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Types of Low-Cost Cruises

Weekend Cruises.

Cruise Critic suggests cheap weekend cruises (between two and four nights long) as an excellent option for the budget conscious.

For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offers one- and two-night weekend cruises out of New York -- such as the trip offered on one of our top picks, the Norwegian Breakaway -- and Miami, as well as quick, one-way cruises between Seattle and Vancouver. Princess offers cheap weekend cruises between Vancouver and Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

Carnival Cruise Lines features a full menu of short cruises to the Bahamas, Baja Mexico, the Western Caribbean, and even Canada and New England.

In general, Cruise Critic says, cheap weekend cruises average about $50/person/night and attract a younger crowd, creating a more festive atmosphere on-board.

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Repositioning Cruises.

One-way sailings or "repositioning cruises" take place when a ship is moving from one cruising region to another. The prices per night are low (starting at about $25/person/night), but the trips tend to be longer -- a week or more -- and the ride is only one way, so you'll want to factor in the extra transportation charges. Repositioning cruises occur at the beginning or end of the warm-weather cruise season (mostly spring, late summer, and fall). 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 cruises between Vancouver or Alaska and the southern California home ports, as well as Panama Canal voyages between California and Florida.

Thrifty travelers often choose cheap repositioning cruises as a way to board a luxury cruise line at a bargain price. For example, the Celebrity Eclipse offers a 13-day one-way cruise from London to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., starting at $77/person/night, and MSC Cruises runs several repositioning cruises across the Atlantic at prices starting around $60/person/night. Kids under 11 tag along for free.

Theme Cruises.

Once upon a time, cruises catered primarily to the "newlywed and nearly dead." Not so anymore. Many cruise lines now serve specific demographics or customer interests. Some of the most common cruise "themes" include romantic, family, singles, wheelchair accessible, sporty/adventure vacations, wine and food, LGBT, music-themed, outdoors/nature, and cultural. But the seas are wide open. We found clothing-optional cruises, ukulele-themed cruises, and musician tribute cruises, to name a few. The themes are noticeable both in the on-ship activities (for instance, a rock climbing wall for high adventure or private sunbathing decks for romance) and the stops on land (retiree and family cruises tend to offer gentler land activities, such as museum or historical tours).

Shoulder-Season Cruises.

As a general rule, shoulder-season voyages (those that take place at the beginning or end of a cruising season) tend to be the cheapest cruises. While the trade-off for your bargain cruise fare may be less-than-ideal weather, you can often benefit from less crowded destinations and cheaper airfare. Holland America, for example, lets you cruise Alaska at budget rates (starting at $799/person for week-long trips) in May or September, right after the ship has arrived in the region or right before it's set to leave for warmer climes. In the fall, you can find deals on ships in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Bahamas, but this period also coincides with hurricane season (generally August through October). Travel insurance (typically 5 percent to 8 percent of the trip's nonrefundable cost) might be a wise investment in these instances. For more glamorous but still inexpensive cruises, consider a winter departure. A winter 16-night round trip cruise to Malaga, Spain on deluxe line Azamara Cruises starts at less than $200 a night.

Location, Location, Location.

Typically, the more exotic the destination, the pricier the cruise will be. A 14-day jaunt to the Fiji Islands and South Pacific on Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess starts at $128/person/night. There are exceptions, of course, and budget travelers seeking the un-ordinary might check out Voyages of Discovery, a two-ship line that mounts multi-week cruises to locales such as Oman and Myanmar. Fares for more than a dozen cruises cost less than $125/person/night.

The truly frugal traveler, though, may want to focus on ports of call closer to home. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines offers a three-day western Caribbean cruise from Miami for $33/person/night and a four-day trip to Baja Mexico from Los Angeles for $62/person/night.

But cruise prices usually don't include airfare, so it's important to consider the location of the port from which the cruise departs and calculate the cost of getting there and back home. Some cheap cruises leave from hard-to-reach destinations, such as San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. Lucia. To save money, choose a port you can drive to, such as New York; Baltimore's Cruise Maryland Terminal; Port Canaveral, Fla. (about an hour from Orlando); Mobile, Ala.'s Cruise Terminal; the Port of New Orleans; Los Angeles' World Cruise Center; or Seattle.

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