Check out our roundup of low-cost beach gear to help all members of the family enjoy frolicking in the sand and water.
Cheap Cruises Guide
In a cash-strapped economy, cheap cruises provide a great way to take an inexpensive, exotic vacation. The sheer number and variety of cruises and cheap cruise deals on the market today afford plenty of opportunity for bargain hunters to set sail.
There are dozens of cruise companies in operation worldwide and most offer travelers a choice of ship sizes, amenities, and price points.
Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas, which leads our list of cheap cruises, appeals to a wide age range and offers what travelers say are above average dining options. Another best cheap cruise pick is Norwegian Sky, which wins points for spacious, clean staterooms. Carnival Cruise Lines scores with critics and consumers for activities, cleanliness, and a family-friendly atmosphere on many of its ships, and appears on our list for its good cheap cruises. Passenger reviews suggest waving goodbye to the MSC cruise line for hidden costs and unremarkable food and fun.
A variety of factors, including time of year and on-board accommodations, affect cruise costs. But a good rule of thumb is: The more exotic the location, the heftier the price tag. Cruising to Antarctica, for example, is an all-out luxury affair. Cheap cruises to the Caribbean, however, are easy to find because it's an accessible destination and hotly competitive market. Repositioning cruises -- one-way trips on a ships that are relocating from one region to another -- are another budget alternative. The January 2012 crash of the Costa Concordia (owned by Carnival Corporation) off the coast of Italy also appears to be driving down prices, with bookings down as much as 20% at some companies.
The lowest cruise rates are normally available at the beginning or end of the season; off-peak travel from May to mid-June and October to December are often the best times to land a cheap cruise. As for lodging, the usual choices include an inside cabin, a room with a view (i.e., a balcony or window), or a suite. Prices range widely on most ships, so if you're looking for the cheapest cruise and expect to use the room only for sleeping, go with an interior/no-window option. Also note that cruise lines are increasingly assessing fees for certain privileges, such as staying on board a few extra hours on the day of disembarkation.
Cruise lines tend to specialize in some aspect of the cruise experience. Some cruises excel in entertainment and activities, while others stress food and service. One line may be a non-stop party, whereas another may offer geography lectures. You'll also come across cruises with themes, such as romance, sporty/adventure, and gay and lesbian. The cruise trends for 2012, says Travel Zealots, include enhanced dining experiences, such as guest chefs and unique cuisine, and more attention to on-board environmental practices and sustainable tourism, including opportunities to volunteer in port and charity-related activities on the ship. A big "in" thing this year is expected to be river cruising, both along the Mississippi and through the waterways of Europe. Theme cruises focused on music, art, culture, and family fun abound, and the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster is slated to be a popular motif. Many cruises also offer the option of land-based activities at ports of call -- for a fee, of course.
When you're ready to book your trip, check out the cruise line's website as well as travel consolidators such as Orbitz.com, CruiseCompete.com, CruisesOnly.com, CruiseStar.com, and Cruise411.com. These sites basically serve as travel agents, but they sell cruise deals at steeper discounts than are found elsewhere. If you call and talk to an agent, ask about unadvertised deals and upgrades. Ship Critic Blog warns, however, that bargaining for lower fares on most major cruise lines is now but a faint memory of recessionary times.
To help you decide which cheap cruise is best for you, we've prepared a rundown of features commonly found on low-cost cruises, along with a summary of their performance based on a reading of expert and consumer reviews. Travelers consider the overall experience, accommodations (space and cleanliness), food (many menu options and well-prepared meals), and entertainment (variety for the adults, G-rated fun for kids) as most critical. 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 and the route.
Best Cheap Cruises
Norwegian Sky CruisesOne of Norwegian Cruise Line's most famous ships, the Sky offers four-night Bahamas cruises out of Miami at $169 per person, making it one of the best values around. A casual atmosphere, plenty of activities, a spa, and comfortable accommodations appeal to thrifty travelers, but the dining options get mixed reviews. Passenger capacity: 2,002. Read more »
Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas CruiseThe four-night Bahamas cruises aboard this ship start at $199 and depart from Miami. The ship caters to all ages with a full menu of entertainment, adventure, and food options, plus onshore excursions; passengers give the ship high marks in all these areas. Passenger capacity: 2,350. Read more »
Good Cheap Cruises
Carnival CruisesEach Carnival Cruise Lines ship is slightly different, but most Carnival cruises rank high in expert and consumer reviews for value and overall experience; of particular note are the Liberty (out of Miami), Splendor (out of Los Angeles), and Miracle (out of New York). Budget travelers report getting value for their money given the quality rooms, good food, inclusions, and overall experience. Passenger capacity: 2,000+ (depending on ship). Read more »
Don't Bother Cheap Cruises
MSC Opera Cruises
Several of MSC's ships, including the Poesia, Magnifica, Melody and Fantasia, do one-way repositioning cruises at rock-bottom prices. But hidden fees are travelers' biggest complaint (tea, coffee, and bottled water cost extra at some meals), along with grumbles about sub-par food and limited hours at the pool and restaurants. Passenger capacity: between 1,500 and 3,000 (depending on ship). Read more »
Celebrity Cruises Review
Holland America Cruises Review
Voyages of Discovery Cruises Review
MSC Opera Cruises Review
Carnival Cruises Review
Norwegian Sky Cruises Review
Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas Cruise Review
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