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The Real Cost of Cruising

Initial prices are indeed the lowest they've been in years, but you'll still need to figure in all the extras you can be charged once you're onboard ship.

November 20, 2004 -- The price of a cruise has been pretty darn enticing for years now, especially if you're willing to cruise during slow periods -- for instance, between September and mid December -- and be flexible with your cabin choice. Check out my deals column week after week, and you'll see rates routinely dipping below $100 a day for Caribbean, Bahamas and Alaska itineraries. As low as they sometimes go, rates include all the main components of the cruise: your cabin, meals and snacks, entertainment and most activities. It's a great deal.

If you've got lots of willpower, that is.

What you may not be considering as you drool over a Caribbean cruise priced at $699, is the extras you'll likely give in to once you're on board. Expect to spend another $300 to $500 per person, and easily double or triple that if you like spas, shore excursions and strawberry daiquiris.

Cruise lines, after all, are in business to make money like everyone else. To offset low upfront rates, they're not shy about pushing the extras, banking on you and your fellow captives to acquiesce once unpacked and settled in.

From $180 sport fishing excursions to $9 martinis, your tab will add up before you can say Ships Ahoy! Aside from the ultra-luxe and most expensive lines that include all alcoholic beverages and gratuities in their cruise rates -- namely Silversea, Seabourn, and SeaDream Yacht Club -- with few exceptions, you'll be charged for everything from bottled water to sodas and ice-cream.

Though you can always say no, most people don't seem able to. So, when figuring out your vacation budget, make sure you factor in all the potential extras.

Shore excursions, for example, can be an important part of the cruise experience, especially in ports where it's difficult to explore on your own, for instance in Alaska and Asia. Depending what you choose, you can drop a small fortune for a four-hour tour. For example, book the cool dog sledding excursion from Skagway, and it'll set you back some $400 smackaroonies a person. Though there are less expensive options, like a $40 bus trip out to Mendenhall glacier from Juneau or a $30 glassbottom boat ride from Nassau, generally, most excursions these days are running at least $50 to $100 per person, and often more. For example, flightseeing by helicopter or small plane is ultra popular in Hawaii, Alaska and Mexico, despite the $300 to $400 per person price tags.

On board, the sticker shock only increases. For instance, in the spa. Definitely one of my favorite places, but I know not to expect any bargains. Chances are you'll spend more on a massage or pedicure at sea than you would back home (and that's coming from a New Yorker). A 50-minutes deep-tissue massage will cost you $135, not including a tip, on Celebrity's Constellation. A basic 30-minute pedicure is $44, and it's $50 for a wash, blow-dry and style if you've got long hair. And there are a slew of combo packages, exotic wraps and so-called slimming treatments that'll cost you hundreds.

Next store in the gym, it costs nothing to sweat it up on the treadmill, but on all but the high-end lines, you'll typically have to fork over $10 for a yoga or spinning class. Less trendy stretching and aerobics classes are generally complimentary.

Speaking of working out, if eating is your favorite sport, nothing can compete with the choices you'll find on a cruise ship. While you can dine on Continental in the ships' main restaurants for free, if you want to sample Asian or Italian fare in one of specialty restaurants most ships now offer, that'll typically set you back between $10 and $30 a person. Sometimes, though, it's totally worth the extra expense -- like on Celebrity's Millennium-class ships.

Of course for many of us, there's nothing more vital to a relaxing vacation than a few drinks each evening. But whether you're a soda guzzler or more the cocktail type, you'll pay. A can of soda routinely goes for $1.50 to $2 a pop and expect to dish out $3 to $4 for a 1.5 liter bottle of Evian. The price for a Pina Colada or rum and coke is $5 to $6, and you'll pay that or more for a glass of wine. If you're a big soda drinker, consider buying the packages many lines offer -- you pay a set fee and get unlimited fountain soda throughout the cruise.

The bottom line is be prepared to spend. I haven't even mentioned the costs of e-mailing, babysitting, photography, laundry, fresh flowers, birthday cakes and gift shop items, from $18 disposable cameras to $30 T-shirts and much much more.

How have you dealt with the extra costs that have become increasingly common with cruising today? Tell us on our Cruise Message Boards.