The Hidden Costs of Cruising

Keep your cruise budget in check by avoiding these eight fees.

By Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff WriterNov. 10, 2015
By Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff WriterNov. 10, 2015, at 12:01 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

The Hidden Costs of Cruising

Tropical Drinks on the Upper Deck

First-time cruisers should know that drinks other than water, tea and coffee aren't included in the overall cruise fare.(Getty Images)

For many travelers, the main appeal of cruising is its all-inclusive nature. One rate covers your lodging, most meals and entertainment for the entire trip. Plus, with larger ships, innovative amenities and new destinations continuously being added to itineraries, cruises are an increasingly popular vacation choice for a wide variety of travelers. The Cruise Lines International Association estimated that 23 million people would take their vacations on the seas in 2015, up from 17.8 million in 2009.

While many cruises present a resort-like atmosphere that allows travelers to visit multiple destinations for a fraction of the cost of a land-based vacation, some associated expenses can pile up to a steep final bill. In fact, CLIA reported that in 2014, travelers spent more than $1,000 on average for expenses not included in the overall cruise fare. "You could go on a cruise and not spend anything extra, or you could go and end up spending a fortune because you're tempted by all the extra activities and restaurants," says Wendy Perrin, travel author and TripAdvisor Travel Advocate. To help you anticipate these often hidden fees, U.S. News identified the most common cruise add-ons and tapped the experts for tips on avoiding extra budget-busting expenses on your next sailing.

Fees and Taxes

If you've ever booked a cruise, you likely already know that the advertised cruise fare acts more as a subtotal rather than the final amount you'll pay. When booking, you'll want to consider the addition of government taxes and port fees to the per person base price, which can range from 3 to 5 percent of the advertised fare. Port fees vary depending on the number and location of ports on the itinerary, but can be reimbursed in some cases. "If the ship can't make it to port because of weather, you'll be refunded those port fees," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic.

Also, consider the cabin type you prefer. Sticking with a standard interior room is the most economical choice, but if you have your heart set on ocean vistas, you'll have to pay for the stateroom upgrade. Also keep in mind that some cruise lines, like Carnival, will impose an upcharge for choosing a cabin located on a more desirable deck.

Pre- and Post-Cruise Travel-Related Expenses

Transportation costs are another expense to consider. For example, if you're booking a Mediterranean cruise, chances are you'll be departing from a European port, translating to a pricey plane ticket if you're based in the United States. Even if you're departing from a popular U.S. port like Miami or Fort Lauderdale, you'll have to factor in transportation costs to and from the port. If you live close enough to drive, you'll have to weigh the costs of paying port parking fees or taking a taxi.

Keep in mind that many major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, offer programs that organize all transportation for you, but they don't always yield the best deal. However, these programs do assume responsibility for getting you to the port on time. "You wouldn't be booking airfare or transportation through the cruise line for the deal, you book it for the convenience and [that] there's someone there to take care of you," Perrin says.

Veteran cruisers also recommend arriving at least a day before departure to dodge any travel-related delays that could cause you to miss the ship, so you'll want to factor in overnight accommodations if you decide to arrive early.

Gratuities

To make the tipping process more seamless, many cruise lines now automatically apply daily gratuities, ranging from $12 to $15 per person, to passengers' onboard accounts. Some luxury cruise lines like Azamara Club Cruises include gratuities in the price of the cruise fare, but additional tips can be left at your discretion. And while a visit to the guest services desk can have gratuity charges removed, tipping supplements the compensation crew members receive and it's generally good form to show your appreciation for their services.

Aside from standard daily gratuities, there are often other areas of the ship where tips are automatically added. This includes onboard bars and lounges (most bar tabs incur a 15 percent gratuity charge) as well as the spa, where treatments typically incur an 18 percent gratuity fee. While this system is convenient, it does make it more difficult to keep track of extra expenses.

Shore Excursions

If you want to explore more than just the ports on your itinerary, you'll have to book a shore excursion. These tours offer travelers experiences they might not encounter at home and provide insight into the local culture of different destinations. Excursions can include anything from sightseeing and culinary tours to more adventurous pursuits like kayaking and zip lining, but most require an extra fee.

These experiences can be worth the splurge but those looking to save should put in a little research to evaluate if booking with a third-party operator is a more affordable option. "You've got independent companies like Viator [that] are well-run, trustworthy and contract with local providers in every port, and they're cheaper than the cruise line's own tours," Brown says.

Another option, depending on the port, is to grab a map and tour the local attractions on your own. Perrin suggests comparing the cost and options presented by the cruise line with your own research while keeping in mind that excursion costs advertised by the cruise lines are listed per person. "The larger your group, the more money you're going to save by doing your own thing in port and not going on ship-sponsored excursions," she adds.

Drink Packages

First-time cruisers may be surprised to learn that drinks other than water, tea and coffee aren't included in the overall cruise fare. Drink packages can run anywhere from $5 a day for unlimited soda to upward of $75 a day for an all-inclusive package that covers alcoholic beverages. "If an average drink or glass of wine is going to cost you $10 per glass and the package sells for $50 [per day], if you figure you'll have a cocktail by the pool and a couple glasses of wine with dinner, the package is paying for itself," Brown says.

You can choose to pay as you go, but those charges can add up quickly and often incur automatic gratuities ranging from 15 to 18 percent for alcoholic beverages.

Specialty Dining

Today's megaships offer an abundance of dining options. "The industry has exploded in both outreach and the size of ships with all sorts of amenities," Brown says. "It used to be that you had one restaurant, but now you go on a ship like the new Norwegian Escape and you have 15 different restaurants, plus the main dining venue."

For a memorable onboard meal, you can book a table at a specialty restaurant, which offers a unique menu and more intimate dining experience than the main dining room. But keep in mind that splurging on meals at specialty dining venues can add up quickly. Some luxury lines, such as Azamara, offer flat-rate packages that allow guests to enjoy multiple meals at specialty venues while others, such as Regent Seven Seas, include specialty dining in the cruise rate.

Onboard Activities

While most entertainment – including nightly shows, water parks, sports facilities and kids clubs – is part of the cruise fare, there are select activities aboard every ship that require extra fees. These can range from wine tastings and cooking classes to video arcades and computer courses, depending on the cruise line.

One area that will take as much money as you're willing to lose is the casino. Opting out of that poker game could end up saving you big. The same could be said of the spa. While most major cruise ships tout a spa that offers an array of treatments, keep in mind that spa services are not included in the cruise rate, they often rival the price points of high-end spas on land and they typically tack on gratuity fees.

Internet

In our ever-connected world, it's no surprise that even at sea we still expect to be able to have access to the Internet. And you can – for a price. Most cruise lines offer packages that allow you to connect to the ship-wide Wi-Fi, but you'll want to consider how much screen time you'll need, as rates can vary depending on the ship, megabytes or minutes used.

Some packages offer access to specific platforms like the $5 per day social media plan from Carnival, which grants unlimited access to apps like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. If you want the ability to browse the Web or check email, you'll have to shell out $16 on Carnival's ships. Other cruise lines offer free Wi-Fi minutes for guests staying in upgraded rooms or suites, while luxury lines like Silversea Cruises offer at least one hour of complimentary access to all guests. Before purchasing minutes or an Internet package on any ship, be aware that recent travelers warn that Wi-Fi service is spotty during sea days. If you're still set on connecting while on vacation, consider waiting until you pull into port – you can probably use a coffee shop's Wi-Fi for free.

Gwendolyn Shearman, Staff Writer

Gwen Shearman is an Editor/Digital Producer for the Travel section at U.S. News where she ...  Read more

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