Finding a cheap cruise doesn’t have to be difficult. With capacity at an all-time high, the major cruise lines offer deals year-round on their websites, and travel booking sites make it easy to compare available fares. But every cruise listed for less than $500 per person isn’t the same. The onboard ambience and amenities — and even the condition of the ship — can vary greatly, as can the itinerary, the weather, and your fellow passengers. Here are the top tips for finding cheap cruises.
1. Know your lines.
If booking a cheap cruise is your goal, focus on cruise lines in the highly competitive “contemporary” segment of the market. These include Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, MSC Cruises, and Costa Cruises. And although Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard Line, and Celebrity Cruises fall into the “premium” category, their deals often lower fares into a realm approaching cheap — as in less than $600 for five- or six-night Caribbean cruises from Florida.
2. Understand the differences between ships.
The very cheapest cruises tend to be on older ships — generally 15 to 25 years old — rather than on mega ships introduced over the past decade. Aside from size (older ships are a bit smaller than the newer builds), the trade-offs on these vessels — especially those that have not had extensive renovations — can include dated and worn décor, smaller pool areas without water slides or splash zones, traditional dining rooms with set seating times, and less inspired kids clubs. In general, they lack the wow factor of their newer, splashier siblings.
That said, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian have recently invested millions to refit dozens of older vessels with some of the popular dining and entertainment venues on their mega ships. The effect isn’t quite the same as a brand new ship, but it does create a more modern vibe on board.
Before you book the first cheap cruise you find, check to see when the ship was last refurbished and what amenities it offers. You should also keep an eye out for deals on the newest ships, which — in shoulder and off-season — can sometimes be booked for as little as $599 per person.
3. Research itineraries.
If you’re new to cruising and want to dip your toes in the water without shelling out big bucks, three- and four-night sailings from Florida (as well as from Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; and Galveston, Texas) to the Bahamas, Key West, and Cozumel tend to be the cheapest — often offered for $139 to $199 per person.
4. Consider very short sailings.
Two- or three-night itineraries — typically from Miami to the Bahamas — can be great if you just want a cheap weekend getaway. But be aware that such sailings, which often call on the cruise line’s private Bahamian island, attract fun-in-the-sun partiers, and the ambience can be pretty raucous.
5. Determine how you feel about long sailings.
If you’re looking for value rather than just price, it’s out there: a 14-night Panama Canal cruise from Miami to San Diego on Norwegian for $929 per person, or a 23-night South American cruise from San Diego on Holland America for $1,449. Both are in October, traditionally a good month for cheap fares. But longer cruises mean larger onboard bills for bar tabs and excursions, and your shipmates are likely to be age 60 and older since retirees don’t have to worry about having enough vacation time.
6. Assess how you feel about repositioning cruises.
When cruise lines reposition ships from, say, the Mediterranean to the Caribbean in the fall (and vice versa in the spring), fares can be super cheap. Typically, these are 11- to 14-day itineraries with a few port calls on either side of a six- to eight-day Atlantic crossing.
The onboard experience varies greatly, depending on the vessel. Sea days on mega ships can feel resortlike, with plenty of activities and entertainment — both outside and inside, which is important since spring and fall weather can be unpredictable. Yet despite these ships’ size, the open ocean can cause some rocking and rolling. Small ships offer little in the way of amusement or stability, so you’ll need to bring plenty to read and pack seasickness medication.
7. Know your seasons.
Yes, that five-night Caribbean cruise from New Orleans in late September is just $269 per person — it’s the peak of hurricane season, after all. Ships cruise the Caribbean year-round, and some European lines, such as MSC and Costa, sail the Mediterranean 12 months a year — with fares as low as $399 per person for a seven-night MSC sailing in January. The main trade-off: questionable weather. Shoulder season (April-May and October in Europe and May-June and early December in the Caribbean) is a safer bet for cheap cruises.
8. Accept an inside cabin.
If saving money is your mantra, get used to the idea of cruising in an inside cabin. You’ll trade a bit of space and a window for a price that’s often less than half that of an ocean view cabin — and you can enjoy the view from almost everywhere else on the ship.
9. Choose cruises from local embarkation ports.
If you limit your search to ports you can drive to, then you can watch for last-minute deals on cheap cruises without worrying about last-minute air, which can be expensive. The cruise lines have done an impressive job “homeporting” their ships around the country, so you can cruise from New York, Baltimore, Charleston, and Norfolk on the East Coast; Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, and Tampa in Florida; Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston on the Gulf; and San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver on the West Coast.