1. Alcohol and Other Beverages
Alcoholic beverages and wine are not included in the cruise fares on most lines and are the #1 cost contributor to any cruise vacation. Keep in mind that you’re paying restaurant pricing or more for any alcoholic beverage purchased onboard. If you choose to consume alcohol while onboard, be sure to check out the various packages offered by the cruise lines, as the cost of the packages typically will be a better value than buying multiple drinks at retail pricing. Bar beverages are also automatically assessed a 15% gratuity, which will add up quickly. In regards to non-alcoholic beverages such as soft drinks, bottled water, certain juices, and specialty coffees – most cruise lines charge extra for these beverage selections. Be sure to understand what is and is not included in your cruise fare, especially if you consume multiple soft drinks or specialty coffees in a single day. Again, be sure to check out the cruise line’s beverage packages, as many are a better value than purchasing a la carte.
2. Alternative Dining
Meals in the ship's main dining room and buffet venue are included in the cost of your cruise fare, but over the past decade more and more cruise lines have been adding numerous for-fee venues to their ships, for both paid meals and paid snacks. You can pay anywhere from a few dollars for an ice cream cone at an onboard Ben & Jerry's or gelateria to $35 or more for a meal in a specialty dining venue. Several European lines charge a la carte prices in their alternative venues.
3. Spa and Salon Treatments
Cruise line spas charge rates equal to high-end salons, and you may be shocked by the prices. A massage is typically about $110 to $150, with more exotic treatments running into the $200 to $500 range. Passes to thermal suites and thalassotherapy pools average $15 to $30 per day, with cruise-long packages available. Be sure to pay attention to the onboard communications for any specials that might produce lower-cost options – many times discounts can be enjoyed while the ship is in port.
Gratuities and tipping policies vary by cruise line, but most recommend about $10 to $12 per person, per day, to be distributed among those who provide key services - dining room waiters, assistant waiters, and stateroom stewards. If you have a higher-end stateroom with butler service, be prepared to tip extra. As a reminder, bar tabs are automatically charged a 15 percent gratuity, and any time the maitre d' performs a special service, such as arranging for a birthday cake to be brought to the table, he should be tipped, as well. Most cruise lines allow you to pre-pay for gratuities, which are then built into the cost of the voyage and eliminate the need for this as an out-of-pocket expense while onboard ship. If a guest has not pre-paid their gratuities, they are typically automatically added to the stateroom’s folio on the 2nd or 3rd night of the sailing (depending on itinerary length).
5. Shore Excursions
Shore excursions are designed to help you make the most of your time in port but know that the cruise lines sell these for your convenience, and for their bottom line. Prices are generally inflated above what the actual tour operators charge. Alternate vendors are available that offer similar experiences, often at better prices than you’ll find the onboard ship. Prices for many of the excursions range from about $25 per person for a quick city and shopping tour to more than $300 per person for some of the more exciting tours which might include helicopter flight-seeing and hot-air ballooning. Most tours are priced somewhere between $50 and $150, depending on the length and activities involved.
6. Onboard Activities
Most onboard activities are free, included in your cruise fare, however, please note that there are a number of cruise lines with an increasing number of special activities that incur extra fees. Several of the per-fee activities include things like fitness classes like Pilates, yoga, and spinning ($10 to $15 per class); wine-tasting or similar alcoholic beverage tasting events; after-hours babysitting for the youngest children (about $6 per child, per hour); behind-the-scenes tours; bowling; and of course the biggie on most cruise lines, anything you do inside the casinos.
7. Onboard Laundry
Yes, you can have your laundry done for you, or do it in self-serve launderettes, but similar to what you’ll find at land-based resorts, laundry and dry-cleaning charges on a cruise can be expensive. Expect to pay somewhere around $2.50 to $3.50 to wash a T-shirt, for instance, through the provided services; or between $2-$4 per load going the self-service route if your ship has that option. Save on the cost slightly by bringing your own detergent.
8. Internet & Wifi
Whether bringing along your own laptop utilizing the ship’s Wi-Fi, or simply use the onboard computer lounge, you will pay handsomely for marine satellite internet connections, which are much slower than anything found on land, unless you’re still somehow living the dial-up world. Most cruise lines charge about 75 cents per minute for pay-as-you-go plans or offer bulk packages that can reduce the cost to around 55 cents a minute, depending on the package you purchase. Unless you truly need it to stay in touch with business concerns, there’s often no need to connect while onboard the ship. If you have a wifi-enabled tablet, bring that, and often you will find free wifi hotspots in port cities that you could connect to, in order to stay up to date with your friends and family online while traveling.
9. Transportation To and From the Ship
Not all of us have the luxury of living within a short drive from a cruise port, and therefore a big part of any cruise vacation, of course, is the cost to get from point A (your home) to point B (where you’ll board the ship). Whether that is by air, car, or rail, you simply cannot escape that cost of your vacation. And then of course, what will you do with your vehicle if you drive (parking), or how you’ll get from the arrival airport to the cruise terminal (taxi, shuttle, walk?). These are all intangibles that are completely different for every situation, but you absolutely must plan on them. Don’t get swayed by the great ad that shows a cruise for just $149 per person (or whatever) and thinks that that’s all you’re responsible for!
I decided to bookend this list with the two optional add-on extras that are often the biggest culprits for ruining a cruise traveler’s dream vacation by socking them with lots of out-of-pocket expenses. We already talked about alcohol, so now let’s talk about photography. Yes, onboard photography can take a big bite out of your wallet if you aren’t prepared for it. The photos will start just moments after you check-in too, notably with the ever-present “Welcome Aboard” shot before you even hit the gangway. Onboard photographers will be present in the dining rooms, on deck, and of course, ever-present if you’re on a family-friendly cruise with character interactions of any kind, and any time you disembark in a new port there will be exit gangway shots on the pier. The cruise lines will play on the emotions of cruise travelers hoping they’ll drop big bucks at the onboard photo gallery, where an 8x10 photo can easily cost $20 or more. To save yourself from blowing your vacation budget, and possibly lots of money, just politely say, “no thanks,” whenever the ship's photographers ask to take your picture (they’ll be roaming at times, in the dining rooms, onboard deck, and more – especially if it is a family-friendly cruise with various character interactions available onboard ship. Another way to reduce the outflow is to simply resist the urge to "just check out" the photos in the gallery -- once you see the printed version, you're more likely to want it. Do yourself a favor and take as many of your own pictures, and rely sparingly, if at all, on the ship's photographers.
So now you see the various hidden costs of a cruise vacation. Of course numbers 4 and 9 are not optional, but the rest are. Packing enough clothes for the week, you do not need to worry about number 7 unless something ghastly happens and you have nothing else to wear. The rest are completely optional that only you can decide if you will partake of it or not. Knowing these hidden costs upfront will better help you prepare for what the true cost of your vacation might be. That bargain-basement $149 fare can easily turn into 3, 4, 5, or more times that cost depending on what you do about numbers 1 – 10 on this list.