There's no denying there's never been a better time to cruise if you can spare the cash. Prices are low and the incentives are aplenty, from free on-board spending credits to cabin upgrades. But of course there's the proverbial fine print. Once you're on board, the many extras add up faster than you can say "$499 per person for a 7-night Caribbean cruise." You can double or triple that amount depending on your drinking, spa, and touring habits (if you're a gambler, then add that much more on to the tab). If you think cruises are all-inclusive, think again. The most inclusive are the luxury lines (Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, and SeaDream Yacht Club), as they throw booze, tips, and typically these days a shore excursion or two into the fare. Otherwise, the upfront cruise price includes meals and entertainment, but little else.
It seems the mass-market lines with the lowest prices (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and NCL) are also the ones who go overboard pushing extras.
"We get our greatest number of complaints about these lines nickel and diming passengers to death and hustling something all the time, even over the PA system," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com)
Of course you can always just say no. Ways to save include cutting down on the consumption of beer, wine, cocktails, and soda (at meal times, coffee, tea, milk and juices are free and typically ice water and tea are offered 24 hours a day). If you're addicted to the stuff, many lines offer soda discount cards, but be sure to understand the fine print, sometimes the deal isn't as good as it seems.
"As for spa treatments, I have found massages to be terribly overpriced and the quality oft times inferior to shore side. Plus, on some ships the massage therapists are very assertive about a gratuity," says Funk.
To Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel (tel. 866/565-3214; www.all-travel.com), the most offensive supplemental charges are those levied to use spa pools and special relaxation areas, public spaces that should be free for everyone to use. One of tackiest product-pushing moments I've had of late was on a Royal Caribbean cruise in Europe, when staff members hawked cruise videos (the ships' photo crews take a video of the cruise and ports all week) by parading up and down the aisles of the show lounge before curtain call...it was like the they were selling peanuts and Cracker Jacks at Shea Stadium. It was a new all time low.
"Onboard spending is a far greater revenue component for cruise lines than 20 years ago. Then, the ticket price represented perhaps 80% of the money the cruise line collected for the cruise, today it's as little as 40%," says Funk.
Big surprise then that the cruise lines are coming up with more and more ways for you to spend your money once on board. Hey, no one is forcing you to buy stuff, but just be aware of what you'll really spend for that 7-night bargain cruise of your dreams.
To illustrate my point, I did a little case study. Here's what my family of four typically spends on a week-long cruise once we walk up that gang way and join the conga line.
I usually sign up for one or two treatments -- my little (err, big) indulgence of the week, considering cruise ship spa prices are obscenely high (and this coming from a New Yorker).
$149 ($119 massage + $30 tip) $119 ($89 discount combo treatment + $20 tip)
If there's an alternative restaurant, my husband and I will definitely try it at least one evening if not two to enjoy the more intimate surroundings and usually better cuisine than the main venues.
$120 ($30 per person per night)
We're water drinkers. While we drink the free tap water in the restaurants whenever possible, we avoid it in the cabins (even though water from the cabin bathroom tap is the same as what's offered in the restaurants, it just doesn't seem as palatable!).
$40 ($4 per bottle of Evian times 10) $50 ($5 per coffee -- 7 specialty coffees for hubby and 3 for me)
If you like your drink, ca-ching ca-ching, you'll pay the price at the end of your cruise when the bill comes!
$466 ($200 for 4 bottles of wine + $224 for a cocktail or two each before and/or after dinner at about $8 a pop on average Â?plus the 10% service charge added on to the bills)
We prefer touring solo in port whenever possible for the flexibility and usually cheaper cost. However, in some cases it does make more sense to go with the organized tour, for example in Alaska or when you really want the services of a guide narrating what you're seeing)
$600 (8 tours at $75 each. This is a cheap tour, by the way; if you spring for pricey tours in say 4 ports, expect a family of four to spend more than $2,000!)
Gift Shop Purchases
I don't know about you, but I'm not a big shopper. Still, since I never seem to have the time or inclination to do it at home, when I'm on a cruise lulling about on a long, slow sea day, well I do find myself hitting the shops to pick up things for Christmas, birthdays and well, just for plain 'ole me.
$175 ($100 for t-shirts and caps for friends back home; $75 for impulse buys -- flip flops, souvenir shot glasses and earrings)
They're not mandatory, but considering the hard-working waiters and cabin stewards rely on tips for the vast majority of their salary, ethically, you gotta fork over the dough if you were satisfied with the service.
$280 ($10 a day times 4 people; note: on some lines kids under 12 can tip half)
Total: $1,999 for extras + $1,996 for a bargain-basement $499 a person cruise ticket for four.
Grand total: $3,995
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