How to bag a bargain cruise trip

Is it possible to travel in style from Italy to Brazil for under £270? It is on an 18-day cruise...

Describing a typical day aboard the MSC Orchestra is easy. As dawn broke over the Atlantic we'd dive in to one of the salt-water swimming pools, then steep in the open-air Jacuzzi. Days were spent on sun-loungers with Paul Theroux or John le Carré, borrowed from the ship's library, followed by a doze in our cabin, terrace doors flung wide open. Dinner offered seven courses, served up with a ritzy pomp redolent of an era when long-distance travel was glamorous. As my eyelids flickered at this intestinal onslaught, my wife would lead me to bed, happy in the knowledge that this experience was costing only £15 a day.

You'd be hard pressed to find a youth hostel for that.

For a fraction of the price of a flight, in December we booked ourselves aboard one of MSC's winter repositioning cruises to Brazil. These deeply discounted voyages are full-service (see box), steaming across the Atlantic to the sunny tropics in winter; they return to Europe as the latter hots up for the summer cruise season.

Six weeks before our planned holiday, we contacted four specialist cruise agents; to put the repositioning concept to the ultimate price test, we were flexible on leaving date, departure city, cruise line and cabin type. The result? A £269 18-day one-way deal from Genoa to the Brazilian port of Santos.

Our transatlantic bargain made for a smug Facebook update – I couldn't resist bragging about my nine-destination cruise to the sun. People I hardly knew emailed with attempts to score a stateroom down the hall. Even my mother and father wanted to join us, hoping to share our dinner table for 18 consecutive nights. Dream on, Dad.

But other messages I received planted a few seeds of doubt. Wouldn't the boat be full of screaming kids and oversized Americans? Is eight hours in port really enough time to see a city? And aren't those new cruise ships like floating shopping malls, a Bluewater on the high seas?

In fact, our Italian-run vessel was a series of seaborne surprises. Firstly, Brazilians, Spanish and Italians made up most of the 2,500 adults and 50 children – who travel even cheaper than us, ie for free – on our cruise. The 1,000-strong staff heralded from no fewer than 42 different nations. We discussed the merits of teenage marriage with our Brazilian waiters, took an art class with a Mongolian painter and did a nightly wine tasting with the Peruvian sommelier.

Secondly, we found flitting between cities that we would not have otherwise visited – each a stroll away from our floating hotel – a neat concept.

In the space of a week we conducted our own personal tapas-eating competition in Barcelona, ate grilled sardines in Málaga, smoked a hubbly-bubbly pipe in Casablanca and poked around the botanical gardens in Madeira.

Finally, our ship was a picture of elegance without the brash commercialism associated with modern cruising. The communal decks featured an outdoor running track, tennis court, cafés, games room, theatre, a nightclub and a gym looking out over the waves. Instead of the tea dances and enforced fun that we so feared, we found t'ai chi lessons, language courses and outdoor cinema screenings. And almost everything on board was included in the price.

Near the end of the cruise we struck up a conversation with Diviyesh Gondalia, one of the few Brits on board. Diviyesh escorts small groups of British Asians on cruises (his website is goholidayswithdiviyesh.com), and he has sailed the world on four- and five-star liners. While he rates repositioning trips as the best way to bag a bargain, there are downsides. "They're normally longer than regular cruises, and not everyone can have 18 days off in a row," he said. There are also five uneventful days as you cross the Atlantic, but Diviyesh sees these days at sea as a bonus, allowing passengers to "relax and get into the rhythm of the cruise". After a sunset round of shuffleboard off the Brazilian coast, we're inclined to agree.

Although the MSC Orchestra's final port was Santos, near Sao Paulo, we joined a few other passengers who disembarked in Salvador in Bahia state, and spent a fortnight exploring some of Brazil's best beaches. Jumping ship early is standard practice (after giving the ship the courtesy of advance notice), although arriving downtown without a hint of jetlag at our final destination was novel.

Did we feel institutionalised? Five years younger, more like. But with no one to turn down our bed each night, adapting to life in the real world sure was going to be tricky.

Round trip: How it all adds up

*Flight to Genoa with Ryanair: £17

*18-day cruise (including full board): £269

*On-board spending: £320 each on daily newspapers, drinks, wine and bingo tickets

*Excursions: we created our own tours of Barcelona, Málaga, Casablanca, Madeira and Tenerife using guidebooks and podcasts

*Flight from Brazil: Salvador to London Heathrow via Frankfurt, £486 each on condor.com

*Grand total: £1,092 each, which works out at £60 per person per day, including flights, meals and drinks

Repositioning cruises: The lowdown

What is a repositioning cruise?

Cruise ships are typically "repositioned" twice a year to take advantage of the summer seasons in the Baltic and Mediterranean, and the winter sun in the Caribbean, South America and South Africa. Cruise lines offer discounts as their ships travel to and from these markets.

When do they take place?

"Repositioning cruises tend to happen at specific times of the year," says Mal Barritt, of cruise booking website Cruise118. "Ships often depart from the Caribbean, Florida and South America in March or April, headed for the UK, Norway and the Mediterranean, and then many return south in November or December." Fred Olsen's Braemar departs on a 16-night voyage from Barbados to Dover via St Lucia and the Azores on 15 April, while Royal Caribbean's Jewel Of The Seas leaves Miami for Harwich via Bermuda and Lisbon on 6 May.

When is the best time to book?

"January and February is a good time to book a [spring] repositioning cruise as customers can take advantage of the best pricing and availability," says Ian Black, a cruise consultant at Thomas Cook. Katy Kenyon at MSC Cruises says: "There are a lot of good deals out there for these cruises."

How can I get the best deal?

"The key to getting the best cruise deal is to be as flexible as possible with your travel dates and preferred cabin type," says Mr Barritt. Mr Black says: "It can also sometimes work out cheaper to book a cruise-only option and fly separately to the departure destination." So, if you source the flights yourself as we did – you can often save money. Bear in mind, though, that booking flights as part of the same deal confers a higher degree of consumer protection.

Should I use an agency, or book directly with the cruise line?

"If you book with a travel agent, you will also be able to use their expertise to get advice on which cruise will best suit your individual needs," says Mr Black.

As first-time cruisers, we called several agents to see what would be right for us. Reassuringly, the deal we booked was available at the same price on the cruise line's official website. Whatever you do, be decisive. A two-week cruise including all meals for the price of an iPhone will not be available for long.

Any downsides of a repositioning cruise?

Arriving in a far-flung final destination is a turn-off for some, although most cruise lines and booking agencies can sell you an open-jaw or one-way ticket home.

Repositioning cruises tend to be lengthy compared with traditional cruises, as they typically take in an Atlantic crossing. They thus spend fewer days in port. While you may spend more in the ship's bars or spa, there were scores of free activities on our boat aside from the swimming pools, including tennis, quizzes, a well-stocked library and, yes, even deck quoits.

Which cruise line is best for me?

Cunard and Fred Olsen offer black-tie formality, while Costa and Royal Caribbean concentrate on family-friendly fun. MSC strikes a balance between the two.

What repositioning offers are currently available?

Cruise Thomas Cook (0800 916 6070; cruisethomascook.com ; or a Thomas Cook or Going Places agency) has a 14-night transatlantic cruise with Royal Caribbean International's Navigator of the Seas from Miami to Rome on 10 April via Tenerife, Barcelona, Nice (Villefranche) and Florence (Livorno) from £566 per person. Or try the 15-night voyage from Miami to Dover on 26 April via the Azores, Lisbon, Vigo, La Coruña, Le Havre and Zeebrugge on NCL's Norwegian from £789 per person.

MSC (0844 561 1955; msccruises.co.uk) has a 16-night cruise on the MSC Orchestra from Sao Paulo to Dover on 20 April via Rio, Salvador, Recife, Tenerife, Madeira and Lisbon for £480. Or cruise for 21-nights on 1 April from Durban to Florence via Cape Town, Namibia, Senegal, Tenerife, Madeira, Malaga and Rome for £700 aboard the MSC Sinfonia.

Cruise118 (0808 1234 118; cruise118.com ) has a 16-night trip aboard Holland America's MS Eurodam on 3 April from Fort Lauderdale to Rome via Lisbon, Portimao, Cadiz, Almeria, Ibiza, Barcelona and Monaco for £841 per person.

Prices based on inside staterooms. All cruises are one-way. Flights must be booked separately.

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