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Best Caribbean cruise tips to help you make the most of your time aboard and ashore

June 29, 2022
11 min read
Man riding jet ski in front of cruise ship
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Ah, the Caribbean — land of endless sun, sand and sea. But the region is so much more than this intoxicating siren song. With 700 islands, islets and cays and a heady variety of cultures, it offers as many experiences and activities as flowers in a tropical garden.

A Caribbean cruise is a great way to dip your toes into these bathtub-warm waters, especially for first-time cruisers interested in short three- or four-night cruises. Standard itineraries typically range from five to 15 nights, depending on the destinations. A cruise is also the best way to island hop and sample multiple destinations on one trip (bucket list, anyone?).

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But with so many choices, it’s best to be prepared so you make the most of your time aboard and ashore. Here are some insider tips to guide you.

(Photo by Sergio Pitamitz/Getty Images)

Prepare yourself for the tropical climate

Despite a tropical climate all year round, the Caribbean does have slight seasonal changes. The best time to cruise to the Caribbean is during the drier, cooler months of November to May, when the temperatures are in the comfortable 70s and low 80s.

From May through October, highs can reach the 90s, though those famous trade winds blow all year round. Scattered downpours — known locally as “liquid sunshine” — are common during the wetter months of July to November, but they pass quickly.

When the heat is intense, make sure to stay well hydrated. If you’re particularly sensitive to heat, choose Caribbean cruise excursions that avoid it such as an air-conditioned bus tour, an indoor shopping foray or experiences in the water.

Beware of hurricane season

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June through November, with the majority of storms occurring in August and September. If you’re concerned about cancellations, skipped ports or rough weather, avoid the peak hurricane months. On the flip side, you can often score some discounted pricing, which is common at this time of year.

While hurricane prediction is not an exact science, modern storm tracking usually allows ships to re-route to avoid bad weather. You may still run into rougher-than-usual waters, but it’s rare for a cruise to be canceled entirely.

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Related: Caribbean cruise guide: Best itineraries, planning tips and things to do

In the process of dodging a storm, however, your cruise may skip some port calls. You’ll need to be flexible about unexpected itinerary changes. When that happens, cruise lines sometimes compensate passengers with complimentary or discounted services on board.

If you do book a Caribbean cruise during hurricane season, consider buying travel insurance in case a storm disrupts your trip. If you book any shore excursions with a third party, make sure the company offers a refund if your ship misses the port.

Finally, if you want to avoid hurricanes altogether, look at cruises that sail to the southernmost islands outside the “hurricane belt.” They include Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Curacao, Trinidad and Tobago.

Make sure you bring reef-safe sunscreen

The Caribbean sun is intense. The closer you get to the equator, the greater your UV radiation exposure will be, even in December and January. During the summer months of June and July, your skin can burn in as little as 10 minutes. Be sure to pack plenty of reef-safe sunscreen and reapply it liberally, especially after swimming.

Studies have shown that ingredients found in some sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, can harm coral reefs, especially in popular tourism areas such as the Caribbean. To help protect the delicate reefs while you’re in the water, avoid products with those chemicals. Instead, use sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are considered safe around coral reefs.

Related: Caribbean cruise packing list: What to pack for a tropical sailing

Choose the right Caribbean region for your cruise

The Caribbean is divided into three main cruise regions: Eastern, Western and Southern. While all three have some similar features, each group of islands has its own characteristics.

The Western Caribbean consists of Grand Cayman and Jamaica, as well as ports in Mexico (Cozumel, Costa Maya) and Central America (Belize City, Roatan). This Caribbean cruise region is ideal for those who want to visit fewer ports and are especially interested in Mayan culture and diving.

The Eastern Caribbean encompasses the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix), the British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda), St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Guadeloupe. It’s great for shopping enthusiasts and beach connoisseurs.

The Southern Caribbean includes Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad. Less visited than the more-accessible northerly regions, the Southern Caribbean is for those who can take longer cruises and want to experience new ports of call.

Related: The best Caribbean cruises for every type of traveler

Pick a ship with lots of pools and alfresco restaurants

Enjoying the tropical climate, especially during the harsh North American winter, is what a Caribbean cruise is all about. To increase your opportunities of doing that on board, choose a cruise ship with multiple pools and alfresco eateries to maximize your time outdoors. More options may help you find an empty poolside lounge and avoid waiting for an outdoor meal.

Book a balcony cabin for private time under the sun

Sometimes you just want to enjoy the tropical sun in private. In that case, there’s nothing like sitting on your own balcony, away from the ship’s poolside crowds and packed outdoor lounge areas. It’s also magical for watching the sun slip into the horizon with nobody else around.

(Photo by Jeff R Clow/Getty Images)

Find an intimate beach

Pocket beaches and intimate coves are among the prized secrets of the Caribbean. While most passengers beeline for the popular show-off strands, seek out a less-visited stretch of sand for a more intimate experience. Ask a local for a recommendation and take a taxi or ride-hailing service there. Who knows — you may even have a gorgeous little spot all to yourself.

Get out in nature

Yes, you’ll want to bask on a beautiful beach, fringed with swaying palms and Windex-blue waters. But don’t forgo the Caribbean’s other natural attractions: jungle-swathed volcanoes and lush rainforests, gushing waterfalls and mangrove reserves, bioluminescent bays and rugged deserts with sand dunes.

You can hike along a wooded trail deep in the rainforest. Visit a botanical garden or nature preserve, teeming with exotic plants and flowers. Climb a volcanic mountain. Watch whales or birds. Bathe in a gushing cascade. Kayak in a lagoon. Explore a cave laced with stalactites and stalagmites. Go ATV off-roading or ziplining high above the forest canopy. Or take the ocean plunge with watersports from snorkeling and diving to sailing and jet skiing.

Related: Shore excursions: What new cruisers need to know

Delve into island culture and heritage

When you’re ready to skip the beach and the Crayola-colored landscape, consider some cultural enrichment. The islands boast fascinating plantation great houses, forts, museums and historic neighborhoods, which include 16 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites spread across nine islands. Many are the legacy of the colonial powers that once ruled these parts.

For insights into the area's colonial past, visit centuries-old plantation houses on Barbados and Jamaica or the massive stone fortresses at La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico, or Brimstone Hill on St. Kitts. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan or colonial Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, the oldest city in the New World. Admire the 17th-century Dutch architecture of Willemstad, Curacao. You can even check out the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton in a Georgian house on tiny Nevis.

Meanwhile, excellent museums in the Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad display contemporary art by local artists.

Eat and drink local

There’s no greater entree into the culture than food. Caribbean cuisine is a tantalizing, multifaceted stew of the many peoples and traditions that have shaped the region: indigenous, West African, Spanish, French, British, Dutch and East Indian.

The result is a mouthwatering gastronomy bursting with flavor as intense as the tropical sun. Tempt your taste buds with mouth-searing hot sauces, aromatic marinades and fiery spice rubs. Or sample a cornucopia of exotic tropical ingredients — ackee, breadfruit, carambola, Caribbean yams, cassava, guava, pigeon peas and plantain — in restaurants, food shacks and colorful markets on every island.

Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining

During port visits, be sure to taste the local dishes, such as ubiquitous dried and salted cod in everything from Jamaican ackee and saltfish to Barbadian codfish cakes to cod fritters, called accras de morue in the French West Indies and bacalaitos in Puerto Rico. Try jerk chicken in Jamaica, conch fritters in the Bahamas and rice and peas flavored with unsweetened coconut milk most anywhere.

Sample Creole specialties in the French islands, such as boudin noir (blood sausage) and crabes farcis (stuffed crabs). Tuck into chicken or goat curry, India’s popular contribution to menus regionwide, and feast on Caribbean spiny lobster, freshly grilled seaside.

Wash down your meals with the Caribbean’s quintessential drink: rum. Or better still, go rum tasting in distilleries with their own signature brands in the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico and St. Maarten.

Go during a festival

West Indians know how to party, and they let loose at festivals throughout the year that showcase their vibrant traditions and culture. Almost every island hosts an annual event to celebrate its heritage with music, dance, food or sailing, often in the form of an exuberant pre-Lent carnival. Consider yourself lucky if you can plan your visit to coincide with one of these lively events.

Here are some of the most important fetes:

  • Trinidad and Tobago Carnival: The oldest, biggest and boldest carnival in the Caribbean with elaborate floats and costumes. Two days before Ash Wednesday.
  • Cayman Pirate Week, Cayman Islands: A family-friendly event with parades, fireworks, street dances and costume contests. In November.
  • Antigua Sailing Week: One of the world’s most prestigious yacht racing events. In April.
  • Bahamas’ Junkanoo, Nassau: A carnival-type celebration with parades and costumed revelers. Between Boxing Day (Dec. 26) and New Year’s Eve. In addition to the main event after Christmas, the festival is also celebrated on Independence Day (July 10), every Saturday in August and with other small holidays throughout the year.
  • Crop Over Festival, Barbados: A celebration of the end of the sugarcane harvest with parties, parades, live music, street vendors and food trucks. July to August.
  • St. Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival: A showcase for jazz, R&B and calypso music, plus dance, theater and art by local and international artists, along with daytime Carnival-style street parties. In May.
(Photo by Onne van der Wal/Getty Images)

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees