Transcanal Cruises: Sailing Through the Panama Canal

A transcanal cruise is any cruise that traverses a canal, just as a transatlantic cruise is any cruise that traverses the Atlantic. However, in the world of cruising, a transcanal cruise has a more precise meaning, as it generally refers to a cruise through the Panama Canal in particular. Transcanal cruises are a great way to see a lot of the world in a short amount of time and they have become quite popular, so we wanted to explain the basics of these cruises to anyone interested in taking one. What exactly does a transcanal cruise involve, and what are some transcanal cruising options?

We begin with a brief history lesson. (For a more thorough history lesson, check out David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas.) The Panama Canal is one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. Its importance as a shipping route and its overall impact on global trade are hard to overstate. Before the construction of the canal, ships had to navigate the jungle rivers that wind through the Isthmus of Panama, which was both difficult and limited the size of ships that could pass through the winding passageway. The Panama Canal cut right through the isthmus, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean with the maritime equivalent of a freeway. In 1881, France began work on the canal, but due to engineering problems and a workforce depleted by disease, they had to abandon the project. The U.S. took up the project in 1904 and completed it in 10 years; the world of trade has never been the same.

Although the Panama Canal is first and foremost a route for shipping, its creation also made transcanal cruises possible, and it is the transcanal cruises that we are primarily interested in. A number of cruise lines both large and small offer transcanal cruises, and these cruises take many forms. The traditional transcanal cruise, and really the only cruise that can properly be called transcanal, goes entirely through the Canal. This voyage can start from either the west or east side of the Canal and takes a day. If you start from the west side, you’ll likely be taking a cruise from California or potentially from the Northwest (i.e., the ports of Seattle or Vancouver). If you leave from the east side of the Canal, you’ll be coming from either Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Both major cruise lines (e.g., Princess and Holland America) and smaller luxury lines (e.g., Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas) offer these types of voyages. The cruises that go through the entire Canal are repositioning cruises because they start in one destination and end in another, requiring cruisers to take a one-way flight either before or after the cruise (to get home or to get to port).

Again, only a cruise that goes through the entire Panama Canal is technically a transcanal cruise. Cruises that go through part of the Canal and turn around, or cruises that merely go near the entrance of the Canal, are cruises to the Panama Canal, or Panama Canal cruises. (Princess, for example, offers a lot of 11-day cruises from Fort Lauderdale that don’t go all the way through the canal.) Obviously, these are somewhat loose terms – a transcanal cruise is sometimes marketed as a “Panama Canal cruise,” for instance. However, it would be unusual and misleading to apply the name “transcanal cruise” to anything but a cruise that goes through entire Canal.

To conclude, transcanal cruises are exactly what their name implies: cruises through a canal. In the cruise industry, the “canal” part of “transcanal” refers to the Panama Canal, so we limited our discussion accordingly. If you have any interest in booking a transcanal cruise, there are plenty of options out there. Just keep in mind that you’ll be beginning the cruise far away from where it ends, so you’ll need to figure out how to get back to where you need to go, which will influence whether you approach the cruise from the Pacific or Atlantic.

*Photo Credit: Stan Shebs / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Transcanal Cruise

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