Cruises Without Crowds
Forget the big ships. New options from private charters to small luxury lines put you in the captain's seat.
Donna Rosato

(MONEY Magazine) - Some people love a cruise. Some people would rather get a root canal. If you're in the latter group, it may be because the word cruise brings to mind images of thousands of people lining up for the midnight buffet, offshore T-shirt shopping and Capt. Stubing.

Thing is, not all cruises are alike, and these days there are tons of alternatives if you're looking for something a little different (okay, a lot different) from the typical Love Boat experience. First off, you needn't stay in a floating Sheraton. There are now plenty of smaller ships that offer a more intimate, low-key experience. Furthermore, many of these ships cost the same as or less than the jumbo vessels, and you won't have to give up anything. Amenities can be just as lavish, if not more so, and itineraries can include visits to small villages, glaciers and other remote locations the big boats can't fit into. Best of all, you don't have to wake up at the crack of dawn to score a good chaise on the Lido deck.

• CHARTERED YACHTS

Be Your Own Buffett (Warren or Jimmy)

WHAT'S DIFFERENT Go where you want to go, do what you want to do--far away from the big ships.

WHERE The Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Mexico

Used to be that if you wanted to lounge around on a yacht, you needed to be a Greek shipping tycoon, a regular attendee at Davos or one of the first 10 people hired at Microsoft. Fortunately, you can get a similar experience for a fraction of the price by chartering a boat. Sure, some charters cost more than renting out the Queen Mary 2, but the vast majority cost the same as or less than a traditional cruise. Best part: You don't even need to know how to sail. In the Caribbean, four people can charter a 45-foot boat with a standard crew (a captain and a cook) for one week for $1,500 to $3,000 per person, including all meals and drinks. That's $215 to $430 a night--about what you'd pay for an ocean-view room on a big ship.

But in this case, it's your ship. See, when you charter your own boat, you can go to places that big ships literally can't--secluded coves, out-of-the-way reefs and small beaches. You also get to set the pace, spending as much time as you want in a particular area. Just remember that rooms on a charter are smaller and quarters closer, so invite along only family members (whom you like) and close friends. Also, make sure you find a crew that's matched to your leisure interests. It does you no good if you're a history buff and the captain knows all the best snorkeling spots.

HOW TO BOOK

Ed Hamilton & Co.: Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific charters (ed-hamilton.com)

Hinckley Crewed Yacht Charters: Crewed sailboat or motor yachts (hinckleyyacht.com)

The Moorings: Sailboat, catamaran and powerboat charters (moorings.com)

COST Prices run from $200 a night per person to $2,000 for a seven-day cruise.

• SMALLER SHIPS

Where Everyone Knows Your Name

WHAT'S DIFFERENT Big-ship amenities and services without the crowds

WHERE The Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas

Between the gigantism of a megaship and the intimacy of a charter is an armada of smaller cruise lines that offer a more personalized (but still suitably luxurious) experience. The SeaDream Yacht Club operates two 344-foot ships that carry just 100 passengers each--and nearly the same number of staff and crew.

Though it has a preset itinerary, the ship will stay longer in a secluded bay if, say, the passengers want a few more hours of snorkeling. Rooms are equipped with DVD players, flat-panel TVs and Bulgari toiletries. All of this, of course, comes at a price: The per-person rate for a seven-night cruise ranges from $2,000 to more than $10,000, depending on cabin.

A more moderately priced line is Star Clippers, which has ships that hold just 170 people. These boats rely mostly on sailing power, though they also have engines for when the winds aren't cooperating. Like SeaDream, Star Clippers offers a pretty relaxed kind of environment that's more about quiet nights at the piano bar, less about a Vegas-style floor show. But prices are lower than what you'd pay on a mass-market ship, says Linda Coffman, author of The Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises. A seven-day Mediterranean cruise this summer ranges from $1,875 to $2,995 per person.

HOW TO BOOK

SeaDream Yacht Club (seadreamyachtclub.com)

Star Clippers (starclippers.com)

COST From $175 a night per person to almost $3,000. Cruises typically last one week.

• ADVENTURE CRUISES

For the Modern-Day Explorer

WHAT'S DIFFERENT A focus on remote destinations with an educational bent

WHERE Alaska, Antarctica, Baja, Galápagos

Adventure cruises offer the best of both worlds: You get to go to out-of-the-way places such as Libya or Antarctica, but instead of hiking through the desert or tundra, you can always retire to your cabin for a glass of Cabernet. Celebrity Cruises' Xpeditions ships sail to the Galápagos Islands and carry only 94 passengers. A naturalist accompanies passengers to every location, and each night there are lectures. And unlike on big ships, every room has an ocean view. For a 10-day trip, rates range from $4,400 to $5,700 per person and are all-inclusive.

Lindblad Expeditions offers cruises to places like Alaska, Antarctica, Baja California and the Galápagos. Their ships carry 30 to 110 people and offer up-close encounters with nature and wildlife, from kayaking next to an iceberg to swimming with dolphins. A 16-day cruise to Patagonia and through the Chilean fjords ranges from $5,990 to $8,000 per person, including all meals.

HOW TO BOOK

Celebrity Xpeditions: Visits to the Galápagos and Machu Picchu (celebrity.com/xpeditions)

Lindblad Expeditions: Trips to the Americas and Antarctica (expeditions.com)

COST Prices start at around $300 a night per person. Cruises often last from 7 to 20 days.

• BARGES

Go with the Flow

WHAT'S DIFFERENT A slower pace, untouristy destinations and a laid-back vibe

WHERE Rivers and canals in Asia, Europe, South America and the U.S.

But what if you're not into tropical destinations or exotic locales? Consider barges, which meander down rivers or canals as passengers watch small villages slip by and make stops for cycling, sightseeing or wine tasting. Long popular on European canals and rivers, barge vacations can now be found all over the world, from the Mississippi and Snake rivers in the U.S. to the Yangtze in China and the Amazon in Brazil.

You can charter your own barge for groups of two to 12 people or rent a cabin on a hotel barge, which carries from 80 to 250 people. Cabins are spacious, about the size of a hotel room. On an eight-passenger barge, the staff usually includes a pilot, two crew hands, a guide for excursions and a chef. For eight passengers on a six-night cruise, the cost is $5,625 per person. Some barges have pools and Jacuzzis, but you won't find late-night or raucous entertainment. Jill Jergel, barge specialist at Frontiers Travel, says the atmosphere is decidedly low-key--barges move at a snail's pace, and evening entertainment consists of dinner and swapping stories about your day.

HOW TO BOOK

Delta Queen Steamboat Co.: Mississippi steamboat cruises (deltaqueen.com)

Peter Deilmann Cruises: European river cruises (deilmann-cruises.com)

COST Rooms start at $260 a night per person; charters run $450 to $850 per person.

Charting Your Trip

There's a huge variety of cruises out there. That makes booking them--particularly for first-timers--a more complex affair than just buying an airline ticket or a hotel room. Here are tips on getting the best value and having the best time on the high seas.

1 Book early.

As cruises grow more popular, last-minute deals are harder to land, especially on small ships. Most cruise lines offer discounts for booking four to six months in advance. Buy then and you're also more likely to get your pick of cabins.

2 Beware of fees.

Though many cruises bill themselves as all-inclusive, air fare, excursion fees and gratuities are often extra. Be sure to ask what's included before you pay.

3 Shop around.

There are lots of ways to buy cruises these days, including through travel agents, who may offer free upgrades and perks; via cruise portals like Cruise411; and on auction sites such as CruiseCompete.com, where travel agents bid for your business. Check them all for the best deal.

4 Go off-peak.

In general, cruises are cheaper in the fall and outside of the most popular vacation times. That means the Caribbean in August, Alaska in May or September and Europe in the spring or early fall.

5 Find your niche.

How do you know what a cruise will really be like? Go to cruisemates.com, cruisecritic.com, cruisediva.com or cruisereviews.com, where you can read comments posted by other travelers.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.