What is a Cruise to Nowhere?

Wide open expanse of blue ocean with the water being disrupted by a cruise to nowhere
On a cruise to nowhere, it's the journey that counts, not the destination. | Author: Free-Photos

If travel is all about the journey rather than the destination, then why not take a trip to nowhere? Yes, really. Consider a short cruise vacation where the ship itself becomes the destination. A cruise to nowhere sails out into international waters for a short duration of generally 2 to 3 days, allowing passengers with limited time to enjoy a quick, fuss-free getaway, before returning to the point of embarkation without any intermediate port calls.

So why would one consider a cruise to nowhere? The reasons are manifold. Firstly, it’s an ideal opportunity for first time cruisers to sample the cruising life without committing to the extra time and expense of a longer sailing. Even seasoned cruise travelers opt for cruise vacations simply to try out newly launched or upgraded cruise ships, or because their time is limited. The lower cost compared to a longer journey is a very obvious motivating factor too.    

Cruise to nowhere rules for US based ships

Sadly, cruises to nowhere out of US ports officially came to an end in 2016 due to U.S. government regulations. It states foreign flagged ships may not operate roundtrip sailings from an American port without at least one stop in a foreign country. It actually relates to immigration laws governing the mostly foreign cruise ship workers who hold D-1 visas. This visa gives the holder the right to work for the cruise line on international voyages out of the US but not on American soil. Although a ship may sail into international waters, it is deemed to be a ‘domestic’ trip because “they do not land in a foreign port or territory” according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This is a law which actually dates back more than 100 years (called the Jones Act) but has only recently been properly enforced. The only large-sized ocean cruise ship flagged in the US with an entirely American crew is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America which sails exclusively in US waters around the Hawaiian Islands.

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The do-it-yourself cruise to nowhere from the US

While the cruise to nowhere from a US port is officially no more, it’s not quite the end of the story. The concept is still very much alive with American cruisers, thanks to having the world’s largest cruising region right on their doorstep. The ease at which cruise ships can get to the Bahamas, Caribbean and Mexico quickly means there are a plethora of short cruise vacation options.

People are still taking a cruise to nowhere legally by simply creating their own limited time DIY version. They book a conventional 3 day cruise for a quick getaway and simply stay onboard during their vacation days while the hordes head ashore to explore for the day. While this may sound like a wasted opportunity to some people, it is actually a very shrewd way to optimize limited time – especially for cruisers who may have already previously visited the destinations the ship calls at.

1. You get free reign of the cruise ship

Once the ship empties as the crowds disembark on shore excursions, the once crowded swimming pools and restaurants become much more agreeable. Those who stay behind will find space and quietude to top up their suntan and sip a frozen cocktail poolside after grabbing the best sun loungers. Plus, you’ll likely be able to bomb down the water slide to your heart’s content without the long lines.

2. Partake in daytime activities and classes onboard

Cruise lines continue to offer daytime activities during port days, which again will be less crowded than usual, and all the more rewarding for it. Art and crafts, game shows, lectures and cooking demonstrations are just some of the varied options.

3. Have a lazy lie-in, there's no pressure on this cruise vacation

A DIY style cruise to nowhere means enjoying days without the routine of rising early for breakfast and then rushing ashore to make the most of a few hours on land. Spend an extra hour or two in bed and enjoy a laid back day at leisure, including a lunch buffet without the long lines.

A woman with a sun hat lying on an air mattress in the pool on a cruise ship
Taking your own cruise to nowhere, you are independent from shore excursions and can absolutely relax. | Author: Emilio Garcia

4. Take advantage of cut-price pampering for certain onboard activities

Cruise lines invariably offer eye catching deals for spa treatments on port days to entice people to skip the shore excursions. Oftentimes they reduce prices by as much as 50 percent off.  

These short sailings generally take place on mid-sized to larger ships with all the frills, so you’ll be hard pushed to fit in everything during a short two or three-day sailing. All ship amenities and entertainment are open from restaurants and bars, kids clubs, pool deck games, wellness and the casino. In fact, the main purpose of cruises to nowhere was to enable guests to gamble in the casino or shop for duty free gifts once a ship reached international waters.

Why take a cruise to nowhere?

1. You get a feel of what cruising is like

Legally operated overseas cruises to nowhere and short weekend cruises are essentially marketed as sampler cruises to first-timers to test the waters without committing the time and expense of a longer cruise. You’ll have time to sample what onboard life is all about without having to plan your day around in-port shore visits. It’s a great opportunity to make full use of all shipboard amenities – a languid afternoon lazing by the pool deck, a fine meal in a specialty restaurant, some blissful spa time at sea, or a movie screening under the stars. By the time you set foot back on dry land, you’ll likely already know whether the cruising life is for you.

2. It can be a weekend getaway with a difference

If you happen to reside within easy reach of a main cruise port, a quickie cruise to nowhere makes for an intriguing ‘staycation’ option. When that next long weekend comes around, hop aboard for some well-deserved R&R on the high seas, without having to take additional days off work. It certainly beats the hassle of a long drive to a hotel or the seemingly never-ending airport security lines. When it comes to optimizing your precious time off, a local short cruise takes some beating.

3. Cruises to nowhere are great for budget travelers

The much reduced price tag is an obvious lure for a quick getaway short cruise. It’s not difficult to find a cruise at a great rate. These short sailings are often used to fill a one-off scheduling gap or perhaps a new port deployment, and are priced to fill capacity with much cheaper rates than a longer sailing. Once you factor in the cost of a hotel room, entertainment, and dining on land it’s a no-brainer if your budget is tight, even when compared to conventional all-inclusive resorts.

4. They are perfect for themed & occasion cruises

A weekend cruise is a popular option for a special celebration on the high seas, such as a family milestone like a birthday and anniversary, or a bachelor party. In fact, short cruises minus port calls are often specifically promoted as ‘party cruises.’ For many short voyages that remain at sea, the big focus is on a shared interest such as cuisine, art or with a musical flavor, rather than immersing in local life during a shore visit.

Maximize your cruise to nowhere with time-saving hacks

1. Plan your onbard activites ahead of time

While being spontaneous and a little impulsive is all part of the travel experience, you’ll need to be focused with a pre-cruise game-plan to make the absolute most of the limited time. You’ll be boarding a floating mini-city so acquaint yourself as much as possible with the ship layout beforehand. All cruise lines display detailed maps online for all their ships so arm yourself with a print-out before arriving at the port. Better still, save a tree and download their cruise line app which will also give you updates on shipboard events, amenities, add-on services and weather conditions.

The railing onboard of a cruise ship with the view of the ocean.
To ensure having the cruise experience you are looking for, you should plan your onbaord activities well. | Author: cocoparisienne

2. A quick getway means travelling light

Make the experience as seamless and stress-free as possible and pack accordingly. For a short and sweet 3 day cruise, a few choice items of smart casual wear and something for the pool is literally all you need. They are no formal nights on these quick getaway cruises so you can forgo the ball gown and dinner jacket. It pays to pack everything into a handy mid-size suitcase that you can easily wheel on and off the ship yourself, rather than waiting around for ship porters to deliver it to your cabin.

3. Act fast when making shipboard reservations

If you want to sample a dish at a specialty restaurant, book a spa treatment or bag a front row seat at one of the live shows, you’ll likely need to act fast. Make this one of your first tasks as you step aboard. Again, some cruise lines allow you to make reservations via their official app. Needless to say, the sooner you arrive for embarkation the sooner you can start maximizing your enjoyment and exploring everything the ship has to offer.

How to find a cruise to nowhere

As mentioned, sailing out of a US port has its own unique limitations but the huge variety of conventional short cruise options lasting from 2 – 4 days is unmatched. Florida and the Gulf Coast are the main gateways to your next quick getaway to the sunshine, serving the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Mexico, while the SoCal ports of Long Beach and San Diego unlock weekend cruises to Baja. Elsewhere, a little detective work could also pay dividends. If you have a specific ship in mind, start searching for dates around the time it may be repositioning to a new port, or due to come out of a dry-dock refurbishment, as a short 2 or 3 day cruise may be offered to fill in a scheduling gap. Last minute changes, be it an operational or weather-related issue, could also free up dates for an extra short sailing.

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Taking an overseas cruise to nowhere

Cruises to nowhere are perfectly legal in many regions around the world and is an interesting option to combine a long haul vacation with a few days at sea. Cruise itineraries in Europe do include regularly scheduled short cruises with no port calls, and you can easily search and find a cruise to book online. Many of these are not technically a roundtrip cruise to nowhere itinerary as they may depart one cruise port and arrive at another but feature no port calls en route. For example MSC Cruises sails the short journey from Genoa to Marseille – a great option to include it in a planned European vacation that includes both Italy and France.  

One of the biggest markets for a short cruise without any port calls is Australia. Lines including Carnival and Celebrity Cruises operate cruise to nowhere programs, which are often marketed as ‘sampler cruises’ to entice new customers. These generally depart from Sydney and Brisbane with seasonal sailings also from Fremantle. They often have a specific theme such as food and wine, live music or comedy cruises. MSC Cruises also schedules overnight ‘party cruises’ to nowhere in South Africa.

A cruise ship from the MSC cruise line doing a cruise to nowhere
If you are looking for a cruise to nowhere in Europe you should check out the offers of MSC Cruises. | Author: Krzysztof Kowalik

The first step to a rewarding life of cruising

For many travelers, the humble short cruise has been the initial springboard for years of adventurous cruise vacations. Although a cruise to nowhere is technically no more for Americans, the concept is still very much alive and continues to unlock the joys of cruising for a growing number of new cruise converts. These quick getaway cruises punch well above their weight, packing in a lot of excitement and fun experiences during vacation days at sea. They are designed to immerse passengers in the shipboard life yet offer as much relaxation and quietude as you like.

Check out these articles for more information on short cruises: