Over the years, I've pitched "positioning cruises" as one of the top travel bargains you can find, and this year will be no exception. The best rates will be for sailings in April, with several starting in the range of $30 to $35 a person per night. That's about what you'd pay for a budget motel -- and the cruise throws in meals and entertainment.
Positioning cruises in spring are trans-Atlantic sailings from the United States and the Caribbean to Europe as the big cruise lines reposition their liners for the seasonal summer peak in the Mediterranean; in the fall, they return for the warm-weather Caribbean and Mexican season. The eastbound season runs from mid-March through mid-May, with the lowest prices in April. Departure ports range from Galveston to Florida to Puerto Rico, with a few from New York; most terminate at a Mediterranean port, with a few heading for Southampton.
The experience on a positioning cruise is not the same as on a typical peak-season cruise. They take a minimum of 11 nights, and many take up to 20 days, compared with the popular one-week period for peak season cruises. And unlike peak season cruises, which typically stop at a different port every day, repositioning cruises entail periods of several days in the open sea. The relatively few port calls are either early, in the islands, or toward the end of the cruise, in the Mediterranean.
--A few more expensive cruises take a more northerly route, stopping in the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia.
The best rates I could find for this spring season are for trips on the big mass-market lines' megaships leaving in April. One of the lowest prices is for a 12-night itinerary on Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, leaving Ft. Lauderdale-Miami for Barcelona on April 8, with stops at Lisbon and Cadiz. Inside cabins start at $399, or $33 a person per night; ocean-view cabins start at $499, balconies at $799.
Other ships where you can get an inside cabin for $50 or less a person per night are the Independence of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Star and Nieuw Amsterdam.
Often, last-minute promotional rates include cabin upgrades from inside to ocean view and ocean view to balcony. Upscale lines also run positioning cruises, but their rates are considerably higher, starting at around $80 a person per night on some lines and starting at more than $200 a night on Seabourn and Crystal Cruises.
Cunard, of course, runs the Queen Mary 2 both ways over the summer, but prices are higher with few, if any, port calls. And the Norwegian Epic makes a nonstop westbound trip at rates just a tad under Cunard's.
If you would like a really northerly trip, calling at such ports as the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland and Maritime Canada, you have to wait for fall westbound positioning trips. Prices posted so far are higher, but you'll see some cuts by late summer.
Most cruise lines or cruise agencies can arrange one-way air returning from Europe. But you might find better deals on your own, and you might want to use frequent flier miles.
Obviously, $100 a day or less for a couple, including accommodations, food and most entertainment, is a pretty good buy by just about any standard. Even though the mass-market cruise lines are adding fees for services that were once "free," a positioning cruise is still hard to beat as a vacation value.
Check with your travel agency or any of the big online cruise agencies such as
cruisesonly.com, cruise.com or cruisesnmore.com. You can learn more about these cruises on the Internet; search for "repositioning cruises."
Ed Perkins writes Seniors on the Go for Tribune Media Services.