Best Cruise Lines for the Money
When you tally up the costs of an on-land vacation versus a vacation at sea, there's a good chance that the at-sea option will offer a better value … that is, if you choose the right company. A cruise is practically a package deal, with lodging, food and entertainment often all covered in the cruise fare. But affordability is one thing — how do you know that you're actually getting the best bang for your buck? In order to help you get the most out of your vacation budget, U.S. News' Best Cruises team has amassed the following list of cruise lines that not only offer competitive rates, but also quality experiences.
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Royal Caribbean is one of the largest lines on the seven seas setting sail hundreds of times each year to destinations around the world. And having the ability to accommodate thousands of guests per ship allows Royal Caribbean to keep rates low: Cruisers won't have trouble finding itineraries costing less than $100 per person per day. Prices cover lodging, meals in the Main Dining Room and a wealth of onboard activities ranging from swimming and rock climbing to foreign language classes and Broadway-caliber performances.
When you add up the cost of a hotel and park tickets, a trip to Walt Disney World will no doubt put a dent in your wallet — but a Disney cruise doesn't have to. Rates offered by Disney Cruise Line are higher than those advertised by larger cruise companies, but this line provides spacious cabins and a wealth of family-friendly entertainment at no additional cost. Kids can mingle with Mickey and the gang and make new friends in the supervised kids' clubs. Consider it a cooler (and complimentary) alternative to babysitting while you catch up on R&R by the pool.
Albeit smaller than some competitors, Celebrity Cruises has an advantage over other affordable cruise companies: diversity. Celebrity only has 11 ships, yet it offers the floating-city experience of a larger ship as well as the intimacy of a smaller ship. And you can't argue with the rates: Cruisers can find Celebrity itineraries costing less than $100 per person per night. The line also shakes up the dining standards, allowing guests their pick of specialty dining venues for one flat package rate; meals at the main restaurant are covered in the cruise fare.
Carnival Cruise Lines specializes in low-cost fun, offering frequent sales and early booking rates on already low prices. In fact, finding an itinerary for less than $100 per person per day is the norm for passengers on Carnival's 24 ships. Although the line's rates don't cover necessities (like beverages), cruisers can choose from a variety of drink packages tailored to a wide range of preferences and budgets. As for access to the ships' pools, water parks, mini-golf courses and evening entertainment — well, that won't cost you a penny more than your standard fare.
Norwegian is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the cruise world, expanding its fleet and offering affordable trips to destinations around the world. What's more, Norwegian doesn't charge extra to ditch the steadfast cruise rules — such as dress codes and assigned meal times — still enforced by other lines. Those who travel with Norwegian can eat whenever they want, wherever they want, wearing anything they want. And though meals at specialty restaurants will cost extra, several eateries across the fleet offer dining for as low as $5.
Whether you opt for one of Holland America's family-oriented ships or an adults-only boat, you'll find cruising with this line to be a pretty good bargain. In fact, you can find seven-day trips to destinations like the Caribbean for less than $60 per person per day. But on this line, cutting costs doesn't mean skimping on service. All of Holland America's ships fall into the mid-size category, meaning that you'll never find more than 2,500 passengers aboard any given ship. And with one staff member per every two guests, Holland America offers more personalized service than other mainstream lines.
MSC caters primarily to European cruisers, but the line's rates don't come close to matching those of the typical European land vacation. Once you get past the cost of flying to a foreign port of call, MSC will allow you to experience destinations around the world at extremely reasonable rates, with cruises around the Mediterranean, northern Africa and South America costing less than $100 a night. In addition to dining in many of the onboard restaurants and access to facilities like pools, cinemas and bowling alleys, MSC rates also cover fitness classes and gratuities.
You can expect to pay more for a Princess Cruise than you would with Carnival (the line's parent company), but not much more. And while Carnival tends to cater more toward families, Princess' 17 ships were designed with adult travelers in mind. On top of lodging and dining, fares cover a range of enrichment programs like cooking lessons, photography workshops and art history lectures, as well as a variety of fitness classes. Meanwhile, Princess' "cruisetours" (optional extended stays in a port of call) allow you to experience different destinations for less than what you'd spend on an on-land vacation.
Also a member of the Carnival family, Costa Cruises is primarily based in Europe, though the company does offer voyages throughout the Western Hemisphere. Still recovering from heavy scrutiny following the Costa Concordia accident in 2012, this fleet is offering rates that are considerably lower than usual — sometimes for less than $50 per person per day. Although there are family-friendly amenities, Costa is better suited for adults and offers dance and language classes, a library and evening theater productions, all of which are included in the cruise fare.
Disclaimers about ship ratings: A ship's Health Rating is based on vessel inspection scores published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If a ship did not receive a CDC score within 24 months prior to the calculation of its Overall Rating, its Health Rating appears as N/A; in such a case, the ship's Overall Rating is calculated using the average Health Rating of all CDC-rated ships within the cruise line. All ship Traveler Ratings are based on ratings provided under license by Cruiseline.com.