Western vs. Eastern Caribbean: Smackdown!

eastern vs western caribbean cruise beaches
Both Western and Eastern Caribbean cruises have stunning beaches, like Tulum (accessible from Cozumel) in the West (left), and Jost Van Dyke in the East (right). So how do you choose between them? - Photo by SIME / eStockPhoto and Nomad / eStockPhoto

Both Western and Eastern Caribbean cruise routes are guaranteed to offer adventures and postcard-perfect sandy beaches, like Tulum in the West (left), and Jost Van Dyke in the East (right). So how do you choose between them? 

When browsing through cruise options, it can be hard to differentiate between the numerous Caribbean itineraries. Once you know the destinations and things to do at stops on each route,, distinct differences emerge. Here, we compare the most popular two cruise routes — Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean — to see how they stack up:

Highlights

Eastern Caribbean Highlights

Pristine beaches and days filled with choices such as island hopping, tropical drinks, sightseeing, shopping, or relaxating are the name of the game on Eastern Caribbean cruises. Typically, destinations are closer to embarkation points, allowing for more stops on one cruise itinerary. Common calls on this route include the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Grand Turk, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and many more islands of varying sizes nearby. If island hopping, beaches, and shopping are what you desire for your vacation, an Eastern Caribbean route might be for you.

Western Caribbean Highlights

Looking for fun in the sun, history, and adventure? A Western Caribbean route may be your pick. From hiking through Mayan ruins and interacting with stingrays to spending days swimming and sunbathing on pristine beaches, a Western Caribbean cruise offers the chance to do it all! As some western routes offer destinations that can take longer to sail to, there are more days spent at sea, providing more time to check out all the ship has to offer. Destinations on this route commonly include stops in Mexico, Belize, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, and Key West. 

Prices

Eastern Caribbean Prices

Generally speaking, both Caribbean destinations have comparable pricing in shoulder or off-seasons. During peak season, you may find that the Eastern Caribbean has slightly higher prices.

  •  Typically, the Eastern Caribbean has one more port stops than the Western alternatives, which will increase the cost of the port charges — thus increasing the total cost of your cruise.
  • There are fewer ships sailing the Eastern Caribbean from US homeports, which can make the pricing higher in peak seasons.
  • Private island experiences (i.e. islands owned/operated by the cruise lines) are typically included in Eastern Caribbean itineraries as the islands are located in the Bahamas, making it easy for the ships to stop on their way to or from their homeport.

Find Deals to Eastern Caribbean

Western Caribbean Prices

With Cozumel being the gem (and most included port) of the Western Caribbean as well as a plethora of homeports from Florida to Texas, it’s no surprise there are more sailings to this destination than any other.

  • Most cruises have one less port day than the Eastern Caribbean options, making the overall cost of the cruise less expensive (see above about port charges).
  • As mentioned earlier, typically there are more “at sea” days on this itinerary, making it a favorite for people who like the extra time on board to experience all of the activities and amenities.
  • Almost every itinerary in the Western Caribbean includes a stop at Cozumel, which can cause the port to be overcrowded with cruisers. Because of this, top shore excursions tend to sell out quickly.

Find Deals to Western Caribbean

 

Itineraries 

Year-round cruises, averaging around 6-7 nights, are the most common option for both Caribbean regions. However, some cruises can range from as short as 2 nights all the way up to 12+ nights. Eastern routes sail from ports in Florida and all along the East Coast. Western itineraries depart from Florida, Texas, and other ports across the Gulf Coast. 

Eastern Caribbean Itinerary Highlights

Eastern Caribbean routes depart from ports across Florida, as well as New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans. Some Eastern Caribbean routes start in ports in the Caribbean including San Juan (Puerto Rico), Bridgetown (Barbados), Phillipsburg (St. Maarten), La Romana (Dominican Republic), and Pointe-A-Pitre (Guadeloupe). Cruises on these routes are everything you see when you close your eyes and picture a vacation filled with island hopping, beaches, and fun in the sun. 

  • Eastern Caribbean cruise routes typically include a combination of stops at ports in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, Grand Turk Island, St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Kitts, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. 
  • Itineraries on Eastern Caribbean routes commonly stop at the cruise lines’ private islands including Perfect Day at CocoCay (Royal Caribbean), Half Moon Cay and Princess Cays (Carnival, Princess, and Holland America), Ocean Cay (MSC), and Castaway Cay (Disney).  
  • If you prefer visiting as many ports as possible, pick Eastern Caribbean sailings that depart from Caribbean ports — the time you would have spent sailing from Florida is made up by stopping at four or five islands on a 7-night sailing.

Western Caribbean Itinerary Highlights

Departing from Miami, Port Canaveral, Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and San Juan (Puerto Rico), Western Caribbean routes combine island hopping with stops in Central America and Mexico. These destinations take more time to sail to, meaning there are more days at sea and time to explore the ship. 

  • Frequently visited ports on Western Caribbean cruise routes include stops in Mexico, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Honduras, Key West, and sometimes the Bahamas. Mexico is a common stop on many western itineraries, with port visits to Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Progreso. Falmouth and Ocho Rios are frequently visited ports in Jamaica. Royal Caribbean also has a private destination on western itineraries — Labadee, Haiti.
  • Western Caribbean routes rarely stop at more than four ports due to the length of time it takes to get to the destinations. Because of this, expect more sea days on these itineraries. 
 

Western itineraries (left) combine island hopping with stops in Central America, but have more sea days as a result. - Photo by Google

Our Pick: It’s a toss-up on which destinations you are set on visiting and how much time you prefer to spend at sea on the ship. We recommend western routes for history and nature buffs, and eastern routes for those looking to shop or beach hop. 

Beaches

No matter the choice, you’ll find the perfect shores on both Western and Eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. If lounging on the sand with a cocktail is the goal of your trip, both options are guaranteed to offer the beach of your dreams. 

Eastern Caribbean Beaches

We can’t even begin to count the numerous ways you can spend a day at the beach on an Eastern Caribbean route. From the picture-perfect shores of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, to the tiny islands of St. Barts, Iles Des Saintes, and Anguilla, the Eastern Caribbean offers some of the world’s most sought-out coastlines. Highlights of Eastern Caribbean beaches include: 

  • Soak in the sun and take a dip in the crystal clear water at Trunk Bay in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Neighboring Jost van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands is home to sugar-white sands and the birthplace of tropical cruise drink favorite, The Painkiller. 
  • Looking to spend your port time with views of crystal-clear waters? Check out Great Bay Beach in St. Maarten, Dickenson Bay in Antigua, or Cockleshell Beach in St. Kitts - you won’t be disappointed! 

Western Caribbean Beaches

The beautiful beaches of Jamaica, Mexico, Belize, Grand Cayman, and Honduras all await you on a Western Caribbean cruise. Looking for snorkeling, swimming, sunbathing, and palm trees? This is the route for you. Western Caribbean beach highlights include: 

  • Stunning Montego Bay (aka ‘Mo Bay’) is a popular stop on western routes and offers some of the most famous beaches in Jamaica. 
  • Cozumel, Mexico has beautiful azure waters that are perfect for snorkeling, and is home to one of the largest drift diving reefs in the Caribbean. 
  • Pull up a lounge chair, order a frozen cocktail, and enjoy the views from Seven Mile Beach, one of the most famed locations in Grand Cayman. 
 

Both itineraries have stunning beaches like Belize (left) or Tortola (right). - Photo SIME / eStockPhoto

Our Pick: Eastern Caribbean. This is a very close tie, but we’re going with this route due to the sheer quantity of gorgeous beaches to choose from. 
 

Activities

Eastern Caribbean Activities

If you want more than sunbathing, shopping, and bar hopping, the Eastern Caribbean itineraries may seem a bit limited. However, you can work up a sweat ziplining in St. Maarten or kayaking off the coast of Tortola. Activity highlights on this route include: 

  • Exploring the cobblestone streets and colonial fortresses of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. 
  • Sightseeing and shopping around the Central Market in Castries, St. Lucia. 
  • Getting a lesson in Danish Colonial history as you explore the town of Christiansted in St. Croix. 

Western Caribbean Activities

Western Caribbean cruises are well rounded in terms of the variety of activities offered while in port. Destinations in Mexico provide the chance both to explore living history as well as swim through underwater caves. Scuba dive off the shore of Grand Cayman where dramatic underwater cliffs attract abundant sea life or try horseback riding through the surf in Jamaica, an island with a tradition of horse racing. Some activity highlights on a Western Caribbean route might include: 

  • Swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman
  • Visiting an iguana farm that is home to more than 3,000 iguanas roaming the grounds in Roatan, Honduras 
  • Go mountain biking, see the Mayan ruins, and check out the jungle life all while visiting Belize City. 
 

Western ports have a better variety of activities to choose from. - Photo SIME / eStockPhoto and Shutterstock

Our Pick: Western Caribbean. Activities abound on western routes. Exploring ancient ruins, bobsledding, and tours of coffee plantations are all activities you can do during one cruise alone! 

For Kids & Families 

Similar to the activities offered on both Western and Eastern Caribbean routes, things to do for families on each itinerary are a toss-up between exploring the beaches vs. visiting historical sites and outdoor activities. Depending on your personal preferences, both routes are sure to offer a great family experience. 

Eastern Caribbean Kids & Families

Anyone of any age can enjoy the beach, and what better way to spend quality time as a family than by visiting some of the most perfect coastlines in the world? Not just sand and shopping, the Eastern Caribbean offers the opportunity for families to visit sites like the El Morro fortress in Old San Juan that’s a great way to see history come to life. Some family-friendly activities in this region include: 

  • Hiking through the jungle and seeing thunderous waterfalls of the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico 
  • Visiting Blackbeard's Castle in St. Thomas and learning about pirates who once visited the island 
  • Snorkeling and swimming with dolphins at Blue Lagoon in Nassau 

Western Caribbean Kids & Families

The Western Caribbean offers families more great beaches with numerous activities and opportunities to sightsee at historical sites. From Mexico’s Mayan ruins and diving along the coast of Belize, to climbing the falls at Jamaica’s Dunn’s River Falls, there’s no shortage of family-friendly activities on a Western route. Some family-friendly activity highlights include: 

  • A family day trip to Chichen Itza, ruins of the ancient Mayan City, while docked in Cozumel, Mexico 
  • Ziplining down the mountainside of Labadee, Haiti (Royal Caribbean's private Haitian destination) while experiencing some of the best views that the island has to offer 
  • The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to touch and feed a stingray at Stingray City in George Town, Grand Cayman 
 

Western ports like Cozumel (left) make it easy to lounge on the beach and visit historical sites in the same day.  - Photo by Nomad / eStockPhoto 

Our Pick: For family-friendly and kid-approved adventures, we will go with the Western Caribbean. From water parks to historical ruins, outdoor adventures and beautiful beaches, Western Caribbean itineraries offer something for any family with kids of all ages. 

Top-Rated Cruise Lines and Ships for Families

Things to Keep in Mind

The Western Caribbean’s Grand Cayman stop can sometimes be a dud, as the port is canceled fairly frequently due to heavy winds and surf (ships anchor and shuttle passengers ashore via tender boats), and Jamaica is notorious for vendors with aggressive sales tactics. 

Meanwhile, on eastern routes, St. Thomas and St. Maarten can see more than 10,000 cruise passengers in town at the same time, causing epic traffic jams.

Overall Pick

Western Caribbean. This was a hard decision because quite frankly we want to go on both itineraries! Ultimately, we've decided that a Western Caribbean route offers more of a smorgasbord between beaches and destinations, as well as opportunities for adventurous activities, so our vote goes for the variety.  

Find Deals on Caribbean Cruises

Join the discussion 

Which Caribbean route do you prefer?

 

Join the discussion

Which Caribbean route do you prefer?

5 Comments

Posted by danaglow

We have never done the Eastern Caribbean cruises yet. So much more to do when in port in the Western that we always stay Western. Rating beaches in Western is interesting because the various ports offer differing sands. Your review is helpful and appreciated.

Posted by MrChocoholic

Many good points on both sides. If safety is a concern (and it shouldn't be a MAJOR one) then, in my opinion, less problems on Eastern itineraries. Anywhere there is a major port there will be some safety issues as tourists are irresistible targets. The poorer the country--the less tourism money reaches the actual population--the more there will be crimes of opportunity. Visitors have been dying in the Bahamas, Yucatan and Trinidad since the 1600s. Few tourists actually experience any of Haiti's impoverished people and landscape. Would you risk malaria to go fishing at Cap Hatien?

Posted by adrienne77

I have only been on Western Caribbean cruise. Planning an Eastern Craibbien Cruise next year. I do Western more because of geography I am closer to ports that do Western. I thank it depends on what you want. I like activities get bored if I set on the beach to long, and few local souvenirs alright. Not big on shopping either. I hear snorkeling and scuba Diving is still amazing on the eastern Caribbean. Also I read that there are 7,000 Caribbean islands of course not all are inhabited by humans, in this included all of the Caribbean not east and west. So you could island hope for years never see it all.

Posted by Ktm4930

Points to ponder on both sides. We’ve only done western but had plans to do eastern next. Great article! Definitely lots to consider. :)

Posted by Lazyboy

We have done both, twice B2B on Princess, once western on Carnival, and a "southern" on the Caribbean Princess (THAT was a waste of time ship). The west is cheaper by a few $$ but since I enjoy sea days as much as land fall, I would go on either. My favorite would be B2B 14 or 16 day E/W. We are doing a 16 day B2B on the new Discovery Princess in Dec 2021 that will have some of the southern included (assuming the ship is finished....) and looking forward to it!

Post a comment

Loading...