For travelers with average incomes, families with children or retirees on a fixed budget, around-the-world cruises, penthouse suites and super-luxury ships such as the Sea Goddess may be the impossible dream or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
But you don't have to save up for years to afford a cruise. There are plenty of less lavish sailings and minicruises that you might afford if you shop around.
Search out low-cost positioning cruises, especially if you enjoy life at sea more than ports of call. For example, when ships spend summers in Europe or Alaska and winters in the Caribbean or Mexico, they have to move from one home port to another whether they have any passengers or not. It's a good way to sample a luxury ship at rock-bottom prices.
One great buy: Princess Cruises' luxurious and much-loved Pacific Princess, the original "Love Boat," offers a repositioning sailing from Europe to the Caribbean this fall for $119 a day per person, double occupancy.
You get a free flight to London on Nov. 4 from most major U.S. cities, two nights in London at a first-class hotel, a flight to Naples to catch the ship, a cruise from Naples to Miami with calls at Malaga, Spain, and Antigua in the Caribbean, all transfers and your flight home from Miami on Nov. 21.
Minimums for inside cabins are $1,995 for the 17-night package; outside cabins start at $2,295 or $135 a day.
Classic Ocean Liners
Look for age before beauty. With the flurry of brand-new glamour ships arriving, some of the old-timers are apt to get overlooked. There are classic former ocean liners plying the Caribbean with some of their museum-quality features still intact.
Although the decor may not always reflect the latest pastels or the food the nouvelle trends, the ambiance is usually friendly and comfortable and the other passengers easygoing. Best of all, the price is right.
Chandris Fantasy Cruises consistently offers some of the lowest fares in the Caribbean. For instance, five-night sailings from Miami aboard the 1,100-passenger Galileo go for $395 to $1,190 per person, double occupancy, including air fare, with calls at Key West, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Weekend sailings to Nassau on Fridays are available for $189 to $395 from Miami.
The Britanis, dating from 1932 and older than many of its passengers, will sail to Aruba, Cartagena, the San Blas Islands and Panama this winter from Montego Bay, Jamaica, for $649 to $1,549 per person, double occupancy, including air, for a seven-day cruise.
Windows and Beds
Learn your lodging limitations. If you're claustrophobic, you will not be happy in an inside (windowless) cabin, and if you're far from supple, you might not relish climbing into a top bunk rather than a lower bed.
Unfortunately, both possibilities can occur when you choose the lowest fare. Determine in advance what type of facility you are willing to occupy before letting the right-hand column determine your choice of a cabin. Even if you don't mind a small inside cabin with uppers and lowers, bear in mind that some lines have only two or three of these minimum-priced cabins, which are usually snapped up right away by bargain hunters.
If you're traveling alone, consider letting the line book you a same-sex roommate to avoid paying a single's surcharge.
Aboard Costa's 400-passenger Daphne you're guaranteed unusually spacious cabins, all with two lower beds and bathtubs, on a Caribbean cruise this winter, round-trip from San Juan. The bottom price of $1,095 for seven days includes round-trip air fare from most gateway cities, with ports of call including St. Martin, Martinique, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Thomas and St. John.
Look for air/sea packages or rail/cruise combinations. You'll usually save money by letting the cruise line buy your air fare at group or charter rates and make it available to you in one flat air/sea package that includes transfers to and from the ship. In many areas, Amtrak rail transportation to certain U.S. port cities is an alternative.
Air Fare and Hotel
Carnival Cruise Lines offers free round-trip air fare from 165 cities with all its three-, four- and seven-day cruises, including overnight accommodations when necessary.
Across-the-board pricing on its seven ships ranges from $375 to $845 for three days, $495 to $985 for four days and $975 to $1,995 for seven days. The lowest fares of the year are in effect from now until mid-December, and destination options are from the Mexican Riviera to Cozumel, the Bahamas to the eastern and western Caribbean.
Try a minicruise vacation. If you live a convenient driving distance from a port city such as Miami, Los Angeles, Tampa, New Orleans or New York, you can run away to sea for a weekend getaway for as little as $99.
Miami area vacationers can sail aboard Admiral's venerable and spacious Emerald Seas ($295 to $860 per person, double occupancy) or Dolphin Cruise Line's Dolphin ($310 to $845).
Southern California travelers can enjoy Admiral's Azure Seas ($295 to $860) to Ensenada, as well as three- and four-day sun breaks to Puerta Vallarta or Mazatlan on Admiral's sparkling Stardancer ($425 to $1,200 with one-way air). New in town: Catamaran Cruiselines' 49-passenger Executive Explorer from San Diego to Catalina, the Channel Islands and Long Beach ($499 to $859).