Leave your cares onshore for a few days—without breaking the bank.

If you’re looking for cheap summer (or year-round!) fun, why not catch the ocean breeze aboard a cruise ship?

You read that right—cruises for the budget-minded. That cruise you’ve been dreaming of might not be as unattainable and expensive as it seems.

Where do I start?

Start with the Internet, says Cruise-One franchise owner Marianne Henderson. And start early, looking at prices and ports six to nine months before your projected departure date.

But finding, booking, and planning the perfect cruise can be overwhelming with just the Internet as your guide, so consider asking for help. “It really is better to go through a travel agent,” Henderson states. They know their stuff. With the help of a seasoned travel agent, you won’t need to spend hours scouring the Web for deals. A travel agent will help you personalize your search and can also get you extra perks (such as onboard credit) that you can’t get online. And don’t worry: Henderson assures that travel agents don’t cost you a penny—the bill falls to the cruise line.

Which destinations are cheapest?

The best deals are on trips to the Bahamas and short Caribbean cruises. Henderson especially recommends western Caribbean itineraries for those who want “fun in the sun.” And because the Caribbean is a popular destination, a lot of cruise ships sail there, meaning competition is high and prices are low.

Are there hidden fees?

Before you make a final decision, consider the total cost. “[Online] prices show only the cruise fare and port fees—not taxes. So keep that in mind when you’re searching,” Henderson advises. Also keep in mind the nonnegotiable gratuity, which is usually $12 per person per day, and travel expenses to and from the port of call. Your travel agent will help you be aware of all cruise-related fees.

What do I pay for onboard?

Once you’ve paid the upfront expenses and boarded the ship, “you don’t have to spend one dime more,” Henderson explains. That’s why an inexpensive cruise is such a good deal: lodging, food, and entertainment are all included.

While you don’t have to spend more money, additional food and entertainment options are available: specialty dining, casinos, spas, Internet access, onboard shops, and port activities—excursions, shopping, food, and transportation. But rest assured, you can have the time of your life without these things! The main dining areas offer high-quality food for no extra charge. As for the Internet—relax and unplug for a while. You’ll be glad you did.

Cruise prices are at an all-time low, and with the help of a travel agent and some frugality, you can enjoy a new location with a few extra bucks in your pocket. Just don’t lose them in the pool.

—Caroline Bliss Larsen

Top photo by Don McCullough. cc