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Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Christmas Cruising

It's the holiday season! Many associate the Christmas holiday with cozying up by the fire, but for me, there's no better way to spend Christmas Day than in a tropical location (as the late Jimmy Buffet sang, hang your stocking on a coconut tree). My family, a.k.a. the Shinglebells, set sail on our first Christmas Cruise in 2009 (when I was 18, and my sister, Rachel, was 16 years old), and we had such a wonderful experience that we have cruised over Christmas every year since (with the exception of 2020 for obvious reasons).

Over the past (almost) fifteen years of Christmas Cruising, we've spent the holiday on five different cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, and Celebrity), on small and large ships (ranging in size from the 670-passenger Pacific Princess to the mega-ship Harmony of the Seas) to a variety of warm-weather ports of call. There's nowhere I'd rather spend the Christmas holiday than out at sea. I hope that I can share my experiences so that you can determine if cruising over the holiday would be a good fit for your family!

Shinglebells Christmas on Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas, 2011

I've cruised over Christmas for nearly half of my life, so cruising definitely feels like Christmas to me. However, whether or not it would feel like Christmas on a cruise ship was a question that we had before our first Christmas Cruise. Each cruise lines celebrate the holiday differently, but all cruise lines that I've sailed on over Christmas have decorated the ship and include special holiday programming.

Christmas Decorations

Royal Caribbean ships are decorated with three-story Christmas trees in the Promenade, and garland and smaller trees throughout the ship.

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas - Royal Promenade Christmas Tree

Royal Caribbean also sets up a Gingerbread Village that the crew puts together. In my cruise reviews, I've poked a bit of fun at the amateur level of craft on display, but I do think it's very fun and festive!

Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas - Royal Promenade Christmas Gingerbread Village

Celebrity Cruises, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Group, has very similar decorations to Royal Caribbean ships.

Princess Cruises decorates their fleet with a very traditional red and green Christmas theme. Princess has high-quality decorations (other cruise lines look a little "DIY" in comparison).

Pacific Princess Atrium at Christmas

Princess is also the only cruise line that I've known to decorate guest stateroom doors. It makes the hallways look extra cheery.

Pacific Princess Stateroom Number Christmas Decoration

In my experience, Norwegian Cruise Line has the most subdued/minimal Christmas decorations. I've sailed on their Breakaway Plus class ships over Christmas, and none of them have had a grand tree like you see on Royal Caribbean. NCL also tends to use a blue and silver color scheme which I think is mostly due to their blue logo and branding, but also happens to lightly mix in a Hanukkah aesthetic.

Norwegian Encore Atrium at Christmas

Christmas Festivities

There are many special holiday activities offered on Christmas cruises on all cruise lines. I think there's something for everyone. I've noticed arts and crafts activities during the day like ornament making, holiday cards, and gingerbread cookie decorating. The kids clubs also have holiday programming. All of the special holiday activities are listed on the daily schedule, so you can seek them out if you're interested.

Most of the cruise lines put on special Christmas shows in the theater. In my experience, these are very much variety shows - it's like they give the production team some costumes, and the performers really determine what to do in the way of music and choreography. On Royal Caribbean ships with an ice rink (Voyager Class and larger), they even do a Christmas ice show. In general, the costumes are rather low budget-looking, and it feels very DIY.... which I think is endearing in its own way at Christmas. Almost like you're watching the local school put on a holiday performance.

Christmas Ice Show on Royal Caribbean Adventure of the Seas

Many cruise ships will adjust the evening suggested attire so that formal night is on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Princess Cruises has a Champagne Waterfall on formal nights, and for Christmas cruises, they adjust the colors of the liquid in the glasses so that the tower looks like a Christmas tree.

Christmas Champagne Waterfall on Pacific Princess

Christmas Caroling with the Crew is a popular Christmas Eve tradition on many cruise lines that feels festive and cheery.

Christmas Caroling on Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas

Holiday Dining

The cruise lines typically offer special holiday menus for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day which includes traditional (American) holiday foods like turkey and ham.

Christmas Menu on Norwegian Encore

There's also holiday food displays in the buffet, as well as a variety of holiday items and treats.

Christmas Pastry Display on Celebrity Summit

Religious Services

Last year when Aaron and I suggested a Christmas Cruise to his parents, their main concern was if there would be a Catholic Priest onboard for Christmas Mass. After some research (thanks to The Catholic Travel Guide), I learned that Holland America is the only cruise line that has a Catholic Priest onboard every sailing. Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line guarantee Catholic Priests on Christmas sailings. Royal Caribbean has stated that they intend to have Catholic Priests on Christmas Cruises, but as of April 2022, it is not a guarantee. In my experience, most Christmas Cruises offer a non-denominational Midnight Mass or Christmas Mass, but if you have specific religious requirements, definitely research what is available beforehand, and you may even want to call your cruise line's customer service to verify what will be available. 


If you're worried that Santa won't find you in the middle of the ocean, rest assured - Santa's GPS technology is top-notch! Royal Caribbean actually has a live "Santa Tracker" and reports his progress on Christmas Eve. On RCCL Oasis Class ships, Santa parks his sleigh on the helipad and rides the zipline to greet the children! Christmas Morning, you have the opportunity to meet Santa for photos, and junior cruisers receive a gift (Rachel qualified for the gift on our first Royal Caribbean Christmas cruise, and it was an RCCL logo gift). I believe all cruise lines offer some sort of Santa meet and greet, but just be aware that Santa may bear a strong resemblance to your Cruise Director.

Towel Santa Display on Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas

Christmas in Port

Ports of call that you visit on your cruise will be celebrating Christmas, too! You'll want to pay attention to what port your ship will be visiting on Christmas day and do a bit of research in advance. As locals observe the holiday, some ports of call may be mostly closed on Christmas. Puerto Rico and other largely Catholic ports close most businesses on Christmas day.

Christmas Eve in Nicaragua, 2015

If you're looking to book a tour on Christmas day, note that some portions of the tour (specifically if you're doing a city/island sightseeing tour) may actually be unavailable. Last year in Grand Cayman on Christmas day, our tour took us to the Tortuga Rum Distillery which was actually closed for the holiday. Other ports of call are much more open on Christmas day - popular Caribbean ports Cozumel, Costa Maya, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten operate many tours on Christmas day, and the beaches are open as well.

Christmas Cruise Traditions

The great thing about Christmas cruises is that you and your family can make your own holiday traditions. On a Shinglebells Christmas cruise, we choose to dress up in fancy holiday attire on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We enjoy an elegant evening, and it gives us a great reason to take family photos.

Shinglebells Christmas Eve on Norwegian Encore, 2021

Other families plan to wear matching pajamas, ugly Christmas sweaters, or Santa hats. I've seen a lot of creative Christmas attire on cruises!

Christmas Eve on Pacific Princess, 2015

On Christmas Eve, we'll order Christmas Cookies in the dining room to take back to the room and leave out for Santa.

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas Christmas Cookies

We usually order room service for breakfast on Christmas morning and eat our breakfast on the balcony before exchanging gifts.

Christmas Morning Balcony Breakfast on Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas

Another Christmas tradition I try to do each year is to decorate our stateroom door. Door decorations are more popular on some cruise lines than others, but even on cruise lines without a strong door decor culture, I notice a lot of decorations on Christmas cruises. Stockings are flat to pack and can be hung on your stateroom door using heavy-duty magnetic hooks. I love festive door decor, and it also makes it a lot easier to recognize your stateroom door in a long hallway!

Stateroom Door Stockings on Celebrity Summit

Gift Giving on Cruise Ships

One thing that kept us from starting our Christmas Cruising tradition sooner was not knowing what to do about all of the gifts that Santa leaves on Christmas. If you have the Christmas tradition of waking up to a bunch of presents under the tree, it can be difficult to envision Christmas at sea - it's not like you can easily pack suitcases full of wrapped presents (especially if Santa is leaving the gifts).

Christmas Eve Stocking on Royal Princess

I'll often bring small wrapped gifts for my family with the idea that I'll get that space back in my suitcase on the way back (unless it gets filled with gifts that I receive). Gift bags are definitely my preferred wrapping method just in case security checks my bag and needs to unwrap the gift. In the past, I've also just handed out gifts unwrapped.

Another gift giving option is to give experiences or consumables. One year, I bought CocoCay WaterPark Passes for everyone as a gift (and then our CocoCay port day was canceled due to weather, so I actually didn't get anyone a gift... just something to keep in mind when giving experiences that are weather-dependent). Last year, Aaron purchased the wine package for the family so we could enjoy wine every evening at dinner. In the past, our parents have gifted Rachel and I massages at the spa onboard.

If you or Santa will be gifting large toys, consider breaking up the gift giving into different parts. You could give some gifts before you leave for the cruise, maybe some small stocking stuffers on the cruise, and you could even return home to a few new gifts. If you do choose to pack gifts to give on the cruise, be sure to check the cruise line's prohibited items list. One year, I learned from our cruise Facebook group that someone had packed a skateboard to give to her son, and they confiscated it at security (they did agree to hold it for her over the cruise, but I imagine that the security situation may have ruined the Christmas surprise of the gift). Some popular gift items that are prohibited on cruise ships and could be confiscated include sports gear, candles, and drones.

Christmas Morning on our very first Christmas Cruise, 2009

And of course, there's always money and gift cards. Every year, my dad tears off a piece of paper and writes in his scrappy handwriting, "Merry Christmas, Dad" with the dollar amount. Each year, it gets a little scrappier.... I think he started with the logo stationary and moved on to a tiny corner torn off of Cruise Compass. It makes me smile - I truly love it.

Choosing a Christmas Cruise

There's so many great cruises offered at Christmas, that it can be difficult to choose! Lately, my family has turned to a spreadsheet that we create each year, listing all of the cruises over Christmas that work for our schedules, along with the cruise line, ship, price, and itinerary. We're typically seeking warm weather for our Christmas cruise, so most of the itineraries that we narrow it down to sail out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Florida weather is quite unpredictable in the winter - some years we've sailed away in shorts, and other years we've been wearing sweaters or rain jackets! In general, the farther south your port of departure, the sooner you'll sail into warm weather - which is why we've also opted to sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico for some Christmas cruises.

Some years we choose our cruise based on the ship, and other years we choose our cruise based on itinerary. In general, the new large megaships sail the most generic itineraries (Eastern/Western Caribbean). So when we choose the cruise based on the ship, we've opted a few times to stay on the ship when in port. When we choose a cruise based on itinerary, it usually means that we'll be sailing on a smaller, older ship (which I personally enjoy a quaint smaller ship over Christmas). Whether you prioritize a ship with all of the bells and whistles, or prefer to sail to more unique destinations, there's a Christmas cruise for you!

Cruise line is actually one of the last things we consider when choosing our Christmas cruise, as we've had great experiences on many different cruise lines.

Personally, Norwegian is my least favorite cruise line for Christmas, but we've sailed NCL over Christmas three times and continue to include NCL cruises on our spreadsheet because they offer more unique itineraries for large ships at a great value. I think that NCL is a great Christmas cruise line for those who would prefer a more subdued Christmas experience, multi-generational families, and those who prefer the more casual "freestyle" cruising experience.

Royal Caribbean is one of my favorites for Christmas, but it doesn't always make the shortlist due to itinerary and high prices. Royal Caribbean is another cruise line that I think is great for multi-generational families. Note that the RCCL experience varies depending on the size of the ship - larger ships will have more activities and things to do onboard, while the smaller ships often travel to more exotic locations and offer a more "classic" cruise experience.

If you have more time for your Christmas cruise (10+ days), I highly recommend a cruise through the Panama Canal on Princes Cruises. We've done both the 10-day Panama Canal Eastern Roundtrip, as well as an 17-day thru passage on the Pacific Princess over Christmas. Both were incredible cruises, and I think the Panama Canal cruise as an iconic must-do cruising experience.

Our only Christmas cruise on Carnival Cruise Line was in 2010, but that's not because we've written Carnival off for Christmas - there are just so many other great options! You may have heard that Carnival is a "party cruise," or a "booze cruise," and while that can be true for their 3/4-night itineraries, as well as spring break cruises, it isn't the case across the board. I think that Carnival over Christmas is great for families. 7+ night cruises over the holidays are much more expensive itineraries and tend to attract a different crowd than those looking for a boozy weekend. Carnival has a Seuss at Sea program which means there are special Grinchmas activities, including an appearance by the Grinch himself.

My first Celebrity Cruise was a 5-night Christmas Cruise on Celebrity Summit. I found it similar to Royal Caribbean in many ways, but I was also a bit disappointed in the experience. Like RCCL, I'm sure the Celebrity experience varies widely depending on the size of the ship. For that cruise, I specifically booked us on a smaller ship because I was seeking that "classic" Christmas cruise experience, and it delivered in many ways (the kitschy holiday entertainment), the service I received left a sour taste in my mouth, and I didn't see the appeal in choosing Celebrity over Royal Caribbean (well, except for the guaranteed Catholic priest).

I have yet to cruise Disney Cruise Line over Christmas, but from the photos and videos I've seen from other cruise bloggers, Disney is hands-down the most Christmasy of Christmas cruises. DCL offers "Merrytime Cruises," throughout the month of December, so you can experience Disney Christmas magic at sea even if you don't choose to cruise over Christmas day. The main reasons I haven't sailed DCL over Christmas are 1) cost and 2) itineraries. It's quite pricy to sail DCL over the Christmas holiday.... but I'm sure it's magical!

Booking Your Christmas Cruise

They say the best time to book a cruise (price-wise) is as soon as it is released. However, I rarely have enough foresight to book a cruise 18+ months in advance... sure, I can bet I'll be cruising over Christmas, but I'm not sure what everyone's work schedule, PTO, vacation situation will be that far in advance. If you do have that knowledge and want to take advantage of the most selection and likely lowest prices, pay attention to when cruise lines release their itineraries and book once they become available (you can also utilize a travel agent to do this for you).

We typically book our Christmas cruises in July/August/September of that year.... and sometimes later. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity run a pretty good Independence Day Sale in July... either 30% off all passengers, or 60% off 2nd passenger (which is the same discount, just applied differently). Norwegian is always running some version of the "FREE" promotion (but be sure to read the fine print - you will pay gratuity on the free beverage package), and once one promotion ends, it will either extend, or a new promotion will begin.

If you're looking to book more last-minute, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, and Norwegian all have Black Friday sales. Disney rarely discounts cruises, and if they do, it's a targeted promotion to Florida Residents, DVC Members, Disney+ Subscribers, or some other exclusive group.

Black Friday is also a great time to book onboard activities and shore excursions. In the past, we've purchased the Ultimate Beverage Package and Unlimited Dining Package during the Black Friday sale.

Christmas Cruise Reviews

If you're interested in reading about the day-to-day on a Christmas Cruise, I've written several detailed cruise reviews over the years that document Christmas at sea -

Celebrity Summit 5-Night Christmas Cruise, 2022

Norwegian Encore 7-Night Eastern Caribbean Christmas Cruise, 2021

Harmony of the Seas 7-Night Western Caribbean Christmas Cruise, 2019

Navigator of the Seas 9-Night Southern Caribbean Christmas Cruise, 2018

Pacific Princess 17-Night Panama Canal Christmas Cruise, 2015

Independence of the Seas 8-Night Eastern Caribbean Christmas Cruise, 2014

Royal Princess 7-Night Eastern Caribbean Christmas Cruise, 2013

Island Princess 10-Night Panama Canal Christmas Cruise, 2012

Adventure of the Seas 8-Night Southern Caribbean Cruise, 2011

So.... if you aren't already a Christmas cruiser, have I convinced you?! If you are already a Christmas cruiser, I would love to hear your best Christmas cruising advice in the comments section below!


  1. Radiance of the Seas 12/02

    Inspiration 12/98

    Norwegian Wind 12/94

    Monarch of the Seas 12/92

    Our 1st 4 cruises were either Xmas or NYE cruises[due to my wife being in education]. We usually chose SJU as our departure port because the Southern Caribbean pretty much guarantees nice weather. Florida in December can be iffy, and we've experienced marginal weather in the bahamas before

    1. That's really what started the Christmas cruising for us, too - Rachel and I were both in school and to fit a cruise in Christmas break, it made sense to cruise over Christmas/NYE. I think it was last year when we realized that we don't really have to cruise over Christmas week anymore - we could adjust to a time earlier in December when it's less expensive and less crowded. However, we like to maximize our paid company holidays and cruising over Christmas week reduces the number of PTO days we need to take. Aaron's company actually requires that they use their PTO the week between Christmas/NYE because their office is closed, so the week still makes sense.... plus it's tradition!!

      Our very first Christmas cruise was out of Tampa, and we sailed the first two days through a storm! Still, we had such a great time that we decided to do it again the next year... and the next... and so on!

      This year, we'll be sailing out of SJU to Southern Caribbean on Jewel of the Seas - hitting some ports of call we haven't cruised to before with Trinidad, Tobago, and St. Vincent!