed Dunn’s River Falls. I can’t vouch for your iPhone 7 Plus traversing an extremely wet waterfall for an hour, but mine came through beautifully. I’d be sad if we didn’t have those photos to remember this awesome excursion by. Another item that I can’t live without when I’m out exploring for the day is my travel charger.
Research the Panama Canal.
The more history you know about the Panama Canal, the more you’ll probably enjoy this itinerary. Our oldest daughter received this book by David McCullough just a few days before we left on this cruise, so we weren’t able to get through it prior to leaving – it’s a HUGE book. But we saw many copies onboard the Coral Princess, and everyone we talked to said it was a great read.
I am a map person. So I enjoyed mapping the canal out beforehand, so I had a better sense of place going in and out of the locks.
Also be sure to take in the Panama Canal lectures once onboard the ship. Princess provided alot of great information in the days prior to reaching the canal.
Research the local eats and drinks.
If I hadn’t spent some time digging around on the internet about eats at each port, we would never have enjoyed the fresh and flavorful fattoush salad in Panama or these beautiful acai bowls on the beach in Aruba. You can find these fresh fruit bowls, fresh fruit smoothies, and super tasty protein balls at Eduardo’s Beach Shack.
TIPS FOR CABIN COMFORT
From what we’ve experienced on cruises, each cabin has had one electrical plugin at the desk area and one in the bathroom. Considering all the electronics we travel with these days, that’s not much plug space. Especially when traveling with family! Imagine coming back from a day of excursions and exploring, with all your electronics needing to be charged. We’ve been traveling with this travel charger, which has three outlets and two USB ports, for the past couple years and have found it very reliable. I don’t travel anywhere without it.
Bring your music onboard.
Blake thinks I’m crazy to pack some of the things I do, but I really like having some of our own music in our room. I’ve taken a small speaker along on the past two cruises and have enjoyed every last song.
Pack a night light.
You know how it is. You have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s dark, and you’re in a strange setting. So you turn on the lights to find your way around in the bathroom, and manage to wake up those traveling with you.
So I started packing a night light in my travel bag. I plug it into the bathroom outlet in cruise cabins and hotel rooms. It’s a small luxury that I’m not about to give up any time soon.
Pack a battery powered alarm clock.
I have never been in a cabin that included a clock. And with going back and forth across time zones, and having early morning excursions, it’s just not worth counting on your phones to have the correct time displayed. I would hate to miss out on an excursion! Also, if you don’t regularly wear a watch, you might want to think about taking one with, for this same reason.
TIPS FOR CRUISING WITH KIDS
We cruised to the Panama Canal in late March/early April, while school was in session for most kids. Our kids did not complain. Their school spring break was the week before we left on the Coral Princess, and then they had 10 days of vacation on a ship in the Caribbean. Not a bad life.
This timing made for a very different dynamic as far as passengers go, though. We were among a much older and mostly retired crowd, with barely any kids onboard. But we found it to be extremely relaxing. Even the kids remarked about how they liked the more quiet sea days. (More pool space per kid!!)
Check out the daily activities.
I dare you or your kids to be bored on a cruise. We had cards and a couple small games along, but we didn’t even unpack them.
Princess Cruises does a great job with its planned activities every day. With the Princess@Sea mobile web tool, guests are able to check out the changing events and activities of each day (with no cellular or data charges!), and make a personalized list of the ones they would like to take in. This was how we noticed the basketball free throw contest one day, where our girls took home 1st and 2nd place. We also took in a couple rounds of trivia, a makeup seminar, a super talented food carving session, and so much more.
Play in the pool!
Of course, this was our kids’ favorite activity each and every day.
There’s the outdoor pool for hot, less-windy days at sea.
And we enjoyed the Sanctuary pool on the Coral Princess, protected from the winds and cooler air of the evenings.
We spent ALOT of time in this pool.
Enjoy some ice cream. (Every day!!)
The popularity of the Sanctuary pool might have something to do with the soft serve ice cream bar that was directly adjacent. (Ha!) We enjoyed our fair share – and then some – of the ice cream cones and malts.
Take in a movie under the stars.
Princess does an EXCELLENT job with this. Pool loungers are outfitted with extra padding and pillows. There are fresh blankets and bags of freshly popped popcorn. And there was a great selection of movies the entire trip, featuring new releases and old favorites. We were cruising during the Final Four, and Princess was sure to keep all the sports fans (including my own crew!) happy by showing the games on the big screen, too.
Take some time to just be quiet.
Our kids are big on reading. Whenever we needed a little extra quiet space, we headed to our cabin or the public outdoor deck that was located just a few doors down from our cabin. Located off the back of the ship, this deck was protected and quiet. The only access was through our cabin’s hallway, so I think most people didn’t even know about it. The big quiet space was heavenly! Another great space to cuddle up with a book is the ship’s library.
Make sure that mom and dad get a little time away.
For adults, the Sanctuary offers a lovely space for relaxation. Connected to the spa, and offering its own private pool, it’s a place to get away from most everyone and everything else. Blake and I enjoyed some time here after our couples massage. Ahhhhhh…
Eat your weight in pizza.
Our family had great dining experiences the entire time we were aboard the Coral Princess, but I can say without a doubt that what we ate most was pizza at Princess Pizzeria. This pizza by-the-slice was always fresh, tasty, and delish. I mean, who ever tires of pizza?!
We were on the anytime dining plan, where we didn’t have to commit to certain dining times, which I completely recommend with kids. We enjoyed quick breakfasts and lunches at Horizon Court, buffet-style, and always found their salads and fruits to be fresh and beautiful. When we had a little more time for breakfast, we liked going to the dining room. We also enjoyed beautiful meals at the ship’s specialty dining: Sabatini’s, Bayou Cafe & Steakhouse, and the Chef’s Table Experience. Princess cuisine is designed for fresh, with breads baked fresh 24-7, sauces made from scratch, and steaks aged and hand cut on board. We had a most delicious time on the Coral Princess.
Get to know the International Cafe.
Our family also frequented the International Cafe. Besides their plentiful offerings of beautiful hot and cold coffees and teas, they offered a rotating selection of freshly baked breakfast pastries (that donut above is stuffed with Nutella, a favorite amongst our family), muffins and breads (I really liked the bran muffins and banana bread), plus different salads and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Once our kids tried the grilled chicken and pineapple sandwich, they asked for one every day thereafter. This place was a casual, delicious gem.
I still wake up each morning, wishing I had just one more cappuccino from the International Cafe. I know I overdid those lovely coffee drinks. But that’s what vacation is for, right?!
TIPS FOR EXCURSIONS
I like to have things set out for the following day’s excursion. Especially when kids are involved. There always seems to be something that we can’t find…
We take at least one backpack, with bottles of water and a few snacks. You will definitely want plenty of water for this hot climate, especially if you have a long walking tour or a day filled with activities. And FYI, fresh fruits and vegetables are not allowed off and on the ship.
If you’re headed to a beach, stop by the pool the night before and grab a few towels for the following day. Set out clothing for the day. And pack hats, sunglasses, and swimsuits. We always applied sunscreen and bug spray before leaving the cabin for an excursion, and then took extra with for reapplying later.
Take along a travel charger.
I don’t know what I’d do without my travel charger. It’s always with me. For those days when I’m using my phone for its camera and social media almost continually, this charger has been a life saver. I couldn’t have been gone all day on excursions without draining my phone’s battery.
TIPS FOR VIEWING THE PANAMA CANAL
Wake up early.
Pay attention to information shared by the captain and/or crew the day before. Find out when your ship is expected to be entering the Panama Canal. And then set your alarm. You’ve traveled a long way to see this. Don’t miss out on any of it!
This was shortly after 5:00 am, early and dark. Blake and I were on the balcony, while we left the girls sleep awhile longer. When entering the Panama Canal, a special canal pilot comes aboard to navigate through the canal and its locks.
Fun fact for you. There are only two instances when the ship’s captain does not have authority over their vessel:
- when the ship is in dry dock for repairs
- when transiting the Panama Canal
Grab something to eat and/or drink and enjoy the show!
I grabbed coffees and teas at the International Cafe and brought them back to our cabin. Then we woke the girls.
Watch from the balcony.
We hung out on the balcony for awhile in our pajamas, waiting for a little more canal action. Be sure to have your TV turned on, as Princess provides live commentary throughout the transit, with lots of canal history and facts.
Move around the ship.
Then, as we entered the canal, we started moving around the ship for different views.
You’ll see something different from each side, and from the front and back. There will likely be an additional ship or two going through the locks in the other lane. Don’t miss out on walking around!
And besides walking around the ship, be sure to go up and down. Different decks will also give you different views. It was crazy how close our ship was to the canal walls. I could have touched this wall if I had really tried.
Get OFF the ship – go on an excursion!
The Coral Princess went through the locks on the Caribbean side, to anchor on Gatun Lake. From there we boarded a smaller tender boat, right from the ship, and were taken to the Panama shore.
The excursion we chose was to visit the new Agua Clara Locks – and the Gatun Locks, which we had just traveled through.
The new locks opened in 2016, built to allow larger ships through the canal. It was quite impressive to watch this 13,000-container ship navigate through the canal.
Then we were transported to the Gatun Locks, where we watched our Coral Princess head back through the locks, out to a port on the Caribbean.
It was SO COOL to watch our own ship go back through the locks. I don’t know if this timing always works out for this particular excursion, but this viewing was definitely a bonus!
I’ll be back with more from our cruise, don’t you worry. If you have any questions or comments about our Panama Canal cruise, leave them in the comments below!
Disclaimer: This trip was sponsored by Princess Cruises. Our family was extremely honored to be guests of Princess Cruises on this cruise to the Panama Canal, and we are grateful for the opportunity to share it all with you. Thank you for supporting us and the brands we so carefully choose to work with. There are affiliate links in this post. All opinions expressed are our own.