Sure, times are tough, but does that mean you have to give up your vacation altogether? If taking a cruise this year involves penny pinching, why not consider a cruise on a line known more for value than for the latest splashy features?
Unlike the airline industry with its low-cost carriers (think Ryanair, Spirit Airlines or even Southwest), there aren't too many cruise lines that can be considered budget (though some older ships on well-established, contemporary cruise lines, like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, could fall into this category).
So, to help you in your search for cruise deals, we've come up with three categories for penny pinchers -- budget cruise lines, budget itineraries and budget seasons. You don't necessarily need a dedicated budget cruise line to find rock-bottom rates, but you do need to know which itineraries and cruising seasons traditionally have the lowest prices. With some savvy strategies, you can even find extremely affordable sailings on premium and deluxe cruise lines, as well as the mainstream ships.
So stop moping and start shopping -- there are plenty of affordable cruise vacations to be had.
Budget Cruise Lines
Cruise lines do fall into different price categories, but only a few qualify as truly budget -- either because they reduce costs by offering fewer onboard amenities or sail only very short cruises. The cruise lines detailed below are considered budget lines, but look for sales on older vessels belonging to the fleets of Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean for some competitive rates, plus plenty of onboard activities, multiple dining venues and the newest gadgets and gimmicks.
Voyages of Discovery: Voyages of Discovery is as budget as you'll find. Its longer-than-average cruises to exotic destinations cater to retirees, who are more interested in education and exploration than lavish onboard amenities. The line's one ship, Discovery, was launched in 1971. Though a 2003 refurbishment has kept it in top-notch condition, it lacks the bells and whistles of today's new-builds. Expect basic accommodations (none with balconies), lackluster dining and service, and simple public areas. The focus is instead on the fabulous onboard lecturers and value-oriented shore excursions.
Celebration Cruise Line: One-ship Celebration Cruise Line offers two-night budget cruises from Palm Beach to the Bahamas aboard Bahamas Celebration, a converted ferry. The line is aimed squarely at first-time cruisers looking for a cheap way to try out a cruise, and base rates start as low as $99 per person (though taxes and fees add another $50). While it's not quite a mega-ship, the 35,000-ton, 1,500-passenger Bahamas Celebration sits very much in mainstream cruise ship territory. Onboard, passengers will find four restaurants (with one for-fee specialty venue), several bars, a disco, a 630-seat main theater, a spa and gym, sun deck space and an adults-only pool. For the youngest cruisers, there are age-specific kids' clubs and a 180-foot-long waterslide. As the ship is a converted cruise ferry, cabins are generally quite small, with roughly 50 being of the bunkbed variety. Moreover, there are no true balconies. (There are four suites with enclosed balcony configurations.)
Editor's Note: There's one caveat to mention about Celebration Cruise Line. You may have seen the line's cruises being touted as "free" (taxes are $59 per person) by a wholesaler called "Caribbean Cruise Line." The goal of this separate telemarketing company is to lure consumers into buying a timeshare by offering them a free cruise. While many have taken advantage of the free cruise offer without issue, there have been numerous complaints. Our advice as always is to proceed cautiously and understand what you're getting into before handing over credit card information. For more, see our story The Free Cruise Offer: Scam or Legit?
Older ships from Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean: Cruises on older ships tend to have lower rates for two reasons -- the ships are lacking the amenities and the hype of the new ships, and they tend to be deployed on shorter or less popular routes. But that doesn't mean you can't have a grand old time on an older ship, and if you're a first-time cruiser, you won't even realize you're missing anything -- other than higher fares. It's also important to note that lines have by no means neglected these older ships -- most have gone under the knife for multi-million dollar refurbs in the past half decade. The rock-bottom rate award at this point goes to Norwegian Sky, which occasionally offers four-night Bahamas cruises out of Miami for $169 per person (that's $42 a night). (Also, see the advice below on three- and four-night cruises -- many older ships are sailing these itineraries.) The 2,052-passenger Carnival Imagination, one of eight teenage and older Fantasy-class ships, is another good bet. Likewise for Royal Caribbean's 2,350-passenger Majesty of the Seas, which launched in 1992.
Norwegian Sky Fares:
Carnival Imagination Fares:
Majesty of the Seas Fares:
If you're looking to cruise at the cheapest rates possible, certain itineraries stand out as almost always having low total or per-night prices. These tend to be the shortest cruises and voyages with a high percentage of days at sea.
Weekend Cruises: You won't find entire seasons of one- or two-night sailings, but these every-so-often cruises make great short getaways that won't break the bank. For example, NCL offers one- and two-nighters out of New York, Tampa and Miami. Princess Cruises also offers short sailings between Vancouver and Seattle or San Francisco. At press time, we saw a one-night Holland America cruise between Vancouver and Seattle for $54 per person for an inside cabin. You'll spend so little time in your cabin that it makes sense to pay less for it and get your money's worth of free food, entertainment and onboard amenities like the pool and disco.
3- and 4-Night Cruises: A combination of short itineraries and older ships make three- and four-night cruises excellent values. Carnival offers entire seasons of short cruises to the Bahamas, Baja Mexico, the Western Caribbean and even Canada and New England. Royal Caribbean offers three- and four-night Bahamas cruises on the older Majesty of the Seas, while its four-night Western Caribbean cruises are on ships with a few more onboard amenities. Look for rates under $200 per person, but anything under $100 per night is a good deal. Just be prepared for a party atmosphere to prevail onboard, as shorter itineraries also tend to attract a younger crowd.
Repositioning Cruises: For really cheap nightly rates (between $40 and $75 a night per person), repositioning cruises -- one-way sailings that take place when a ship is moving from one cruising region to another -- are the best bet, though they tend to have pricier total rates than the short sailings. These itineraries occur at the beginning or end of the warm-weather cruise season (spring, late summer and fall, mostly). Look for voyages from the Caribbean, Florida and U.S. East Coast to Europe (or vice versa) with stops in the Canary Islands or Azores along the way. On the West Coast, you'll find repositioning sailings between Alaska and the southern California homeports, as well as Panama Canal voyages between California and Florida.
The combination of lengthy itineraries (typically longer than seven nights) and a higher-than-average percentage of days at sea drives down the nightly rate, making these cruises an ideal way to try out a premium or deluxe cruise line without busting your budget (mainstream cruise deals are just as good). Celebrity tends to have especially appealing deals, like this spring's 13-night cruise from Miami to Southampton from $599 (just $46 a night). Fall repositioning deals we've spotted recently include a 13-night transatlantic cruise from Barcelona to Miami on Norwegian Epic from $799 ($61 a night).
Repositioning cruises tend to attract mature travelers and retirees who have the time to vacation for 10 days or longer.
If you're looking for a specific destination and want to save the most money on a particular cruise, look for seasonal discounts. As a general rule of thumb, shoulder-season sailings (those that take place at the beginning or end of a cruising season) tend to be the most budget-friendly. While the tradeoff for your cheap cruise fare may be less-than-ideal weather, you can often benefit from less crowded destinations and possibly more affordable airfare.
Alaska in May and September: To cruise Alaska at budget rates, choose a sailing in May or September right after the ship has arrived in the region or right before it's set to leave for warmer climes. For example, Holland America's seven-night Glacier Discovery cruise on Zaandam shows fares from $549 in May, but starting rates as high as $1,149 in mid-August. Because the weather is typically cooler, and fish, animals and flowers are less abundant at these times, these sailings are less popular than June-through-August departures, meaning the rates drop. On the plus side, May is typically less rainy than the summer months, and September offers a chance to catch the Aurora Borealis.
Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico in Fall: Autumn is a bargain time for cruising in almost any region, but the lowest prices are for Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico getaways. If you're looking for last-minute, seven-night cruises under $500 per person (and we've seen as low as $299), this is where you'll find them. (Shorter three- to five-night cruises are equally affordable.) These low prices are partly caused by the general lack of travel happening between Labor Day and Christmas but also are a result of hurricane season in both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. (The majority of hurricanes occur between August and October.) If you choose to take advantage of these cut-rate prices, it's worth paying for travel insurance to protect yourself against canceled cruises or delayed sailings, due to stormy weather.
Mediterranean in Winter: It used to be that most ships fled the Mediterranean in fall and returned only in the spring. Now more ships than ever are staying through November and returning in March or even sticking out the winter in European waters. Although cruise lines might think it trendy to base ships in the Mediterranean year-round, the fad has not caught on in quite the same way with the cruising public. Therefore, prices for winter cruises are extremely low. For example, a 10-night, Eastern Mediterranean cruise in December on Norwegian Jade has starting prices of $599 per person (a mere $60 a night).