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Watching ships pass through the Panama Canal

Panama Canal Cruise: Large vs. Small Cruise Ships

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For over a century, the Panama Canal, dividing the Americas in two, has stood proudly as a marvel of modern engineering and served as a symbol of the perseverance and ambition of the human spirit. And there’s no better way to witness the Canal than a cruise right through it! The only question is - Should I choose a large ship or a small ship to cruise the canal?

If you’re accustomed to the grandeur and extensive amenities and social areas of major ocean liners, then you might be inclined to stick with the bigger ships to see the Panama Canal…and that’s not necessarily a bad choice. But don’t write off the smaller boats either, as they offer some truly unique experiences, including distinct perspectives on the canal, intimate atmospheres on board, and shorter wait times. 

Sizes: Let’s be clear - the “small” ships that navigate the Panama Canal are not quite as small as yachts, and generally accommodate just around or under 100 passengers, while the “big” cruise ships are still much smaller than the mega-ships of the Caribbean, accommodating around 2,000 travelers. 

Locks: From the small ships, you will have a truly unparalleled view of the locks and their inner workings as you sink gradually below the level of the top of the locks, including the locomotives that hold the ship in place. Plus you’ll likely be paired up with a larger vessel, which some think is pretty cool to see, while others don’t appreciate that the larger ship (naturally) blocks your view in one direction. 

If you’re on a bigger ship, you will not get quite the same point of view as the smaller ships, but you will still be in awe of how the captains masterfully navigate their giant vessel into the narrow locks with just inches of clearance on either side. And since you sit higher in the water, you will be able to see more of the surface workings of the locks. Just beware that because it costs the big ships more to go through a lock, this difference will probably be reflected in the ticket price.

Finding a spot to view the action can actually be more difficult on the bigger ships - even though they have more deck space, you are competing with many more passengers to get the best spots. This advantages small ships, because it’s not only easy to move around the ships to get different perspectives, but the fewer passengers and less overall deck space actually means that there are fewer “bad” spots from which to view the locks in action. If you do choose a bigger ship, keep in mind that the back (stern) of the boat is usually much less crowded and can be just as good to see it all happen; otherwise, you’ll have to wake up bright and early to snag a prime spot for photos. 

Itineraries won’t differ too much between large and small ships in terms of the canal itself, but bigger ships might offer more shore excursion options (par for the course with bigger cruise ships), while the smaller vessels will likely be able to visit some ports that are off the beaten path thanks to their smaller size and navigability. Snorkeling, ziplining, hiking, rainforest exploration, and other activities are generally available on both small and big ships. 

The atmosphere on board a small ship is notably more intimate, and by the end of the cruise you will have likely met everyone on board, including the crew, whereas on a big ship, you might get to recognize most other travelers with you, but you will also need to compete with them for the on board spaces and the best viewing spots for navigating the locks. Note that the small Panama Canal ships generally tend to attract younger, more active, destination-oriented couples, while the bigger ships draw a bit of an older, active explorer crowd.

The bottom line: Small cruise ships navigating the Panama Canal will offer you a unique perspective and an intimate on board atmosphere. The larger ships will provide more on board amenities and a more traditional cruising experience. 

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