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Full Panama Canal Transits

March 3, 2008 By: Susan Young Travel Agent

Here are tips for your clients taking a cruise that traverses the canal from ocean to ocean

A REPOSITIONING CRUISE that fully transits the Panama Canal from Atlantic to Pacific, or vice versa, is often a once-in-a-lifetime voyage. Your clients might have sailed on a Caribbean itinerary that took them through the canal from the Atlantic to Gatun Lake and back, but the full, 50-mile canal transit is a different animal entirely.

These 10 tips—gleaned from our recent trip aboard Silversea Cruises' Silver Shadow—will help your clients make the most of their canal transit day.

TAKE IT SLOW. A canal transit takes eight to 10 hours, not counting stopover time at Gatun Lake, where passengers disembark for shore trips. The full transit features three sets of locks—two on the Pacific side and one on the Atlantic side, some with multiple chambers. It includes cruising through the narrow Culebra Cut (also called Gaillard Cut) and the vast Gatun Lake. Action unfolds very slowly and ships move at a snail's pace at times. Advise clients not to expect a fast-paced experience. Insider Advice

GO UP TOP EARLY. Views from the ship's bow are superb. Passengers' excitement builds as the ship approaches the first lock. Thus, competition is fierce for the best spot on the rail. Advise clients to get to the bow railing early; latecomers won't get the best views. I had several passengers behind me pushing forward into me to see because the best spots were taken. After the first lock is transited, many guests head elsewhere onboard.

BRING BINOCULARS AND A CAMERA WITH A ZOOM LENS. Our guide spotted crocodiles swimming near shore just before Silver Shadow entered the Miraflores Locks. Without the binoculars, they looked akin to swimming sticks. The passenger next to me, though, got excellent crocodile and bird photos with her zoom lens.

BOOK A BALCONY. If there ever was a good reason for booking a stateroom with a balcony, a full canal transit is it. After braving the crowd on the top deck for the initial lock entry, we retreated to the comfort of our suite's balcony. Views of the locks and jungle scenery are great from a cabin's balcony, so advise clients to order room service, relax and enjoy the canal in style. Native Panamanian woman with her wares at the Gatun Yacht Club

THINK "RIVER CRUISE." Particularly during the voyage through the narrow "Cut" and into the lake, the transit can resemble a river cruise experience, with jungle terrain on both sides of the vessel. We looked up to view two massive bridges, and we glimpsed Panama City's skyline in the distance.

TURN ON THE STATEROOM TV. The in-room TV system usually offers bow camera shots of the lock transit, as well as commentary from a Panamanian guide.

INTERACT WITH THE LOCALS. The Panama Canal Authority (PCA) workers assist dozens of ships daily in transiting the locks. Many workers smiled and waved at passengers on our cruise.

READ ONBOARD LITERATURE IN ADVANCE. Encourage clients to review the daily onboard program, as well as any detailed literature/maps the shore desk might have, before the transit begins. Clients who skim the line-provided literature in advance will have a better appreciation of what they're seeing along the way.

SURF THE WEB. The excellent PCA website, at, explains the canal's history, operation and expansion. Clients who go to the site's multimedia section later in the day of their transit might see photos of their ship in the canal. A website with compelling historic photography is

GO ASHORE. At Gatun Lake, cruise lines usually offer such shore excursions as a jungle walk, a lake eco-cruise or a lock-specific tour. A tour gives your clients the chance to actually visit Panama, not just float through it.

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