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updated 10/16/2008 1:01:07 PM ET 2008-10-16T17:01:07

Maybe you've never been on a cruise before, or maybe you're a platinum level repeater with multiple cruise lines, on a first-name basis with half the taxi drivers in the Caribbean. In either case, it's a good bet that on one level or another you've considered choosing to cruise Europe sometime in the future.

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If that's the case, the future could be now. With more and more ships committed year-round to the Mediterranean, the entry of the mass-market lines and flourishing of European budget operators, now's the time to dust off those European cruising plans; it is possible to say the words "Europe" and "affordable" in the same sentence.

There are a slew of reasons besides affordability for the overseas trend, and now is a great time to go with the tide. If you've yet to "go Continental" in your cruise vacation planning, one or more of these may resonate with you:

Get to the roots of everything. Okay, not everything in American life had its origin in Europe, but, arguably, a major portion of Western culture and history derives from the Continent. And there's no substitute for being there and seeing it up close and in person. Whether it's standing on the floor of the Colosseum in Rome or atop the Acropolis in Athens, seeing the actual Mona Lisa framed on a wall rather than printed in a book, or walking the halls of Versailles, there is an eerie sense of being transported back in time and history that needs to be experienced firsthand.

You can't get it here. Well, again a bit of hyperbole. You can get pasta in Pittsburgh or pizza in Poughkeepsie, but eating Italian in Italy is in a whole different league. The same goes for French, Spanish, Greek — all the regional cuisines of Europe. Whether or not it's in part psychological, the local food just seems to taste different and, to most palates, better. Likewise, much of the European merchandise we buy in the States is available in greater quantity, variety, and sometimes even of better quality for a lower price on the other side of the Atlantic. For example, I have a personal passion for Italian driving shoes, and I can find a far greater variety of my favorite brands in Southern Italy, amazingly enough at about half the stateside price.

You've chosen the best way to go. It's a cornerstone of the oft-quoted list of the advantages of cruising over land-based vacations; you only have to pack or unpack your bags once, and your hotel room travels with you. It's true, and valid anywhere there are both hotels and cruise ports. However, it's truer for Europe, where, especially for first-timers, it's typical to visit a number of different countries to get a comparative overview, perhaps to return at a later date to explore a favorite destination in greater detail. Travel by ship is perfect for this type of touring. By contrast, land-based leisure travelers flying to island destinations are more likely to kick back in a single resort.

Okay, so those are the reasons to go. On the flip side, the reasons most often stated by those who haven't opted to go European are long, uncomfortable flights and pricey airline tickets; being in non

English-speaking, unfamiliar environments; and the substantially higher cost of European travel over a trip of the same length within the Americas.

We can't make the planes go faster (and can't promise cheaper airfares), but Europe is becoming increasingly U.S.-friendly, and my impression is that every year it seems that there are more and more English-speakers, even in France. And as far as the cost goes, there are a number of ways to economize on European travel and get maximum bang for your euro:

1. Timing is (almost) everything
Sail the off-season. Prices are significantly higher at every stage during peak summer months, not only because of the bump in tourist traffic from America, but because those are the months most Europeans vacation, and the majority of them stay on the Continent for their holidays. That means more crowds — while at the same time more businesses, such as restaurants, are shuttered up, funneling even more traffic into those that remain open. And that means higher prices, longer lines and reduced service.

Now, cruise lines are increasingly feeding the trend for greater American interest in Europe by extending their seasons — in fact, MSC, NCL and Costa all offer year-round Mediterranean cruises. Although you may be spending less time ashore in shorts and a T-shirt, traveling between late fall and early spring yields big savings on cruise fares. Those looking for maximum off-season savings should look to cruise lines with a strong marketing presence in Europe itself. Those companies maintain a year-round presence over there, since many of their budget-conscious customers can save big with rock-bottom, bargain-barrel rates on cruise fares.

For those hardy souls who would consider a mid-winter European odyssey, savings can be immense: as high as 60 percent over mid-summer rates.

Book far in advance ... or at the last minute. Long-range planners not only get maximum early-bird discounting but are also generally high on the list for upgrades should one become available. Furthermore, early booking for an off-season trip allows use of more tools from your travelers' toolbox. If you have mileage, for instance, on an airline that has trans-Atlantic service, you stand a much better chance of finding "free" seats in advance.

By contrast, there's always the possibility of picking up "remnant" space for cruises that are about to sail less than full. Web sites like lastminutetravel.com and, of course, Cruise Critic are worth a look; nearly all of the larger cruise-only and cruise-specialty agencies periodically have last-minute deals, so it's worthwhile checking before plunking down your deposit. However, it is in my experience rare that last-minute savings exceed what you can get through a diligent cruise agent booking far in advance and willing to discount.

Slideshow: A European tour The reason? Most cost-conscious cruisers go for the lowest-priced category of the type of cabin they're looking for (most affordable inside, ocean-view, balcony, etc.). Since these are the first staterooms to book up (along, incongruously, with the priciest), they are often not available even when a ship is only half-booked. It's been my experience that the lowest-level outside cabin, discounted for booking early, sells for less than a higher-level cabin of the same type sold at the last minute. Another caveat is that last-minute cruising in Europe may be available at a bargain, but last-minute trans-Atlantic air seldom is.

Watch the exchange rate. When the dollar is strong (meaning you can get more euros, pounds, etc. per dollar), the buck goes a longer way when purchasing goodies abroad. These fluctuations can range as high as 15 to 20 percent in a single year. Added to that savings is the fact that purchases can be made tax-free and sometimes duty-free, and this can amount to a substantial discount. A good Web site to track world currencies is oanda.com. This site has an option to print out a chart of the exchange rate in the form of a handy wallet-size card.

The cruise lines are quick to tout periods of weakness in the dollar vs. the euro as the best times to cruise Europe, since you buy the cruise in dollars, while those booking overseas hotels pay in the more costly euro. However, this logic makes sense only for those who plan to have most meals aboard ship and don't plan on doing much shopping abroad. For those for whom off-ship dining and shopping are priorities, times when the dollar is stronger against the euro are more advantageous.

There's one caveat, however: make sure you cruise with a line that charges onboard expenses in the American dollar (Europe- and U.K.-based companies may consider euros and pounds, respectively, as their onboard currency of record).

With regard to converting currency, how and where you swap dollars for euros and vice versa can make a big difference, and a little homework can go a long way. Time was that the best exchange rates available came from charging food, lodging and merchandise abroad on your credit card. The banks wised up to this however, and many credit card companies impose a surcharge for overseas purchases, so check with your credit card's customer service department. ATM's are now commonplace nearly everywhere in Europe, and usually offer a favorable exchange rate.

But additional fees and surcharges may be tacked on by your bank, so again it makes sense to take the time to ask. And while you're there, check on the bank's in-house exchange rates. Chances are that they will be better than those found in local storefront exchanges (cambios) abroad, and almost certainly better than the rates you'll find in airports. Lastly, since every time you convert from one currency to another you give up a bit of value, when you return home, don't do it! Take those unspent Euros, put them in an envelope and stick them in a drawer for safekeeping. Even if you don't plan on returning to Europe anytime soon, your other travel plans outside the U.S. — to the Caribbean or Canada, for example — may give you the option to pay in euros, which can minimize the conversion loss.

Here's the "almost": Being able to sail the off-season or pick up remnant space is fine if you don't have scheduling restrictions, but what about people whose travel must take place during high season? If you are a teacher or parents traveling with school-age children, for example, you may be limited to the peak times (in Europe, roughly June through mid-August). The answer is to look for affordability in the budget cruise area — and you may not need to scale your budget down to the easyCruise level (see "Shop the Bargain Basement" below).

There are a number of European budget operators to consider that really market to families. These include German-based AIDA, and U.K.-based Ocean Village and Island Cruises, each of which offer seven-night summer Mediterranean sailings at significantly less than $1,000 per person, double occupancy.

2. The repo man is your friend
Repositioning, that is. For cruise lines that move their ships seasonally — from Europe or Alaska to the Caribbean and vice versa — those long ocean crossings are costly but necessary. Of course, you can book those cruises just like any sailing, but amazingly enough few people do. The reason is threefold.

First, the sailings tend to be longer then the most popular seven night variety. Then there are those long strings of sea days between port calls. Last, these voyages take place at the very edges of tourist-friendly weather. What comes as a surprise for many is that repositioning cruises often include a number of conventional port calls. In the repositioning example, above, there are five.

3. Shop the bargain basement
The golden age of the trans-Atlantic steamers was hardly golden for immigrants struggling to make it to America from the old country. Ships in those days were either two- or three-class vessels, with first and tourist being the opposite ends of the spectrum for leisure travelers. There often was one class for poor immigrants traveling in steerage, situated at the very bottom of the ship, usually below the waterline (accommodations which would now not be permitted). It was called steerage because these poverty-stricken souls literally were human ballast, whose weight helped to keep the keel deep and stable.

Nowadays, steerage is but a tale to be told to great-grandchildren around the Lido Deck on extended family cruise vacations. However, there still are incredible bargains to be held for those to whom luxury and pampering are unimportant. U.K.-based easyCruise offers the most dramatic deals; that line caters to young (or young at heart), patient and tolerant folks whose core desire is to get off there ship and enjoy the travelers' treats Europe has to offer —everything else is merely transportation.

The bottom line? Cost of meals notwithstanding, a cruise fare of $40 per day for a couple leaves even the least expensive shoreside hotels in the dust. For a handle on how much, exactly, you'll be giving up for these savings, check out our easyCruise reviews.

4. The more the merrier
If there is one truth in cruising its that it's a game driven by numbers. The more passengers band together, the more clout, perks and negotiating leverage they have as a group. The reasons are obvious: With ships growing in number and size almost daily, the cruise lines' biggest dread is using pricey diesel fuel to transport empty cabins. It's little wonder how eager they are to kowtow to people who can fill a bunch at one pop. Sometimes group members know each other, or have something in common; sometimes it's just an amalgamation of convenience. As far as the cruise lines are concerned, it matters not as long as the berths are filled — and in return, lines offer groups a number of concessions, including discounts, priority access to alternative dining and shore excursions, and other amenities. And, given the prices and lengths of European cruises, even a little discount goes a long way. So, how to find and join a group? Here are some examples.

Affinity groups: Do you have to like all your fellow group members? Hardly. You don't even have to know them. In this context, the word "affinity" means filling a group with people who have something in common. Maybe it's a group of people who all are regulars of Cruise Critic ... there are plenty of group sailings for members. But if your affinity is having reached the ripe old age of 55, check out group deals with AARP. Other affinity groups include AAA, AA, trade associations and, for gays and lesbians, Atlantis.

Cruises with lifestyle themes — from quilting to jazz — are another kind of affinity trip and are increasingly popular.

Slideshow: A European tour Groups of Convenience: Sometimes the only affinity factor that group members have in common is the desire to save a buck. In the highly competitive world of cruise travel, where the lowest fare is the primary factor, savvy travel agents look for every edge. Since the cruise lines like big numbers they offer incentives for large group bookings. Typically, the formula is one-for-15, meaning for every 15 cabins sold, the cruise line provides one free. These free accommodations were originally intended for the group leaders, but nowadays they are more often used for pricing leverage. High volume cruise agents can book a block of 16 or more cabins for a particular sailing on the assumption that they will be able to sell all the cabins in the block. They then can amortize the free cabin equally among the whole group, reducing fares for all who buy into the block.

Do note, however, that cruise line policies on free cabins do vary.

Building blocks: There are many ways to find cruise agents with block bookings to fill — checking with Cruise Critic's recommended agents is a pretty good way to start — but if you can't find one already set up for the date and ship you want, consider forming your own group. Put out feelers to friends, family, co-workers, or congregants in your church or synagogue. You'll have to handle the organization, paperwork and perhaps bird-dogging collection, but the savings make the effort worthwhile. Even if your enterprise results in a block of only eight cabins, you still get one of the two berths for free, effectively halving the fare for you and your traveling companion — on top of any other discounts you can negotiate. Block bookings are complicated and best accomplished utilizing the services of a cruise agent.

5. Or, go it alone
Affordable European cruising for solo travelers is getting more difficult almost by the day. While it was typical for older ships to be built with a complement of dedicated staterooms for the unaccompanied traveler, they — the single cabins, not the single travelers! — are becoming an endangered species.

While it is true that most single cabins can be found on higher ticket or European cruise lines, booking such a cabin may still make your European sailing more affordable than paying the 100 percent supplement for traveling solo in a double-occupancy cabin on a mass-market cruise ship. It's not that single-occupancy cabins always sell without supplement, but rather that the supplements tend to be much lower, almost always below 50 percent on European itineraries. Besides the QE2, Costa's Romantica, along with lines such as Peter Deilmann Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruises, Hurtigruten and Saga Holidays offer single-occupancy cabins on some of their ships (on Saga Ruby, 25 percent of staterooms are designed for solo travelers.

For those who may be traveling solo, but don't mind sharing accommodations to save money once onboard, there are a number of "guaranteed share" programs available. These programs, managed by the cruise lines, match up solo travelers with other singles of the same sex and smoking preferences, each paying only the per-guest, double-occupancy rate. While these programs are rarer than they were a decade ago, Princess and Holland America still maintain them. Holland America's "Single Partner" program is our pick, as their policy is to guarantee that participants won't pay the single supplement, even if HAL fails to find a suitable cabin mate.

But even without line-sponsored programs, it's possible for solo travelers to find the same result through third-party organizers:

SinglesCruise.com conducts numerous singles cruises, including European itineraries, though most of their sailings are in spots better favored by singles like the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, etc. They provide advantages in both price (see "Affinity Groups," above) and services. They will, on selected voyages, provide a roommate-matching service for persons of the same sex, age range and smoking preference to obviate the single-supplement requirement, but they are unclear on what happens if they fail to find you a cabin mate, so check.

We prefer the program offered by VacationsToGo.com. Their roster of hosted singles sailings includes all the major cruising areas of the world. Though their thrust is primarily social interaction among their single guests on their hosted sailings, their match program will attempt to find an appropriate roommate in the same way that cruise line programs do. One excellent feature is that if they can't find you a match, they will pay the single-supplement themselves, guaranteeing that you'll not have to pay any more than as one of two guests sharing a double-occupancy cabin.

Keep up with boards and blogs. Using the Internet to find other solo travelers looking to share shipboard accommodations can be very effective, and you can trade info with prospective roommates on such classified sites as epage.com before making a choice, which gives you some decision-making power over who you share with, rather than putting all your faith in the cruise line or charter operator. However, the terms of such arrangements are always a bit muddy, and what happens if the cabin-mate you find online flakes out and decides not to go should be a major concern.

6. It's a family affair
As far as I can recollect — and that goes back more years than I care to reveal — it has been a rite of passage and an educational adjunct that no classroom can rival for American parents to take or send their children to Europe to absorb the culture, history, diversity, and, in some cases, to acquaint themselves with the land of their roots. Cruises are an ideal way for families traveling together to accomplish this amicably and affordably. There are advantages of family travel aboard ship, regardless of region: generational "me time" (adults and kids being able to hang with independently without mom and pop worrying about their kids' safety), the easily accessible wealth of onboard and off-ship enrichment, and the economical structure of most cruises (close to all-inclusive). In Europe, of course, hands-on, in-person acquaintance with that enrichment ashore is invaluable.

You may consider cruising with your extended family — grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren — or choose to cruise with your nuclear family. Regardless, family travel is, by definition, group travel, though not necessarily in groups large enough to qualify for the term under the cruise lines' definition. Nonetheless, traveling with more than a single travel companion focuses your decision-making process into two areas: amenities and pricing.

Slideshow: A European tour Both aspects apply to extended family cruising. Obviously, the more family members that come along, the more cost-advantage pricing plays a role. But with multi-generational parties traveling together the ideal choice of cruise ship is one that appeals to all age ranges. Royal Caribbeanarguably has a reputation for being a top choice in that regard, and we concur. Choices for entertainment, activities and enrichment appeal to the full spectrum of ages and tastes. But the other aspect to consider when booking a family trip is cost, and with that consideration in mind, for cruise lines offering European itineraries, our three choices are:

Again, Royal Caribbean. With bigger ships come bigger staterooms, and nowadays no cruise line has the patent on cabin size. But RCI has earned a reputation for their family-friendly staterooms. Beginning more than a decade ago with the inception of the 70,000-ton Vision class of ships, Royal Caribbean introduced the Royal Family Suite, a 500-square-ft. suite accommodating eight guests, albeit in somewhat cozy environs. Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships (Freedom of the Seas, Independence of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas) also offer the option of booking the 1,215 square-ft. Presidential Family Suite, accommodating an amazing maximum of 14 passengers. Typically, at least one of the Freedom-class ships is stationed in Europe during the warm weather months.

Ocean Village. For those traveling with small children this budget-priced one-ship operation owned by P&O is both affordable and chock-full of kid-friendly amenities.

South Florida-based Faber is a longtime contributor to Cruise Critic. Beyond our Web site, Faber's work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel Magazine, "The Miami Herald" and "The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising." 

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