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Affordable Yacht Vacations: What You Need to Know

A cruise is the tapas bar of travel — sampling medieval churches on the fly in Italy and France, beach-hopping along the golden and black sands of the Caribbean, or pulling off the Alaskan water highway to daytrip with moose and bears. And the 20-passenger yacht is the cruise ship of choice for the independent traveler more keen on diving off the bow and riding the wind than buffet lines and bingo announcements. Does a week on a yacht sound a little too rich for your blood? It may not be. Yachting vacations don’t necessarily entail Champagne and caviar at thousand dollar per diems. They’re about the destination — places like the Galapagos Islands, with their red-throated, blue-footed and green-skinned creatures, which are best explored by small ship.

The global flotilla of small ships offers cruises wherever there is water, from pole to pole. And while traveling by yacht is not a “budget” vacation, there are simple ways to save. Choosing the Caribbean or Greek Islands in lieu of more exotic places — the Indian Ocean, the Galapagos, Antarctica — is a start. Trading the gleaming wood interiors and leather upholstery of the luxury motor yacht for a well-traveled, full-rigged catamaran goes further still. Even then, in the ho-hum Caribbean, you’re left with snorkeling off a secluded cove, helping to raise and trim the sails, or drooling over just-caught seafood. If it’s a small-ship charter you’re after — the ultimate option in customization — sail with friends and family. Rates are dependent upon the number of people — the higher the number, the lower the per-person rate.

Sorting through the hundreds of choices might be a bit overwhelming. But if you break it down, there are three basic yachting options, listed from cheapest to most expensive (though exceptions apply): the small-ship cruise line, dedicated to offering set itineraries on a fleet of one or more; the packaged tour operator, selling yacht-based trips tailored to the company’s particular travel emphasis; and the total freedom –and added costs — of the private yacht charter. Which one’s right for you? Read on.

Small-Ship Cruise Lines

The Low-Down: Ease into yacht cruising by booking with an established cruise line that offers seasonal itineraries on ships sailing under a company livery. The vessels typically hold 20 to 100 passengers. Unlike the packaged tour operators (below) — whose focus typically extends beyond just cruise travel — small-ship lines are sailing vacation specialists. And the lines almost always have a regional focus as well, whether it be the Greek Islands, Baja Mexico, Southeast Asia or the Amazon.

These cruises provide an exotic destination sampler, giving travelers a taste of off-the-grid ports without totally immersing them. Housekeeping, meals, some entertainment (lectures, local artists/musicians) and destination-specific offerings like fins and snorkels are typically included in the rate. On some lines, like Brazil-based Amazon Clipper Cruises, activities such as guided canoe trips to explore nocturnal Amazonian fauna may also be folded into the fare. On others, like two-ship Greek Isles-based Zeus Casual Cruises (a sub-brand of Variety Cruises), excursions are offered in each port — a tour of the volcano on Nissiros, for instance — but will cost you extra.

Your only real job will be to get to the embarkation port and to budget for extras like souvenirs and booze (usually not included in the fare). We always recommend buying travel insurance, too.

Ways to Save: The more unusual the embarkation port, the more airfare will chomp into your budget. Still, we’ve seen some very recession-friendly cruise deals from a number of lines — covering a wide swath of destinations. Tall-ship cruise line Canadian Sailing Expeditions, which offers classic sailing experiences (including instruction) in Newfoundland and the Caribbean, has discounts for travelers who reserve early or book consecutive sailings.

Greek-based Zeus Casual Cruises has featured two-for-one offers on shoulder season (October) sailings. SongLine Cruises of Indonesia offers some interesting budget options on Asia cruises, including the chance to save by trading a cabin for a spot on the deck (mattress provided)!

Cruise Lines to Consider:

Cruises from Package Tour Operators

The Low Down: Companies like G Adventures and Overseas Adventure Travel offer yacht-based vacations that match many of the locations — Thailand, the Greek Isles, the Amazon, the Galapagos, Alaska and Baja Mexico — of the dedicated cruise operators. Where do you think the tour companies get the ships? Often, they charter them from the cruise lines.

So why go with the typically more expensive tour operator over a cruise line? The benefit here is opting for a packaged cruise vacation (with set itineraries and familiar comforts, and the convenience of a guide or group leader) from a well-established tour company. Each has its own travel emphasis, be it adventure, enrichment or self-exploration. In part, you’re paying a premium over the cruise lines for the company’s reputation for creating great packages — and to experience a trip with like-minded travelers who gravitate to a particular tour operator.

G Adventures, for instance, caters to a more rough-and-ready clientele, eager to go it themselves on rocky hikes in Syros’ desolate north or late party nights in Mykonos. Fittingly, on G Adventures’ Greek Isles cruises, meals are not included, leaving passengers to budget extra for independent dining. Good for those for whom local dining defines travel experience — or those who can survive on $2 gyros. But it’s another travel consideration, and a potential budget bloater. Overseas Adventure Travel, on the other hand, caters to a more mature passenger by emphasizing cultural enrichment through a series of included guided tours. Meals are also part of the package, so after a day of educational experience in new places, the familiar meal with familiar faces awaits.

And while it’s not officially a cruise line, you might still get a towel animal in your cabin.

Ways to Save: Beyond the obvious — Antarctica is more expensive than the Greek Isles — it’s all about finding a good deal and watching your food budget when meals are not included. There are specials to be had, especially at the fringes of high season — on, say, May or September departures for a Greek Isles or Alaska cruise, September through December (minus holidays) in the Galapagos, and during heat of the summer months in Mexico.

Baja Expeditions, a tour operator that sells cruises off the coast of Mexico, generally offers discounts of 20 percent for children 15 and under, as well as other family-friendly specials depending on the sailing (up to 75 percent off kids sharing a cabin with parents).

With Galapagos cruises in particular, booking at the absolute last minute can score you an incredible deal. While it’s hard to be flexible when flights to Quito, Ecuador (and then on to Baltra, the embarkation port for most Galapagos cruises) are involved, two-for-ones often materialize two weeks before the sailing date.

Tour Operators to Consider:

Chartering a Crewed Boat

The Low-Down: While chartering is easily the most planning-intensive and pricey option, it’s also the most intimate and personalized. You can custom-design both the itinerary and the onboard experience (within reason — no pirate-hunting cruises allowed). If you want mahi mahi for dinner every night, add it to the provision list. Want to start and end your cruise in Jost Van Dyke, your favorite Caribbean island? Done.

Then there’s the choice of boat, most of which will carry 10 passengers or less. Choose from the luxury motor yacht with its leather appointments and amenities like Wi-Fi; lop off “luxury” and you have an older, less spacious, more modestly priced version. The tall ship or schooner will appeal to sailing aficionados, while the multi-hulled catamaran is a fine value choice for coastal and intra-island sailing.

These are fully crewed offerings, which likely means they have a captain and a cook (often a husband and wife team) — more than enough to get you where you want to go and keep you fed on the journey.

So how do you charter a yacht? Businesses like International Yacht Charter Group, Island Symphony Yacht Vacations and Regency Vacations can help you sort out the mess, with search engines for charterable yachts plying the waters almost anywhere in the world, from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific. (Forget about dealing directly with the boat owners; this industry is all about middlemen). Derek Holding, the CEO of International Yacht Charter Group, helped us with the basics.

“After you choose a destination and book, the boat is basically yours,” Holding tells us.

In everywhere but the Caribbean (more on that in Ways to Save), a basic charter fee will include the boat, crew and insurance. Then it’s up to you to create the experience, and the key consideration is the cost of provisions. ALL consumables — fuel, food, that bottle of Dom Perignon you want to impress your friends with — are added costs, as are things like port fees and immigration taxes. “In the Mediterranean, it could be $500 or $600 a night just to dock the boat — you need to know this,” adds Holding.

In all, additional expenses typically run — no matter the size or type of the boat — between 30 and 35 percent of whatever the charter fee is. To have time to go over every expense and itinerary choice, it’s best to start the planning six months in advance. Or you can just say “gimme the captain’s special” and let him do the legwork.

Ways to Save: First off, the number of people sailing determines the cost. You’ll be able to get much more for your money if you divide the costs among eight people rather than four. Second, without a doubt, chartering an old catamaran in the Caribbean is the cheapest possible option, with rates as low as $1,500 per person for a weeklong sailing. For a variety of reasons (low fuel costs being one, very low port fees being another), charters in the Caribbean are often sold as all-inclusive sailings — so you pay one price and you get food, use of water toys and more. Sailing trips in New England and Canada are another option for a reasonably priced sailing. And again, sailing in the off season, even for pricey destinations like Alaska, can mean big savings of 20 percent or more (check out the Charter Brokers of Alaska specials page).

Yacht Charter Agents to Consider:

–written by Dan Askin


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