Transatlantic cruises for backpackers: a way to see more and pay less

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.

Our transatlantic cruise itinerary

Our transatlantic cruise itinerary

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.

Transatlantic wind

It’s pretty windy out in the middle of the Atlantic

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.


The rock of Gibraltar, one of the popular transatlantic stops

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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25 Responses to “Transatlantic cruises for backpackers: a way to see more and pay less”

  1. Nancie (Ladyexpat)
    25 March 2010 at 10:00 am #

    Great post Ryan. I never realized it was so economical. This is definitely a good option. My first two trips to Europe were cruises. I was in high school and we slept in dorm rooms of 15 or so. Lots of fun!

  2. Ryan
    27 March 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Thanks Nancie. Sounds like you were a lucky kid – I wish I’d been able to do something like that in high school.

  3. Dina
    27 March 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    Hi Nancie, do you mean the dorm room was in the cruise ship? Wow, I don’t know they used to have that on board! I wonder are there any ships still have that. Did you have to book the whole room, or you book it individually like in a hostel?

  4. Liz Warner
    21 April 2010 at 8:02 pm #

    I have the same question, how did you book it?

  5. Nancie (Ladyexpat)
    23 April 2010 at 8:51 am #

    @ Dina and Liz………….This was a LONG time ago :) It was a high school, so everything was arranged by the school. Quite a few schools in our city got together, and if memory serves me correctly all of the students were from my province Nova Scotia.

    The cruise line was British.>>>>B&O or P&O (can’t remember which). Maybe you can find them on the Net

    Hope this helps.
    .-= Nancie (Ladyexpat)´s last blog ..Wanderfood Wednesday — Korean Tasting and Tea Tour =-.

    • Dina
      24 April 2010 at 2:05 pm #

      I’ll be checking on that! Seems like too wonderful if this thing is still exist :) You were lucky, having a cruise school trip!

  6. Suzy
    30 April 2010 at 11:39 am #

    I had no idea cruises were so cheap! Thanks for all the information. I like the idea of coming back on a cruise, giving you time to relax, journal, etc. I’ll have to consider this next time I go across the pond.
    .-= Suzy´s last blog ..My Case For A Three Month Vacation =-.

    • Dina
      3 May 2010 at 12:03 am #

      Hi Suzy, yes, it makes a great journey between Europe and America. It’s just your schedule has to be flexible enough so you can fit it to the repositioning months!
      Actually now and then other cruises are offered for a low price too. Ryan and I like to take advantage of these cheap ones. Once we even made it cheaper by stuff 4 people in one room! (the 3rd and 4th person are cheaper, so it’s cheaper overall. The cabin room was turned into a hostel room!)

  7. Joel
    3 May 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Great post – I’ve been on a couple of cruises and thought about trying something similar.

    I like the idea of booking one for the return to the U.S. as a way to unwind from all the sensory overload of travel.
    .-= Joel´s last blog ..Confessions of a Cultural Idiot – Pt 4: Talk =-.

    • Ryan
      5 May 2010 at 7:53 am #

      Thanks Joel. I’ve been looking at some options leaving Europe this fall, originally thinking we’d head back to Canada. But I’m seeing some great prices (approx $500) and interesting itineraries for sailings from Portugal or Spain to Brazil. So if I can get the timing right, we may be heading to South America in November.

  8. grace b
    3 May 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    I would LOVE to do this as I have a friend who absolutely adores cruises and has been begging me to go on one with her. Question though: Is your destination somewhere outside of Europe or do these cruise ships actually dock in ports in Europe? Thanks for telling me about this, I will definitely look into it! Also, Nancy, one of my cousins did probably the more recent incarnation of what you wrote about (which sounds great!) called Semester at Sea. She loved it.

    • Ryan
      4 May 2010 at 3:24 am #

      Thanks Grace.

      The destination is typically a major European port. They are repositioning the ship to its new summer home, which would usually be a major city. Some of the more common destinations are Barcelona, Rome, or Venice. The ship will usually dock for a day in some of the ports along the way depending on the itinerary. There are lots of options so you can check them out and find one that visits places you like.

      It’s one-way so once you’re in Europe you need to arrange a flight home, or you could stay until the Fall and then take another cruise back to North America. Or, you could do like we did, and just keep on heading east!

  9. Andrew
    3 May 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    I’ve not done the cheap way, but I have crossed the Atlantic 3 times using Cunard. Once on the QE2 and twice on the QM2. Really some of the most interesting weeks of my life. The first trip I took, even as a masters student, I was the least educated person at my table of 8. I met people I would never ever have met in normal life, but the isolation of a boat helps make friends. It was wonderful.

    Given a choice on a trip, I will always pick a boat or ship.

    • Ryan
      5 May 2010 at 8:06 am #

      That’s excellent, I have always wanted to cross the Atlantic on an ocean liner. I’ve heard it’s a bit more refined experience than a typical cruise. The only trouble is affording it – maybe one day…

  10. Samantha Dermot
    23 February 2011 at 8:08 am #

    Really?! 14 days trip will only cost you $600? That’s a great offer to those people who want to have a different travel experience! But looks like there’s a catch on their offer! LOL But still, its very affordable!
    Samantha Dermot´s last post…Symptoms Of Teeth Grinding

    • Dina
      8 May 2011 at 6:06 pm #

      Hi Samantha, sorry I just saw your comment today :) We just did another transatlantic crossing from Panama to Mallorca via Curacao, Barbados, and Canary Islands. Actually just landed in Mallorca today! and this time it was only $400 per person!! 14 nights, less # of ports visited though. Just don’t fall to their casino, souvenirs, alcohols, etc :D

      • Levi Wells
        10 July 2012 at 5:54 am #

        Dina, do you know where I can find a deal like that? Its almost time for me to get back home.

        • Ryan
          11 July 2012 at 2:58 am #

          Hi Levi. Where are you heading?

          Right now is not the season for cheap transatlantic cruises. Most of the best deals will be March through May as the ships move from the Americas to Europe. There will also be some good values in the fall as the ships head back west.

  11. Sebastian
    29 July 2011 at 6:09 am #

    Love this post! I will take this into consideration for the next time I want to go to the US and I’m not in a rush!

  12. Kyle
    16 March 2012 at 10:32 am #


    I just stumbled upon your site while looking for a map with Europe and North America, but I have to say I love what I’m reading.

    One thing though – how can you really find a cruise anywhere for $600? I tried checking out a few websites around the times you stated and cant find anything close! This sounds like an amazing opportunity but I dont know where I would find the offer. Help!


    • Ryan
      3 April 2012 at 4:02 am #

      Hi Kyle,

      Thanks for reading, and sorry for the slow reply.

      The best values are transatlantic cruises around repositioning season. You can still find lots of great values going from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean.

      For example, right now there’s a 13 night cruise leaving April 15 on the Norwegian Spirit from New Orleans to Barcelona for $429.

      Prices move up and down of course, but there’s lots in the $500 range right now. Check out the cruise section on Travelocity or Expedia, or really any cruise sales agency to find them.

      If you miss the spring transatlantics, you can get similar deals in the fall when the ships move back from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean.


  13. Nisa
    27 October 2012 at 11:59 am #

    Hi Ryan and Dina i’ts very nice to know your travelling stories, so informative. I’ve read some and this one is very exciting one. I want to know about how you get the visa to visit those different country while you on that cruise?

    • Ryan
      27 October 2012 at 1:56 pm #

      Hi Nisa,

      It depends on where you’re going and what passport you have, but most cruises go places where getting a visa in advance is not required, or is not required if you’re on a cruise ship. In some cases you do need a visa, but the ship will help arrange the visa for you while you’re on board. And sometimes you have to get it yourself before the cruise. It’s never been a problem for us, but if you’re considering doing a cruise definitely check with the embassies of each country you’re visiting to be sure – this is one area where you can’t rely on the cruise line to give you advice, and people do sometimes get denied boarding if they haven’t arranged the right visas.


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