Want to know which extra-fee items are worth the upcharge -- and which are best avoided? Based on our experience, we share our opinion on whether that alternative restaurant fee is actually a great deal and if it's wise to spend your hard-earned dollars on yet another souvenir T-shirt.
1. Splurge: Alternative Dining
Sure, there's nothing wrong with the food in the main dining room (MDR), and it is included in the cost of your cruise fare, after all. Sadly, though, the menus can be awfully repetitive, and it's boring to eat in the same venue every night. Most ships offer specific types of cuisine -- Asian, Brazilian, Italian, French -- outside of the MDR, and you and your party have a better chance of grabbing a table to yourselves (instead of having to share one with strangers). If you're having trouble justifying the expenditure when free options abound, start small; select a restaurant that has a fairly priced surcharge, or try sushi or other a la carte options, which often set you back just a few dollars per person. Another alternative is to try dining at a specialty venue during lunch hours, when per-person fees are usually less expensive. Even if you opt for one of the more expensive options, keep in mind that you'll likely end up spending less for a great meal than what you'd pay on land for the same type of service and food quality.
Caveat: Some ships feature pricey dinner-and-a-show offerings. While the shows are generally spectacular, the menus are normally fixed (meaning you don't have a choice of appetizers, entrees or desserts), and food is often underwhelming, making the overall package not quite worth the price. It can also be annoying to have waiters refilling your water glass or asking if it's ok to remove your plate while you're trying to watch the performance. We recommend steering clear of these options.
Read about our favorite alternative dining venues here.
2. Skip: Internet
Can't live without Facebook and email? Try it. You might be surprised how relaxing it is to disconnect from the world while you sail. Plus, Internet prices are often exorbitant in exchange for speeds that are slow enough to make a snail's jaw drop. Good luck uploading that 75 MB selfie (you know, the one of you slurping a pina colada by the pool) to Instagram in any reasonable amount of time. We understand that you want to make your friends super jealous, but it can wait until you're back on land. We promise.
Caveat: Under certain circumstances, it might be necessary to check in with people back home, check in for your flight before debarkation day or check in on Four Square as the mayor of your cruise ship of choice. We get it. Consider logging on in port where you can often find more reasonably priced Internet cafes or free Wi-Fi with the purchase of a small drink or snack. If you must connect onboard, just be sure to purchase an appropriate package that will save you money if you think your online business will take more than a few minutes. And make a point to log out when you're finished so you don't pay for time you're not using.
3. Splurge: Spa Treatments and Salon Services
Vacations should be relaxing, and there's no better way to relax than with a visit to the spa or salon. Although prices are hefty for even the most simple treatments and services, you can snag deals on port days when many of your fellow cruisers are ashore. So build it into your vacation budget; schedule a massage, have a mani-pedi or try that new haircut you've been debating. Additionally, you can find decent deals on medispa treatments onboard, but be sure to research prices on land before your trip to ensure you're actually saving money. It's also wise to ask about certifications for the person administering your treatment.
Caveat: Avoid treatments with lofty promises that seem too good to be true. If you're told you'll lose 10 pounds by allowing someone to smear you with mud and seaweed, it's probably a waste of time and money. Often the fine print will say that several treatments are required to reach optimum results, and that can end up costing hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. And sorry but that miracle face cream will not make you look 20 years younger. Just say no when your spa attendant tries to convince you to buy it.
See our picks for the best cruise ship spas.
4. Skip: Wine and Beer Tastings
Cruise ship wine and beer tastings are usually reasonably priced, but they're likely to feature brews and vintages that crewmembers will then try to get you to purchase while onboard. If you attend a tasting, you're essentially walking into a sales pitch. Instead, bring your own wine onboard (see "Corkage Fees" below), or simply ask the bartender or sommelier for a recommendation when ordering.
Caveat: These sampling sessions can be a great way to find new favorites and to learn more about things like production and pairing. Plus, the tastings can be fun, and wine tastings in particular can offer a good value for what you pay -- if you can say "no" to the hard sell you'll find on some ships.
5. Splurge: Corkage Fees
If you bring your own vino onboard, most lines will charge what's known as a corkage fee-- the price you pay for the privilege of enjoying your wine on their ships. It can range from $10 to as much as $30 per bottle -- and, yes, it's annoying -- but think of it this way: Wine sold onboard often has a large markup from what you'd pay to buy it yourself at a liquor store and bring it with you. Depending on your line's exact corkage fee and the retail cost of your wine of choice, it's often less expensive to bring your own, despite the corkage fee, than it is to purchase the same wine on the ship (if it's even offered).
Caveat: If your line's corkage fee is on the higher end of the spectrum and you tend to enjoy less expensive wines, mathematically it might be cheaper to purchase a similar wine onboard instead. It also might not be worth the hassle of carting a case of wine with you if you're flying; if you do decide to go that route, be sure to check your airline's policy on checking alcohol.
6. Skip: Souvenirs from Onboard Shops
It can be tempting to purchase everything from designer sunglasses and jewelry to baseball caps and tote bags emblazoned with the name of your ship or cruise line. But, before you pay $30 for an overpriced T-shirt you probably won't wear or overspend for a designer watch you might find cheaper at home, think about what else that money could buy: special dinners, spa treatments, a couple of excursions or enough alcohol to tranquilize an elephant. Plus, if you save that money for when you're in port, you can spend it on local, authentic souvenirs instead; they'll be much better representations of your trip. Tip: If you simply must have a memento from the ship itself, keep your cruise card. It will likely have the ship's name and your sailing date printed on it. Many cruisers tell us they turn them into scrapbook items, magnets and even Christmas tree decorations -- and they're free.
Caveat: Some items sold at onboard stores -- like duty-free liquor and perfume -- can actually be a good value. If you're thinking of making such a purchase, be sure to check land-based prices before you leave so you can better identify onboard bargains.
7. Splurge: Private Cabanas and Adults-Only Areas
Whether you're planning to bake yourself in the sun on the adults-only deck of your ship or on your cruise line's private island while ashore, grab a cabana if it's within your budget. They're pricey, but they're worth every penny if it means you have some respite from screaming children and "hairy chest contest" winners in Speedos. You'll have a spot to call your own where you can lie in the sun (or escape it) and, usually, other privileges like snacks, drinks and even iPod rentals, complete with preloaded music. You won't have to fight for a deck chair or worry about someone removing your belongings the minute you get up to use the bathroom or request another margarita. Be sure to reserve yours early, though; demand is high, and they book up quickly.
Caveat: If you can't afford to rent your own cabana, you can still take advantage of the adults-only areas found on many ships (some free, some for a fee), where you can escape the masses. If your ship charges for the privilege, the rates are usually much less expensive than the rates for booking a cabana. Note: Fees for onboard cabanas and admission to for-fee adults-only areas are often lower on port days when many passengers are ashore.
8. Skip: Professional Photos
Nothing makes you look more like a cruise newbie than posing for -- and actually paying for -- silly photos of yourself with crewmembers dressed as pirates, animals or "natives" of whichever port you happen to be visiting. Politely decline, or, at the very least, stay away from the photo gallery so you aren't tempted to shell out big bucks for something that will just collect dust in your photo album later. Take your own camera with you, and ask a fellow passenger to snap a few shots of you and your travel companions in fun locations. The pictures will be more candid and, more importantly, free.
Caveat: If you've been looking to shell out for professional photography -- or if you're on a landmark cruise (family reunion, big anniversary) -- your cruise might not be a bad time to book a professional session with the ship's photographer. Prices are often a bit cheaper than what you'd pay for the same services on land, and the photographers usually have some fun props. (Avoid fake-looking backgrounds.) You've likely packed formalwear and other interesting outfits, too, which can add some variety to your look. If you must get that photo of you with the ship's dancer in a full-body dolphin outfit, consider posing for the ship's camera while a travel companion snaps the same shot with your camera right behind him.
Here are some tips for taking better pictures on your next cruise.
9. Splurge: Gambling and Bingo
Gambling might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy it, we say splurge. Just be sure to set a limit on your funds if you think you might be in danger of overspending. When you're in the moment, it can be easy to keep going. As for bingo, it's a little on the expensive side to buy cards, but the prizes are well worth it, should you win. We've seen cash prizes in the thousands of dollars and even free cruises.
Caveat: Casinos can be smoky, and they aren't always the big, sprawling venues you might be used to seeing on land. (In fact, many of the table games are automated instead of being manned by dealers.) With regard to bingo, even if you don't want to buy in, you can still go and soak up some of the entertainment value offered by the little old ladies who stare daggers at the winners.
10. Skip: Beverage Packages
Beverage packages-- especially those of the alcohol variety -- sound like a good idea at first, but let's be honest: Unless you're consuming enough strawberry daiquiris or buckets of beer to make you dance the Macarena from atop the funnel, you probably won't get your money's worth. In addition, most lines offering such packages will require anyone 21 or older who's sharing your cabin or your credit card to purchase a package, too; with costs in the $50-per-day range, it's not a cheap decision. As for soda packages, they're often not worth the cost, either. Most lines let you bring your own onboard, so look into that option instead.
Caveat: Some lines offer drink packages that act like punch cards and include a set number of for-fee beverages like "mocktails," smoothies and specialty coffees. These will often save you a few dollars over what it would cost to purchase them individually. They're great for coffee-drinkers or anyone who's bringing teens onboard.
11. Splurge: Shore Excursions
With prices that range from $50 to hundreds of dollars, there are excursions for every budget, which is why we've put them in the "go ahead and book one" category. If you're cruising to places you've never seen before -- or ones that make you a little uneasy -- organized tours offer an introduction to the area with a reputable provider who will answer questions and ensure you get back to your ship on time. Meals are sometimes included in the price, too, which means you can try local cuisine without having to track it down yourself while you're in port.
Caveat: It can be less expensive to book tours independently through local providers than to book them with your cruise line. The downside to setting up your own excursions is that you have to do your homework. How reputable are they? How much are you really saving? What happens if they get you to your ship late and you see it sailing away into the sunset without you? Will you get your money back if your ship has to cancel a call to that port? Research is key.
Find out which is right for you, a ship-sponsored or independent shore excursion.
--by Ashley Kosciolek, Copy and Ports Editor