My family just came back from a 10-day cruise to Panama Canal (plus Aruba, Curacao and Half Moon Cay). This was a bucket-list item for yours truly. Truth be told, the cruise was a serious budget-buster, especially after we spent a fortune on my family reunion in Europe this year. I actually had to use a 0% offer on one of my cards and pay it off over a period of six months.
But when I saw a good deal on a Thanksgiving sailing, I simply couldn’t resist. We still had to take the kids out of school for three days, but justified it to ourselves by saying that it’s an educational trip. Never mind the fact that the kids were kind of bored after a few minutes of crossing the canal. But hopefully they will appreciate this once-in-a-lifetime experience when they get older. I plan to do a separate post on our Panama canal crossing soon, so keep an eye on it.
So, how good of a deal was it? I like to be transparent, so here we go. We paid a total of $5,300 all-in for two connecting balcony cabins for us and our two kids. The fees and port charges were $450 apiece, the bulk of it for Panama Canal crossing itself. The tips got charged automatically, and added up to $620 for four people. We also booked an excursion in Gatun lake in Panama, and paid for a private tour in Curacao. In addition, I spent $380 for spa area access for me and my husband for the length of the cruise.
So, once you add that, a few extra purchases like photos, unlimited laundry, alcoholic drinks, plus $150 parking fees in Port Everglades, the grand total was close to $7k. That’s not a cheap vacation by any means. I did burn some of our points from Capital One Venture X card (our affiliate link) at 1 cent apiece, but for the most part, we put it on a credit card. I also chose not to buy Holland America gift cards, because I didn’t want to get stuck with them in the event of cancellation. I booked our cabins through Cruise.com, but I always recommend checking Cruisecompete.com website first.
We could have saved a boatload of money by booking inside staterooms, but opted not to. I didn’t want to have any regrets for what likely will be a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. So, was it worth it? It 100% was, though it wasn’t all “smooth” sailing, pun intended. Of course, it doesn’t mean that all of you who are reading this will feel the same way. It helped that I had a pretty good idea on what to expect since we’ve already sailed on Eurodam in 2009, when my daughter was only 18 months old. We loved it then, so I felt comfortable investing this significant chunk of money again.
If you’ve never cruised before, I recommend you do a short/cheap sailing first before opting for a 10-day trip. This is a very specific kind of vacation, and folks tend to either love it or hate it. In order to enjoy a cruise, you have to accept certain limitations. Your room will be tiny because space is at a premium. Even the fanciest suite on a ship will likely not compare to a basic room at a Hyatt resort.
You also have to be flexible when it comes to docking at advertised destinations. If you have your heart set on one specific port, and that’s the main reason for taking the cruise, I recommend you fly there instead. For example, we were supposed to stop at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, but due to storm in Fort Lauderdale, we ended up leaving eight hours later than planned. Then the ship came across a migrant boat from Cuba and it caused a delay of six hours on top of it. So, the captain made an announcement that we would not be going to Costa Rica after all. Fortunately, my husband and I just visited Costa Rica a few months ago. We also have plans to take our kids there within the next few years. So, this wasn’t a huge disappointment. We simply booked a similar excursion (monkey-spotting jungle cruise) in Gatun lake as a substitute.
Another limitation you have to accept is potentially spotty internet access. This is a big one for my husband, who works in IT. We did purchase a premium internet package for $153 for the duration of the cruise, but it was hit or miss. Unfortunately, there was a huge issue at work that would have taken my husband five minutes to resolve. Instead, it took his team several hours to get it taken care of, since his work notification only came through two hours after it was sent. Supposedly, some cruise lines (like Royal Caribbean) have better speed, but it’s never guaranteed. In general, if you absolutely have to stay connected, cruising may not be for you. My husband didn’t get in trouble or anything, but did ask to not do another cruise for at least a few years, in hopes of upgrades in that area. Well, if it had to be our last cruise for awhile, I’m glad it was to Panama canal.
A third issue you need to keep in mind is a higher chance of catching some sort of infection. This has become more apparent after the start of Covid pandemic, but it honestly has always been the case. If you are immunocompromised, you should think twice before taking a cruise. Got diabetes like my husband? All this food may be too much of a good thing.
On the other hand, some destinations just lend themselves better to cruising, and Panama Canal is obviously one of them.
What made me choose Holland America over other cruise lines
The were a few reasons, actually. First of all, as mentioned earlier, the price was lower than it has been in the past. I’ve been watching this particular cruise for years, and normally, it runs at $7,600 for two connecting balconies, compared to $5,300 we paid. Plus, one of the sailings took place over Thanksgiving break, which isn’t always the case. While other cruise lines offer a similar itinerary, my husband and I really wanted Holland America, and it didn’t disappoint (well, aside from poor internet access).
Our last cruise took place in 2019 and I wrote a review of our experience on Royal Caribbean Mariner of the Seas. So, for the purpose of this post I will be referencing that particular trip to highlight the main differences. First, let me be clear that I’m not here to bash Royal Caribbean. Different strokes for different folks. Honestly, I’ve never been on a cruise that I haven’t enjoyed. As long as you come in with the right expectations, you should have fun, especially if you get a free cruise via status match. On a basic level, they are all very similar. You will get better than average food and decent entertainment to hopefully keep you satisfied. Plus, any vacation is better than being stuck at work.
That being said, for me and my husband, Holland America is just a better fit. It’s a cruise line we are willing to pay good money for, which I can’t say about Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Here is why:
1) Medium-size ships with traditional amenities
There are no waterslides or skating rinks, and that’s honestly how I like it. Eurodam fits around 2,000 passengers, while most modern cruise ships these days carry 5,000 or more people. Our cruise actually had 1,300 passengers, which made the crowds quite manageable. We never had to wait more than 30 seconds for an elevator. On Mariner of the Seas there was always a line of people and only a few elevators, which made it frustrating for my elderly in-laws who had a hard time taking the stairs.
Eurodam is a beautiful ship, reminiscent of ocean liners from the olden days. For some it may look boring, but I find it graceful and classy.
My favorite amenity is definitely the promenade deck, which is rarely found on cruise ships these days. And I can understand why, because they can fill it with premium balcony cabins instead. But Holland America insists on preserving this very special feature.
I usually get bored walking on a treadmill, but thoroughly enjoying doing laps on the promenade deck in order to get some exercise.
Plus, occasionally, my husband and I would get treated to some amazing views.
Instead, there are a lot of quiet places to sit and admire the views.
2) Better than average cruise food (including buffets)
Honestly, I’m not a foodie and usually eat microwave meals for lunch. So, I’m fairly easy to impress. Still, in my opinion, out of all the cruise lines I’ve been on (includes Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Celebrity), Holland America is the top dog. It’s all subjective, of course. Normally, I don’t like buffets and consider them unsanitary. However, Holland America is different. Not only is the food at the buffet delicious, but they have servers handling it, which makes it more hygienic. I really appreciated the fact that they offer fresh/delicous sushi rolls for lunch.
Breakfast buffet is also out of this world. They have omelette stations, eggs Benedict, crepes and other fancy options. Normally, I prefer to go to the main dining room, but on Eurodam we ate at the buffet quite a few times, and didn’t feel like we missed anything. It certainly made my son happy, since he hates waiting for his food.
We also splurged on dinner at their Tamarind restaurant, which requires a $29 per person cover charge. Normally, I avoid this sort of thing, but my husband really wanted to go. It was an excellent Asian-fusion cuisine in a romantic setting, and I do recommend you try it at least once.
3) No obnoxious music or loud midnight parties
One of the biggest issues we had with our Royal Caribbean cruise was constant parties held in the promenade, located in the middle. This, to me, is a serious design flaw on many of their ships. We actually booked a balcony cabin away from all the action, and could still hear loud music late at night. It didn’t happen every day, but enough to become a serious nuisance.
Also, the main pool area was always super loud, with music blasting nonstop. In fact, it’s the main reason my husband wants to avoid Royal Caribbean and Carnival (which is similar) in the future. Even going for close to free would not be enough of a motivator to him. He works hard and wants to enjoy his vacation, which I guess is fair. I’m far more flexible.
Another thing I wanted to mention is that on Eurodam we have not encountered any drunk people in the hallways for the duration of the cruise, a common sight on Carnival.
4) Live classical music performances and various low-key activities
If you enjoy classical music, you will be in for a treat on Holland America ships. We live in the middle of nowhere in Florida, and going to a live concert requires 1.5 hour drive one way. So, to have it so easily accessible on the ship was incredible. Holland America hires talented musicians, who perform at their Lincoln Center Stage at least a few times per day. There was an amazing pianist from Italy, two violinists and a cello player, and they were all simply incredible. They performed works by Mozart, Bach, Chopin (the usual).
I also really enjoyed their BBC Earth presentation, a nature documentary accompanied by live music. It sounds boring, but wasn’t. It held my kids’ attention for close to an hour, and that’s some serious accomplishment.
Seriously, even if you are not a fan of classical music, I recommend you attend at least one live performance if you cruise on a Holland America ship. No need to dress up, I wore shorts most of the time. They also had a jazz band, but I’m not a fan of jazz, so can’t comment on it.
I also really enjoyed a florist presentation, who manages the flower arrangements on the ship. At the end he did a drawing and gave away all the flower arrangements to the attending guests, which I thought was a nice touch. Apparently, before being hired by Holland America, he used to work as a florist for Shangri-La hotel chain in Asia.
I’m not very good with flowers, and my yard looks similar to one on the show “Malcolm in the middle” (Google it). But I do like looking at them, and try to seek out botanical gardens during our trips.
5) Relatively nice cabins with a decent-sized shower
Again, by cruise standards. If you compare the cabin photos to my post on Royal Caribbean, you will see a clear difference. On Eurodam, our cabin was in decent shape, and the carpet was stain-free.
6) Amazing spa area
I saved the best for last. This was a serious splurge, but I just couldn’t help myself. For $193 per person you could get unlimited access to spa for ten days, so my husband and I decided to bite the bullet. I’m a huge spa fan, but he can take it or leave it (AKA he did it for me). However, even he had to admit that this is a nice amenity. Plus, most of the time, it was just the two of us in the spa area.
We also enjoyed these heated loungers, as well as the sauna room. If you can afford it, go!
I don’t regret paying for it, as it was honestly one of the most enjoyable aspects of the cruise. Plus, it gave my husband and me a chance to focus on each other without kids interrupting us constantly.
How my kids felt about going on “old folks” cruise
Holland America has an unfair reputation for catering to the “almost dead” crowd. I don’t have any issues with being surrounded by old folks on a vacation. For one thing, they are people like me, just with more mileage. I seriously doubt that I will be all that different if/when I turn 70. I know I will still love travel, and I will still have my sarcastic sense of humor. Well, I probably will be more cranky due to aches and pains.
Regardless, in general, I don’t go on vacations to make new friends. I’m there to mainly spend time with my family, so it doesn’t matter what age group other passengers fall into. In fact, I prefer old people because like me, they go to bed early. I guess I’m old at heart, and darn proud of it!
Anyway, back to kids. They actually loved the cruise. When I asked them how it compares to Royal Caribbean, they both said they enjoyed both equally. We certainly din’t get our money’s worth when it comes to our son’s food, since he mostly ate sandwiches, pizza, hot dogs and ice cream.
But he loved it, so it’s all that matters. So, if you have a picky kid, worry not. Along the fanciful foods, there are plenty of familiar child-friendly options.
My son absolutely loved Club HAL, and kept asking to go back each and every day. It’s designed for children who are 3-12 years old. There were not a lot of kids on this cruise, since the sailing overlapped with school. But there were enough to keep my son happy. The counselors were absolutely wonderful, and did movie nights, various crafts etc. I thought they were fantastic, and all the kids got a lot of individual attention. The club didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it didn’t matter.
My son and his Club HAL friends made arrangements to meet up at the pool, and organized a kid party of sorts. Speaking of, the water in Holland America pools goes through desalinization process, so it doesn’t burn your eyes. It’s a small thing, but my son commented on it, since this is something that bothered him on the Royal Caribbean ship.
Overall, my kid gave this cruise a 10 out of 10, and the lack of slides or other kid-friendly features didn’t bother him in the least. Plus, we can always go to one of local Florida resorts for those.
She was actually relieved, since like my husband, she is a bit anti-social. She does like to draw, so I paid $25 for her to attend a painting class. So, she happily spent two hours there, surrounded by old ladies.
We did a few other activities together, but she was also perfectly happy sitting on the balcony and playing video games. Like my son, she also gave this cruise a 10 out of 10. So, in the end, the parents got what they wanted and the kids enjoyed their time as well. I call it a win.
I didn’t really plan to spend so much on travel this year, but I also don’t regret it for a moment. This was a wonderful family vacation, and I will always treasure the memories we’ve made together. The purpose of this post isn’t necessarily to convince you to book a Holland America sailing, but rather provide a different perspective. It’s not a cruise line that is often considered by families with young kids, and I’m hoping to change that.
From now on, my rule of thumb for cruises will be to choose the type that makes me and my husband happy (since we are paying), and the kids get the privilege of coming along and enjoying it for free. Fortunately, they haven’t complained so far. And why would they?
P.S. If you’ve never cruised on Holland America and want to try it, make sure to use someone’s referral link to get a $50 onboard credit per cabin (this is on top of any other promotions available at the time of booking). Here is my referral link Thanks if you use it!
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.