What do Norwegian Cruise Line and Lady Gaga have in common? The emergence of English as the European lingua Franca means American cruise ships are almost as popular as our pop stars. Most European nations have cruise lines of their own, but with older ships and none of the sizzle of U.S.-based NCL, Royal Caribbean (RCL), Princess, Cunard or Holland America.

Europe has been a fertile market for U.S. cruise lines for decades, but when the companies 2010 ship deployments were planned back in 2008, they expected a booming economy and stronger euro. The recent downturn means softer demand in Europe this year, which adds up to bargain prices for you. But careful timing and cruise selection are important, here are a few recommendations for European cruising:

  • Avoid cruise itineraries designed for Europeans. They prefer sunny resort destinations like the Canary Islands  (the European version of our Caribbean cruises) over port calls at the culturally significant places that draw Americans.
  • If you are going to fly all the way to Europe, you'll want see more – so longer cruises are better.
  • Avoid the traditional European vacation season of mid-July through August. You will still find plenty of shopping and tourist services, but with lower prices and shorter lines.
  • Airfare from the U.S. usually drops in autumn. A quick check shows roundtrip airfare from New York to Barcelona at $681 in October; or to Venice at $803. In August, air to Barcelona is $1,105 and Venice is $1,350.

Two cruise lines most Americans probably want to avoid (except for bargain hunters) are Costa and MSC Cruises. Both offer beautiful, modern cruise ships, but they market to non-English speaking passengers. Everything on board is presented in five languages -- Italian, French, Spanish and German and then English last. These ships are often bargain-priced, but the novelty wears off quickly. Most Americans prefer ships designed for our own tastes, especially when it comes to food, entertainment and shore tours.

Here’s a look at some of the better fall season European cruise bargains for 2010, sticking to English-speaking (only) cruise ships. Keep in mind that any cruise includes your cabin, meals and transportation to the ports of call -- an excellent European vacation value compared to paying for hotels, restaurants and railroads as you go.

Lowest Prices: Royal Caribbean to the Eastern Mediterranean

Vision of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) has a 12-night cruise to the Holy Land sailing Oct. 30 for $959  per person inside and $1,169 for an ocean view cabin. It sails from Venice to Israel, Egypt and Ephesus (Turkey), where the apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesians. This is an older ship and the cruise includes  five days at sea.

Navigator of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) has a 12-night cruise sailing Oct. 11 from Rome to Naples, Athens, Rhodes, Ephesus, Cairo and Sicily starting at $999 inside and $1,699 balcony. Unlike Vision of the Seas, Navigator is a family-favorite mega-ship that can “babysit” any child from one to 18 years with tons of onboard activities. Let’s be honest -- you want to take your kids to Europe, but they’ll want to skip the art museums. 

Norwegian Cruise Line European Bargains

Seven-day cruises on Norwegian Jade roundtrip from Barcelona to Monaco, Florence, Rome, Naples and Mallorca sail every Sunday, in September and October at prices starting from $499 inside and $899 balcony.

Seven-day cruises on Norwegian Jade roundtrip from Venice to Dubrovnik, Athens, Ephesus and Napflion sail every other Saturday starting September 4 from $599 inside and $849 balcony.

Norwegian Sun has a 12-night cruise from Dover, England to Copenhagen, Warnemunde (port for Berlin), Estonia, St. Petersburg, Russia (two full days), Helsinki and Stockholm. Sailing roundtrip from the U.K. saves on airfare.  The cruise sails September 8  from $1,499 inside and $2,099 balcony.

See these NCL fall European deals here

Classic Cunard Mediterranean Cruises

One of my top picks: Cunard Line’s beautiful Queen Victoria sails an extensive 12-night Mediterranean cruise Oct. 7 from Venice to Dubrovnik, Olympia, Istanbul, Ephesus, Sicily, Rome, Florence, Marseilles and ending in Barcelona. Balcony staterooms start at $2,595. Enjoy Cunard’s signature “White Star Service” and a new port nearly every day. You will want to fly into Venice early to really see the city, but otherwise this is a full (only one day at sea) European vacation.

See this cruise and two other similarly priced Mediterranean cruises on Queen Victoria.

The Beautiful Celebrity Equinox

Celebrity Equinox is a strikingly beautiful, brand new ship sailing a 13-night roundtrip cruise from Rome to the Holy Land Oct. 18, 2010. Visit Naples (for Pompeii), Sicily, Corfu, and spend two days in Egypt (Cairo) and three days in Israel, with four days at sea. Balcony cabins start at $2,798. Three days is enough to see all of Israel if you book a car and guide and stay in a hotel in Jerusalem. Re-join the ship two nights later for more opulent decor and culinary delights.

The Ultimate Adventure – HAL Westerdam

Holland America’s Westerdam has four non-repeating cruises in a row you can take individually, or combine them for a 42-day adventure without repeating a single port.

Sail from Athens Oct.1, 2010 for six days in the Aegean and five days in the Black Sea with an overnight stay in Istanbul in the middle. Fares start at $1,399 with balconies from $1,999.

Follow up Oct. 13 with a 12-night adventure from Athens to Olympia, Venice, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Corfu, Malta, Sicily, Naples and Rome. Balcony cabins start at $1,899.

Continue from Rome Oct/ 25, with a thorough 18-night cruise through the Western Mediterranean. You'll visit Livorno (for Florence, Italy), Monte Carlo (Monaco), Barcelona, Cartagena, Malaga and Seville (four ports in Spain), Lisbon and the remote island of Madeira before you sail on to Fort Lauderdale. Balcony cabins start at $1,799.

This entire 42-day adventure can be had for rates starting at $4,099 (inside) or $4,899 (balcony). The best part is that you save on airfare from Europe by landing in the U.S. This is a lovely ship for adults, with an extensive library and delectable alternative restaurants. Computer and culinary classes fill the days at sea.

See all of the Westerdam cruises here

 

* All cruise prices are per person/double occupancy and do not include taxes. Shore tours are not included in the cruise fare.

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I started writing about stock market investing for Motley Fool in 1995, but previously I worked aboard cruise ships. I co-founded CruiseMates.com, the first cruise travel guide on the Internet in New York City in 1999. CruiseMates, one the Web’s top cruise travel guides was acquired by Internet Brands (NASD: INET) in 2006. Once CEO, I am now the editor of CruiseMates – Paul Motter.