Cruise Advice

What to expect on a Christmas cruise

Relaxing on a cruise in warm weather seems a world away from the terrible conditions that have hit the UK this week. In 2016, it was estimated that 1.8 million people cruised from UK ports in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.

It’s easy to see why. As well as escaping the cold weather, a Christmas cruise is relatively stress-free. You don’t need to think about putting up decorations, entertaining relatives or cooking a festive feast. Instead you can spend your time planning adventures in the various ports of call.

Gingerbread houses on Queen Victoria

I’ve spent a number of Christmases on cruise ships, both as an officer and a passenger. Here are my tried and tested tips on what to remember when planning a cruise over the festive period.

Pick your itinerary carefully

Whilst ‘winter sun’ may sound exotic, it’s crucial to establish where you want to experience it. Caribbean cruises are incredibly popular with Europeans and Americans. This is due to the guaranteed sunshine, beaches and activities on offer. This is my favourite type of winter itinerary but Christmas in the sun always feels surreal to me, as it’s so different to Christmas at home. Normally the atmosphere on board is relaxed due to the nature of where you are. Think Christmas songs on steel drums…

Independence of the Seas

The bigger cruise lines often base some of their fleet in the Caribbean over our winter period. This means that passengers will have to fly to join a ship. But because the ships are already in the Caribbean, sea days are limited which leaves more room for extra ports on the itinerary.

If you don’t want to fly both ways, consider booking a repositioning cruise, which only requires one flight. If you book a fly cruise, flights should be included in the cost of your holiday. Other types of Christmas fly cruise destinations include Hawaii, Miami and New York.


If you want to cruise from the UK, most cruise ships will travel to the Canary Islands or the Mediterranean for Christmas. Some go to colder places such as Norway, Amsterdam or Belgium. If you do book a cruise from the UK, keep in mind that the weather can be unpredictable. Whilst the Canaries are often warm, the Western Mediterranean can be cold and wet during winter months. The Bay of Biscay can be very rough at this time of the year, as I’ve been unfortunate enough to witness more than once! There is also a heightened risk of ships aborting ports, particularly in Belgium and Amsterdam. This is often due to adverse weather conditions.

Mount Teide, Tenerife
Mount Teide, Tenerife

It’s also important to consider whether you want to spend Christmas Day at sea or in port. A lot of itineraries factor in a sea day for 25th December. Some cruises will either depart on this day or make a stop in a port. Remember that shops may be closed, as it’s a public holiday in many countries.

What to pack for a Christmas cruise

Different cruise lines have different dress codes. My experiences of Christmas at sea have always been with P&O Cruises. Their dress code tends to be more relaxed on Caribbean cruises, and more formal in the Mediterranean/Canaries. They often have a formal evening on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, which are great opportunities to dress up. Other cruise lines may not have a formal dress code, so this is something to consider when picking the right ship for you. If you want a more ‘dressy’ experience, consider the glitzier brands such as Cunard or Celebrity Cruises.

Packing for a cruise

Cruises departing from the UK allow you to bring as much luggage as you like, if you aren’t flying in from anywhere. Fly-cruising is more restrictive as you’ll have a luggage allowance. I opted to pack the lightest of evening dresses for the Caribbean, partly because it’s very hot out there. It’s often hard to pack a different outfit for each night, so consider a capsule wardrobe you can change around.

What to expect on board

Choir on board Queen Victoria

The majority of cruise ships will embrace Christmas and the atmosphere on board will be celebratory and upbeat. You’ll find a host of special activities such as: Father Christmas coming down the funnel, a crew pantomime, a passenger choir and church service. The ship will also be dripping in decorations for the occasion.

For children, there’s the opportunity to meet Father Christmas and there are lots of tailored activities to keep them amused. A special Yuletide menu will be served either at lunchtime or in the evening.

Officers and crew are away from their loved ones, so it’s an important time of year for them too. They have their own festivities below decks, but they still work throughout the day. They have a range of entertainment including Secret Santa, Christmas discos and Christmas dinner.

Oceana’s atrium at Christmas

For those who don’t like celebrating Christmas, there are options for you too. Some ships avoid Christmas celebrations altogether, so this is the perfect way to escape from it all. Check with your travel agent or cruise line to find out more.

Cruising at New Year

When you book a Christmas cruise, think about whether you want to be away for New Year’s Eve too. For me, New Year’s Eve on a ship is one of my favourite holiday experiences. I loved watching the incredible fireworks in Madeira, known to be one of the best displays in the world. I also like the option of going ashore during the day for a bit of exercise, before the big event.

Madeira fireworks
Madeira fireworks

If you’d prefer to be at sea come midnight, then expect deck parties (in warm weather), live music and lots of dancing. Whatever you decide, you’re unlikely to be disappointed by New Year’s Eve on a cruise.

You can find a list of Christmas cruises here. You can find more useful articles on the cruise advice section of this blog.

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