How to save money while on board a cruise ship

One of the biggest appeals of a cruise ship vacation is its all-inclusive aspect. Your meals, port stops, and on board activities are pre-planned and available for your enjoyment, pretty much whenever you feel like enjoying them. Unfortunately, a cruise ship’s “all-inclusive” element doesn’t mean it’s an on board free-for-all. All those port excursions, soda and alcoholic beverages, beauty services, and photos are made available for an extra charge.

Because your cabin key functions as an on board credit card, it’s easy to go overboard with your spending. If you’re not careful, you could end up with a hefty bill when your cruise ends. Here are a few tips to save money while on board a cruise ship.

Stay away from on board gift shops.
If you’re trying to save money on the cruise ship, staying out of the ship’s shops should be your first line of defense. Duty free shops are always tempting. After all, there’s no sales tax!

It’s easy to get carried away, but keep in mind that, while the items are tax-free, the prices may be inflated. A small-ish, inexpensive memento is fine, but if you go on an all-out shopping spree, you may get home and wonder, “Why did I buy this?”

Don’t use the phone or Internet services.
Many of the convenient technologies we depend on in our normal, everyday lives are nearly nonexistent on a cruise ship. You’re not going to have cell phone service while at sea, and Internet services are priced at a premium, by-the-minute fee, usually around $0.75 to $1.00 per minute. (This isn’t even counting the one-time “activation fee.”)Instead of paying cruise prices, try using your cell phone while on land at a port-of-call — chances are, you’ll get reception. (Consider calling your cell carrier before leaving home and arranging for an international calling package, making these calls cheaper still.) Also, Internet cafes can be found in most ports and are often less expensive than the ship’s service. If you’re planning on emailing your friends or updating your blog, consider typing the text offline to save time. Finally, don’t be afraid NOT to call or email home. Your friends and family know you’re on vacation and probably don’t need to hear from you.

Book port excursions independently.
By booking an excursion on your own, you’ll save money, you’ll be with a much smaller tour group, and you’re less likely to have a tour guide that takes a twenty minute “bathroom break” conveniently located near or at the gift shop.

Make sure to book your independent excursions before you leave for vacation, as they fill up quickly. However, if you’re an inexperienced traveler or if you have anxiety about getting back to the ship on time, you might want to book via the cruise ship for that extra peace of mind.

Don’t feel obligated to take excursions at all.
Excursions are part of the appeal of a cruise ship vacation, but don’t feel like you must book one for every port in which the ship stops. If there’s nothing in the port-of-call that piques your interest, skip it. Sometimes walking around the port is an adventure itself.

Just say, “No!”

It’s the simplest rule of all, but it can be the most difficult rule to follow when on vacation. The advertising spiels start the minute you board the ship — from the loudspeaker announcements, to the advertisements in your daily newsletter, to the aggressive bartenders hawking pricey cocktails. You feel like you’re being beaten over the head with a nonstop sales pitch, and it can be difficult to stand your ground.

Learn to say, “No thanks.” Remember, you won’t be the first to decline a sales pitch — and you won’t be the last.

Avoid the specialty restaurants.
Your cruise ship fare includes access to the dining room and the all-day buffet, but these aren’t the only eateries on the ship. Several specialty restaurants are available — for an extra charge — and serve “premium meals,” such as sushi or gourmet pizza.

These specialty restaurants offer a nice break from the dining room, and it’s great to enjoy a meal with folks from your own party instead of eating dinner with Bob and Judy from Des Moines, Iowa. These restaurants can get expensive, though, and often times the food isn’t anything special, so use with caution.

Pass on the pictures.

Most cruises offer trivia games. These fun events are free to play, and winners receive champagne, certificates for restaurants, and drink coupons.

On most cruise lines, the ship’s photographer snaps photos of you and your party twice during your cruise vacation — once when you board the ship and once during formal night. While these pictures are nice, they’re obnoxiously overpriced for what amounts to a simple snapshot of your group in front of a tacky backdrop.

You brought your camera, right? Chances are, your own pictures will turn out much better than what the ship’s photographer provides.

Skip the soda card.
Cruise lines offer free water, iced tea, fruit punch, and lemonade, but soda is extra. Soda typically costs $1.50 to $4.00 per can, unless you purchase a soda card for the entire length of your stay. A soda card often will not pay for itself unless you plan on drinking soda nonstop for the duration of your cruise.

If you must have soda, think about buying a few cases before boarding the ship. Some cruise lines allow you to bring outside non-alcoholic beverages into your cabin, but check your cruise line’s FAQs before dropping serious cash on cases of pop. You don’t want to get denied entry at the last minute, just because you’re toting a case of Diet Pepsi.

Finally, DO play trivia games.
Most cruise lines offer trivia games for all ages. These fun events are free to play and winners receive prizes such as bottles of champagne, certificates for the specialty restaurants, and drink coupons.

In the end, vacation is a time to relax, not to worry about penny-pinching. Don’t deprive yourself or your family of a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the sake of saving $10. However, you don’t want to come home from your cruise ship vacation knee-deep in debt with a major case of buyer’s remorse either. Use discretion when purchasing extras and you and your family will come home from your cruise vacation happy!