Cruise lines say a cruise vacation is one of the best travel values around. Commonly included in the price are meals, entertainment, onboard activities and more. Like other ways to travel, incidental expenses, those optional extra charges, can add up fast. Unlike other ways to travel, extra charges during cruises are quite predictable and easy to budget for. Here are some of the big ticket extra charges not included in the price of a cruise that can get out of control quickly if not planned in advance.
Gratuities- Most cruise lines these days automatically add on a pre-determined amount to cover usual and customary gratuities given to crew members in consideration of services rendered. In the olden days of cruising, this was done on the last night of the cruise when passengers would show their appreciation for a job well done, handing appropriate crew members envelopes with cash inside. Today, cruise lines break this down for passengers in advance adding between $10 and $12 or more per person, per day on to their onboard charge account. On a seven-day sailing for a family of four, that’s about $300 more to the total price of the cruise.
Shore Excursions- Most major cruise lines charge extra for organized tours ashore. The cost per person on these can vary widely from $30 per person for a quick bus tour of a port of call in the Caribbean to hundreds for flightseeing in Alaska. The good news is that most cruise line websites have detailed information and pricing on these excursions available in advance, to help budget what can be a big ticket item, not included in the price. High-end cruise ships sometimes include shore excursions in the price but that cruise fare price is much higher.
Spa Treatments- Every cruise line has a spa, usually connected to their exercise center. Onboard treatments can include everything from a haircut to a manicure or a variety of massages, skin treatments and lifestyle classes. All cost extra and often up to twice the price that the same service might be offered for on land. On a recent sailing we saw a manicure and pedicure combination advertised for $95. That was a sale price available only when the ship was in port. On land, we pay between $20 and $40 for the same treatment. Still, there’s something to be said for a massage at sea to get that cruise vacation off on the right track.
Casino Action- On cruise ships with casinos on board, like casinos on land, this is an item that can add up fast too. Savvy cruise travelers budget a certain amount to play with for each day of the sailing. Gaming lessons, available on board most cruise ships, as well as other complementary casino events can help lower this extra expense.
Alcoholic Beverages and Soft Drinks- Many cruise lines charge extra for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages but pricing is available online that can help with budgeting. High-end cruise lines like Azamara Club Cruises, Viking River Cruises and others, include soft drinks and paired wines with meals as part of the deal. Passengers in upper accommodations on some cruise ships get an initial bar setup included. Princess Cruises includes a fully stocked mini-bar setup for past passengers that have sailed enough to reach their Elite level. Carnival Cruise Lines is experimenting with an alcoholic all-you-can-drink package, which can have value for heavy drinkers. Most cruise lines have unlimited soda packages that can be added on in advance of sailing or once onboard.
Travel Insurance- An optional charge on any cruise vacation, travel insurance of some kind is always a good idea. Where we buy it is another matter altogether. Cruise lines all have their versions, which can be added to the cruise fare and paid along with the price of the cruise. Third-party sources like TravelGuard, recommended by experts as the way to go, can be both cost efficient and provide customizable coverage. Comparing cruise line coverage to third-party sources on a cost and coverage basis, older travelers often come out ahead buying via the cruise line while younger travelers get a better value with third-party sources.
Spending Off The Ship- Other than the price of Shore Excursions, cruise travelers often choose to go ashore for shopping, which is often duty-free and can offer some good savings compared to U.S. land-based shopping options. A stop by a sidewalk cafe for coffee, a drink or two or maybe lunch should also be considered.
Optional Dining Venues- Generally included in the price of the cruise is an upscale main dining room experience, a buffet of some kind and 24-hour room service. In addition, some optional dining venues, called “alternative dining,” are available for a nominal charge for those who want something different. Those can run anywhere from $5 per person to $50 or more but, to many cruise travelers, offer one of the best values of all the optional charges. All can be researched in advance and many can be reserved in advance too. Royal Caribbean, for example, has 150 Central Park on their Oasis-class vessels that offers one of the best dining experiences ever on land or sea for $40 per person additional.
Parking- Cruise lines have made it easy to sail, deploying ships at home ports scattered around the United States. In the olden days of cruise travel, most ships sailed from a Florida port, making airfare a serious consideration in the total cost of a cruise vacation. Driving to the port eliminates that cost but parking can add up too. Storing your car in a secured, covered lot at the cruise port can cost between $15 and $20 per day, an extra $100 to $150 on top of the fare paid. Satellite lots at most cruise ports with a shuttle to and from the ship are available at reduced prices.
Pre-Cruise Hotel Stays- Experienced cruise travelers know that coming in to the embarkation port where the sailing begins a day early is a good idea. This is especially true when flying from a northern U.S. location to a southern U.S. embarkation port in the winter, when flight delays due to weather are a real possibility. As airfare prices rise and more cruise travelers look for ways to save, flying stand-by is becoming more popular too, demanding travel a day or two in advance of sailing, just so they don’t “miss the boat.” Most cruise port-oriented hotels have Cruise and Snooze, Fly and Cruise, or Drive and Cruise specials that include transfer to and from the cruise port.
Internet Fees- This one can add up really fast. Internet access on cruise ships can cost up to $.75 per minute. The best value will be on the largest packages available and can cut that cost in half on a per-minute basis. Equally important to consider when budgeting for Internet access at sea is the reliability and speed of the ship’s Internet system. In other words, it is often not how much you pay but what you get out of it that counts. To get the most out of your Internet access dollars, pick a new ship or recently remodeled ship with the latest satellite system installed. Also, stop by the ship’s Internet cafe and ask the crew members working there one simple question: “What do I need to do on this ship to get the most out of your Internet connection?” A frank answer will greatly maximize your online experience.
How important are all these fees?
Let’s take a look at a typical 7-day Caribbean cruise.
For a family of four, taking advantage of the best pricing available on a summer sailing in 2013, we’ll use Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Liberty, sailing on June 9, 2013.
Carnival Liberty is an older ship that was recently refurbished, adding most of the latest features that Carnival Cruise Lines has to offer making it one of the line’s best values. We picked June 9 because that’s when the kids will be out of school and sailing towards the beginning of the peak summer season is most often one of the best values as well.
To maximize the value, we selected Carnival Cruise Lines Early Saver Fare, guaranteed to be the lowest by the cruise line. The reduced fare carries some restrictions, much like a restricted airfare, including a non-refundable deposit and a no-change policy that incurs a $50 administrative fee per person, per change for any changes made after booking.
The total cruise fare price for four in the least expensive inside stateroom is $2909.92, including port charges, government fees and taxes.
Typical extra charges this family might incur:
- Prepaid gratuities- $322
- Travel Insurance from the cruise line- $350
- Optional Dining Venues- $0 (Mom and Dad are cheap)
- Parking at the Port of Miami- $140
- Pre-Cruise hotel stay- Comfort Suites Miami Park and Cruise package- $134
- Internet Fees- 250 minute package- $100
- Shore excursions- Tours of two of the four ports of call- $432
- Spa Treatment- Mom wants a pedicure- $70
- Casino Action- Dad likes to play the slots, a little bit, $20 per day- $140
- Alcoholic Beverages- Dad wants the all-you-can-drink liquor package that Carnival Cruise Lines is testing and hopes it is available. If so, both Mom and Dad must take it and it is priced at about $50 per person per day or $350 per person for 7-days, $700 total for both Mom and Dad, typical of what they normally spend on a cruise- $700
- Non-alcoholic beverage package for the kids- $4.50 per day +15% gratuity- $72
- Spending off the ship- 4 ports @$50 per port for some souvenirs or dining- $200
Total Extras- $2660
Adding those optional extras to the $2990.92 price of the cruise runs up the total vacation cost to $5,650 – almost double the price of the cruise fare. That’s really nothing to be scared of or prevent someone from choosing a cruise vacation as a viable travel option but surely something to consider. In our example, non-drinkers would save $700. Skip the gambling and lose $140 off the total for some. For others, $20 per day to gamble would be a fraction of what they might spend.
Cruise vacations can offer good value but those extra expenses, as we see here, can add up fast. And this is on a Carnival Cruise Lines cruise, arguably one of the best values in cruise vacations.
Cruise line extra charges are nothing to scare would-be cruise travelers away, but surely something to be seriously considered when comparing a cruise vacation to other travel options.
[Flickr photo by stevendepolo]