Disney characters dressed in festive attire

With lots of great holiday cruises to the palm-fringed beaches of the Caribbean and the historic Christmas markets of Europe, why not put a family voyage under the tree this year?

Instead of celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year’s in the frigid north this year, why not trade in your snow boots and mittens for a warm weather cruise? Or, perhaps you’d prefer to celebrate the holiday season in a cooler climate aboard a river cruise visiting one of Europe’s famous Christmas markets?

Holiday fun aboard a Carnival cruise ship

Holiday cruises to the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, and South America offer many of the seasonal trappings of home combined with a tropical island twist. For example, just picture the whole family sipping eggnog by the pool, singing carols on a coral-fringed beach, greeting Santa Claus with Palm fronds, and welcoming in a New Year from the foredeck of a luxury liner while overlooking the turquoise-hued waters of the Caribbean.

If you’d like a more traditional atmosphere for the holidays, there are also plenty of river cruises that visit Christmas markets in European cities like Budapest, Vienna, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Regensburg and Colonge. During these cruises, guests will have the opportunity to participate in holiday activities like tree-trimming, visit local Christmas markets, and sample local treats like Nuremberg Plum People (figurines make from dried prunes), Gluhwein (hot spiced wine), and Lebkuchen (soft and chewy gingerbread).

If you’re beginning to think that holiday cruises sound idyllic, just wait: this magical atmosphere extends into the interior of the ship where public rooms are decked out with festive décor and restaurants offer holiday menus with seasonal favorites like roast turkey with all the trimmings.

Budapest Christmas market

Many guests also decorate their own cabin doors and interiors with wreaths, menorahs, holiday cards and locally-made decorations picked up in each port of call. And most put up stockings and leave wrapped gifts in a section of their cabin to open on Christmas Day.

Holiday cruises also travel with ministers, priests and rabbis so that passengers can attend religious services for Christmas and Hanukkah. And there are usually plenty of opportunities to observe familiar rituals such as tree and menorah lighting ceremonies, Christmas caroling, and holiday meals and drinks.

When it comes to the holiday spirit, the ship won’t be the only place you’ll find it. Most of the ports will be bursting with holiday decorations, music and festivals, all with a Caribbean or European twist. In fact, some ports like St. Kitts will be in the middle of island-wide celebrations, while others will be focused on local traditions and folklore. In contrast, the Alsatian town of Strasbourg will be serving up some holiday history with Europe’s oldest Christmas market dating back 1570, and where the world’s first documented Christmas tree was used inside Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539.

Nuremberg Plum Men

As for New Year’s Eve, you won’t need to book a table and fork out lots of cash for a celebratory evening. Dinner, entertainment, dancing and a bang-up party are all included in your cruise fare. And you don’t have to appoint a designated driver – your cabin is just a few steps away from the party!

While Christmas and New Year’s cruises are generally more expensive than the rest of the year, there are some bargains for people willing to begin or end their cruise on one of the holidays. In addition, holiday cruises that end before Christmas usually offer cheaper fares.

If you want to lock in your favourite ship, cabin and itinerary for the holiday season, September is a good time to book. Once the cold weather arrives, these holiday sailings usually sell out quickly. And, as time passes, getting the best air connections become increasingly difficult.

If you do decide to cruise in the holidays, here are some tips to make sure you get the most out of your trip:

Christmas festival on St. Kitts

* Fly into your port of embarkation a day or two early. Winter weather in northern regions can be very unreliable, and you don’t want to start the first day of your holidays stressed out because your flight has been delayed.

* If possible, choose a cruise itinerary where Christmas and New Year’s Eve are not on your first or last day on the ship.

* If you can afford it, splurge for a balcony cabin. And if you have more than two kids, consider adjoining cabins.

* If sailing in the Caribbean with children, select one of the larger ships from a mainstream cruise line (Disney, NCL, RCI, Carnival, Celebrity, and Princess) with lots of kid-friendly facilities. And if you choose a river cruise in Europe, be aware that these boats are much smaller and have very few kid-friendly activities.

Viking river boat decorated for the holiday season

* Conversely, if you’re without kids and don’t want to share your cruise with 1,000 adolescents, try smaller ships on more upscale lines like Regent, Crystal, Silversea, Azamara, Windstar and Seabourn, or a river boat cruise in Europe with lines like AmaWaterways, Avalon, Grand Circle, Viking, Scenic and Tauck.

* As most families take 7-day cruises, you can also avoid the little folks by booking aboard a longer cruise of 10 to 14 days.

* Bring some decorations for your cabin – a piece of cord or wire for stringing cards, a string of lights, and a favourite decoration or two. And buy some locally made Xmas decorations in each port of call to add to your collection.

* Pack some festive outfits including colorful ties and hats, as well as tuxedos or suits and dresses for the formal and party nights.

So if the thought of taking a holiday cruise to the Caribbean or Europe is beginning to sound appealing, why not put one under the Christmas or Hanukkah tree this year. It’s a gift that will deliver loads of family fun as well as many years of wonderful memories.

Feature image – A European Christmas market

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