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Best Budget Cruises for 2009

Sure, times are tough, but does that mean you have to give up your vacation altogether? If taking a cruise this year involves penny pinching, why not consider a cruise on a line known more for value than for having the latest splashy features?

Unlike the airline industry with its low-cost carriers (think Ryanair, Spirit Airlines, or even Southwest), there aren’t too many cruise lines that can be considered budget (though some older ships on well-established, contemporary cruise lines, like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), could fall into this category).

So, to help you in your search for cruise deals, I’ve come up with three categories for penny pinchers: budget cruise lines, budget itineraries, and budget seasons. You don’t necessarily need a dedicated budget cruise line to find rock-bottom rates, but you do need to know which itineraries and cruising seasons traditionally have the lowest prices. With some savvy strategies, you can even find extremely affordable sailings on premium and deluxe cruise lines, as well as the mainstream ships.

An unprecedented number of sales on cruises for 2009 will also aid your search for the best budget cruise. So, stop moping and start shopping—there are plenty of affordable cruise vacations to be had.

Budget Cruise Lines

Cruise lines fall into different price categories, but only a few qualify as truly budget—usually because they reduce costs by offering fewer onboard amenities. The cruise lines detailed below are considered budget lines, but look for sales on older vessels belonging to the fleets of Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean for some competitive rates, plus plenty of onboard activities, multiple dining venues, and the newest gadgets and gimmicks.

EasyCruise: EasyCruise began its career in 2005 as the no-frills cruise line with amazingly low fares and destination-focused itineraries. After a few false starts with other itineraries and extremely bare-bones ships (and an unsettling addiction to the color orange), the fledgling line now offers Greece and Turkey voyages on the slightly more amenity-laden and sophisticated 600-passenger easyCruise Life. Still, for low rates—though not quite as cheap as on the late easyCruiseOne’s first departures—travelers receive very basic 65- to 130-square-foot cabins (with or without windows), daily cabin cleaning (previously this was only available at extra cost), a half-board meal plan (breakfast and a choice of lunch or dinner) and transportation to a new destination each day, arriving midday and staying into the wee hours of the morning. Typical fares start at €190 per person (about $239 US dollars; see for current exchange rates) for a three-night mini-break or €480 for a seven-night trip, but look for sales to drop the prices further. To keep within your budget, avoid expensive onboard drinks, spa treatments, shore excursions, or extra meals in the ship’s one mediocre restaurant.

Voyages of Discovery: Voyages of Discovery is as budget as you’ll find. Its longer-than-average cruises to exotic destinations cater to retirees who are more interested in education and exploration than lavish onboard amenities. The line’s one ship, Discovery, was launched in 1971. Though a 2003 refurbishment has kept it in top-notch condition, it lacks the bells and whistles of today’s new-builds. Expect basic accommodations (none with balconies), lackluster dining and service, and simple public areas. The focus is instead on the fabulous onboard lecturers and value-oriented shore excursions.

Imperial Majesty: Imperial Majesty‘s fleet of one—the venerable, 50-something-year-old Regal Empress—sails two- and three-night cruises from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau and Grand Bahama Island. Time is running out to take advantage of the line’s short, sweet, and cheap sailings—the ship will go out of service in October 2010, when stricter SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations take effect. In the meantime, the ship will charm you with its sense of history, old-school brass fittings, and teak decks; however, half of the tiny cabins have no windows (they’re not unlike jail cells), and there’s no fitness center or specialty restaurant. A favorite among Floridians and budget-minded Europeans who want to toss in a short cruise while spending longer holidays in balmy South Florida, Imperial Majesty has rates starting from $89 per person for two-night cruises and $119 per person for three-night voyages.

Older Ships From Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean: Cruises on older ships tend to have lower rates for two reasons—the ships are lacking the amenities and the hype of the new ships, and they’re usually deployed on shorter or less popular routes. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a grand old time on an older ship, and if you’re a first-time cruiser, you won’t even realize you’re missing anything—other than higher fares. The rock-bottom rate award at this point goes to the nearly 10-year-old Norwegian Sky, which occasionally offers four-night Bahamas cruises out of Miami for $99 per person (that’s $25 a night). Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas (launched 1992) sometimes features four-night Bahamas cruises from $199. (Also, see the advice below on three- and four-night cruises—many older ships are sailing these itineraries.)

Budget Itineraries

If you’re looking to cruise at the cheapest rates possible, certain itineraries stand out as almost always having low total or per-night prices. These tend to be the shortest cruises and voyages with a high percentage of days at sea.

Weekend Cruises: You won’t find entire seasons of one- or two-night sailings, but these every-so-often cruises make great short getaways that won’t break the bank. For example, NCL offers one- and two-nighters out of New York and Miami, as well as quick, one-way trips between Seattle and Vancouver. Princess also offers short sailings between Vancouver and Seattle, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Inside cabins on one-night cruises start around $99 (though I’ve seen them as low as $69), and two-night trips start around $149. You’ll spend so little time in your cabin that it makes sense to pay less for it and get your money’s worth of free food, entertainment, and onboard amenities like the pool and disco.

3- and 4-Night Cruises: A combination of short itineraries and older ships make three- and four-night cruises excellent values. Carnival offers entire seasons of short cruises to the Bahamas, Baja Mexico, the Western Caribbean, and even Canada and New England. Royal Caribbean offers three- and four-night Bahamas cruises on the older Majesty of the Seas and Monarch of the Seas, while its four-night Western Caribbean cruises are on ships with a few more onboard amenities. Look for rates under $200 per person—I’ve seen three-night cruises start at $139 per person, but anything under $100 per night is a good deal. Just be prepared for a party atmosphere to prevail onboard, as shorter itineraries also tend to attract a younger crowd.

Repositioning Cruises: For really cheap nightly rates (between $40 and $75 a night per person), repositioning cruises—one-way sailings that take place when a ship is moving from one cruising region to another—are the best bet, though they tend to have pricier total rates than the short sailings. These itineraries occur at the beginning or end of the warm-weather cruise season (spring, late summer, and fall, mostly). 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 sailings between Alaska and the Southern California homeports, as well as Panama Canal voyages between California and Florida.

The combination of lengthy itineraries (typically longer than seven nights) and a higher-than-average percentage of days at sea drives down the nightly rate, making these cruises an ideal way to try out a premium or deluxe cruise line without busting your budget (mainstream cruise deals are just as good). Celebrity tends to have especially appealing deals, like this spring’s 14-night cruise from Miami to Amsterdam on Celebrity Century for $799 (just $57 a night). Fall repositioning deals I’ve spotted recently include a seven-night Pacific Coast cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles on Sapphire Princess from $599 and a 13-night transatlantic cruise from Barcelona to New York on Norwegian Gem from $749.

Repositioning cruises tend to attract mature travelers and retirees who have the time to vacation for 10 days or longer.

Budget Seasons

If you’re looking for a specific destination and want to save the most money on a particular cruise, look for seasonal discounts. As a general rule of thumb, shoulder-season sailings (those that take place at the beginning or end of a cruising season) tend to be the most budget-friendly. While the trade-off for your cheap cruise fare may be less-than-ideal weather, you can often benefit from less-crowded destinations and possibly more affordable airfare.

Alaska in May and September: To cruise Alaska at budget rates, choose a sailing in May or September right after the ship has arrived in the region or right before it’s set to leave for warmer climes. For example, Holland America‘s seven-night Alaskan Explorer cruise on Zaandam shows fares from $599 or $649 on most May and September sailings, but starting rates as high as $949 in July. Because the weather is typically cooler, and fish, animals, and flowers are less abundant at these times, these sailings are less popular than June-through-August departures, meaning the rates drop. On the plus side, May is typically less rainy than the summer months, and September offers a chance to catch the aurora borealis.

Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico in Fall: Autumn is a bargain time for cruising in almost any region, but the lowest prices are for Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico getaways. If you’re looking for last-minute, seven-night cruises under $350 per person, this is where you’ll find them (shorter three- to five-night cruises are equally affordable). These low prices are partly caused by the general lack of travel happening between Labor Day and Christmas but also are a result of hurricane season in both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. (The majority of hurricanes occur between August and October.) If you choose to take advantage of these cut-rate prices, it’s worth paying for travel insurance to protect yourself against canceled cruises or delayed sailings, due to stormy weather.

Mediterranean in Winter: It used to be that most ships fled the Mediterranean in fall and returned only in the spring. Now more ships than ever are staying through November and returning in March or even sticking out the winter in European waters. Although cruise lines might think it trendy to base ships in the Mediterranean year-round, the fad has not caught on in quite the same way with the cruising public. Therefore, prices for winter cruises are extremely low. A 12-night round-trip Barcelona cruise on deluxe line Azamara went for $799 on a November sailing ($66 a night, and you get your own butler), while an upcoming, 12-night, Eastern Mediterranean cruise in January on Norwegian Jade has starting prices of $549 per person (a mere $46 a night).

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