Booking a treatment at a cruise ship spa can be a great way to relax. From traditional deep-tissue massages and facials to exfoliation scrubs and even acupuncture, today's onboard spas offer it all. Some lines even tailor massages and manicures to teens.
But the high-seas spa experience doesn't come cheap -- a 50-minute massage will cost anywhere from about $100 to $200 a pop, plus a 15% tip that's expected if the service was good -- so do your homework to get the most value.
Here are nine ways to help you score a spa deal while on a cruise.
1. Snag port-day promotions.
Book spa treatments on port days, when some treatments are discounted due to decreased demand.
"Port days offer substantial price opportunities," says Magarida Pinto, Crystal Spa and Salon Manager for Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com). "You can enjoy the serenity of our spa if you choose not to go for a tour or if you need to relax after a tiring day ashore. A treatment can be priced as much as 40% less on a day in port when there is less demand."
2. Keep it simple.
When it comes to onboard spa treatments, massages have some of the best overall value. With warmed oils pressed and rubbed deep into your tense muscles, the classic deep-tissue massage is an evergreen for good reason.
Another sure thing at sea is reflexology, a foot massage based on the belief that our vital organs are connected to pressure points on the feet.
Facials and nail treatments are generally overpriced (often twice what you'll pay on land) and not up to par, based on my experience of sampling more than 50 spa treatments in cruise ship spas.
3. Sign up for the combo treatment.
A combo one-hour massage treatment that attacks the back, neck, and shoulders is one of the best ways to spend 50 minutes at sea. Hitting the three main spots for stress, this massage works out the knots.
"Combo massage packages are always a great deal," says Sherry Laskin, owner of Cruise Connexions (www.cruiseconnexions.com). Plus, "a 50-minute $129 combo package can be as low at $89 on port days. Look in the daily planners for spa coupons, too. Sometimes you can combine them with the port day promos."
Celebrity Cruises (www.celebritycruises.com) offers longer port-day spa packages, too. For example, the "Taste of Aqua Spa" package is $215 on port days instead of the regular $267 -- and includes a 50-minute massage, 50-minute facial, and a 30-minute manicure.
4. Relax in the steam room.
The newest and largest ships have sprawling spas with 10 to 20 treatment rooms, plus relaxation areas and thermal suites with heated benches and steam chambers. Hydrotherapy pools are outfitted with pressure-point water jets to soothe muscles and invigorate the circulatory system.
If you've booked a treatment, you can typically use the steam chambers and pools. If you haven't booked a massage or other spa treatment, most ships also sell a day pass to use these facilities. For instance, Celebrity charges $20 for the day or $99 for a week's use of its Persian Garden.
5. Squeeze in an express treatment.
Some ships offer an express 10-minute version or a longer 25-minute scalp massage (or back or neck rubs). Enjoy the sheer pleasure of having the tension in your head or neck kneaded away without spending too much time away from the other activities aboard the cruise ship or in port.
6. Go for the outdoor massage.
More ships, including Celebrity and Princess (www.princesscruises.com), offer massages on private balconies within the spa or in cabanas up on deck. Some ships will even set up a massage table on your cabin's private veranda, allowing you to enjoy the sea breezes along with the massage. Princess, for example, charges the same for a massage in its spa as it does up on deck in its Sanctuary cabanas.
Many lines with private islands in the Bahamas, including Disney (http://disneycruise.disney.go.com) and Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com), also have beach cabanas partially open to the elements, creating a dreamy setting for a shiatsu.
Holland America charges $119 for a 50-minute Swedish massage whether on the ship or in a beach cabana on Half Moon Cay. On Disney's Castaway Cay, expect to spend a bit more for the cool setting. A 50-minute massage aboard the ship is $118, compared to $147 in a beach cabana.
7. Splurge on a spa villa package.
Disney's ships have spa villas, as do a few of Norwegian Cruise Line's (www.ncl.com) vessels. These spa villas are ideal for couples or friends who want the full-on treatment in a personal space. The best onboard villas are outfitted with massage tables and showers, plus a hot tub and private balcony.
Disney's 105-minute spa villa package includes a 50-minute facial, massage, or other select treatment; you spend the remainder of that time lounging around in the villa ($199 for one person).
The 150-minute couples' package includes a 30-minute facial and a 50-minute massage per person, plus time lolling around in the villa ($589 for two people).
8. Get off the ship, and go local.
From the Bahamas to Phuket, Thailand, beach vendors often offer cheap foot rubs and back massages at a fraction of what you'll pay in the ship's spa. Don't expect anything fancy (a humble sheet or mat atop the sand), but the backdrop is what counts -- and that great low price.
9. Just say no to sales pitches.
At the end of a cruise ship spa treatment, the therapist may jar you back to reality by asking you if you're interested in any spa products (creams, gels) -- most of which run more than $100 per tube.
Before you take the bait, you should realize that the majority of the cruise industry's ship spas are run by a conglomerate called Steiner (www.steinerleisure.com) and offer similar services and products under the Elemis, Mandara, Chavana, Bliss, and Remede brands.
Steiner therapists get a commission for products they sell, so expect a sales pitch but don't be shy about saying "No, thank you. I use XYZ and have plenty at home" before enduring the whole spiel.
A few cruise lines do, however, operate their own spas or work with a different spa company than Steiner. Canyon Ranch (http://canyonranch.com), for instance, runs the spas on the Regent Seven Seas Cruises (www.rssc.com) and Oceania (www.oceaniacruises.com) fleets, and aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 -- and they have a no-product-sales-pitch policy.
But remember, the gauge of a good cruise ship spa treatment is simple: did it feel good?