The Cheapest Cruises

| January 12, 2009

What are the lowest-priced cruises out there? And is a "cheap" cruise really worth the savings?

I have watched cruise pricing continuously for 10 years now, and I have seen some tremendous bargains. I have also seen some really cheap cruises, but I wouldn't necessarily call them bargains.

What does that mean? It means that not all ships are created equally, and taking a cheap cruise does not necessarily mean you are getting good deal.

Cheap Cruises in the Modern World These are great times for avid cruisers. Twenty years ago, there were several budget cruise lines where you could grab a cheap seven-day cruise for a song.

But just like so many budget airlines, these cheap lines fell victim to the cutthroat pricing of the modern cruise world. In the early 1990s, some of the cheapest cruises you could find were on a line called Premier Cruises. There was nothing wrong with Premier for many years; it specialized in buying older ships -- usually ocean liners from the 1960s and 1970s -- and converting them to tropical cruise ships.

It didn't take much to convert these ships, since they were already built for passengers. Premier just needed to add or improve the air conditioning and make sure the décor was somewhat up to date.

Premier Cruises had some wonderful ships and was successful for many years. Begun by cruise innovator Bruce Nierenberg, the line was the first to sail solely out of Port Canaveral, close to Orlando, and made a fortune as the country's largest booker of trips to Disney World.

Premier had a deal with Disney to offer Disney characters onboard its ships, and it sold package vacations that included a visit to the theme parks and a few days at sea with the Disney theme. That was before Disney started its own cruise line. When it did, it yanked Mickey and Goofy from Premier's "Big Red Boats," which were left to compete with Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean with little more than price. Bruce got out while the getting was good.

Still, Premier did okay for quite a few years -- until the cruise industry exploded in a wave of new construction starting in about 1996, adding at least a dozen new ships every year through 2001. The only thing that slowed down the expansion even a little was 9/11.

Premier found itself competing against Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean, and eventually Disney Cruises, which started in 1999. The next two years were especially difficult. Premier expanded to four ships, including one vessel that Holland America built as the Rotterdam V in the 1960s, renaming it The Rembrandt. She was a lovely little ship with classic ocean liner features and a nautical theme throughout that one rarely sees anywhere on a modern cruise ship.

Still, as the modern cruise lines perfected a revenue model that let them sell out their sailings at any price, Premier just couldn't compete, even as the cheapest cruise line in the world anymore. If any passengers were leaving Carnival cabins empty to sail on Premier, Carnival would just lower the price until those cruisers came over. Soon, the concept of a cheap cruise line no longer existed. A cheap cruise became one on an older and smaller ship belonging to one of the major cruise lines.

Today's Cheapest Cruises There were other small cruise lines like American Hawaii, Renaissance, Orient Lines and so on that have all gone by the wayside. One of the last remaining small cruise lines is Imperial Majesty Lines out of Ft. Lauderdale. If anything, Imperial Majesty would qualify as the cheapest cruise line still in existence.

Its only remaining ship is the Regal Empress, which you may have read is the ship being used for the Obama Inauguration cruise. Aside from the Obama jaunt to Baltimore, the regular itinerary for Regal Empress is two and three-day cruises to Nassau:

  • Two-night cruises depart Monday at 5 p.m. and return Wednesday at 8 a.m.
  • Two-night cruises depart Wednesday at 5 p.m. and return Friday at 8 a.m.
  • Three-night weekend cruises depart Friday at 5 p.m. and return Monday at 8 a.m.

Two-night cruises start at $89 per person, but there are nine different categories ranging up to the Admiral Suites for $379 per person. Three-night cruises start at $119 per person, with nine different categories ranging up to the Admiral Suites for $569 per person.

Regal Empress starts at $39 per person, per day for the lowest category cabin on the three-day cruise. The two-day cruise starts at $45 a day.

Cheap Cruises on Major Cruise Lines Now that the concept of budget cruise lines virtually no longer exists, we are left with less expensive cruises on the modern cruise fleet. So, what are some of the cheapest cruises around today?

The cheapest cruises anywhere are three-day cruises on the older Carnival, NCL or Royal Caribbean ships. (The ships used for these short cruises tend to be the oldest in the fleets.)

Note that four-day cruises are generally just as cheap as three-day cruises, although the latter are more popular because they sail over weekends. This actually makes the cheapest cruises the four-day cruises, in terms of the daily cost per person.

The cheapest of the three-day cruises offered by the major lines are currently those of the Carnival Elation from San Diego to Ensenada, or the NCL Norwegian Sky sailing from Miami to Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay. Each starts at $169 per person, or about $56 per person, per day. You won't find many seven-day cruises at per diem prices that low.

Another way to find a really cheap cabin is to book repositioning voyages like those across the Atlantic. Currently, Costa Cruises is offering a 17-day Atlantic crossing starting at just $549 per person. That comes out to just over $32 per person, per day. That could well be the cheapest cruise in the world right now.

Reviewing the World's Cheapest Cruises Trans-ocean repositioning crossings (as opposed to regular crossings like those of Cunard) will probably always be the cheapest cruises on a per-diem basis, as seen in the above example. Typical prices of $50/day are not unusual for these ocean crossing cruises. Another advantage to a transatlantic crossing is that you do not need a balcony. An oceanview stateroom does almost as well.

Next up are the two-day cruises on Regal Empress, which start at $39 a day per person.

Carnival and NCL now offer three-day cruises for $56/day. You can get a four-night cruise for $209, or $52.50 a day -- actually cheaper than the three-day cruise.

We currently see a seven-day cruise to the Mexican Riviera on NCL's Norwegian Star for $359, which comes out to $51/day. The Sapphire Princess is $399 per person.

For seven-day cruises, these are some of the cheapest rates you will see for many years, due to the current economic troubles. In normal times, a seven-day cruise to Mexico or the Caribbean would cost about $599 minimum. Summing up, if you are looking for cheap cruises, this is the right time to be shopping.

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