The Caribbean is by far the most popular part of the world for cruises, and thanks to a surge in popularity of the activity, it can now be explored by those in almost every budget category. Considering it’s mostly an all-inclusive holiday and the departure ports are generally near cheap and popular airports, a Caribbean cruise can be done so inexpensively that it might be shocking.
However, unlike airlines that are basically interchangeable, cruise lines each tend to fit into a price category and have a personality of their own. There are 13 different cruise companies (including a few small-ship luxury outfits) that cover the Caribbean, and a scan of the information below should help you narrow your best options down to only one or two of the lines.
How we compared the cruise lines
This list below comprises the best-available rates (in October, 2012) for 4- and 7-night Caribbean cruises for the month of January, 2013, which is part of high season. Prices go up and down depending on a variety of factors, but they all tend to move together so the rankings below don’t change much or at all.
13 Caribbean cruise lines ranked by price
1 – Royal Caribbean International (cheapest)
7 nights from: $369
(New Orleans → Cozumel → Georgetown, Grand Cayman → Falmouth, Jamaica → New Orleans)
4 nights from: $284
(Ft. Lauderdale → Cozumel → Ft. Lauderdale)
While its cruises leaving from Ft Lauderdale aren’t quite as cheap as those on Carnival, the Royal Caribbean cruises leaving from New Orleans are the lowest price for 7 nights in the Caribbean in high season. This is on the Navigator of the Seas, which carries up to 3,114 passengers, and was one of the first to add such activities as rock climbing walls and an ice skating rink.
As you would expect in this price range, the dress tends to be casual and the ships attract a wide mix of younger and older and families and couples, mostly from the United States and Canada.
2 – Carnival Cruise Lines
7 nights from: $399 per person
(Miami → Cozumel → Ocho Rios → George Town → Miami)
4 nights from: $169 per person
(Miami → Key West → Cozumel → Miami)
If you want to leave from one of the Florida ports near a major airport, Carnival Cruise Lines is the low-price leader. The 7-night cruise is on the Carnival Valor, which carries a “Heroes and Heroics” theme and can carry 2,974 passengers. Since flying to New Orleans is usually more expensive than flying to Miami, these are actually a better deal for most people.
Carnival and its “Fun Ships” slogan are very popular with first-time cruise passengers, and especially younger people and families, primarily from the United States and Canada.
3 – MSC Cruises
7 nights from: $469
(Ft. Lauderdale → Cozumel, Mexico → Roatan, Honduras → George Town, Grand Cayman → Montego Bay, Jamaica → Ft. Lauderdale)
Started in Italy, MSC only recently entered the North American cruise market with these winter Caribbean excursions. The low prices might make you assume this is another mass market outfit like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but it’s really not. There is a very European atmosphere and (slower) style of service, and even two formal nights (men wear ties) per week. This sailing is on the MSC Poesia, which can carry as many as 3,605 passengers.
Even on these Caribbean journeys, the crowds on the MSC ships are very international, with a great number of Europeans mixed in with Americans and Canadians. You won’t see as many families on this cruise, and some who do go sound unlikely to go again.
4 (tie) – Norwegian Cruise Line
7-nights from: $499
(Tampa → Coxen Hole, Roatan, Bay Islands → Belize City → Costa Maya (Mahahual) → Cozumel → Tampa)
Norwegian Cruise Line is famous for pioneering the “freestyle cruising” concept, where passengers can select from a wide range of restaurants and activities and go whenever they like rather than on a rigid schedule. This cruise is on the Norwegian Dawn, carrying a maximum of 2,224 passengers, after undergoing a major refurbishment in 2011.
The Freestyle Cruising thing ends up attracting a wide range of passengers, including some who prefer to dress formally on formal nights. So you can expect families and older folks along with a lot of romantic couples from all age ranges, primarily from the US and Canada.
4 (tie) – Princess Cruises
7 nights from: $499
(Ft. Lauderdale → Princess Cays (Private Island) → Willemstad → Oranjestad → Ft. Lauderdale)
A slightly upscale division of Carnival, the Princess Cruises line runs two ships on this itinerary covering the eastern Caribbean rather than the west. The Caribbean Princess can carry 3,080 passengers and the Grand Princess can take 3,100, both having been recently renovated to include many of the newest and most popular features of the day.
Not as casual and fun-minded as the cheapest Caribbean cruises, the Princess sailings attract a bit more formality and a higher age range, though families with children are mixed in as well. Expect mostly Americans and Canadians on these cruises, with a sprinkling of Brits and other Europeans.
6 – Holland America Line
7 nights from: $599
(Ft. Lauderdale → Grand Turk Island → San Juan → Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas → Half Moon Cay → Ft. Lauderdale)
With a long history and a reputation as a most traditional cruise line, Holland America Line is now another somewhat upscale part of the Carnival family. These cruises are on the MS Eurodam, which carries up to 2,104 passengers and has also been modernized in the past few years to include some Asian dining and culture options.
Holland America in general is known for catering to an older and more sophisticated crowd, and this ship is no exception. It will be mostly older Americans and Canadians with a sprinkling of families with kids.
7 – Celebrity Cruises
7 nights from: $649
(San Juan → Frederiksted, St. Croix → Basseterre → Roseau → St. George’s → Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas → San Juan)
4 nights from: $349
(Miami → Coxen Hole, Roatan, Bay Islands → Cozumel → Miami)
Another in the more traditional and mid-market category, Celebrity Cruises is in the process of updating many of its ships to conform to modern demands, and the Celebrity Summit on this journey was just refurbished. With a maximum capacity of 2,450 passengers, this ship feels more upmarket than the cheaper ships, and it’s meant to appeal to a younger and more trendy audience. Departures from Miami start at $750 for 7 nights, but airfare to Puerto Rico is reasonable enough to make these a good bargain as well.
The departures from Puerto Rico are popular with Spanish-speakers from Latin America and Spain, while the slightly more expensive Miami departures are mainly Americans and Canadians on board.
8 – Disney Cruise Line
7 nights from: $1,155
(Port Canaveral → Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas → San Juan → Castaway Cay (Disney Private Island) → Port Canaveral)
4 nights from: $499
(Miami → George Town → Cozumel → Miami)
The 6- and 8-night Disney cruises leaving out of Galveston, Texas are $750 and $1,000 respectively, so those are better value, but they still rank in the same spot on the list. This sailing is on the recently-launched Disney Fantasy, which is loaded with branded entertainment options for kids. Not unlike its theme parks, the Disney Cruise Line ships aren’t cheap, but they deliver a very high quality product to the intended audience.
Needless to say, these cruises are dominated by families with younger children, but some with older children as well, and most will be Americans and Canadians.
9 – Windstar
7 nights from: $1,799
(Philipsburg (St. Maarten), Netherlands Antilles → Le Marin, Martinique → Pigeon Island, Saint Lucia → Roseau, Dominica → Iles des Saintes (Saintes Islands), France → Basseterre, St Kitts → Philipsburg (St. Maarten), Netherlands Antilles)
Sailing from St. Maarten and exploring the southern Caribbean, Windstar operates small ships that can actually power themselves by sail, so it’s a completely different atmosphere. This cruise is on the Wind Star (the line’s first ship), which can only carry a maximum of 148 passengers. Being a sail boat, the daytime vibe tends to be quite casual, while at night it gets more elegant.
These sailings attract mainly couples in a wide range of ages, with very few children, as you might guess. It’s mostly Americans, with quite a few passengers who come back each year.
10 – Seabourn
7 nights from: $3,099
(Bridgetown, Barbados → Bequia island, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines → Rodney Bay, Saint Lucia → Deshaies, Guadeloupe → St John’s, Antigua and Barbuda → Saba, Netherlands Antilles → Prickle Pear Beach, Virgin Gorda → Philipsburg (St. Maarten), Netherlands Antilles)
The most upscale part of the Carnival family of cruise lines, Seabourn is another that operates small and luxurious ships with amazing service. This cruise is on the Seabourn Spirit, which holds up to 208 passengers in its all-suite cabins. Passengers on these sailings tend to be more formal and traditional than those on the cheaper ships, and they get many extras such as free alcohol and shore excursions for their extra cost.
The well-dressed crowd on this ship will be mostly middle age and older couples from the United States, Canada, and Britain.
11 – Oceania Cruises
10 nights from: $3,197
(Miami, Florida → Tortola, British Virgin Islands → St John’s, Antigua and Barbuda → Bridgetown, Barbados → Castries, Saint Lucia → Gustavia, St Bartelemy → Miami, Florida)
The shortest cruise the upscale Oceania line does in the Caribbean is this 10-night itinerary that spends a couple days at sea each way going back and forth to the luxury islands in the eastern Caribbean. With a maximum of 1,250 passengers, this sailing is on the just-launched MS Riviera, which combines a great number of dining options and activities with the more exclusive service found on smaller ships. For 10 nights, it’s cheaper per night than the small ships listed above.
You can expect a wide range of ages, including families with children and seniors on this ship, with a slightly formal atmosphere compared to other family cruises.
12 – Silversea
7 nights from: $3,199
(Ft. Lauderdale → Road Town, Tortola, B.V.I. → Gustavia, St. Barthelemy → St. John’s, Antigua → Castries, St. Lucia → Bridgetown, Barbados)
Silversea operates 6 luxurious all-suite cruise ships, and its largest – the Silver Spirit – does these southern Caribbean sailings in style. With a maximum capacity of 540 passengers, the ship is still relatively large and filled with dining and activity options. If money is no object and you want to take a Caribbean cruise with all the popular cruiseship options, this is one to look at.
In this price range and with several formal nights per week, you don’t get many families with children on this ship. It’ll be mostly older couples from the US and Canada as well as a mix of well-heeled Europeans.
13 – SeaDream Yacht Club
7 nights from: $3,391
(San Juan, Puerto Rico → Fajardo, Puerto Rico → Caja De Muertos, Puerto Rico → Ponce, Puerto Rico → Vieques, Puerto Rico → Gustavia, St. Barthelemy → Sandy Ground, Anguilla → Jost Van Dyke, B.V.I.)
If you go along with SeaDream’s slogan, this is yachting and not cruising, but still it might be one to consider for the 5-star set who prefers smaller crowds. This journey starts in Puerto Rico and only bounces around a few nearby islands, so even that part is more like yachting than cruising. The SeaDream II that does this one can take up to 110 passengers, with extremely personalized service and plenty of extras like free champagne included.
These yacht trips draw mostly couples from countries around the world, and the dress code is meant to be casual since it is a yacht, afterall.
Top photo credit: iamNigelMorris on Flickr