The best time to sail the Mediterranean

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You might think the best time to sail the Mediterranean would be summer, as that’s when most ships sail to Europe. But I would say other times of the year are better.

You’ll find ships sailing the Mediterranean all year round, so there’s never a time when you can’t sail at all. You will find the most choice of ships and itineraries in the summer during the high season and the least during the winter low season. Spring and autumn are considered the shoulder season, when the Mediterranean cruise season is preparing or ending.

Considering price, weather and crowds, as well as ship and port choices, I think the best time to sail the Mediterranean is during the shoulder season. Specifically, I prefer April. Since your decision may be based on entirely different factors, let’s dive into the variables to determine the best time to head to the area and board a cruise ship.

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Introduction to Mediterranean Geography

The Aegean coast of Turkey. (Photo by Anton Petrus/Getty Images)

The Mediterranean Sea consists of 11 smaller seas. Shopping for Mediterranean cruises can be confusing as some cruise lines like to label their itineraries by smaller sea names.

You might find cruises to the Adriatic, between the east coast of Italy and the central European countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania; these will take you to ports such as Venice, Italy, and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Aegean cruises cross the wide open sea between Greece and Turkey and go as far south as Crete, with stops in Athens and Santorini in Greece and Istanbul in Turkey. Crossings of the Ionian Sea, located between the sole of the Italian boot and western Greece, bring you to the Italian island of Sicily and the Greek island of Corfu.

All of these cruise destinations are considered Mediterranean, along with Monaco, the southern coasts of France and Spain, and even Israel. Ports in Portugal are also included in Mediterranean cruise itineraries. Even though it has no coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, Portugal is considered part of the Mediterranean region.

Related: The best Mediterranean cruises for every type of traveler

The best time to sail the Mediterranean based on ship and itinerary choices

View of the town of Positano on the Amalfi coast in Italy. (Photo by Kirk Fisher/Getty Images)

Cruise lines that sail the region year-round include Viking, MSC Cruises, Costa, Celestyal, and Norwegian Cruise Line. But although you can cruise the Mediterranean in winter, your choice of ports is somewhat limited. We couldn’t find any sailings to the popular ports of Corfu, Dubrovnik or Koper, Slovenia in December or January.

Most winter tenders sail to ports in western Italy, plus France, and west to Barcelona. There are a handful of longer crossings that depart from Athens or include Istanbul, western Turkey, Israel and even Alexandria, Egypt. Of the popular cruise lines, only Viking offers stops in Santorini in winter, and only Costa offers cruises that include Venice in winter. Norwegian’s winter Mediterranean itineraries focus on Spain and Portugal.

Spring and early summer bring more ships and more port choices. From March we found dozens of ships scheduled to visit Venice, Corfu and Santorini. Holland America, Princess, Seabourn, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises all have ships ready to sail the Mediterranean in March. In April, the list of mainstream, premium and luxury lines sailing Mediterranean waters grows to include Windstar, Royal Caribbean, Silversea and Celebrity Cruises.

In June, the choice of cruise lines and itineraries is at its peak. Among the major lines, only Carnival Cruise Line is still absent in June, opting instead for a short cruise season of 10 and 11 nights in September and October.

Most ships stay in Europe all summer before beginning a worldwide dispersal between October and November. Disney Cruise Line is the first to go, with its last Mediterranean summer sailing usually falling in July. Celebrity is among the last to go, often continuing its Mediterranean cruises through December and even January, integrating the holiday season.

If your dream is to see Venice or Santorini, or take a cruise with one of the major lines, you can rule out winter, but you should find plenty of choices between March and October. At the end of November, the number of ships calling at Mediterranean ports fell to winter levels.

Related: Top Mediterranean cruising tips to enhance your European vacation

The best time for sailing in the Mediterranean according to prices and crowds

If your ideal Mediterranean cruise doesn’t include crowds, winter is a good choice, apart from the December holiday weeks. But most travelers will prefer a bit more warmth and a wider choice of ports while favoring a good price and lighter crowds.

Across the board, from mainstream to luxury, Mediterranean cruise fares peak in June, July and August. Prices for large-ship cruises ranged up to $60 per person per night between spring and summer departures. On luxury lines like Silversea, spring cruise fares were hundreds of dollars cheaper per person per night than summer fares. March sees a rate hike due to spring break travel. The best deals we found outside of winter fell in April and November.

To decide what the crowds would be like in different months, we looked at two popular ports where the effect of multiple ships is felt the most – Santorini and Venice. Visit Santorini in June or July and you’ll find yourself fighting for your breath among no less than 15,000 other cruise ship passengers.

Contrast that with an April or November stopover there, where daily cruise passenger numbers reach around 3,000 passengers. We have found days in April when only one or two mid-size ships needed to be in port.

A crowded Santorini. (Photo by George Pachantouris/Getty Images)

I went to Santorini when four medium-sized ships (around 5,000 passengers) were in port and found it difficult to walk through the tight maze of shops, restaurants and hotels. There were enough people that I was worried about getting back to the ship in time because the lines of the cable car that takes cruise passengers over the cliffs to the tender dock were so long. With 15,000 people in the port, I have no idea how you would be able to walk across town. Santorini is a good-sized island, but most of the things cruisers want to see are perched on the narrow edge of the cliffs.

Venice has recently reduced its cruise tourism capacity, in part by forcing some ships to dock at alternative ports and bring guests into town by bus. We included passenger numbers from Trieste, Ravenna and Venice and found June numbers of up to 6,000 passengers arriving, but as low as 4,000. April cruise arrivals are typically below 3,000 per day . The numbers are lower than Santorini – but then Venice has a much more complicated crowd control scenario.

If avoiding high prices and crowd congestion is your priority, rule out the summer months and stick to the winter or shoulder seasons of spring and fall.

Related: Best Mediterranean Cruise Shore Excursions

The best time to sail in the Mediterranean depending on the weather

Temperatures remain moderate across most of the Mediterranean all year round, but even Istanbul can be chilly, with an average high of 48 degrees in January. Athens, Rome, Barcelona and most of the Greek islands experience temperatures in the mid to high 50s in December and January, warming up slightly in February.

Summer temperatures can be brutal in major cities. Athens reaches 90 degrees and higher regularly in July and August. Rome and Barcelona are on average about 2 degrees cooler than in summer.

Rain is more common across the Mediterranean in October and November than most other months, but the average monthly rainfall, even in the fall, is three inches or less. Ports in the northern Adriatic receive slightly more rain than most of the Mediterranean. Don’t forget the famous Acqua Alta, or Venice’s mega-tides, which will have you crossing St. Mark’s Square in rubber boots. Although a truly rare occurrence, high tides are more likely to occur in November and December, making this a concern when booking a cruise on one of the few ships with stopovers in November in Venice.

If cold, hot or humid weather are deciding factors for your Mediterranean cruise, rule out January, February and December for cold, July and August for heat, and October, November and December for rain and tides. That leaves March, April, May, June and September as the best weather months for a Mediterranean cruise.

Related: When is the best time to book a cruise?

At the end of the line

Everyone has their own reasoning for when to cruise. Yours can include traveling while school is closed or maximizing time at the beach. Maybe you are loyal to a particular cruise line or have your heart set on sailing on a newly launched ship.

Whatever your reasons, there’s no bad time to take a Mediterranean cruise. My favorite is April for the confluence of reasonable fares, pleasant weather, manageable crowds and an abundance of routes and ship choices, but I’ve loved the sailings in the other months as well.

My advice is simple: while I think the off-season months are the best time to sail the Mediterranean, go when it suits you and your travel partners best. Because a dream cruise in Europe, even with less than ideal weather or annoying crowds, is better than no cruise at all.

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