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Cheap Cruises Guide

Raechel Conover contributed to this report.

The sheer number and variety of cruises 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.

In other words, you have your pick of budget cruises, high-end cruises, and voyages priced somewhere in between. You can take an intimate tour of remote islands (e.g., the Galapagos Explorer II, starting at $453/person/night, carries a maximum 100 people), cruise the Alaskan inlets on a midsize ship (with Princess Cruises, for example, starting at $66/person/night), or board a 3,000-person floating city that trolls the Caribbean (e.g., Carnival Cruise Lines or Royal Caribbean cruises).

Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas (starting at $57), which leads our list of cheap cruises, appeals to a wide age range and offers what travelers consider above-average dining options. Another top pick, Norwegian Breakaway (starting at $70) -- brand new in 2013 -- wins points for clean staterooms and sophisticated entertainment options. Carnival Dream (starting at $60) scores with critics and consumers for activities, cleanliness, and a family-friendly atmosphere and appears on our list for its good cheap cruises. Celebrity Eclipse (starting at $60), another notable option, collects points for its organization on ship and friendly staff. Passenger reviews suggest waving goodbye to the MSC cruise line (starting at $60) for hidden costs and unremarkable food and fun.

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The lowest cruise rates are normally available at the beginning or end of the season; off-peak periods 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. 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 that cater to specific demographics, such as romance, sports/adventure, and LGBT. Recent trends include enhanced dining experiences, such as guest chefs and specialty cuisine, and a new round of "firsts" including an on-board waterpark and a glass-bottom walkway above the water.

To help you decide which 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. Many cruises also offer the option of land-based activities at ports of call -- for a fee, of course. 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.

When you're ready to book your trip, check out the cruise line's website as well as travel consolidators such as Orbitz, CruiseCompete, CruisesOnly, CruiseStar, and Cruise411. These sites basically serve as travel agents, but they generally sell cruises at steeper discounts than you'll find elsewhere. If you call and talk to an agent, ask about unadvertised deals and upgrades. Cruise Critic suggests asking about not only discounted rates but other promotions, too, such as on-board credit or prepaid gratuities to save even more.

Safety aboard cruise ships is always a concern, especially with media reports in recent years about outbreaks of norovirus, the 2012 Costa Concordia accident off the coast of Italy, and the 2013 Carnival cruise that left passengers without electricity or working toilets. Cruise Critic polled its members about cruise safety and more than 94 percent of the 1,700 respondents said that, based on their experience, cruises are safe. Given the sheer volume of passengers and vessels at sea, it could be argued that the incidents of illness, injury, and loss of life are proportionately low. Experts note that driving to and from the home port is at least as risky as cruising.

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