Christmas on a Cruise Ship: What To Expect

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Christmas is an exciting time of year, and is even more so when you will be spending the holiday on board a cruise ship, whether you are sailing in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe, or another amazing destination.

Every cruise line, from Carnival to Norwegian to Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, and more, takes extra steps to make holiday vacations special and memorable.

But what can you expect on a Christmas cruise and how is it different than cruising at other times of year? Is taking a holiday cruise really worthwhile? I have taken multiple holiday cruises and enjoyed both the early and late days of the season onboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and other cruise lines – so let me share with you what to expect and how to make your merriest holiday ever!

When Is Christmas on a Cruise Ship?

While Christmas arrives every year on December 25, the exact dates when holiday celebrations occur on cruise ships can vary. While each cruise line will have at least some festivities throughout the season, the cheeriest of holiday cruises might start as early as late November or early December and could stretch past New Year’s Eve and into the first few days of January, depending on each individual ship’s itinerary and sailing dates.

Cruise Couple on a Christmas Cruise
Cruise Couple on a Christmas Cruise (Photo Credit: Ihor Koptilin)

If you want to be sure you are onboard a holiday sailing, check the dates carefully or contact the cruise line to ensure their seasonal celebrations will be in full swing on your departure date.

How holiday celebrations are handled on board will depend on the cruise line, the length of the cruise, the exact itinerary, and where the ship is embarking for each sailing. For each line, however, the climax of the celebratory season is the week of December 25, and that is when passengers will see the most seasonal spirit on board.

What You Will Always Find on a Cruise – Even at Christmas

It is important to note that even during the holiday season, cruise lines do not sacrifice their signature services, fun, and luxury. Regardless of when you set sail, you’ll still be treated to attentive service, delicious gourmet food, exciting entertainment, exotic ports of call, diverse shore excursion options, relaxing spa facilities, and a wide range of amenities.

Furthermore, a full schedule of activities such as trivia contests, craft projects, cooking demonstrations, casino tournaments, deck parties, poolside games, production shows, comedy acts, and more will also be part of every cruise.

Christmas on Carnival Cruise
Christmas on Carnival Cruise (Photo Credit: Ihor Koptilin)

No matter what holiday you may celebrate – or none at all – these fabulous facets of a cruise vacation are always available. While there may be more holiday touches on board during the Christmas season, you never need to worry about the basics of a cruise vacation being neglected.

Furthermore, while you will certainly notice the holiday spirit onboard, it does not generally come across as too overwhelming. While seasonal touches will be found everywhere, the “regular” parts of a cruise don’t disappear, and cruise lines take great care not to intrude on any individual’s seasonal choices.

Carnival Cruise Line Christmas
Photo Courtesy: Carnival Cruise Line

Unless you request and arrange it in advance, for example, your stateroom won’t be decorated for the holidays before you arrive. Nor will you be forced to participate in any holiday activities you may not enjoy or not feel comfortable with.

Just as with any cruise, you can choose what you wish to do, how much you want to participate, and truly customize your cruise vacation just as you can at any other time of year.

Special Activities on a Christmas Cruise

Depending on the cruise line, sailing date, port itinerary, and passenger complement, a wide variety of holiday happenings may be found on board a cruise ship. Some of the holiday fun and Christmas activities you may find could be…

  • A countdown calendar to the actual holiday, or countdowns as individual events begin
  • Holiday-themed craft projects, such as making cards, garlands, gift bags, or ornaments
  • Lighting events, such as a Hanukkah menorah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas tree lighting ceremony 
  • Gingerbread house or village displays or decorating activities
  • Cookie decorating activities, classes, or contests
  • Christmas costume or ugly sweater contests
  • Caroling parties or holiday music from live bands and singers
  • Pajama parties for Christmas morning breakfast or brunch
  • Letter writing to Santa with a North Pole mailbox onboard
  • Visits from Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, the Grinch, or other seasonal celebrities
  • Holiday story times or Christmas bedtime stories
  • “Snow” celebrations on deck or in a large atrium
  • Christmas movies offered at poolside screens, onboard cinemas, or in-cabin televisions
  • A special Christmas show or other holiday-themed entertainment
  • Christmas or other holiday-themed trivia contests
  • Scavenger hunts to find snowmen, elves, candy canes, or other holiday items
  • Special themed activities for kids in onboard children’s programs
  • Religious services or non-denominational Christmas services
  • Special gifts for passengers or seasonal items available in gift ships

While not all of these activities are offered on every cruise or with every cruise line, any sailing near Christmas is sure to have special activities in store for its passengers to celebrate.

Other Holiday Touches You’ll Find on a Cruise Ship

Seasonal activities aren’t the only holiday fun you’ll find on a Christmas cruise. During the holiday season, ships are decked out in their finest seasonal attire with garlands, wreaths, ribbons, twinkle lights, trees, presents, gingerbread village displays, and other holiday decorations in all public areas, and popular carols may be playing onboard.

Holiday Treats on Celebrity Infinity
Holiday Treats on Celebrity Infinity (Photo Credit: Todamo)

Gift shops may be offering specials so you can pick up that seasonal souvenir for everyone on your holiday list, and on-board photography studios may offer specials to turn your very best formal night or casual portraits into holiday cards with seasonal backdrops.

Menus are infused with holiday favorites and seasonal drinks with hot chocolate, eggnog, cranberry, or pumpkin may appear as specials during Christmas sailings.

On most cruise ships, a special gala turkey or ham dinner will be held in the Main Dining Room on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, with both classic holiday dishes and elevated menu choices. Even more casual dining options, such as the buffet, will offer special Christmas dinner dishes.

As you pull into ports of call or private island destinations you’ll be greeted with local festive flair and decorations. Some cruise destinations may be in the midst of their own celebrations with parades, holiday bazaars, and other seasonal fun.

Christmas Tree at Royal Caribbean's Labadee, Haiti
Christmas Tree at Royal Caribbean’s Labadee, Haiti (Photo Credit: EWY Media)

Even passengers get into the spirit and you’re likely to see plenty of stateroom doors decorated with holiday touches, such as Christmas trees, menorahs, wreaths, or other seasonal symbols. More than one passenger is likely to be wearing a Santa hat, whimsical antlers, a light-up necklace, seasonal sweater, or other holiday attire.

But Is a Christmas Cruise Worth It?

While there is a lot going on that makes Christmas cruises extra memorable, these holiday sailings also command a premium price and often sell out months, if not years, before the holiday season. It may be necessary to plan well in advance to take advantage of the best deals, especially if airfare or pre- and post-cruise hotel accommodations may be necessary.

Furthermore, setting sail for Christmas means leaving most of one’s own holiday traditions back on land, including special events, religious services, home decorations, traditional meals, and visits with family members and friends. Of course, many families make a Christmas cruise a tradition in itself, and there’s no better way to spend the holiday than with those you love the most.

Carnival Cruise Line Christmas
Photo Credit: Melissa Mayntz

A holiday sailing can dramatically reduce the traditional craziness of the season. Instead, those tasks are taken care of by the ship’s crew, and guests can truly relax and enjoy the season.

There is no need to decorate your house when you won’t be home to enjoy it, you don’t need to plan elaborate meals or bake dozens of cookies when the gourmet chefs on board will do so, and you don’t need to clean your house for guests when you’re the guest and dedicated attendants spruce up your stateroom each day.

Furthermore, you don’t need to shop for gifts that may just get forgotten, lost, or broken in a few months, and instead the cruise is your gift to yourself and the family members or friends who join you. Onboard, you will make memories to last a lifetime with the different ports of call you visit, shore tours you experience, specialty dining you indulge in, and other fun.

Princess Cruises Christmas
Photo Courtesy: Princess Cruises

A Christmas cruise also lets you escape winter weather and icy roads, frozen fingers, or snow days. It can also be easier to arrange for family members from distant homes to get together when you’re all on the same ship, rather than juggling many different schedules and commitments. After the holiday, you don’t have the hassle of cleaning up after the exuberance or putting away decorations – you just have to unpack your luggage after the cruise.

It can be hard, however, to say bon voyage to family traditions that may have been built up over several generations. If you will terribly miss the special decorations, home-baked treats, Hallmark Channel movies, the excitement of Christmas morning, and other parts of the season at home, it might be best to set sail earlier in the season or after December 25 to get a lot of the holiday spirit on board without completely missing your home traditions as well.

Bringing Your Own Holiday Celebrations Onboard

Experienced cruisers often find a way to bring some of their own traditions onboard, even when setting sail during the Christmas season. Decorating stateroom doors or inside one’s cabin, for example, can use favorite holiday themes or special decorations from home (just be sure the items are permitted onboard!).

Similarly, guests could bring along a sealed container of their favorite holiday treat to be sure they get that familiar taste of the season no matter which ports of call they visit.

10 Useful Christmas Gifts For Cruise Travelers
Photo By: Amber Nolan

Many guests even bring Christmas gifts onboard to exchange with family members on the cruise, as well as extra gifts for crew members who are celebrating the holidays far from their own families.

Also Read: 10 Useful Christmas Gifts For Cruise Travelers

Just be sure the packages are not yet wrapped before boarding, so they can easily pass through security. Gift bags and pre-cut wrapping paper are great ways to be able to wrap gifts onboard.

No matter how you like to celebrate the holiday season, you’re sure to find festive fun on a Christmas cruise. While it can be hard to leave one’s home traditions behind at this special time of year, with so much going on and so many amazing holiday touches on board, an oceangoing holiday could be your very best Christmas ever and a new family tradition to enjoy year after year. Happy Holidays!

Melissa Mayntz
Melissa Mayntz
Avid, enthusiastic cruiser (35+ cruises and counting!), having sailed on multiple cruise lines, 25+ different ships in a variety of classes, and visited ports of call in more than 6 countries, including Caribbean, Mexican, Alaskan, and Hawaiian ports. Widely traveled on multiple continents and homeported from Port Canaveral, as well as a professional freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience and thousands of articles published. Find out more about us here.

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