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Eastern Caribbean vs. Western Caribbean cruises: Which itinerary will I like more?

Feb. 12, 2022
7 min read
Landscape of the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands
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Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean cruises may sound eerily similar when you start researching them. Just about wherever you go you’ve got your sunny days, your sandy shores, your sparkling seas and your balmy breezes causing the palm trees to sway like those on your favorite screen saver. But the reality is that Caribbean islands’ personalities can vary as widely as those of regions of the United States.

In addition, it’s important to remember that Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean are cruise ship route types, rather than literal descriptions of locations on a map.

So which Caribbean itinerary is your best choice? Read on for our evaluation on how to make the right choice for your next cruise.

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Embarkation ports

Typically, you can sail to the Eastern Caribbean from a variety of ports in Florida – Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral, the port on the coast near Orlando — as well as a few eastern seaboard ports, such as New York City. For Western Caribbean sailings, you can depart from Florida ports as well as Galveston, Texas, Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Lousiana.

So which embarkation port is best for you? There’s no secret to it: whichever one you can get to the fastest and cheapest.

That said, if you see an itinerary that embarks in the Caribbean, know that you’ll get a little extra time in the islands in exchange for that international flight. That’s especially important when you’re comparing it with itineraries that embark in the Northeast, where you’ll have to sail the oft-rough seas of the Atlantic to get down to those pale blue Caribbean waters.

Itineraries

Grand Turk cruise port, Turks and Caicos. (Photo by mikolajn/Getty Images)

Weeklong, round-trip cruises are common in both parts of the Caribbean, but you can also find shorter and longer options.

Common ports in the Eastern Caribbean include both big, crowded touristy options and some smaller, sleepier islands, which are typically only accessible by small ship or on shore excursions. Itineraries may travel to Grand Turk, St. Maarten, the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix), the British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda), San Juan, Puerto Rico and ports in the Bahamas — including the cruise lines’ private islands, many of which received upgrades in the past few years. Small vessels may also call in Antigua, Anguilla and Dominica, as well as the tony island of St. Barts.

In the Western Caribbean, you may call on Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize and Mexican ports such as Cozumel, Costa Maya and Progreso. Some of these ports – in the thick of a strong Caribbean cruise season – can be lined up with large cruise ships, which fill the port with as many as 15,000 passengers.

Related: The ultimate guide to picking a cruise line

Beaches and water sports

If your fantasy is stretching out in the sun and splashing in the surf, you’ll want to pick your Caribbean itinerary carefully so you can live the dream. When it comes to beaches, the Eastern Caribbean islands have the Western ones beat in most cases.

With just a short cab ride from the cruise port, you can escape the throngs and find a quiet sandy strand to call your own. After a few hours in the sun, you’ll agree it was worth the effort, especially in Grand Turk and the Virgin Islands.

When it comes to water sports, some of the easiest opportunities to paddleboard, sail, kayak and parasail are available on the cruise lines’ private islands, mainly located in the Bahamas. From Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay to Holland America’s Half Moon Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye and Great Stirrup Cay, Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay and MSC Cruises' Ocean Cay, you’ll find more opportunities to get out on the water than you could take advantage of in a day.

Virgin Voyages’ Beach Club at Bimini is a more tranquil version of the “day at the beach” experience, since it is an adult-only cruise line, but there are still water sports to choose from – and a bonfire on the beach in the evening.

Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean

Shore excursions

The Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen-Itza archaeological site
The Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen-Itza archaeological site in Mexico. (Photo by © Macro Bottigelli/Getty Images)

Where the Mexico ports of Cancun, Costa Maya and Progreso in the Western Caribbean have the others beat is in historical sites, especially when it comes to the spectacular pre-Colombian Mayan ruins in Chichén Itzá and Tulum.

Equally impressive, though a totally different experience, is a day spent snorkeling or diving around the reefs off the coasts of arid Grand Cayman (known for sea turtles and rays), Negril, Jamaica (known for underwater cliffs and unusually colorful coral) and the jungle port of Belize (where you may even get to see whale sharks).

Shopping

In both the Eastern and Western Caribbean, you’ll find ports that are designed for shopping, with a mix of luxury boutiques and knick-knack stores spread out around the cruise ship terminal.

In Nassau, Bahamas, the famous straw market sells everything from cheaply made souvenirs to local crafts, T-shirts and designer knock-offs. St. Thomas and Grand Cayman also offer a mix of jewelry shops and bric-a-brac, as well as duty free liquor stores offering rum tastings.

If you luck into an itinerary with St. Barts on the roster, you’ll find small French-Caribbean boutiques full of chic resort wear and elegant sandals, as well as rum made with Tahitian vanilla beans.

Bottom line

(Photo by cdwheatley/Getty Images)

While every cruise line has its own personality and a type of traveler that would find it ideal, so does every itinerary. You’ll want to choose your route carefully and research the individual islands to make sure you are picking not only a ship but also a sailing that plays to your preferences.

That said, our advice is that if you’re a beach lover who is looking for peace amid the palm trees, then the Eastern Caribbean is the way to go. Those who sunburn easily and are looking for other entertainment than just the joy of their toes in the sand – including history buffs and divers — should consider the Western Caribbean their ideal choice.

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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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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
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  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases