Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean cruises seem similar when you start researching them. Wherever you go, you will enjoy sunny days, sandy beaches, sparkling seas and balmy breezes. But the reality is that the personalities of the Caribbean islands can vary as widely as the regions of the US.

Additionally, it is important to remember that the Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean maps refer to types of cruise ship routes rather than literal descriptions of locations.

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

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Ports of embarkation

Typically, you sail from Florida ports to the Eastern Caribbean – in most cases, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Port Canaveral, a port on the coast near Orlando—as well as several Eastern Seaboard ports such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and New York City. For Western Caribbean cruises, you can depart from Florida ports, as well as Galveston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans.

So, which embarkation port is best for you? There’s no secret: you can get by on either of them faster and cheaper.

That said, if you’re looking at an itinerary in the Caribbean, know that you’ll get some extra time in the islands in exchange for that long flight. On the other hand, a trip that starts in the northeast requires you to sail through the roughest waters of the Atlantic to land in the light blue Caribbean waters. You will need more than a week to travel from more northern home ports to destinations outside the Bahamas.

Travel plans

Grand Turk Cruise Port in Turks and Caicos. 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 large, crowded, tourist options and some smaller, sleepier islands, which are usually only accessible by small ships or during shore excursions. Itineraries may include visits to Grand Turk, St. Maarten (Dutch side of the island of St. Martin), US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix), British Virgin Islands (Tortola, Jost). Van Dyke and Virgin Gorda), Puerto Rico and Bahamas ports – including cruise lines’ Private islands. Smaller ships (and some larger ships) can also call at Antigua, Anguilla, and Dominica, as well as at the tony island of St. Barts.

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In the Western Caribbean, you can call at Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Belize and Mexican ports such as Cozumel, Costa Maya and Progreso. Some of these ports – in strong Caribbean cruise seasons – can be lined with large cruise ships; For example, you can find up to seven ships calling at Cozumel on a busy day.

Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Cruise Line

Beaches and water sports

If your fantasy is basking in the sun and splashing in the surf, you’ll want to choose your Caribbean vacation carefully so you can live the dream. When it comes to beaches, the eastern Caribbean islands beat the western islands in most cases, but you can find sandy beaches on most Caribbean itineraries.

With just a short cab ride from the cruise port, you can escape the crowds 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 cruise lines’ private islands, primarily located in the Bahamas. At Disney Cruise Line Castaway Cay, Holland America’s Half Moon Cay, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye and Great Stirrup Cay, Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay and Labadee, and MSC Cruises’ Ocean Cay will give you more opportunities to get out on the water. Benefit in one day.

You can find cruise line private island visits on Eastern or Western Caribbean itineraries that are several weeks long or longer.

Related: Visiting a Cruise Line’s Private Island? Don’t make these 11 mistakes

Shore Excursions

Kukulkan Pyramid at the Chichen Itza archaeological site. Marco Bottiglie/Getty Images

Where Mexico’s ports of Cancun, Costa Maya and Progreso in the Western Caribbean shine is in historical sites, especially when it comes to the stunning pre-Columbian Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum. You can also visit Mayan sites from Belize.

An equally impressive, though quite different experience, is a day spent snorkeling or diving around the reefs of arid Grand Cayman (known for sea turtles and rays), Jamaica (known for underwater reefs and unusually colorful corals) and Belize’s western Caribbean coast. (where you might even spot whale sharks).

That said, you’ll have your island tours, water-based activities and all kinds of boat rides on any tour you choose.


In both the Eastern and Western Caribbean, you’ll find ports designed for shopping with a mix of luxury boutiques and knickknack stores dotted around the cruise ship terminals.

In Nassau, Bahamas, the famous Straw Market sells everything from inexpensive souvenirs to local crafts, T-shirts, and designer knockoffs. 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’re lucky enough to travel with St. Barts on the roster, you’ll find small French-Caribbean boutiques stocked with chic resortwear and elegant sandals, as well as rum made from Tahitian vanilla beans.

Bottom line

A canoe on the beach at St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. CDWHEATLEY/GETTY IMAGES

While each cruise line has its own personality and a type of traveler it finds ideal, so does each itinerary. You’ll want to choose your route carefully and research the individual islands to make sure you’re choosing not just a ship but a sailing that suits your preferences.

That said, our advice is that if you’re a beach lover who seeks tranquility among palm trees, the Eastern Caribbean is the way to go. Those who get sunburned easily and are looking for entertainment other than their toes in the sand – including history buffs and divers – should consider the Western Caribbean their ideal choice.

If you’re looking for a fun vacation in the sun, with a mix of active and relaxing days, wherever your Caribbean cruise takes you, you’ll be happy.

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