Budget Cruising: a Short History

| Sept 15, 2006

If you are reading this article because you are looking for a "budget" cruise line - i.e., one less expensive than the "mainstream" cruise lines of Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean - then you're probably a few years too late. The last of the budget lines that specialized in low-priced, multi-day cruises on older ships disappeared in the late 1990s. It wasn't 9/11 that did them in (although if they had still been around, it might have). Instead, they disappeared because of low fares coming from the mainstream lines, which figured out that once they had a passenger on board, he could be enticed to spend enough money to justify a "give-away" cruise fare.

It is still possible to find cruises somewhat cheaper than those of the mainstream lines, but they tend to be on newer ships from the likes of the Italian companies Costa and MSC, which sell cruises at a slight discount because they need to entice Americans during the winter months to fill their ships. These ships are usually just a little less expensive than the mainstream lines, and what you get may not be as enjoyable as if you paid a little bit more. The good news is that you can still find short cruises on classic old ships like the old-fashioned budget lines had. They are almost always limited to one or two-day itineraries.

Budget Cruises of Today

Mainstream Budget CruisesMost of today's "budget cruises" are short (three- to five-day) sailings offered by Carnival and Royal Caribbean on their older ships. The major lines sporadically offer a few one- and two-day cruises, but not on a regular schedule. Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas sails three- and 4 day cruises from Los Angeles to Ensenada for as little as $209. The Carnival Fascination sails three- and four-day cruises from Miami to the Bahamas from $189.

If you are simply looking for a cheap cruise, there are plenty of options. At this writing, I see three-night cruises from NCL or Princess, both sailing from Vancouver to Los Angeles, for $149. Holland America has one from $199. These are repositioning cruises in September 2006 and are one-time only.

Here are some other examples of today's regular budget cruises:

  • Monarch of the Seas sails from Los Angeles to Ensenada on three-day cruises as low as $229.
  • Sovereign of the Seas sails Port Canaveral to Nassau on three -day cruises as low as $249.
  • Carnival Sensation sails from Port Canaveral to Nassau on three -day cruises as low as $189.
  • Carnival Fantasy sails four-night cruises roundtrip from Miami as low as $179 to Key West and Cozumel.
  • Carnival Holiday sails four-night cruises roundtrip from Mobile, Alabama as low as $249 to Costa Maya and Cozumel.
  • Carnival Ecstasy sails four-night cruises roundtrip from Galveston, Tex. as low as $299 to Progresso and Cozumel.

Smaller Budget Cruise Lines

Is there still such a thing as a small budget cruise line? There are a few, but they are limited to one or two-day cruises.

Discovery Island Cruises sails from Fort Lauderdale to Grand Bahama Island on day cruises for about $129 per person. The ship sails at 7:45 a.m. and returns at 10:00 p.m. There are staterooms available, plus four show lounges and a casino. The ship also has bingo, a video arcade and a swimming pool; it serves breakfast and lunch buffets and dinner. The ship is docked in the Bahamas from 1:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., and it offers a number of "sail & stay" options so you can remain on the island from one night to one week.

Imperial Majesty now owns and operates the former Regal Cruise Line's Regal Empress on two-day trips from Ft Lauderdale to Nassau, leaving at 5 p.m. and arriving in Nassau the next morning at 9 a.m. She then sails at 6 p.m. to re-dock in Ft Lauderdale at 9 a.m. The ship provides live entertainment, all meals, a casino, children's facilities, inside and outside staterooms and even suites. "The MV Regal Empress is a classic liner built in Glasgow, Scotland as the Olympia, the flagship for the now defunct Greek Lines," the company said.

Prices for the Regal Empress start at $199 per person, rising to $499 for a suite. Unless you are pressed for time, you might want to opt for a three or four-day Carnival, NCL or Royal Caribbean cruise for about the same price or less.

EasyCruise A few years ago, a cruise line with a name familiar to Europeans started up. EasyCruise, founded by self-described "serial entrepreneur" Stelios Haji-Ioannou, is unlike anything the traditional cruise industry has ever seen. The cruise line is part of the Easy family, all owned by Stelios, that includes EasyJet, EasyInternet, EasyCar, EasyHotel -- all offering rock-bottom prices on various no-frills services sold only on the Internet.

EasyCruise is a swiftly growing fleet of small ships (100 passengers) with repeating week-long itineraries, but passengers can book as many or as few nights on board as they want. Cabins are sold only on the Internet, and start as low as $24 a night, but prices go up (as high as $149 a night) as inventory goes down. So if you want to book a week, you may end up paying a different price for every night of the cruise.

The basic cruise price on these ships is absolutely no-frills. Food is extra, and even maid service is optional. Decor is plain, and based on the company logo colors of white and bright orange - even inside the cabins. The first itineraries were in the Western Mediterranean, but now the line also operates in the deep Caribbean, to ports easily marketed to Europeans (Martinique, Granada, St Lucia, etc.). EasyCruise has announced it will have as many as eight ships by 2009 in Europe and the Caribbean.

Budget Cruising's Glory Days In the early 1990s, travelers could still book budget lines like Premier Cruises, Commodore Cruise Lines, Regal Cruises and Dolphin Cruises. They all offered classic vessels - small ocean liners or passenger ferries built in the 1940s to 1960s, restored to the original wood and fabrics. None of these lines are still in business, though a few of the ships are still in service. But for people who knew them well, there are a lot of good memories.

Premier didn't start out as a budget cruise line. Despite its older ships, it was once a "premium" line in price and profitability. From 1983 to 1990, Premier was run by Bruce Nierenberg, an outspoken and inventive personality.

Premier had hotel space at Disney World in Orlando and an exclusive contract to feature Disney employees in character costumes on its three Big Red Boats sailing out of Port Canaveral. Back then, Premier was the largest seller of Disney World tickets. But by 1991 the Orlando hotel business started booming, and Premier became more of a cruise line and less of a Disney tour operator. Nierenberg sold his interest.

The budget cruise lines struggled in the 90s, changing names, moving ships from one company and location to another, and generally trying anything to remain solvent. Finally, in 1997, Premier took on Dolphin Cruise Lines and a former Holland America Rotterdam (this was three Rotterdams ago, since Holland America re-uses ship names) all united under one banner. They renamed the old Rotterdam the SS Rembrandt and resurrected the Premier Cruises brand name, but it was a different company - a true budget cruise line.

Back in 1997 you could book a cruise on Premier Cruises for about 75 percent of the price you'd pay on a mainstream cruise line today, and as long as you didn't mind the antiquated furnishings and amateurish aspect of the entertainment, the food and service were as good as any mainstream cruise ship.

But by 1999, the rapid expansion of mainstream cruise lines Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America and Celebrity meant that brand new ships were arriving at a breakneck pace. To fill those ships, the lines started to cut their cruise prices, and by 2000, you could get a cruise on Carnival or Royal Caribbean for the same price as on Premier. The only Premier ship that remained profitable to the end was the one remaining Big Red Boat (by then operating with Looney Tunes characters).

Premier's aging ships suffered engine problems and other mishaps that required customer rebates and discounts on future cruises. In a short time, Premier owed more free cruises than it could sell as revenue cruises, and that strained its cash-flow beyond solvency. In a last-ditch effort to stay afloat, Premier renamed and re-painted all its ships as Big Red Boats I through IV. But by September 2000, Premier declared bankruptcy and its ships were seized by lenders. Some were sold for scrap, and one sank mysteriously off the coast of North Carolina (no one was injured or lost), but the Rembrandt (nee Rotterdam) is still living in Europe where a group of people hopes to make it a museum.

Commodore Cruise Line filed for bankruptcy in January 2001, citing rising fuel prices and a glut of ships from the likes of Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean and P&O Princess.

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