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Affordable Yacht Vacations: What You Need to Know

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yacht sailboat sailing sail caribbean couple wheel luxury vacationA cruise is the tapas bar of travel -- sampling medieval churches on the fly in Italy and France, beach-hopping along the golden and black sands of the Caribbean, or pulling off the Alaskan water highway to daytrip with moose and bears. And the 20-passenger yacht is the cruise ship of choice for the independent traveler more keen on diving off the bow and riding the wind than buffet lines and bingo announcements. Does a week on a yacht sound a little too rich for your blood? It may not be. Yachting vacations don't necessarily entail Champagne and caviar at thousand dollar per diems. They're about the destination -- places like the Galapagos Islands, with their red-throated, blue-footed and green-skinned creatures, which are best explored by small ship.

The global flotilla of small ships offers cruises wherever there is water, from pole to pole. And while traveling by yacht is not a "budget" vacation, there are simple ways to save. Choosing the Caribbean or Greek Islands in lieu of more exotic places -- the Indian Ocean, the Galapagos, Antarctica -- is a start. Trading the gleaming wood interiors and leather upholstery of the luxury motor yacht for a well-traveled, full-rigged catamaran goes further still. Even then, in the ho-hum Caribbean, you're left with snorkeling off a secluded cove, helping to raise and trim the sails, or drooling over just-caught seafood. If it's a small-ship charter you're after -- the ultimate option in customization -- sail with friends and family. Rates are dependent upon the number of people -- the higher the number, the lower the per-person rate.

Sorting through the hundreds of choices might be a bit overwhelming. But if you break it down, there are three basic yachting options, listed from cheapest to most expensive (though exceptions apply): the small-ship cruise line, dedicated to offering set itineraries on a fleet of one or more; the packaged tour operator, selling yacht-based trips tailored to the company's particular travel emphasis; and the total freedom --and added costs -- of the private yacht charter. Which one's right for you? Read on.

Small-Ship Cruise Lines
The Low-Down: Ease into yacht cruising by booking with an established cruise line that offers seasonal itineraries on ships sailing under a company livery. The vessels typically hold 20 to 100 passengers. Unlike the packaged tour operators (below) -- whose focus typically extends beyond just cruise travel -- small-ship lines are sailing vacation specialists. And the lines almost always have a regional focus as well, whether it be the Greek Islands, Baja Mexico, Southeast Asia or the Amazon.

These cruises provide an exotic destination sampler, giving travelers a taste of off-the-grid ports without totally immersing them. Housekeeping, meals, some entertainment (lectures, local artists/musicians) and destination-specific offerings like fins and snorkels are typically included in the rate. On some lines, like Brazil-based Amazon Clipper Cruises, activities such as guided canoe trips to explore nocturnal Amazonian fauna may also be folded into the fare. On others, like two-ship Greek Isles-based Zeus Casual Cruises (a sub-brand of Variety Cruises), excursions are offered in each port -- a tour of the volcano on Nissiros, for instance -- but will cost you extra.

Your only real job will be to get to the embarkation port and to budget for extras like souvenirs and booze (usually not included in the fare). We always recommend buying travel insurance, too.

canadian sailing expeditions caledoniaWays to Save: The more unusual the embarkation port, the more airfare will chomp into your budget. Still, we've seen some very recession-friendly cruise deals from a number of lines -- covering a wide swath of destinations. Tall-ship cruise line Canadian Sailing Expeditions, which offers classic sailing experiences (including instruction) in Newfoundland and the Caribbean, has discounts for travelers who reserve early or book consecutive sailings.

Greek-based Zeus Casual Cruises has featured two-for-one offers on shoulder season (October) sailings. SongLine Cruises of Indonesia offers some interesting budget options on Asia cruises, including the chance to save by trading a cabin for a spot on the deck (mattress provided)!

Cruise Lines to Consider:
  • Amazon Clipper Cruises (Amazon River)
  • Canadian Sailing Expeditions (Canada, Caribbean)
  • Cruise West (Alaska, Central America, Southeast Asia, world cruises)
  • SongLine Cruises of Indonesia (Indonesia)
  • Zeus Casual Cruises (Greek Isles)

    Cruises from Package Tour Operators
    The Low Down: Companies like Adventure Life Voyages, G Adventures and Overseas Adventure Travel offer yacht-based vacations that match many of the locations -- Thailand, the Greek Isles, the Amazon, the Galapagos, Alaska and Baja Mexico -- of the dedicated cruise operators. Where do you think the tour companies get the ships? Often, they charter them from the cruise lines (Adventure Life Voyages from Alaska-based Cruise West, for instance).

    So why go with the typically more expensive tour operator over a cruise line? The benefit here is opting for a packaged cruise vacation (with set itineraries and familiar comforts, and the convenience of a guide or group leader) from a well-established tour company. Each has its own travel emphasis, be it adventure, enrichment or self-exploration. In part, you're paying a premium over the cruise lines for the company's reputation for creating great packages -- and to experience a trip with like-minded travelers who gravitate to a particular tour operator.

    G Adventures, for instance, caters to a more rough-and-ready clientele, eager to go it themselves on rocky hikes in Syros' desolate north or late party nights in Mykonos. Fittingly, on G Adventures' Greek Isles cruises, meals are not included, leaving passengers to budget extra for independent dining. Good for those for whom local dining defines travel experience -- or those who can survive on $2 gyros. But it's another travel consideration, and a potential budget bloater. Overseas Adventure Travel, on the other hand, caters to a more mature passenger by emphasizing cultural enrichment through a series of included guided tours. Meals are also part of the package, so after a day of educational experience in new places, the familiar meal with familiar faces awaits.

    And while it's not officially a cruise line, you might still get a towel animal in your cabin.

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