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Stormy seas ahead

Cruiselines increase fees on many onboard amenities and services
Image: Holland America
The best spa discounts (up to 40 percent) are usually while the ship is in portPRN
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

One of the many attractions of choosing a cruise vacation is the all-inclusive nature of sea travel. Pay one fee per person for a cabin - and the meals, the entertainment, the gym, and other perks all await you at no extra charge. Right?

Well, no actually.

Cruise industry revenues are up as lines recover from the downturn of the Iraq war, SARS, and the economy. Carnival Corporation's 4th-quarter revenues, for example, rose 75 percent to $1.82 billion from $1.04 billion a year earlier. But these increases come in ways you might not expect. With a fast-growing trend of charging for services that used to be free, new fees abound, as do "for-fee" alternatives to free services. Be prepared for an onslought of onboard a la carte pricing of nearly everything.


Back in the 70's, cruise travel included bus transportion to and from port. All cruise lines now sell bus tickets to get passengers from the airport to the port. In most ports, though, taking a cab is cheaper per person and considerably faster. In Miami, a bus might cost $13-$15 per person, but four people can share a cab for $5 per person—and avoid waiting for all the other bus passengers to load up.


In the last few years, in addition to central dining areas (which are free) Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and others have created premium dining options, for-fee specialty restaurants where one can expect an even-more-lavish gourmet experience for $10-$25 per person. Opinion on these restaurants varies. If you crave a private table and quieter surroundings with rapt attention to detail, this may be the place to spend those extra dollars. Otherwise, ask passengers around the ship to be sure that alternative dining is that much better than main.


Except for luxury cruise lines, there have always been charges for wine, beer, and brand beverages like Coke, Pepsi, etc. Soft drinks run $2 to $3 each, plus 15 percent gratuity. But most ships now offer an unlimited adult soda card. Drinking four to six sodas a day with a soda card saves nearly $100 a week. Cards cost about $5 a day but are only sold for the length of the cruise. A seven-day cruise runs around $35. (Naturally, we can’t recommend you buy a card and share it.) There are cards for kids too, at a lower price. Shipboard wine often costs less than at landside restaurants, which may mark up bottles by 300 percent or more. You can get several nice wines onboard most lines for less than $22.

Gym and Spa

Travelers are used to paying for spa services but now even gym classes can have a price. Working out on the machines or with weights is still free, but specialty classes such Pilates and Spinning can run up to $10 each. Even the indoor spa pool can cost you, although most people seem to just slide in without paying. As for the spa, ask when prices for massages and other services are lowest. The best discounts (up to 40 percent) are usually while the ship is in port. And if you want to indulge in the spa for cheap, try the spa showers. Always free, these showers usually have more room, more settings, better water pressure, and hotter water than their cabin counterparts.


Cruise lines love gamblers—the casino is a ship’s number one profit center. Most of us realize the casino is just a giant hole in the ship into which we pour our money. So you wouldn't think there would ever a fee just to charge chips to your room. That is changing, too. Bring plenty of cash or traveler’s checks, as Holland America and others have started charging 3 percent to buy chips on passenger accounts. Casino ATM's are worse. Depending on the cruise line, ATM fees can run as high as $5.50 or 5 percent of the amount withdrawn.


Nothing is sacred. In December, NCL's New York-based Norwegian Dawn featured their first for-fee entertainment, TV's Jimmie "JJ" Walker — for $10 per person. While NCL provided other performers at no charge, this foray into premium entertainment could take hold on other lines.

Internet and Phones

Telecommunication, whether by phone or web, has always been extremely expensive on board. Although fees to go online are cheaper than ever, they run 50¢ per minute to over $100 for unlimited access. Better to patronize an internet cafe in port, where half an hour runs $2-3. For that phone call home, bring your cell phone, as most Caribbean and U.S. ports have US-compatible cell service. Depending on equipment and calling plan, a cell call will probably be much less than from the cabin (which runs as high as $9.95 a minute plus setup charges). Landlines at ports, depending on country, are reasonable with a calling card (usually sold somewhere nearby).


Cruise-end tipping is a tradition where passengers reward room stewards, waiters, and others for their services, a total cost ranging from $7-11 per passenger per day. But be sure to first check to see if those tips have already been "taxed" to your account. If so, depending on what service you received, you may change them up or down at the purser’s desk. Note: Some luxury cruise lines have no-tipping policies.

With all the money you can save, try the last-night free-cruise bingo where the prize, if not the probability of winning, is substantial!