Why now? Because many Americans spend their tax refunds -- which the IRS says have averaged around $3,000 for the past few years -- on vacations. Here are three of our favorite "tax-refund-friendly" ships, affordable cruise options that won't blow the whole return in one sail. Splashy, new or amenity-laden these ships are not, but they earn consistently solid marks from passengers with the right expectations in mind: Grab a quick hit of cruise fun that doesn't burn through vacation days or the wallet.
The 2,052-passenger Carnival Inspiration is a year-round Los Angeles homeporter sailing three- and four-night Pacific cruises visiting Catalina Island, California, and Ensenada, Mexico. It's far from Carnival's most sought-after vessel -- it's missing an alternative restaurant and only 26 of 1,026 cabins have real balconies -- but the 16-year-old ship underwent a massive refurbishment in fall 2007 that at least propelled it into the 21st century. Additions included a 300-foot-long waterslide, adults-only Serenity deck and dedicated space for the inscrutable 12 - 14 "tween" set. Carnival standbys, like a nightly sushi cart and highly sociable crew, are also part of the package.
Required Refund: Fares range from $229 to $549 per person. For the best deals, avoid June, July and August, as well as the Christmas and New Year's sailings.
What the People Say: 81 percent of 490 Carnival Inspiration reviews were favorable.
Carnival Inspiration Fares:
Majesty of the Seas
Royal Caribbean's 2,350-passenger Majesty of the Seas turns 20 this year, but a $36 million surgery in 2007 has it looking more like a blemish-free 13. The ship has enough lounges and casual dining options, including a Johnny Rockets burger joint ($4.95 per person), to keep passengers happy and fed, and a decent gym and rock-climbing wall will spare the active sorts from inertia. On the cons list, standard cabins (inside and out) are contenders for the industry's smallest. The 122-square-feet would be a serious problem if the cruises weren't also so appropriately compact. The Miami resident offers three- and four-night Bahamas cruises visiting CocoCay, Royal Caribbean's private island, and Nassau.
Required Refund: Fares range from $199 to $559 per person. The cheapest sailings tend to take place on the shoulders (April/May and Spetember/October/November).
What the People Say: 83 Percent of 507 Majesty of the Seas reviews were favorable.
Majesty of the Seas Fares:
Like Majesty of the Seas, the 2,002-passenger, Miami-based Norwegian Sky traffics in unpretentious Bahamas cruises visiting Freeport, Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian's private island) and Nassau. But unlike Majesty of the Seas (and Carnival Inspiration), Sky has a trio of true alternative restaurants serving Italian (Il Adagio, $10 per person), French (Le Bistro, $20) and steaks (Cagney's, $25). Sky's last major overhaul was in 2004, so, while it's younger than Inspiration and Majesty by three and seven years, respectively, reviewers more frequently point to it being a little on the worn side. It also features a lot of left-over Hawaiian decor from its stint as an Aloha State-based vessel in the mid-2000's. Some are confused, others charmed.
Required Refund: Fares range from $169 to $529 per person. The cheapest sailings tend to take place on the shoulders (April/May and September/October/November).
What the People Say: 66 Percent of 765 Norwegian Sky reviews were favorable.
Norwegian Sky Fares:
One final caveat: The cruises are cheap -- but the flights might not be. If you're looking for a good air deal, check out Cruise Critic's sister site, Airfare Watchdog.
--by Dan Askin, News Editor