Since the advent of low-cost airlines, savvy travellers have come to realise that no-frills doesn't mean no-satisfaction. Indeed, what is often perceived as prudent when it comes to air travel also holds true in cruising.
Most British cruise lines would recoil in horror at being termed 'budget' but there is a wealth of affordable voyages available if you know where to look. Over-capacity in cruising hot-spots, coupled with a downturn in American cruisers heading to the Eastern Mediterranean means many sailings are going for a song.
Plus, the post-Brexit plunge in sterling has sent ripples through the travel industry, with tour operators set to apply hefty currency surcharges to land-based holidays. Fortunately cruising is free of both surcharges and punitive exchange rates. Unlike European resort holidays, where the euros can add up, opting for a British cruise line (except Cunard) means you can pay for almost every element of your holiday in pounds, thus insulating your wallet against currency fluctuations.
And it's not just food and drink. You can sign up for excursions in pounds, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be any nasty surprises at the bottom of the gangway. Your trip is paid for before you set foot on dry land.
Budget Cruise Lines
There are five distinct levels of cruise experience, ranging from standard to ultra-luxury. While price is generally a good guide, it’s not the only factor to consider. Budget cruises are generally the domain of a few companies that offer value for money rather than finesse.
Cruise & Maritime Voyages
Cruise & Maritime Voyages specialises in adults-only, no-fly cruises aimed almost exclusively at the British market. The line tends to attract older couples and solo travellers and sets sail from several UK ports, including Avonmouth, Dundee, Hull, Liverpool and Tilbury.
Its fleet of classic cruise ships are small or medium-sized and provide a range of accommodation types. From interior cabins not much bigger than a photo-booth to expansive balcony suites, there are options for all budgets. Cuisine is of a high standard and appeals to British tastes -- as does the entertainment and cosy public rooms.
When it comes to cost, CMV has harnessed the power of the internet to publish bargain-basement prices. It offers Last Minute Getaways, which can reduce already-keen fares by up to 60 percent. It also promotes Top Deals with competitive pricing; and also Buy One Get One Free (Cruise) deals.
Marella Cruises (formally Thomson Cruises)
The upbeat Marella Cruises' fleet of six ships, including the recently added Marella Discovery 2, boasts an all-inclusive offering (including beverages and gratuities), which makes the line popular with British holidaymakers.
The onboard experience sits somewhere between traditional and ultra-casual, with the newer ships offering more specialty dining options and fun features such as the outdoor cinema screen (available on Marella Discovery and Marella Discovery 2.) showing Movies at Moonlight and sporting events.
For holidaymakers who prefer no-fly cruises, Marella will base Discovery in Newcastle from May to September 2018 to offer a selection of Northern Europe sailings.
Marella also offers a selection of Western and Eastern Mediterranean fly-cruise sailings through the summer months, with ships relocating to the Caribbean (Celebration, Discovery, Discovery 2) and Canary Islands (Dream) during the winter months.
A "new" ship, Marella Explorer, will launch in May 2018, which is currently sailing as TUI Cruises' Mein Schiff 3.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines
As a company that appreciates its appeal to more mature passengers, who often prefer to embark at a port close to home, Fred. Olsen offer cruises from the largest number of ports in the U.K., including Belfast, Rosyth (Edinburgh), Harwich, Newcastle, Avonmouth, Greenock and Southampton, amongst others.
To meet customer demand, the company offers Summer Cruise Offers, Latest Cruise Deals and Last Minute Cruise Deals. In terms of destination, the Canary Islands, Madeira, Spain and Portugal are a staple in Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' portfolio.
If you're looking to cruise at the cheapest rates possible, certain itineraries have low per-diem prices. These tend to be shorter cruises and voyages with a high percentage of days at sea.
Sailings to Madeira and the Canary Islands have good prices all year round (except Christmas and New Year). Some cruise lines (notably Costa and MSC) have ships in the Mediterranean all winter and there are always deals on these out-of-season sailings. Likewise, in Northern Europe, cruises at the start and end of the summer season can be great value.
Budget Options From Luxury Brands
Brit-popular cruise lines such as P&O Cruises and Cunard have sales all year round, when bargains can be snapped up on ships that don't fall into the budget category. What's more, these well-priced sailings are on new ships equipped with modern facilities.
P&O Cruises in particular makes a virtue of its Last Minute Cruise Deals. There are summer bargains to be had if you want to escape the British weather -- even during school holidays. Plus, with P&O Cruises' Early Saver and Saver fares, there are great discounts for those who plan ahead. These fares aren't just applicable to European destinations either, with deals on trips to the Caribbean available.
And although Cunard would never use the word 'bargain' to describe its cruises, it does have Cruise Deals throughout the year. Early Saver reductions are also available if you’re able to prepare in advance. Not only are there spots on European trips, but transatlantic voyages too.
Budget Options From Non-U.K.-Based Cruise Lines
Norwegian Cruise Line offers a fun, lively experience that makes it a firm favourite with families. There's everything from game rooms to bowling alleys to keep your party entertained.
Best known for introducing Freestyle Cruising more than a decade ago Norwegian was at the forefront of moving the cruise industry away from the dated traditions of the past. In fact, Norwegian was one of the first lines to offer Broadway-style shows, with Rock of Ages and Legally Blonde. One of the smallest ships in NCL's fleet, the 2,018-passenger, Mediterranean-based Norwegian Spirit, is also one of the company's older ships. Because it doesn't have the wild amusement park attractions of the line's newer vessels, it offers good value and budget options. You should also take a look at the company’s online Hot Deals, which includes Last Minute promotions and savings.
Geneva-based, but Italian-themed MSC Cruises, on the other hand, has four pricing levels, ranging from a basic cruise-only fare to all-inclusive. It also has a range of offers for budget-conscious cruisers, including Deals of the Week and Last Minute breaks, which offer fly-cruises at knockdown prices. Just register for the MSC e-newsletter to have deals sent directly to your inbox.
While popular from Florida ports, there are few overnight cruises on the British market. Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines sometimes offer these options as 'filler' cruises, while other cruise lines schedule them just before or after their vessels undergo a refit.
Short Break Cruises
There's no disputing the fact that short cruises are great value for money and the choice has never been greater. In fact, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Royal Caribbean and P&O Cruises all offer so-called taster cruises -- usually to France or Holland.
Savvy cruisers who yearn for days at sea look forward to spring and autumn more than any other time of year. That’s because repositioning cruises feature in many lines' rosters.
Though some ships spend the entire year sailing the same itineraries, many follow the sun. Between September and November there is a veritable armada of ships crossing from Britain to the United States and Caribbean, calling at Iceland and the Canadian Maritimes en route. Likewise, in spring, many ships, having spent winter in the Caribbean and South America, head back to Britain via the Azores, Canary Islands and the Iberian Peninsula.
These one-way voyages are often sold at a discount because they are not part of regular sailing schedules. To attract passengers, these voyages often have a theme, such as food and wine, theatre or big-band music. Enhanced enrichment programmes are also scheduled to make these cruises appealing to those seeking a stimulating experience.
Find out more about Repositioning Cruises
If you're looking for a specific destination and want to make handsome savings on a particular cruise, searching for seasonal discounts can pay dividends. As a rule of thumb, shoulder-season sailings (at the beginning or end of the cruising season) tend to be the most budget-friendly.
While the trade-off for your cheap cruise fare might be less-than-ideal weather, you often benefit from quieter destinations, where cafés are more likely to extend a welcome than rip you off. Plus, you'll enjoy lower airfares.
Sailings to Madeira and the Canary Islands have reasonable price tags all year (except for Christmas and New Year). Spring arrives early and summer seems to hang around. The only downside is that cruises between October and April may feel the motion of the ocean in a stormy Bay of Biscay.
This has traditionally been a great destination for low-cost cruises during summer months when temperatures soar. You can also get deals early in the season and towards the end of the year.
One of the principal gateways for these cruises is Istanbul, which is now considered unsafe due to recent unrest. To get around this, most cruise lines are switching their embarkation port to Piraeus (Athens) so you don't miss out.
Mediterranean in Winter
Most ships used to flee the Mediterranean around autumn and return in the spring. Now, more ships (notably from Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises) are staying put. While spring and autumn are lovely times to experience European cities, the weather can be iffy. As such, prices for winter cruises are low.
With per-diems coming in at less than £33 per day, these off-season cruises, which come with food and entertainment, are a no-brainer. There's rarely been a better time to grab a winter warmer without breaking the bank.
So there you have it. There are lots of deals and savings -- if you know where to look. What are you waiting for? Start searching for your next cruise today!
--by Gary Buchanan, Cruise Critic contributor