A ship relocating from one seasonal cruising region to another defines a repositioning cruise. These repositioning cruises offer unusual itineraries and special savings.
Most ships sail in tropical regions during the winter season and then make a repositioning cruise to more temperate climates for the summer. There are 24 repositioning cruises to Europe scheduled for this April alone. Dozens more cruise ships will reposition from Mexico or the Panama Canal to Alaska itineraries this summer.
Repositioning cruises offer cruisers a chance to see out-of-the-way ports of call rarely offered on seasonal cruises; Hawaii, the Azores, the Canary Islands or cities along the West Coast of the United States like San Francisco.
This winter there are two ships permanently repositioning from Florida to California, and both are too large for the Panama Canal. Carnival Splendor and Mariner of the Seas will both sail all the way around South America to relocate in their new homes in Los Angeles. For each of these ships this is a one-time repositioning cruise unlikely to be repeated.
Why Do Ships Make Repositioning Cruises?
One of the aspects of the cruise business that makes it so successful is that a cruise is two vacations in one. The first part is the ship itself, and the second part is the ports of call on the cruise itinerary.
Most non-experienced cruisers have the misconception that cruise ships repeat the same itinerary all year long. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people in the Northeast and Midwest want to cruise in the Caribbean during the cruelly cold winter months. Meanwhile, cruise lines can only offer Alaska cruises from May to September. And so we have repositioning cruises.
All ships have to come from somewhere, and all ships have to be somewhere. It is only logical that the cruise lines would re-deploy their fleets where they are needed on a seasonal basis -- because ships can so easily move to the places where they are needed most.
Almost every ship in any fleet makes regular repositioning cruises to a new cruising region at least twice a year. Generally, repositioning cruises occur in the spring and fall, setting up the stronger winter and summer seasons.
What are the Most Common Repositioning Cruises?
Let's look at some of most commonly offered repositioning cruises. There is a small market for cruises in Europe during the deepest winter months, with most ships going to the Canary Islands or the Middle East. But the European summer season features dozens of ships sailing throughout the Mediterranean, Atlantic Coast and the Baltic Sea.
Most of the summer season ships in Europe are American, and they sail trans-Atlantic cruises from the Caribbean to reach Europe in the spring. They again reposition to the Caribbean during the autumn months.
On the other coast, every ship relocating from the Caribbean to Alaska must go through the Panama Canal - unless they won't fit. So, while Panama Canal cruises are offered throughout the year, the April/May season offers a much larger variety of canal cruises to choose from.
Many repositioning cruises for ships headed to Alaska will make a run for Hawaii on the way up the West Coast. These cruises often start in San Diego and sail for the Hawaiian Islands. Some of these ships will repeat this as a roundtrip cruise a few times. Then comes the true repositioning cruise - the one that leaves San Diego for Hawaii but returns to Vancouver, Canada.
Each year offers slightly different repositioning cruise itineraries depending upon demand and what the cruise lines need to accomplish. For example, the two circumnavigation cruises of South America scheduled this winter will not be repeated with these ships. These are one-time cruises. Interestingly, I have already met several cruisers who are aware of the unique nature of these cruises and have booked them for that reason alone.
Another unique repositioning cruise I am aware of this year is a West Coast cruise that starts in San Diego and ends in Vancouver. This is a nine-day cruise on Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas. The ship visits Catalina, San Francisco, Astoria, Seattle and Vancouver. While this only happens once this year, it will likely be repeated next year and beyond if it proves to be popular.
The Most Popular Repositioning Cruises
The most well known repositioning cruises are the trans-Atlantic voyages that several ships make between the Caribbean and Europe every spring, and back again every fall. These ocean crossings are well liked by ocean liner enthusiasts. Naturally, before air travel ocean crossings by ships were the only way to reach new continents. The "classic" ocean crossing repositioning cruise is between New York and Southampton, U.K.
Other eastbound crossings may leave Miami and head straight to Europe, or they may cruise in the Caribbean for a few days first. Most westbound crossings start in Barcelona, Southampton, or Lisbon. Most crossing generally consist of several days at sea in a row. Some ships choose to break up the voyage with stops in Madeira, the Canary Islands, the Azores or Bermuda. The more interesting repositioning cruises might begin in Europe and end in South America.
The Jones Act and the Passenger Vessel Services Act
Two ancient federal laws continue to affect every cruise every day, but especially repositioning cruises. The first one is the Jones Law, which says that any vessel sailing between U.S. ports must be built in the United States and owned (at least 75 percent) by American citizens or corporations. The other law is the Passenger Vessel Services Act, which says foreign flagged vessels cannot transport passengers between U.S. ports. Even roundtrip cruises from any U.S. port are required to visit a "distant foreign port."
Obviously, because these laws are somewhat antiquated and arcane they are often interpreted on a case by case basis. Most cruise ships leaving San Diego must legally spend a day in Ensenada, Mexico before they return to San Diego. Even cruises to Hawaii must have to stop in Ensenada before they reach the U.S. island chain to satisfy this law.
Almost all cruises to Alaska either start in, or spend a day in Vancouver Canada. In the recent past the West Coast cruise I mentioned above would have not been allowed because it stops in sequential domestic ports; Catalina, San Francisco, Astoria (Oregon) and Seattle. A bill set forth by Sen. John McCain in 2000 made it possible for certain repositioning cruises to make exceptions.
It must be remembered, however, that one cannot join a ship in one U.S. Port and disembark in another U.S. Port without first visiting a distant foreign port. This has been known to cause passengers problems if, for example, the cruise sails from Miami and they need to disembark in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, for an emergency. They will be fined about $200 apiece by the Federal government.
Repositioning Cruise Savings
Since a reposition cruise is a necessity for a ship, and because they usually occur in the off-season, repositioning cruises are generally cheaper on a per diem basis than the average cruise. Because they offer fewer stops the port fees and taxes are lower. Also, unlike revenue cruises that are routed to the places people really want to see, there isn't much demand for the Azores, the most remote islands in the Atlantic, for example.
I often see Atlantic-crossing repositioning cruises for less than $50/day. This is a real bargain, but you need to choose your ship and itinerary carefully. An older ship with small televisions and not much nightlife might start to feel pretty claustrophobic after the fifth straight day at sea. Plus, if it is sailing in November the seas can get pretty rough.
Few repositioning cruises ever have more than four days at sea in a row, although you might see cruises with four days at sea, a short stop in the Azores, and then four more days at sea. That is a pretty boring cruise.
I have personally crossed the Atlantic three times. The longest stretch I have ever been at sea is ten days, on my very first cruise, from Los Angeles to Tahiti. Yes, I was a little claustrophobic but the whole ship thing was still new to me. The crewmembers that had already been on that ship for several months were far more claustrophobic than I was.
The Best Repositioning Cruise
It is important to remember that a cruise is two vacations in one - the ship and the destinations. A cruise line with just three ships needs to change destinations more often to entice customers back to the cruise line. Most ships, especially smaller, luxury ships are constantly repositioning so their loyal customers have a reason to cruise more often.
The best repositioning cruise is a world cruise, even if it isn't really a repositioning cruise since it ends where it started. Still, technically any cruise that sails from one cruising region to another is a repositioning cruise, so never mind the definitions, I'm on a world cruise. Ask me when I get back.