Best Cheap Cruises
The sheer number and variety of cruises on the high seas afford plenty of opportunity for bargain hunters. There are dozens of cruise companies in operation worldwide and most offer travelers a choice of ship sizes, amenities, itineraries, and price points. To determine which low-cost cruises are worth your time and money, Cheapism looked at onboard facilities and port locations, and surveyed prices posted by the major cruise lines. We read dozens of expert and passenger reviews to learn which ships live up to their glossy marketing and which fall short. The quality of accommodations, food, entertainment, and shore excursions go a long way toward making a cheap cruise a rousing success.
Our Top Pick
Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas Review
Freedom of the Seas is one of Royal Caribbean International's most popular ships, and it's easy to see why. According to Royal Caribbean cruise reviews, Freedom of the Seas caters to all ages with a full menu of entertainment, adventure, and food options, plus onshore excursions. The starting price for an eight-night cruise through the eastern Caribbean is $75.
In comments posted on Expedia, Freedom of the Seas passengers rank the ship high for quality of service and overall experience. The staff garners numerous shout-outs from passengers on travel sites such as Avoya Travel and from experts at Cruise Critic, who commend the staff's hard work, attentiveness, and professionalism. Some passengers were less enamored of their experience, however, and on Yelp they write about subpar dining service, crew members who seem perpetually unhappy, and facilities that fail to sparkle.
The Royal Caribbean cruise line overall earns industry awards every year: the 2015 Global Travelers' Leisure Travel Award for best large cruise ship line, for example, and the "best for families" and "best for entertainment" crowns from Cruise Critic. U.S. News & World Report, which gives Freedom of the Seas an overall 4.5 rating, ranks it second among the company's fleet of 25, and fourth most affordable.
Freedom of the Seas belongs in the line's Freedom Class and carries slightly more than 4,500 passengers and a crew of 1,360. The ship was inaugurated in 2006 and for three years held the title of world's largest cruise ship. Five years later Freedom of the Seas underwent a major overhaul that included a renovated onboard nursery and a giant poolside movie screen. In 2015, new cabins and dining options were added, as well as a 1960s-style lounge. Other onboard attractions include a skating rink, climbing wall, mini golf, surf simulator, 3-D theater, and characters from DreamWorks movies.
Freedom of the Seas regularly sails out of Port Canaveral (near Orlando) and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for five-, six-, seven-, and eight-night cruises through the western and eastern Caribbean with stops in ports such as Grand Cayman, Belize, Nassau, and CocoCay, a private island reserved for Royal Caribbean passengers. Excursions, such as snorkeling and cultural tours on the mainland, can be reserved online in advance of departure.
Overall, sailing with Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas is a relaxing (or not) getaway at a bargain price.
Norwegian Breakaway Review
The Breakaway, Norwegian Cruise Line's largest ship, offers everything from a two-night "cruise to nowhere" to a seven-night cruise to Bermuda or a 19-night voyage through the Bahamas and southern Caribbean. It sails out of New York City and prices start as low as $71 a person per night.
Norwegian Breakaway reviews by passengers and experts consider this budget-priced cruise ship a good deal. On sites such as Cruiseline.com, vacationers commend the shows and parties, abundance of activities, tasty food, comfortable accommodations, and overall condition of the ship. Experts at Cruise Critic award it 4.5 stars for ample dining options and entertainment and a relaxed vibe that suits passengers regardless of demographic (read: old, young; family, single; group, romantic).
Other travelers, however, are less impressed. The boat seemed too crowded for some, and without reservations for a spot at the spa or a seat at a show, entry often was denied. Notably, the "freestyle" approach to life on a Norwegian ship, which lets vacationers dine at any time and sit at any table they choose, reportedly leads to lines at the most popular dining venues, which irks some reviewers. Assessments of the crew's performance vary, with many reviewers noting attentive and professional service while others gripe about unfriendly and bored staff.
Both the Breakaway and the 14-ship Norwegian fleet have earned industry awards over the years. The vessel was named best new ship by Cruise Critic in 2013 and best for families by Yahoo that same year. Cruise Critic named it tops for entertainment in 2015, and USA Today's Readers' Choice awards dubbed it best for families. The 2014 Global Travelers' Leisure Award went to the entire cruise line.
Norwegian Breakaway's guest capacity hits 3,969 with a crew of 1,651. The company's ships are known for colorful but tasteful décor and a flexible, almost casual, dress code even at the shows and specialty dining venues. Passengers receive a $50 credit for shore excursions in each port and up to 250 minutes of free Wi-Fi. There are five multi-story waterslides, mini golf, Broadway-style shows, a spa, and 29 dining venues.
The Breakaway is appointed with amenities that suit both party-loving first-time cruisers and laid-back seasoned travelers.
Carnival Dream Review
Carnival Cruise Line's Dream claims to have something for everyone, from a comedy club to a dance club, a pedicure spa for teens to flat-screen TVs in all cabins. But Carnival Dream reviews are something of a mixed bag.
Passengers generally are impressed with the selection of activities on board although some suggest that the capacity of 3,646 vacationers strains the vessel's facilities and services. An expert report by Cruise Critic, which assigns the ship 4 stars, notes that public spaces feel crowded and that dining venues often are overwhelmed. The food satisfies a wide swath of passengers, but some reviews snap about slow service and indifferent fare. And while the Dream vibe is upbeat, with many repeat customers and a mostly under-50 crowd, some reviewers at Cruiseline.com write that the staff, which numbers 1,367, often seems glum. Assessments of the ship's physical condition skew positive -- cabins and facilities up to snuff, décor gaudy but not over-the-top -- even as a small minority point to off-putting smells and maintenance shortfalls.
Amenities aboard the Dream include more than a dozen dining spots, a retreat for adults only, a spa, a giant poolside movie screen, a water park, Dr. Seuss-themed characters and activities, a comedy club, and tequila and rum bars.
New Orleans is the Carnival Dream's home port, and the Caribbean its usual destination, with nightly rates starting at $53 a person. An occasional one-way cruise originates in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for just $46 a night, and finishes in New Orleans.
Carnival earned the title of best cruise line for value from Cruise Critic in 2015. Each of the 24 ships in the fleet is slightly different and garners more or less favorable reviews. Industry experts recommend researching the particular ship before choosing a cruise. That said, most earn high marks for value and cleanliness and an overall pleasant experience. Two smaller ships that stand out for budget cruising include the Liberty (mostly out of Galveston, Texas) and Splendor (out of Miami).
Carnival is the largest cruise line in the world, and one of the more accessible value options.
Celebrity Constellation Review
Celebrity Cruises' Constellation appeals to vacationers seeking budget prices -- rates as low as $38 a person for a transatlantic sailing -- and slightly upscale amenities. That's the word from experts at Fodor's Travel as well as contented passengers who posted reviews on a variety of sites. Facilities such as an Internet lounge, high-end performance venues, excellent specialty restaurants, and sophisticated décor give the ship a quality feel. At Cruiseline.com, passengers comment on the Constellation's friendly crew, flavorful meals, and clean and well-maintained condition.
That said, some reviewers grumble about cheesy and uninspired entertainment. And some report that diversions on sea days are particularly lacking. A sprinkling of passengers complain about tasteless food, substandard rooms, dated accoutrements, and pools that can't comfortably hold the crowds, which can swell to 2,170 passengers.
Upgrades to the Constellation in 2013 added more cabins, accommodation categories, and dining options. Reviews indicate that the transformation of the Martini bar into a shaved ice bar with juggling bartenders, for example, has been a hit. Children certainly are welcome aboard, and there are Xbox consoles and clubs to keep youngsters and teens fully occupied, but travelers suggest the Constellation may be better suited for couples seeking an adult getaway.
The Constellation sails through the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during the cooler months, with stops in ports such as Key West, Puerto Rico, St. Croix (Virgin Islands), and Nassau. It heads to the Mediterranean for the warmer months, and one-way repositioning cruises are available during the shoulder seasons.
Celebrity Cruises maintains a fleet of 10 ships, including one mega-yacht that journeys exclusively to the Galapagos Islands. Celebrity is part of the Royal Caribbean International family and markets its cruises as affordable luxury experiences. It routinely has won Travel Weekly's Readers' Choice Award for best premium cruise line and in 2015 Cruise Critic crowned Celebrity the best line for dining.
This is the ship for frugal vacationers who prefer a quieter, more intimate experience with just a couple of thousand souls rather than the high-energy razzle-dazzle of cruise ships carrying double that number.
MSC Divina Review
Assessments of MSC Cruises' ships, including the Divina, tend toward the ho-hum. Expert review sites such as Fodor's Travel point out that this Italian line has a distinctly European feel that may not thrill American passengers. That said, the company is keen to build its profile in North America. Starting in summer 2016, the Divina will sail exclusively from Miami to various ports in the Caribbean, including St. Maarten, Nassau, Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Cozumel.
Passenger reviews of the Divina posted at sites such as Cruiseline.com are divided and less than enthusiastic overall. Reviewers talk up the value price (rates start at $54 a person for a seven-night trip) and cleanliness of the ship, but many complain about lackluster food, boring entertainment, mandatory service charges, high-priced drinks, and personnel who don't always accommodate requests. These, along with expert posts, also note a quality gap between the main dining areas and buffet (beware the fish offerings, some say) and the specialty dining facilities that come with an upcharge.
Still, the 3,500-passenger ship has its defenders. A handful asserts that the critiques are wildly overstated. The variety of available activities, such as mini golf, an infinity pool, and an aqua park, as well as the tasteful décor, certainly satisfy a good number of vacationers: 61 percent at Cruise Critic claim to have "loved" their voyage, and the editors award it 4 stars, one above the average passenger rating. U.S. News & World Report ranks the Divina tops in the MSC Cruises fleet of 13.
The Divina was buffed up in 2013 to enhance its appeal to North American passengers. Smoking was restricted to certain areas, a sports bar was added, more entertainment was scheduled, and the crew now speaks only English, as opposed to the five languages that are standard on MSC ships.
Families interested in an inexpensive cruise vacation may be willing to throw overboard the various darts aimed at the Divina. Children up to and including age 11 travel at no cost with two paying adults.