Caribbean vs. Bahamas cruises: Which itinerary will I like better?

Dec 2, 2021

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You’re looking for warm weather, gorgeous beaches, water sports and guaranteed R&R on your next cruise. Should you book a cruise to the Caribbean or the Bahamas? With so many islands on a vast number of itineraries, the vacation choices can get overwhelming – the exact opposite of the therapeutic cruise you’re hoping to take.

Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with any island cruise, but you can pick the itinerary that will suit your travel style and preferences best. Here, we’ll compare Bahamas and Caribbean cruises to give you a cheat sheet for picking the perfect cruise for you.

Caribbean vs. Bahamas cruise itineraries

Both Bahamas and Caribbean cruise itineraries come in short and long varieties. The main difference when it comes to Caribbean versus Bahamas sailings is that Bahamas cruises visit multiple islands within one country, whereas Caribbean cruises include a mix of island and Central American mainland ports across several countries.

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Caribbean itineraries are broken down into Western, Eastern and Southern Caribbean routes. Western Caribbean cruises depart from southern U.S. ports from Galveston, Texas, to Florida and either go to Mexico and Central America or to the islands west of Cuba and Haiti. Short cruises tend to hit one or two ports in Mexico; weeklong cruises visit a mix of island and mainland destinations.

Eastern Caribbean cruises depart mainly from Florida or Caribbean destinations like San Juan or St. Thomas. These sailings include the islands east of Cuba and Haiti, such as the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Martin/Maarten, and Puerto Rico. Sailings labeled Eastern Caribbean that depart from northeast ports are either longer than a week or mainly Bahamas cruises that include a visit to one Caribbean port, such as the Dominican Republic or Grand Turk.

You won’t find short cruises to the Southern Caribbean, so if you want to cruise to places like Aruba or St. Lucia, you’ll need at least a week. These sailings mostly depart from Florida or Caribbean islands. If you’re looking for luxury, the small-ship and high-end lines focus their attention in this area, as well as on the smaller Eastern Caribbean islands. Southern Caribbean sailings tend to be more port-intensive, with fewer sea days of all the Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries.

Bahamas cruises depart from the broadest range of home ports, from Galveston on the Gulf Coast to Florida and Northeast ports like Baltimore and Bayonne, New Jersey (one of several ports in the New York City area). You’ll find many short sailings to these islands since they’re located close to Florida. (Freeport, Bahamas, is closer to Miami than Key West is.) Weeklong sailings can be Bahamas-only or include ports in Florida or close-in Caribbean destinations like Grand Turk.

RELATED: Bahamas vs. Bermuda cruise itineraries

To make matters more confusing, cruise lines will often mix destinations from the different tropical regions on one itinerary. A Southern Caribbean cruise may include ports in the Eastern Caribbean, and a Western Caribbean sailing might stop at a cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas.

Ignore the sailing’s name and look at the ports of call to figure out where you’re actually going.

Caribbean vs. Bahamas ports of call

The main Bahamian ports are Nassau on New Providence Island (the country’s capital) and Freeport on Grand Bahama Island. Some ships have recently started calling on Bimini as well. Beaches and water sports are the main activities. Most cruise line private islands – Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay, Carnival Corp.’s Half Moon Cay, Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, Princess Cruises’ Princess Cays and Norwegian Cruise Line’s Great Stirrup Cay – are in the Bahamas and make for a great beach day.

Banana Bay Beach in Freeport, Grand Bahama. (Photo by Pola Damonte via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Western Caribbean cruise ports include several ports in Jamaica and Mexico, as well as Grand Cayman, Roatan (Honduras) and Belize City. If you want to explore the ruins of ancient Mayan cities, you’ll want to choose an itinerary that visits Mexico and/or Belize.

Big-ship cruise lines call at the bigger Eastern Caribbean ports, such as San Juan (Puerto Rico), Grand Turk, the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas and St. Maarten/Martin. Smaller and more upscale ships will head for the more intimate Virgin Islands, such as St. John, Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda. Most of these islands are beach and water sport destinations, though St. Thomas and St. Martin have a reputation for shopping. San Juan mixes old-city charm with modern restaurants and boutiques.

The Southern Caribbean encompasses a wide range of ports, from ritzy St. Barth’s to volcanic St. Lucia, rugged Dominica, French Martinique and British Barbados. Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire are so far south that they’re out of the main hurricane belt and your fun in the sun will be less likely to be disrupted by seasonal storms.

Caribbean vs. Bahamas beaches and water sports

Divers, snorkelers, kayakers, paddleboarders and straight-up beach bums will find plenty of water-based fun in both the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

(Photo by Stephen Frink/Getty Images)

In every destination, you’ll find a swimming beach within driving, if not walking, distance from the cruise port. Many have coral reefs offshore to thrill snorkelers and divers; the waters of the Caribbean are littered with shipwrecks that will make your underwater adventure extra scenic.

If you’re a novice snorkeler or dedicated sunbather, you’ll be pleased with any Bahamas or Caribbean itinerary you choose. Experienced divers or water sports enthusiasts should research the ports that offer particular water sports experiences, such as windsurfing or advanced-level wreck diving.

Caribbean vs. Bahamas shore excursions and activities

With more ports and itinerary options, it’s not surprising that you have more choices of activities in the Caribbean versus the Bahamas.

If you’re into shopping, Nassau’s Bay Street offers the gamut of retail outlets selling everything from diamonds and high-end brands to rum cake, T-shirts and items woven from straw. The other Bahamian ports aren’t shopping destinations for much beyond souvenirs. In the Caribbean, St. Barth’s is the place for swanky boutiques; French Martinique and St. Martin sell goods from France. St. Thomas is known for its duty-free shopping within easy reach of the port, and San Juan is full of art galleries and boutiques.

Stopping in Belize City or the Mexican ports of Cozumel and Costa Maya is a must for history buffs who want to visit the ruins of ancient Mayan cities. If you prefer forts and military history, look for Caribbean cruises that stop in San Juan, Dominica or Grenada. Bahamas visitors can tour Fort Charlotte in Nassau.

St. Lucia, Dominica, St. John and Puerto Rico are tops for hikers. Bonaire has many trails for cyclists; in the Bahamas, private islands Half Moon Cay and Castaway Cay offer bike paths, as well. If you’re looking for river-based activities, you can go cave tubing in Belize and river tubing in Jamaica.

The Boiling Lake Hike in Dominica is a must-try if you get the chance. (Photo by Joseph Thomas Photography/Getty Images)

Wildlife lovers will have more options in the Caribbean than the Bahamas. Book a tour to Gumbalimba Park in Roatan or Lamanai in Belize to see monkeys and macaws, or Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest to search for coqui (tree frogs). In the Bahamas, your best bet is the zoo at the Ardastra Gardens in Nassau.

You’ll find zip line adventures, 4×4 tours and culinary experiences throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean.

Bottom Line

When comparing the Caribbean and the Bahamas for your next cruise, you will be happy with either choice for a relaxing beach vacation. If you have specific travel goals, such as wildlife viewing or visiting historic sites, the Caribbean will offer the widest variety of activities, but you’ll still need to pick the right ports.

Some travelers will find that departure port and cruise length are the most important considerations; if you need a drive-to home port or a four-night sailing, you won’t have the same variety of itinerary choices as cruisers who can take a weeklong vacation and fly to their ship.

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Featured photo by Sachin Saraswat/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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