Europe's biggest holiday company has launched a £100 austerity cruise for the peak summer season – a price that includes all meals and tips.
There is only one catch: the Thomson Spirit sails from South Shields to the Essex port of Harwich, taking only 16 hours and venturing no further than 30 miles from the English coast.
This year's programme for the cruise ship includes great maritime cities such as Alexandria, Casablanca and St Petersburg. But on 2 August, while her three sister ships explore the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the Thomson Spirit will trim her ocean-going ambitions for a short trip down England's east coast from the Tyne to the Stour.
The ship usually sails from Mediterranean ports such as Barcelona, Palma and Corfu. But for the £100 special, the Thomson Spirit will depart from Tyne Dock, South Shields, which has its own station on the Tyne & Wear Metro.
Demand for the cruise has been strong, with all deluxe cabins apparently sold out. Standard cabins are being sold at £200 for two, and the hourly rate for the cruise works out at £6.25, and the price includes a free bus transfer from Harwich to South Shields before the cruise, or back to the Tyne after it.
A comparable off-peak return fare by rail between Newcastle and Harwich is £139.30. Unlike rail passengers, the 1,250 cruisers on the Maltese-registered vessel will have a choice of three restaurants, two pools and five bars.
The ship will pass Lord Byron's old stamping ground of Seaham, Captain Cook's home port of Whitby and Flamborough Head in east Yorkshire before the sun sets – whereupon the band in the Broadway Show Lounge will strike up. When dawn breaks, the Thomson Spirit will be off the Suffolk coast. After she docks on the River Stour, artistically inclined passengers will find Constable Country a few miles inland.
Fraser Ellacott, managing director of Thomson Cruises, promised customers "a home from home with great food and fantastic entertainment", though the customary Captain's Cocktail Party and Gala Dinner will not be offered. Penny Guy of the Passenger Shipping Association welcomed the concept: "This is a great idea for those who haven't experienced a cruise before – a taster which will show the value and all-inclusive nature of a cruise holiday".
But Jacqui Ridler of The Luxury Cruise Company said there is a secondary purpose: to "position" the ship between longer cruises. The ship arrives at South Shields after a voyage to Iceland, then sails from Harwich for Norway. Ms Ridler said: "If they wanted to attract new business it would be better to sail in and out of the same port."
The smaller Marco Polo, belonging to a different line, will make a positioning voyage from Tilbury to the Tyne in May, with cabins starting at £79.