Calendar is best bet for forecasting a smooth cruise

The season for cruising to Antarctica runs from November to March, but passengers on the Clelia II learned in December that crossing the Drake Passage can be risky at any time. The ship sustained engine damage amid heavy seas.

Associated Press

The season for cruising to Antarctica runs from November to March, but passengers on the Clelia II learned in December that crossing the Drake Passage can be risky at any time. The ship sustained engine damage amid heavy seas.

In December an Antarctic cruise ship was caught in the violent waters of the Drake Passage, which tossed the ship around like a toy in a bathtub. A few days later, a cruise liner in the Mediterranean off Alexandria, Egypt, was hit by giant waves that tilted the ship.

Does it mean that cruising is unsafe? No.

It means that you should be careful in choosing when to cruise.

Sailing off-season might be cheaper, but there's a reason for that: You are risking bad weather.

"Where we are hearing rumbling of concerns is that the cruise lines are definitely pushing the season in the Mediterranean," says Carolyn Spencer-Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.

"When people think of the Mediterranean they think of it as the Caribbean of Europe. But it snows."

In past years, the Mediterranean cruise season lasted from April to October. Then it was March to December. Now, ships like Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas are cruising even in January and February, when ports like Southampton, England, Dubrovnik, Croatia, or Venice, Italy, can hit 30 degrees.

Ports in winter can be quiet and crowds blessedly thin, but bad weather can affect a ship's ability to stick to its itinerary.

Still, as long as travelers know the risks, they can get good deals. In fact, some travelers actually like to cruise off-season, such as going from New York to the Bahamas in January, or traveling across the North Atlantic in March, Spencer-Brown says.

"There is a reason why you are seeing a $500 deal for a 12-day cruise," she says. "There's a downside. It's a trade-off."

The cruise lines won't exactly advertise it, but here are my guidelines for the best and worst months to cruise, weatherwise:

Caribbean: Season is year-round. Best is December to April. Worst is August to October, in hurricane season. Personally, I have sailed during hurricane season with no problems.

Mediterranean: Season runs April to October, but now lines are cruising year-round. Best is June or September (August is most crowded). Worst is December to February. Watch out for England departures in winter.

Northern Europe: Season runs May to September. Best is June through August. Worst is very early May.

Alaska: Season runs May to September. Best is July and August. Worst is May or September — winter is lurking.

New England: Season runs April to October. Best is July to October. Worst is April to May.

Trans-Atlantic: Season runs March to November with most repositioning cruises in spring and fall. Best is June to August. Worst is March or November. One current ship, the Queen Mary 2, is built specifically to cross the Atlantic, Spencer-Brown says. "We've seen some really exciting waves, shall we say, on the Atlantic," she says.

Antarctica: Season runs November to March. Best is mid December to February. Worst is November or March.

Antarctica is the one trip on which you must expect dicey weather even in high season. Ships have to cross the unpredictable Drake Passage off the coast of South America, the trickiest stretch of water in the world.

Calendar is best bet for forecasting a smooth cruise 02/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 12, 2011 3:30am]

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