Cruise lines would like you to spend more money, so they're expanding their menus of extras. Step aboard and you'll be bombarded with choices ranging artwork to wine tastings. There's some great stuff here, but beware. Are you cruisin' for a wallet bruisin'? Here's some advice.
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Cruising is one of the best vacation values going. The “all-inclusive” fare includes accommodations, meals and entertainment. But “extras” can really bloat the bill.
Cruise lines have always charged additional fees for shore excursions, alcoholic beverages and spa treatments, and now they are offering many new onboard extras - everything from artwork to wine tastings. The key to avoiding a bank-breaking bill is knowing what to expect. Here’s how to keep your budget afloat.
After a cruise, you might have more sympathy for Paris Hilton — what with all the flashbulb-popping ship photographers chasing you from stem to stern. Suddenly you’re a celebrity. It starts before you even set foot on the ship, with the obligatory pose by the S.S. Life Preserver. Photographers even interrupt your meals in the dining room, demanding that you say “Cheese” while you are eating some.
Sadly, unlike Paris, we have to pay to be immortalized in photographs. Prices range from $15 to $30 for each portrait. You don’t have to have your picture taken and you don’t have to buy any photo taken of you. But photos do make nice souvenirs, especially when you’re all gussied up for the formal night of the cruise. And if the picture makes you look younger and thinner, by all means buy it — whatever the cost.
Insider Tip: Bring your own camera and ask fellow passengers to snap portraits for you.
The art of spending
Last summer, John and Helen Finch, of Pittsburgh, took their first cruise, a seven-day Alaska Inside Passage cruise on the Sun Princess. Seeing attractive art every day on the ship, Helen decided to attend one of the onboard art auctions. Before she knew it, she’d paid $800 for two lithographs — not something she had planned for.
Insider Tip: You usually get better art deals on land, where you can play the competition among art galleries. On a ship, you’re a captive audience. If you really like a piece of art, take a picture of it and see if a local art gallery can find it — or something like it — for you.
Bar bill blues
Soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic drinks can really add up, particularly at the prices charged on most ships. These refreshments are seldom included in the cruise fare (except on luxury cruises). Naturally, cruise lines prefer that you buy alcoholic drinks directly from them, but you can bring your own wine aboard to be served to you at dinner. The catch is that you will be charged a “corkage fee” — usually around $10 per bottle.
Warning: Don’t try to bring your own liquor aboard; the cruise line will confiscate it (they will return it to you at the end of the cruise). However, you may be able to sneak a flask of your favorite spirits aboard for consumption in your cabin.
Don’t forget the kids — those soft drinks add up fast. Find out if your ship offers a “soda package,” a deal that offers unlimited sodas for $20 to $35.
Insider Tip: Don’t buy the drinks that come in the souvenir glasses. How are you going to get those glasses home in one piece?
Many mainstream and premium cruise lines now have onboard “alternative restaurants,” which offer specialty menus with prices ranging from $10 to $45 per person. Sure, the food is interesting, but is it any better than what’s served in the ship’s dining room for free? It depends on your taste and what the cruise line is offering. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle Cruising” plan offers a variety of excellent alternative dining choices, including unlimited sushi at a reasonable cost ($5-$10). For me, that’s a no-brainer.
Insider Tip: If you want to dine in the specialty restaurants, be sure to book reservations soon after you board — they go quickly.
Most ships have Internet access, but they often charge an outrageous per-minute fee. Some cruise lines offer package deals for a fixed fee, usually around $100 for 250 minutes of Internet access. You can save a lot of money by visiting an Internet facility in port. Ask a crew member where to find an Internet cafe on shore, or check out the local public library, where you can sometimes check your e-mail for free. You can see the shipboard rates for Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line at the Digital Seas Web site.
Insider Tip: Unless you’re trying to keep in touch back home (or you want to read Tripso every day), stay away from the Internet altogether. Remember, you’re on vacation. As for this column — just print it out!
Shipboard casinos are getting bigger and bigger, which means that more and more money is being lost at sea. If you decide to roll the dice, set a limit on how much you are willing to risk, then leave as soon as you lose it.
Insider Tip: You have a better chance of “getting the big one” on a fishing trip than you do in ship’s casino, and you know how many of those get away.
While pampering should be part of every cruise vacation, frequenting the ship’s spa can be costly. A massage can range anywhere from $80 to $180 per hour — not to mention the 18 percent tip. Moreover, the staffs of most shipboard spas work on commission and will often give you a sales pitch for their products after your treatments. Unless you really like the products, don’t feel compelled to purchase them.
Insider Tips: Look for discounted spa specials that are offered at certain times on the cruise, usually when the ship is in port. Many shipboard spas feature products by Steiner Leisure. If you like them, check out the prices ontimetospa; you can often get a better deal there than on the ship. Be sure to sign up for their newsletter offering online discounts (it’s free).
“Feel the burn” … in your wallet. Yes, pumping up with the ship’s fitness guru costs money. Kickboxing, yoga, Pilates and Spinning classes on board some ships will run $10 a class.
Insider Tip: Who needs a guru? Bring an iPod or Walkman with your favorite workout playlist and use the free exercise equipment.
Golf club storage
Most cruise lines allow you to bring your golf clubs to your cabin, but not Norwegian Cruise Line, which charges guests $40 to store them. (The cruise line says it doesn’t allow golf clubs in the cabins for “safety reasons.”) Of course, guests are encouraged to participate in Norwegian’s “Callaway Rental Club” program, which allows passengers to rent some of the latest Callaway clubs for as little as $35 per day.
Insider Tip: Pick a cruise line that lets you stow the clubs in your cabin for free. You can stash them under the bed or in the closet if it is big enough. But never stow clubs on your balcony — sea water is a killer on clubs.
Shore excursion fees can be high, especially on destination-intensive itineraries such as Alaska, Europe and Hawaii. In most cases, it’s easy to arrange your own excursions and save money. One of the best ways to find out what each port is offering is to visit the port’s official tourism Web site. These sites offer up-to-date information on tour operators and pricing. You can find a comprehensive list of worldwide tourism sites at JohnnyJet.com.
There are companies that specialize in planning tours for cruise passengers. Port Promotions and Shore Trips allow you to book your shore excursions before you leave home, and the savings can be significant. For example, Port Promotions offers an Alaska package of three excursions in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan (one excursion in each port) for $105 per person. Similar tours through Princess Cruises cost $121 per person. That’s a $16 savings per person — which can add up to big savings if you are traveling with family or with a group. If you are going to Alaska, one highly recommended money-saving book is “The Great Alaskan TourSaver.” This book offers 162 coupons for free admissions, 2-for-1 tours, flightseeing, whale watching, free car rentals and much more.
Insider Tip: Shore excursions arranged by the cruise lines give passengers a safety net: If the excursion runs late, the ship will not leave port without them. Anytime you schedule an independent trip, you lose that safety net, so be sure to leave enough time to get back to the ship before departure. Believe me, the ship will leave without you.
The cost of a roundtrip airport transfer purchased through the cruise line is often $40 per person or more. The best (and often fastest) way to get to and from the ship is by local taxi. The fare is usually around $20 and the cab will take up to four people
Laundry and dry cleaning charges on a cruise can be exorbitant. For example, a T-shirt can cost $4 to wash and a pair of underwear $2. Check to see if there is a self-service launderette. That will be much cheaper — typically $3 to $5 per load.
Insider Tip: Many cruise lines set aside one day on each cruise when they will wash a bag of laundry for a set fee, usually $10 to $15 per bag (the cruise line provides the bag).
Film and sundries
Buy plenty of film and other camera supplies at home, because once on board, the price doubles. For example, the $20 underwater camera I bought on my last cruise would have cost me $9 at Target. The same can be said for pain relievers, sunscreen and many other small, personal-use items.
Except on a few luxury cruise ships, which have “no tipping required” policies, you are expected to tip your cabin steward, dining room waiter and assistant waiter. Many lines recommend that each passenger tip about $10 per day, as follows: cabin steward, $3.50; dining room waiter and assistant waiter, $5.50 (shared); and bistro service waiter and cooks, $1. Bar bills are automatically charged a 15 percent gratuity for the bartender. Special service personnel such as the maitre d’, deck stewards and bellmen should be tipped as service is rendered.
Some cruise lines offer the option of adding the suggested gratuities to your shipboard account; the accounting office would then distribute the tips at the end of the cruise. On other ships, you leave cash in an envelope on the last evening of your cruise.
Insider Tip: Sure, it’s hard to part with money — especially cash — when you’re returning home to a cold house and empty bank account. But understand that ships’ crews work very hard to make your cruise top-notch. Unless the service has actually been poor, tip the recommended amount. For outstanding service, add a little more. Then go home and save up for your next cruise.
Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anita or visit her Web site anitavacation.com.