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The 10 Hidden Costs of Cruising -- and How to Fight Back

Hidden-Cost-CruiseYou have probably heard the term "all-inclusive" applied to cruises. Sure, a voyage at sea is one of the best values around because all major expenses (lodging, meals, snacks, activities and entertainment) are included. However, there are some items -- mostly of a personal or optional nature -- that are out-of-pocket expenses. And those extra purchases can quickly run up your bill on a supposedly "all-inclusive" cruise.

Cruise lines are tempting travelers to come onboard with their ships' expansive spas, diverse specialty dining options and concept bars and lounges. But if you want a massage, a fruity cocktail or dinner outside the main dining room, you'll need to hand over your cruise card and pay up at the end of the trip. You'll be paying extra, too, for onshore adventures arranged through the ship, Internet usage and souvenirs bought in onboard boutiques. And when you're on vacation and hoping to live it up a little, it's hard to say no to that formal night photo or snorkeling excursion.

Plus, as cruise ships grow bigger and more Vegas-like -- with a jaw-dropping array of attractions and high-tech amenities -- many lines are slowly moving toward a more resort-like fare structure, in which passengers pay a low upfront price and then pick and choose which experiences to purchase a la carte onboard. These days, "all-inclusive" is a term that really only applies to a handful of high-priced luxury cruises.

If you want the full cruise experience, you'll need to set aside some cash to cover these extra expenditures, or make a vacation budget and stick to it. To make sure the incidentals don't break the bank for you, here are 10 things that will cost you extra onboard -- and how to find discounts and savings.

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1. Shore Excursions

Shore Excursions What You'll Pay: Cruise lines sell shore excursions -- guided tours and experiences in the various ports of call -- but they do inflate prices above what the actual tour operators charge. You can find details and pricing in the line's shore tour booklet, on its website or at the shore excursions desk onboard. Prices for these excursions range from about $25 for a quick city and shopping tour to more than $300 for some all-day tours, overland programs including meals and snacks, and such over-the-top offerings as helicopter flightseeing and hot-air ballooning. Most tours are priced somewhere between $50 and $175, depending on length and activities involved.

Savings Tip: While you may wish to sign up for some of the ship's tours (particularly if you're not familiar with the port and do not speak the language), you also have the option to tour independently at a fraction of the cost -- or even for free, if you go on a self-guided walking tour. Before setting sail, visit the websites of your ports' tourist boards or Cruise Critic's Ports section to get ideas on things to see and how to get around on your own in port. Online travel guides and apps can also help you plan your time ashore. On request, tourist boards will send out free planners with maps, calendars of events and attraction brochures. Local festivals and craft displays can be sources of good, free entertainment. Parks, beaches and art galleries are other free or nominal-charge attractions to check out. Or perhaps you prefer to simply wander through town, browsing in shops and stopping for a coffee or snack. If you decide to hire a car and driver to give you a private tour (generally less expensive than the shipboard excursions, especially if you have a group) or just to take you to the center of town, always agree on the price (and, in the case of a tour, which specific points of interest will be covered) before you get into the car. And if you do want an organized tour, research the pros and cons of booking independently (either directly with a tour operator or through third-party shore excursion seller) or hiring a private guide versus taking the ship's tours; you might save a few dollars that way.

Not sure if a cruise line shore tour is worth the splurge? Find out in our feature, Ship-Sponsored or Independent Shore Excursions: Which Is Right for You?

2. Alternative Dining

Alternative Dining What You'll Pay: Cruise ships are getting ever sneakier in finding new ways to charge passengers for food. All ships will offer free dining, of course -- typically meals in the ship's main dining room and buffet venue, as well as room service. Yet new and upgraded ships are sporting more and more extra-fee venues -- everything from casual, family-style Italian to exclusive Chef's Tables and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs. Most alternative restaurants charge in the $15 to $45 range, but a Chef's Table experience or wine-paired meal could be upwards of $100 per passenger. In addition to these specialty venues, cruise travelers are tempted to part with their dollars for specialty desserts (ice cream, gelato, cupcakes and other fancy pastries), special dishes in the main dining room (such as high-quality cuts of steak and whole lobsters), room service in the middle of the night, dinner theater, pizza delivery and even pub grub. Many European lines charge a la carte prices in their alternative venues.

Savings Tip: Don't go! You can typically find 24/7 dining for free onboard, and main dining room meals are often quite good, with multiple courses and decadent desserts. The newest, largest ships often have additional casual, fee-free eateries -- and room service is nearly always free. But we want you to enjoy your vacation, so if you're tempted by the specialty options, just be sure to budget the price of dinner into your onboard spending (or skip those afternoon cocktails or wine with dinner to mitigate the cost). Alternatively, look for cruise deals that offer onboard credit or free meals in specialty venues as part of the incentive package to book. Some lines, including Norwegian, offer dining packages that bundle several for-fee restaurants for a discounted rate; others, like Holland America, offer lunch in the specialty venues for a lower price than dinner, allowing you to enjoy the alternative dining experience at a lower cost.

Read about the best cruise ship alternative restaurants that are definitely worth paying for.

3. Alcohol and Other Beverages

Alcohol and Other Beverages What You'll Pay: Alcoholic beverages and wine are not included in the cruise fares on most lines (with the exception of some luxury lines and river cruises). Plus, many will also charge for soda, bottled water, certain juices and Starbucks-esque specialty coffees (cappuccinos, lattes and espressos). Your drink tab can quickly add up as you'll be paying restaurant, not grocery store, prices for your beverages.

Savings Tip: Most vessels advertise discounted "daily drink specials" you may want to try -- or check out two-for-one martini specials during happy hour on some ships. If you're ever offered a drink in a souvenir glass that you won't be taking home, ask for the drink in a regular glass instead; that may save you a few bucks. Look for events with free booze, such as Champagne art auctions or Captain's cocktail parties. At meals, iced tea, milk, coffee and juices are complimentary. Plus, you can always order a bottle of wine and save whatever you don't finish for the next night, which can be cheaper than always ordering wine by the glass. Some lines have beer and wine packages, but you need to make sure you drink enough to actually save. If you chug soda, find out if your ship offers soda packages that feature unlimited sodas during the cruise. Or bring your own. We pick up soda six-packs and bottled water in port. Be forewarned, though: Cruise line alcohol policies are highly restrictive.

How can you save on beverages? Check out our Guide to Cruise Line All-You-Can-Drink Packages.

4. Spa and Salon Treatments

Spa and Salon Treatments What You'll Pay: Cruise line spas charge rates equal to high-end salons, and you may be shocked by the prices. A massage is typically about $120 to $180, with more exotic treatments running into the $200 to $500 range. Passes to thermal suites and thalassotherapy pools average $20 to $30 per day, with cruiselong packages also available. Beware of sales pitches: Most shipboard spas are operated by Steiner's of London, and the staff (who work on commission) often give you the hard sell to persuade you to buy their pricey products.

Savings Tip: Take advantage of spa discounts, typically offered on embarkation and port days. And check your ship's daily program for spa-treatment specials that may be available one day only or during certain hours. Resist that product sales pitch, or better yet be bold right up front and ask not to be bothered with sales pitches at all.

Does the spa menu have you overwhelmed? We'll help you understand cruise ship spa services.

5. Onboard Activities

Onboard Activities What You'll Pay: While many onboard activities are free, many special activities incur extra fees. Among them are fitness classes like Pilates, yoga and spinning ($12 to $30 per class); wine-tasting events; after-hours group babysitting for the youngest children (about $5 to $8 per child, per hour); behind-the-scenes tours; and bingo and casino play (as much as you're willing to lose).

Savings Tip: You can certainly keep entertained with free activities. Attend the production shows, live-music performances, cooking demos, pool or trivia games and free lectures -- or simply spend your time chilling by the pool, reading a book or chatting with your travel companions. Many of the top entertainment offerings -- Broadway productions, onboard surfing and sky-diving, live music and comedy acts -- incur no extra charges (though reservations might be required). If you're intrigued by the for-fee activities, set a budget and choose the ones you find most interesting.

For the lowdown on which activities are free and which incur a fee, read up on what's included in your cruise fare.

6. Laundry

Laundry What You'll Pay: As at land-based resorts, laundry and dry-cleaning charges on a cruise can be steep (approximately $2.50 to $3.50 to wash a T-shirt, for instance). Check to see if there is a self-service launderette, and use it. (Typically, washing and drying one load of clothes comes to between $2 and $4.)

Savings Tip: You have two options here: Pack enough changes of clothes for the cruise and do the wash back home, or bring your own travel-sized detergent, wash necessities in your cabin sink, and hang-dry them in the shower. If you're really motivated, you can also find a laundromat in port -- it could be a cultural experience!

Find out how much cruise line laundry services will cost you.

7. Tipping

Tipping What You'll Pay: Tipping policies vary by line; many recommend about $12 per person, per day, to be distributed among those who provide key services: dining room waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards. If you have butler service, be prepared to tip extra. Additionally, bar tabs are automatically charged a 15 percent gratuity; some lines also add on a 15 to 18 percent gratuity to spa services. When 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. Travelers on ships catering to Brits and Australians will find that tips are typically built into the cruise fares, though of course you can give tips for exceptional service.

Savings Tip: Generally, tipping is not an area where you can save money. You can adjust the auto-gratuities at the ship's purser's desk or choose to tip below the recommended amount if you feel you've received subpar service. However, Cruise Critic discourages this in most cases. The ship's crewmembers -- particularly the waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards -- work hard and depend on tips to round out their salaries. Unless the service has been extremely poor, tip the recommended amount or add a little more, if you can, for outstanding attention.

If tipping drives you crazy, let us lead you to sanity with the ultimate guide to cruise ship tipping.

8. Souvenir Shopping Onboard and in Port

Souvenir Shopping Onboard and in Port What You'll Pay: Most people purchase something to remember their cruises, and it may be tough to pass on the beautiful -- and expensive -- figurines, perfumes, designer fashions and leather goods if your budget doesn't allow for them. Even tacky trinkets and T-shirts can add up if you're buying for your extended family-and-friend network. Prices can range from a $5 tee to a piece of jewelry valued in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Savings Tip: Avoid temptation by not browsing in the boutiques onboard and ashore if you cannot afford to buy. If you do plan to purchase some souvenirs, check the prices of merchandise at stores back home, and bring a list so you can compare prices. (Some things might be cheaper at home.) Good, inexpensive souvenirs include handicrafts from outdoor markets and street vendors, and local products such as coffee, jellies and candy purchased at grocery stores in port, where souvenirs are generally less expensive. Typically, bargain tables appear on ships toward the end of a cruise, so wait for the latter portion to buy onboard if you're so inclined. Don't invest in a piece of art at an onboard auction unless you've done your research in advance and know the value of what you're purchasing.

9. Photos and Camera Equipment

Photos and Camera Equipment What You'll Pay: Cruise travelers are often lured into dropping big bucks at the onboard photo gallery, where an 8x10 photo can easily cost $20 or more. Buying additional batteries, memory cards and other camera supplies onboard will likely cost you more money than it would back home.

Savings Tip: If you're worried about blowing your budget on photos, just say "no thanks" when the ship's photographer asks to take your picture. Or resist the urge to "just check out" the photo in the gallery -- once you see the printed version, you're more likely to want it. Take your own pictures, and rely sparingly, if at all, on the ship's photographers. On the equipment side, buy plenty of batteries and other camera supplies at home -- and bring more than you think you will need, just in case.

You won't need to rely on the ship's photographers if you heed our seven tips for taking better pictures on your next cruise.

10. Internet

Internet What You'll Pay: Whether you bring your own laptop and take advantage of shipboard Wi-Fi or park yourself at the computer center onboard, you will pay extremely high rates for often slow Internet connections. Most lines charge about 75 cents a minute for pay-as-you-go plans and offer packages that reduce the cost to around 55 cents a minute for buying Internet time in bulk. Several lines have also implemented or are testing new all-inclusive packages that offer unlimited Internet for one price, as well as alternative pricing plans, such as paying based on how much bandwidth you'll need. On the up side, connection speeds are improving.

Savings Tip: You can usually find cheaper Internet centers in port, if you don't mind using some of your onshore time to check your email and surf the Web. Check Cruise Critic's port profiles for Internet cafes and free Wi-Fi in port. Plus, new cruise line apps offer certain planning and communication services, often for free or discounted rates.

Discover your options for staying connected at sea with our piece on Internet and phone usage onboard.

--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor, and Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief





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