RD.COM Travel Vacations Experiences
Jill SchildhouseUpdated: May 22, 2023
Travelers looking for the most bang for their vacation buck should zero in on these affordable cruise lines—then question why they'd ever book a trip on land again!
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The cheapest cruise lines
Cruising is often described as the ultimate relaxing vacation. You only unpack once, yet you wake up in a new country or island every morning. You also never have to worry about where to eat, there are nonstop activities onboard that keep everyone entertained—and most everything is included in the price. So you don’t have to worry much about overspending once you’re on board if you book on one of the most affordable cruise lines.
Of course, everything is more expensive these days, leaving some travelers to wonder if there are still affordable cruises available to meet their vacation budgets. Thankfully, that answer is yes, and there are several brands that still provide exceptional value aboard their floating cities. Many are among the best cruise lines, and some are even frequent cruisers’ favorite cruises. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that living on a cruise ship can be cheaper than a mortgage, in case you decide you never want to return from your vacation.
So follow these cruise tips for how to save money on a cruise by booking the most affordable cruise lines. You may even be able to sneak in an extra vacation this year with all your savings.
How much does a cheap cruise cost?
Cheap cruises usually range in price from $40 to $100 per night per person. To put that deal in perspective, imagine having your accommodations, food and entertainment covered for roughly $50 a day on a traditional land-based trip—you’d be hard-pressed to stay within that budget just for your meals. It’s truly impressive that these all-inclusive cruises can charge so little.
But before you get too excited over these low prices, don’t forget to factor in the cost of the extras when calculating your total expenses—that’s one of the secrets cruise lines won’t tell you. Things like drinks, shore excursions, gratuities, spa treatments, specialty dining, airfare, photos, taxes and port fees aren’t included and can add up quickly.
Finally, keep in mind that the best deals will always be for an inside cabin, which means you won’t have a porthole (let alone a balcony) for natural light. The good news? You’ll sleep like a baby in total darkness, especially during an afternoon nap.
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When is the cheapest time to book a cruise?
It’s important to pay attention to the cheapest times to book a cruise if you want to save even more. Wave season, which is from January to March, is a promotional time of year when cruise lines run their most competitive sales. These sales are designed to encourage bookings for later in the year. You can also keep an eye on sites like MSC’s Cruise Deals to find great prices.
There are great deals at other times of the year too. Generally speaking, the further in advance you book, the better prices you’ll find. But the opposite is also true, because cruise lines will happily sell unused inventory at a significantly reduced rate in the form of last-minute deals. You’ll need a flexible schedule to pull this off, and you may find airfare is too costly at that point.
Beyond wave season, planning far in advance or nabbing last-minute cruise deals, it’s also wise to consider booking your cruises for the off-season. For instance, for the Caribbean and Mexico, that would mean summer sailings or during shoulder season (the month before and after high season—for example, in the case of Alaska, this would be in May or September). Just know that you are taking a bit of a risk with the weather during these off-peak times.
MSC Cruises offers sailings out of the U.S. (New York, Miami and Orlando) to the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Bermuda, New England and Canada. It also offers sailings to Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Egypt, Dubai, South Africa and more.
Cost: Cruises on MSC start as low as $129 per person.
Specials to watch for: MSC offers such limited-time specials as free drinks and Wi-Fi plus up to $200 onboard credit (which can be used to book extras like shore excursions or spa treatments).
Other savings to consider: You won’t find an adults-only cruise here, however this cruise line does offer a Kids Sail Free program, which means that all children under 18 traveling in the same cabin as their parents travel free all year-round. Port taxes, registration costs, insurance, flights and transfers (where required) are excluded from the offer, but it still goes a long way toward making this one of the most affordable cruise lines.
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen a 6-night southern Caribbean cruise for as low as $219 total per person.
Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line—known as one of the most affordable cruise lines—was founded in 1972 and now carries millions of guests every year aboard its 24 ships. It sails to Alaska, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and New England, the Caribbean, Europe, Greenland, Hawaii, Mexico, Panama Canal, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.
Cost: Cruises on Carnival start as low as $169 per person.
Specials to watch for: Carnival celebrates dates like National Tourism Day with up to 40% off cruise rates, plus $50 onboard credits and reduced deposit rates from $50 per person. Other limited-time promotions include free cabin upgrades and “Early Saver” rates with price protection that provide peace of mind for early bookings.
Other savings to consider: One of the things that makes Carnival Cruise Lines even more affordable is that it has 14 home ports in the United States (Baltimore, Charleston, Galveston, Jacksonville, Long Beach, Miami, Mobile, New Orleans, New York, Norfolk, Orlando, San Francisco, Seattle and Tampa), making it easier for Americans to drive to their ship and avoid booking pricey flights.
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen a 5-day Mexican Riviera cruise for as low as $234 per person.
Royal Caribbean offers itineraries to 240 destinations in 61 countries on six continents, including Royal Caribbean’s private island destination in The Bahamas, Perfect Day at CocoCay. The innovative brand is known for many firsts at sea, including an ice-skating rink, bumper cars, zip-line, rock climbing wall, robotic bartenders and the Flowrider surf simulator. Its latest ship, the Icon of the Seas, which is set to begin sailing in January 2024, will be the world’s largest cruise ship.
Cost: Cruises on Royal Caribbean start as low as $172 per person.
Specials to watch for: Royal Caribbean occasionally offers promotions like “30% Off Every Guest” (provides 30% savings off the cruise fare for all guests in the stateroom), flash deals like “Up to $550 Off” (provides instant savings of up to $550 USD per stateroom) and “Kids Sail Free” promos, during which the third and fourth guests who are 12 years or younger are eligible for free cruise fare.
Other savings to consider: Royal Caribbean offers exclusive access to pre-cruise savings and discounts that won’t be available once you’re onboard for things like shore excursions, beverage packages, food packages and Wi-Fi packages.
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen a 6-night Pacific Coast cruise for $250 per person.
Princess Cruises is a premium cruise line with award-winning itineraries around the globe, sailing to Alaska, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, British Isles, South America, Japan, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, Panama Canal, Mexico, Hawaii, the South Pacific and the California Coast. It’s an excellent choice for a couples cruise (they host a lot of weddings and vow renewals), but it’s also family-friendly.
Cost: Hundreds of sailings on Princess are priced under $100 per day; 60 sailings under $60 per day.
Specials to watch for: Princess regularly offers promotions, such as a 40% savings and low $100 deposit specials.
Other savings to consider: Upgrade to the Princess Plus or Princess Premier packages, which roll in the price of extras like Wi-Fi, drinks, gratuities and more for a savings of up to 66% vs. purchasing them separately.
Affordable cruises: Everyone dreams of booking the best Alaska cruise, and we’ve seen 7-night Alaska cruises for as low as $349 per person.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line‘s fleet of 18 ships sails to 400 of the world’s most desirable destinations—such as Asia, Africa, Alaska, Australia and New Zealand, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, New England, Caribbean, Hawaii, the Mediterranean, Mexico, the Baltic, South America and more.
Cost: Cruises on Norwegian start as low as $249 per person.
Specials to watch for: NCL offers various deals throughout the year. One recent special was 70% off, plus free airfare for the second guest, plus the third and fourth guests sailed for free.
Other savings to consider: Part of what makes Norwegian one of the best and most affordable cruise lines is that all cruise offerings may be combined with the company’s ongoing “Free at Sea” promotion, which includes unlimited open bar, specialty dining, Wi-Fi and excursions. (Want to find out more about hidden features on cruise shipsthat you never knew existed?)
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen 7-day Alaska cruises for as low as $279 per person.
Holland America Line
Holland America Line has been cruising both popular and less-traveled ports in the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Europe, South America, the Panama Canal, Australia, New Zealand and Asia for 150 years. It has a fleet of 11 classic ships and does more than 500 sailings a year, visiting all seven continents.
Cost: Cruises on Holland start as low as $89 per person.
Specials to watch for: Having recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, Holland America has been offering 45% off cruise fares, up to $300 in onboard credit and reduced deposits of only $150. The brand typically offers other specials throughout the year.
Other savings to consider: For family cruise travelers, Holland America Line provides a Kids Cruise Free offer, allowing guests ages 18 and under to travel free to Alaska, Europe and the Caribbean when booked as a third or fourth guest on select cruises. And when booked directly on Holland America Line’s site, travelers can take advantage of the Have It All Cruise Package, which includes shore excursion credits, drink package, specialty dining and Wi-Fi.
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen 7-day Alaska cruises as low as $329 per person.
Courtesy Celebrity Cruises
Celebrity has 15 award-winning ships that take guests to more than 300 destinations in 79 countries on all seven continents, including the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and the South Pacific, Galapagos and Canada.
Cost: Cruises on Celebrity start as low as $288 per person.
Specials to watch for: Celebrity offers various specials, like a spring sale that takes 75% off a second guest’s fare and saves up to $800 per stateroom with up to $800 to spend on board. Also look for promotions like Alaska weekend flash sales (second guest sails for free plus $250 onboard credit) and 20% off Galapagos vacations (round-trip airfare included).
Other savings to consider: Choose the all-inclusive options of prepackaged drinks, Wi-Fi and tips to save up to 45% on these individual items.
Affordable cruises: We’ve seen 7-night Alaska cruises for as low as $299 per person.
Originally Published: May 19, 2023
As an editor-at-large for Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse regularly covers travel, wellness, food, beauty, consumer products and product reviews. She has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor, and she frequently contributes to Travel + Leisure, Bride’s, Southern Living, Taste of Home and Insider. Jill has traveled to 36 countries and is always planning her next domestic or overseas adventure.