Splurge or Save? Which Cruise Add-Ons are Worth the Price?

Should you spring for meals at specialty restaurants and pre-paid drink packages? Here's a primer.

U.S. News & World Report

Splurge or Save? Which Cruise Add-Ons are Worth the Price?

Couple holding hands on a cruise

Sometimes, extra offerings, such as unlimited drink packages and Wi-Fi pricing plans, can yield an excellent value. (Getty Images)

A common misconception of cruising is that every line functions under the same all-inclusive model. But the reality is, aside from few lines, the only included amenity to your standard fare is your onboard meals. Typically, beverages (including soda), Wi-Fi access, specialty restaurant reservations and shore excursions require an extra fee, adding up to a steep final cruise bill. To help you stay within your budget and avoid getting nickel-and-dimed on your next cruise vacation, read on to learn which add-ons are worth the price.

Splurge … on Drink Packages

Simply put, beverages on many cruise ships are expensive, with glasses of wine typically starting at $7, beers starting at $6 and specialty cocktails starting at $9. Think about it this way: A glass of wine every night at dinner on a 14-night cruise on a mainstream line will end up costing over $140. Standard drink package prices vary, but most start at just $18 per night, per person. Premium packages, which include top-tier varieties, like Johnnie Walker Blue Label, are pricier and start at around $45 per night. However, these premium packages also cover unlimited bottled water and fountain soda, a bonus for large groups and families traveling with kids. After all, these packages take the guesswork out of calculating your bill and charge you a standard fee, making it easier to budget for your cruise ahead of time.

Splurge … on Select Shore Excursions

Unless you're traveling on the luxury ocean liner Regent Seven Seas or a river cruise where standard shore excursions are typically included in the rate, shore excursions to each port sail will cost extra. Whether springing for shore excursions affiliated with the cruise line is a worthwhile endeavor is a subject of much debate, but it's important to consider your budget, your travel companions and your itinerary, among other factors. For senior cruise passengers or first-time visitors to a country or a city, excursions affiliated with a cruise line offer added comfort and convenience. But younger passengers and those who are already familiar with a given port of call may prefer to explore on their own, and the ship excursion may not be worth the high price tag.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that in some countries, like Russia, the only way to experience ports without a visa is through a shore excursion, making booking with a cruise company necessary and well worth the added price. Another benefit: There are a variety of shore excursions available through reputable outfitters major lines partner with. Plus, cruise lines will typically offer a minimum of three to five shore excursion options per port, providing versatile activities well suited for a variety of traveler types and interests – from coach-based tours to guided bike rides. However, if you prefer exploring new places on your own, the added cost may be better spent on meals and souvenirs ashore.

Splurge … on Select Specialty Dining Experiences

If you consider yourself a foodie and you love to dine out, the surcharge for specialty dining, which typically ranges from $25 to $50 per person, is a worthwhile investment. Not only is the cuisine served in special restaurants a higher quality than standard ship eateries and buffets, the atmospheres at these exclusive outposts are more elegant and sophisticated, making it the perfect splurge for a romantic or special occasion. However, if you're not much of a gastronome and you prefer the flexibility of casual dining, reserving tables at specialty restaurants likely isn't worth the added price tag. And if you're traveling with youngsters in tow, remember many specialty restaurants aren't conducive to younger guests, so the stress (and cost) of finding onboard childcare may take away from the allure of a unique dining experience.

Splurge … on Internet Packages

In this day in age, it's nearly impossible to go on a vacation without constantly sharing or viewing photos on social media platforms. Even if you only plan to be online for an hour a day, a Wi-Fi package for the whole cruise will get you more bang for you buck than paying by the hour or the day. In addition, many ships are now offering tiered packages at different price points that cater to different needs. Royal Caribbean International, for example, has packages that cater to guests who just want to surf the web or use social media platforms, along with another package that gives enough bandwidth to stream movies and television shows. But if you have a portable hotspot and a phone loaded with international data, the internet package may not be essential for you and your travel companions.

Save … on Pre- and Post-Cruise Hotels

Though the idea of bundling everything together, including your pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, ship transfers and activities, may sound alluring, you're going to end up spending far more than if you book these components separately. Not only are the hotels more expensive (most ships book you in four- and five-star properties), the packages also include extras you might not want, including guided tours and meals at a limited number of restaurants. Instead of shelling out the added cash, save by booking your own a la carte stays before and after your journey. That way, you won't just save money on meals and hotels, but you'll also be able to customize where you stay and where you eat. And if you're worried about getting to or from your cruise ship, fret not: Most lines will offer a standard transfer program to and from hotels, airports and the terminal, so you can get there with ease.

Save … on Vacation Photos and Videos

If you're looking to slash cruise costs, onboard photos and videos are rarely worth the high price tags. Instead of shelling out $50 for a family portrait, have another guest snap a photo of you and the gang on your smartphone or personal camera. The only instance where a cruise photo or video may be worthwhile is if you're planning to tour a place that prohibits personal photography or is not conducive to photo-taking (think climbing waterfalls or snorkeling). A great way to prepare for these activities – and ensure you get photos and videos from your own devices – is to stock up on waterproof disposable cameras, get a LifeProof case for your smartphone or invest in a GoPro camera, which takes high-quality videos and photos and is easy to carry with you, even on thrilling adventures.

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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