You will find a variety of Panama Canal cruises from San Francisco, all of which take you through the canal after stopping along the western coast of the US, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Most of them then offer a few stops on the eastern side of the canal and finish their journey in Florida.
Below, you will find the three best options, which are the most popular and offer one or two departure dates per year.
Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.
Celebrity offers a very popular 16-night cruise that starts in San Francisco, makes its way through the Panama Canal, and ends in Fort Lauderdale.
Before it reaches the canal, it makes two stops in Mexico, one in Guatemala, and one in Costa Rica.
After you cruise through the canal, you will then make one stop in Panama, one stop in Colombia, and end your journey in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
This trip is aboard the Celebrity Infinity, a ship that offers space for around 2,100 guests.
Onboard amenities include a full-service spa, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, and several pools. You will also find a casino, several indoor and outdoor bars, and activities for your kids. In addition, you will find several restaurants from elegant to casual. Some of the top options include the Tuscan Steakhouse, Blu Restaurant (exclusively for AquaClass guests), and Cafe al Bacio & Gelateria.
This is the typical itinerary for this cruise:
Day 1: Depart San Francisco around 5pm.
Day 2 & 3: At Sea.
Day 4: Arrive in Cabo San Lucas at 11:30am. You will have all day to explore. The ship departs at 6:30pm.
Day 5: Arrive in Puerto Vallarta at 1pm. The ship leaves at 8pm, which gives you plenty of time to check out the city on your own or sign up for a shore excursion.
Day 6 & 7: You will continue south and be at sea on days 6 & 7.
Day 8: You will arrive at the port city of Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala at 7am. The ship leaves at 6pm.
Day 9: At Sea.
Day 10: You will arrive in Puntarenas, Costa Rica at 7am and will have until 6pm to check out this lovely waterfront town.
Day 11: At Sea.
Day 12: Today is the highlight of the journey. You will cruise through the Panama Canal. You will enter the canal at 6am and arrive on the other side around 6pm.
Day 13: You will make a stop in Panama in the port city of Colon. You arrive at 6am and leave at 4pm.
Day 14: This is your final stop before you arrive in Florida. Today you get the chance to explore Cartagena, Colombia. You arrive at 8:30am and leave at 3pm.
Days 15 & 16: At Sea.
Day 17: You will arrive at your destination, Fort Lauderdale, at 7am.
Another one of the popular Panama Canal cruises from San Francisco is the 16-night trip with Holland America. It offers four stops before you cruise through the Panama Canal and two on the eastern side. You will arrive in Fort Lauderdale on the morning of your final day.
Your stops include three in Mexico, one in Costa Rica, one in Colombia, and a final stop in the Bahamas.
Your journey is aboard the MS Nieuw Amsterdam. This ship offers 11 passenger decks and has the capacity to hold up to 2,100 guests.
Onboard, you will find restaurants that range from a casual meal by the pool to fine Italian dining. If you decide to stay in for the day or night, they also offer a 24-hour in room dining service.
You can also enjoy the full-service spa and salon, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and the lively casino. Onboard the ms Nieuw Amsterdam, you will also find luxury boutiques, outdoor pools, and an internet cafe to check your emails.
These are the typical stops for this cruise:
Day 0: Leave SF at 5pm.
Day 1 & 2: At Sea.
Day 3: Visit Cabo San Lucas, Mexico between noon and 8pm.
Day 4 & 5: At Sea.
Day 6: Visit Huatulco, Mexico between 8am and 5pm.
Day 7: Stop in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico between 8am and 5pm.
Day 8: At Sea.
Day 9: Stop in Puerto Caldera (Puntarenas), Costa Rica between 8am and 6pm.
Day 10: At Sea.
Day 11: Today is the highlight of the trip as you will visit the Panama Canal. You will enter the canal on the western side around 5am. You will cruise through all day long and exit on the eastern side around 7pm.
Day 12: Visit Cartagena, Colombia between noon and 6pm.
Days 13 & 14: At Sea.
Day 15: Your final stop before you reach Florida is at Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. You will arrive at 8am and leave at 3pm.
Day 16: You will arrive in Fort Lauderdale at 7am.
Princess Cruises also offers a very popular option through the Panama Canal. This trip features five stops and eight days at sea.
You will make one stop in Mexico, one stop in Nicaragua, and one stop in Costa Rica. You will then ride through the Panama Canal. On the other side, you will make one stop in Colombia, one in Aruba, and finally arrive at your destination in Fort Lauderdale.
This cruise is onboard the Island Princess. It includes room for up to 2,000 passengers. Amenities include a full-service spa, movies under the stars by the pool, and shows every night. You can relax near one of several pools, grab a cocktail at one of the lounges, or head to the fitness center.
The Island Princess includes several dining options. You can enjoy fine dining in the Provence Dining Room or grab a slice of pizza at the Princess Pizzeria. Onboard, you will also find a casual buffet, pastry shop, ice cream bar, and a bar & grill. Room service is available 24 hours a day.
This is the typical route for this cruise:
Day 1: Leave SF at 4pm.
Days 2 & 3: At Sea.
Day 4: Full day stop in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with an arrival time of 8am and a departure time of 5pm.
Days 5 - 7: At Sea.
Day 8: Arrive in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua at 7am and depart at 6pm.
Day 9: Stop in Puntarenas, Costa Rica from 7am to 7pm.
Day 10: At Sea.
Day 11: Today is the day you will cruise through the Panama Canal. You will enter at 6am and come out the other side around 4:30pm. There are no stops; you will cruise the entire day through the canal.
Day 12: Stop in Cartagena, Colombia between 8am and 2pm.
Day 13: Afternoon stop in Aruba, arriving at 1pm and leaving at 7pm.
Days 14 & 15: At Sea.
Day 16: On the final day, you will arrive in Fort Lauderdale at 7am.
If you plan to spend a night or two in SF, then I recommend checking out the selection of hotels in the Fisherman's Wharf district. This is the heart of the tourist attractions, including Pier 39, the ferries to Alcatraz, and more. It's also close to Pier 27, where your ship will arrive and/or depart.
Fisherman's Wharf is also home to several dozen hotels for every budget. You can stay at places such as the four-star Argonaut Hotel, a historic beauty near the waterfront and a perfect find for those looking for a higher-end experience. Or, you may opt for one of several popular hotel chains such as Marriott, Sheraton, and Holiday Inn. In addition, you will find a few budget-friendly options that are locally owned and operated.
Here are a few activities I think you will enjoy during your stay in San Francisco.
Alcatraz Prison Tours: Head over to Alcatraz Island for a self-guided audio tour of this famous prison. It was home to inmates such as Al Capone, Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and Machine Gun Kelly. The worst of the worst were transferred here and on the tour you will learn all about what happened when this place served as a maximum security prison.
Visit the Golden Gate Bridge: Walk along the Golden Gate Bridge for a close-up look at this amazing structure. This important bridge connected Marin County with San Francisco for the first time. Today, you can visit its outdoor museum, take a guided walking tour, or stroll along its pathways on your own.
Enjoy a Guided Walking Tour: The best way to explore a city such as SF is on foot. Learn from the experts on one of these guided walking tours. Sample food, learn about the history of Fisherman's Wharf, or uncover the hidden stories of Chinatown. Most tours are two to three hours.
See the Sights on a Bus Tour of SF: Ride around the city and learn more about its history on one of these bus tours. Some offer you the chance to explore on your own and others include several hours of guided fun. You will see places such as Golden Gate Park, learn more about how the Haight Ashbury District became famous, and discover more about the days of the Gold Rush.