Usually when I mention the idea of cruising to fellow backpackers or bargain travelers I get strange looks and the same question: “Aren’t cruises too expensive for a backpacker?” A lot of people have a mental picture of cruises based on what they’ve seen on the love boat, but this isn’t accurate anymore. In fact, cruising can be a very cheap and rewarding mode of travel for backpackers, bargain hunters, and slow travelers. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to cross the ocean, visit out-of-the way places, and take some time to relax.
When Dina and I started planning to head from our home in Canada to Europe we checked into the best way to cross the Atlantic. We were shocked to find out just how cheap a transatlantic cruise can be. We ended up on the Ruby Princess for its first transatlantic sailing. Yes, the days spent at sea were long, but it was very relaxing and peaceful to be out there in the middle of the ocean. A great time for reading, writing, and conversation with friends.
Taking a cruise can also be a great way to see some out-of-the way islands that you might not get to otherwise. How about Madeira, Sardinia, the Azores, or the Canary Islands? They’re a bit difficult to get to and expensive, not usually on a backpacker’s itinerary, but a handy stop with a cruise. And arriving in a new city by ship is so much more exciting than by land. Sure, your time in each city is short, but it’s a great way to get a small taste of a lot of different places. That can help planning which places you’d like to come back to and spend more time in.
What do you do during a transatlantic cruise? Usually the ship will spend 7 days or so in various port cities, so you’ll spend that time exploring the cities you’re in. Then you’ll spend another week or so at sea. There’s lots to do on the ship, but what I liked most was the peace and quiet. If you’re returning home after backpacking through Europe, a cruise would be a perfect time to unwind, reflect, maybe get your photos organize and fill in the gaps in your travel journal.
How cheap is it? There are lots of cruises available now crossing from the USA to Europe, usually lasting about 14 days or so, for about $600 USD per person including your accommodations and food. That’s around $45 a day! How much would you pay for basic hostel accommodations and simple food for 14 days? On the cruise you’ll be served fabulous meals, have all kinds of entertainment, stay in a nice private cabin and have all your transportation included. If you flew, you’d pay at least $600 for the flight, plus you’d need to organize a bus or train and spend hours riding and waiting when you want to head to a new city. On a cruise you’re sailing while you’re eating, sleeping, and enjoying yourself. Then you wake up in the morning docked in a new city to explore.
If you have a few friends to go with you, it can be even cheaper. You can often add a 3rd and 4th person to your room for another $200-300 each bringing down the cost even more.
Sure, there can be downsides. The cruise line will try hard to push expensive excursions, cocktails, photo packages, and souvenirs on you. It’s simple: don’t buy them. And I always remember that the reason my cruise was so cheap is that the other travelers are subsidizing me with their purchases of trinkets and alcohol.
The best time to take a transatlantic cruise is when the seasons change. At the end of winter, roughly March-May, ships move from the Caribbean and South America to Europe. That’s when you will find great bargains on these sailings. Then those same ships head back across the ocean from Europe to the Americas once it gets cold, from October-November.
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