Best Cheap Cruises
The sheer number and variety of cruises on the high seas afford plenty of opportunity for bargain hunters. There are dozens of cruise companies in operation worldwide and most offer travelers a choice of ship sizes, amenities, itineraries, and price points. To determine which low-cost cruises are worth your time and money, Cheapism looked at onboard facilities and port locations, and surveyed prices posted by the major cruise lines. We read dozens of expert and passenger reviews to learn which ships live up to their glossy marketing and which fall short. The quality of accommodations, food, entertainment, and shore excursions go a long way toward making a cheap cruise a rousing success.
Cheap Cruises Guide
Cruise prices reflect a range of variables, including time of year, itinerary, duration, and onboard accommodations. Nightly rates for a budget-priced excursion generally fall between $50 and $100 a person.
Vacationers can find the best deals on so-called mainstream cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Costa Cruises. These and other major operators ply the waters with mega- and some mid-size ships, the largest of which carry more than 4,500 passengers and crews exceeding 1,500. Premium and luxury lines, such as (respectively) Holland America Line and Seabourn, generally run smaller ships with less over-the-top glitz, a slower pace, and more personal attention.
Three of our best cruise picks sit in the mainstream segment. Royal Caribbean Cruises' Freedom of the Seas (starting at $75 a night) appeals to a range of ages, and travelers consider the onboard dining options above average. Another top pick, Norwegian Cruise Lines' Breakaway (starting at $71 a night), is a relatively new ship that wins points for clean staterooms and sophisticated entertainment. Carnival Cruise Line's Dream (starting at $53 a night) scores with critics and consumers for activities, cleanliness, and a family-friendly atmosphere. The Constellation (starting at $38 a night), part of the premium Celebrity Cruises line, balances the perks of a megaship and the intimacy of a smaller cruise without charging premium prices. MSC Cruises runs the MSC Divina (starting at $54 a night) exclusively in the Caribbean (starting in 2016), but reviews suggest waving goodbye to this one for hidden costs and unremarkable food and fun.
Cruise Packages.Cheap cruise packages typically include most (if not all) meals and many onboard activities and kids' programs. Be prepared to pay extra for alternative (specialty) restaurants, some coffee and ice cream bars, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, shore excursions, spa treatments, and gratuities. The luxury lines include more in the basic fare, but even these trips are never completely all-inclusive. For instance, drinks and gratuities may be covered, but spa treatments and shore excursions are not. Posted prices for most lines typically do not include taxes, fees, and port expenses.
Cruise Safety.Safety aboard cruise ships is always a concern. Media reports about outbreaks of norovirus, incidents on Carnival cruise ships (including the Dream), and more recently a fire on a Royal Caribbean ship have hurt bookings. To lure back travelers, cruise lines lowered prices and adopted an industry-wide passenger bill of rights. Carnival put $300 million into extra backup generators and safety systems and began promoting a money-back guarantee (passengers who decide a cruise is not their cup of tea within 24 hours of departure can fly home on the company's dime and receive a 110 percent refund). The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains a portal for updates and resources about cruise safety.
Regardless, plenty of vacationers appreciate the megaship bargains and the vast majority of reviewers consider cruising a happy and carefree experience.
What We Looked For
Budget cruises aim to replicate the ambiance of a resort, albeit one that floats on water. They offer upscale restaurants, buffets, and lounges; daytime and nighttime entertainment for young and old; gyms and pools; and shopping opportunities, of course. Some ships try to make a splash with one high-profile amenity or another, like a jogging track, climbing wall, or aqua show. Regardless which vessel you book, such "features" are standard fare. We focused instead on factors that distinguish the best cheap cruises from the also-rans.
New or Upgraded Ships.Many megasize cruise ships have recently been refurbished and don't lack for amenities. When Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas launched in 2006, it already boasted unique features such as a surf simulator, a rock climbing wall, and an ice skating rink, which have since shown up on other ships in the fleet. The vessel was upgraded in 2011 and refreshed in early 2015; among the most recent improvements are new dining options and cabin furnishings. Celebrity Constellation (affectionately nicknamed "Connie") dates back to 2002 but was refurbished in 2010 and 2013. Cheap cruises are available even on new ships such as Norwegian Breakaway, which was inaugurated in 2013 and offers a jam-packed menu of restaurants, activities, and entertainment.
Location, Location, Location.The more unusual the itinerary and the farther away from home the departure point, the pricier the total cost (including land or air travel to and from the port). Frugal vacationers should focus on cruises relatively close to their residence. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Port Canaveral are popular jumping off points for the Caribbean and Bahamas; Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas, Celebrity's Constellation, MSC's Divina sail from Florida. Our top picks include alternatives: New Orleans is home port for the Carnival Dream while Norwegian Cruise Line's Breakaway departs from New York. Cruises on the West Coast, down to Mexico, up to Alaska and Canada, or out to Hawaii depart from Long Beach or Seattle.
Nontraditional Cruises.One-way sailings or "repositioning cruises" occur when a ship is moving from one cruising region to another. The prices per night often sit in the budget zone, but the trips tend to be long -- a week or more -- and the ride is only one way, which means factoring in the extra transportation charges. Repositioning cruises occur at the beginning or end of the warm-weather cruise season (mostly late spring and fall). The Celebrity Constellation, for example, spends the winter cruising the Caribbean but in early April it moves from Fort Lauderdale to Rome, its departure point for summer voyages around Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. The 13-day transatlantic crossing docks on a Portuguese island, at the Rock of Gibraltar, and in Spain for less than $40 a night.
Cruise Ship Reviews
Professional travel writers, magazine editors, and travelers are among the best sources for cruise reviews. Industry publications such as Porthole and travel magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler compile readers' choice awards and editor-curated lists of the best cruises, although many of these lump together entire cruise lines and have little regard for budget. Keep in mind that many cruise lines operate many different ships, so reports about any given cruise line can vary widely, depending on the ship, the crew, and the route.
U.S. News & World Report ranks individual ships based on health inspection scores from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and consumer ratings on Cruiseline.com. Cruise Critic combines editor reviews of each ship with hundreds of member reviews, many from veteran cruisers. We also consulted several review and booking sites including Orbitz, Expedia, CruisesOnly, and Cruise411. On these sites, which basically serve as travel agents and generally sell cruises at a discount, customer reviews are candid about the pros and cons of each ship.
Both the cruise lines and the individual ships we recommend have earned recognition from these sources for one thing or another. Comments we read indicate that travelers care most about accommodations, food, and entertainment, in addition to the general sense of pleasure and well-being that the best budget cruises provide. Reviews also comment on the optional land-based activities at ports of call.
Accommodations.Vacationers' satisfaction with cruise ship accommodations depends a lot on the type of cabin they chose, its size and location, and the associated amenities. Although the least expensive cabins aboard cruise ships are quite small, most passengers know what they're getting into and adjust accordingly. Some, though, are taken aback. One passenger review of the MSC Divina on Cruiseline.com expresses surprise at the cramped quarters and suggests that the European cruise line is out of touch with American expectations.
Still, the rooms pass muster with most travelers. Although minor grousing about dated décor pops up here and there, notably in reviews of the Celebrity Constellation, passengers on the ships discussed here report bedding is quite comfortable and the rooms are clean and well-stocked with towels, shampoo, and the like. There is some griping about noise from the hallway, the rooms next door, or the deck up above, particularly from reviewers who stayed in smaller and less costly cabins.
Passengers who don't plan to spend much time in the room should book the cheapest available, typically in the interior on a lower deck. Cabins on older ships can be as small as 100 square feet but more like 140 to 180 square feet on newer and refurbished vessels; higher fares buy more space. Don't be fooled by the stated dimensions of a balcony room; many cruise lines include that outdoor space when calculating overall square footage.
When possible, look for the ship's deck plan on a site such as CruiseCompete before choosing a cabin. See what is below, above, and next to each; bunking directly under the noisy pool deck or bar, or on the lowest decks where the hum of the ship's propellers may be audible, may not appeal to every frugal traveler. Those who get seasick easily should avoid the highest-level rooms, which sway the most. Experts at Cruise Critic say the optimal arrangement is a cabin with staterooms above and below, like a traditional hotel.
Food.Reviews leave little doubt that cruise food quality varies widely from ship to ship and even within a single ship. In general, buffets tend to rank lower than specialty and fine-dining restaurants, which typically cost extra and may require reservations before passengers even climb aboard. Many reviewers consider these options part of the draw of the ships on our list, although some diners come away disappointed and chafe at the beefy surcharges given irksome flaws in execution (service quality, menu selection, and food preparation). Other customers prefer casual dining of the sort typically found poolside, or at the bar-and-grills common on cruise ships, and seem content with the offerings. For the most part, passengers commend the food, but as with anything so subjective, there is always some carping. An expert reviewer and some passengers aboard the MSC Divina, for example, were particularly disappointed with the spread in the buffet, both in quality and variety, and report rude behavior as hungry diners jockeyed for position at the food tables.
Entertainment.Mainstream cruises offer all manner of onboard entertainment, including shows, musicians, movies, lectures, and kid-specific programs. (Check the options before booking to be sure they match your preferences.) Royal Caribbean ships get a general thumbs-up from Frommer's for innovative, fun, and varied amusements and Norwegian Cruise Line bears the "best nightlife" moniker from Cruise Critics editors.
As with so much about the cruise experience, to each his or her own when it comes to entertainment. Some passengers aboard the Celebrity Constellation thoroughly enjoyed the variety, quantity, and quality of the performances, according to reviews at TripAdvisor, while others grumble about lack of entertainment around the pool on sea days.
Shore Excursions.Many cruises offer passengers the option of joining organized shore excursions at stops along the way -- for a fee, of course. The cruises book these excursions through local guides, so prices and availability vary from ship to ship and season to season. They can add anywhere from $25 to $300 a person to the total cost of a cruise. Reviews highlight one drawback of a megaship such as Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas: Although it gets good marks for varied activities and port stops, passengers warn on Cruiseline.com that the process of getting on and off the ship can take hours. Some cruise reviews also report that excursion operators often hustle visitors from stop to stop, allowing less time to explore than expected.
Many cruise lines, including Carnival, let passengers view brochures and book desired excursions in advance. For example, on Caribbean cruise ships and other tropical cruises, you can line up a diving or snorkeling excursion. Passengers may be able to save money by finding out which company is running the shore excursions or similar outings and booking directly. At CruiseCheap.com, consumers can search by ship and cruise date for local side trips and book online before setting sail. Researching your options from home without any sales pressure is a big advantage, but if the excursion has not been coordinated with the cruise line, be absolutely sure to leave sufficient time to return to the ship before its scheduled departure -- the captain won't wait for you.
- Best Cheap Cruises
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