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Come Aboard My Cost-Conscious Cruise on Island Star

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

One of the big selling points of a cruise used to be the fact that everything was included. Well, almost everything, from dining to drinks and from movies to exercise. But these days, with cruise lines adding on all sorts of innovative features such as alternative restaurants, fitness classes in yoga, Pilates and spinning, and extra-fee public spaces, they're also adding on all sorts of fees to use them. Indeed, cruise lines are all too happy to separate you from your money from the minute you walk up the gangway.

What happens if you can only just afford the cruise itself? What if you don't have extra cash to indulge in the spa, buy pricey shore excursions, sip cocktails and enjoy dining options beyond the buffet and main restaurant? Can you really enjoy a cruise without spending any money? What exactly is still free in these days of sneaky hidden extras? I joined Island Star's Mediterranean Discovery cruise for a week in June.

Searching for Savings

I noticed on Island Cruises' first ship, Island Escape, a couple of years ago that hardly anybody seemed to be going ashore. The captain told me that a lot of the passengers were first-timers who had just about scraped together enough money for the cruise but were unlikely to spend any further onboard. They were simply there for sunshine, the excellent food and the free entertainment. It's not uncommon for somebody on an Island cruise to leave with a bill only just out of single figures, the biggest single expenditure being at the bar.

Clutching the free Financial Times I had acquired on the flight out -- hardly holiday reading -- I boarded the ship and started exploring. Special offers bombarded me from every direction: book three dinners in one of the two speciality restaurants and get the fourth free. Pay £35 for a back, neck, shoulder and foot massage, today only. Take a tour of the Island Spa and get a free glass of Champagne. I headed up to the spa - but the Champagne had all gone.

So I strolled around the deck, enjoying the atmosphere as we sailed out of Palma in the late afternoon sun, at which point I parted with my first cash: £2.70 for a Pina Colada, two for the price of one. And they were very strong. A burly Scotsman standing next to me at the bar slurred cheerfully, "I'm going to have seven or eight of these," as his paper cocktail umbrella poked him in the eye.

As I was travelling with a group, we had wine with dinner. Again, there were offers galore, in the daily programme and in the restaurants themselves. A bottle of Chilean chardonnay was £10.95, down from £11.25. Not a great saving, but it does add up and if you're not a big drinker, the waiters will keep the wine until the following meal. Iced water is served with meals. I prefer mineral water, personally, but in the interest of research, drank the free stuff, which usually makes my ankles puff up because of its high sodium content.

A Day at Sea

A sea day presented the perfect opportunity to explore the freebies on the ship. I tried my usual ruse of creating a poor man's cafe latte at breakfast -- simply get a regular coffee and ask the waiter to bring some hot milk. No problem. This normally works, although when I tried it on a Costa ship a few weeks later, the waiter refused. Okay, it wasn't a real latte but when I checked in the Harbour Cafe, a popular gathering place for morning coffee, I had saved £2. The cafe also had tempting pastries on display but why pay for these when they're free upstairs in the Beachcomber?

The cheapskate cruiser must, however, define his own moral path. I'm all for saving money but have seen some horrors in my time: the passenger on Windstar's Wind Surf who collected a suitcase full of L'Occitane bathroom goodies with the aim of selling them on eBay, or even worse, the copyright thief on a Princess ship who was discreetly photographing their own portrait on display in the picture gallery.

After breakfast, I headed to the library which had a perfectly decent selection of holiday reading including books by John Grisham and Tom Wolfe. These are, of course, free as they are on any cruise ship, so if you read fast, don't bother to buy books at the airport (you can't take them home, however). There were no guidebooks, though, which scuppered my plans sort out my own shore excursions though I certainly could've done free research on the Internet before departing. I was also pleased to see that movies in the cabin were free of charge, not pay-per-view as they are on some vessels, and during the week watched The Bourne Ultimatum and The Nanny Diaries.

The offer of the day in the spa was a Balinese head massage with a wash, cut and blow dry for £40, a saving of £25 on the usual price. If you want to try spa treatments on this ship and don't mind what you have, wait for the daily offers. Only 30 percent of the passengers use the spa and it's not usually booked. On my money-saving drive (with small indulgences permitted), I asked for a nail polish change. This is a bit stingy but I've always found having my toenails done on a ship is a fantastic investment that lasts for weeks and if you ask for a polish change, you don't have to pay for a full pedicure. Polish changes are not usually displayed on the spa menu but you can get one for a few pounds. The best one I found was on Emerald Princess for just $12 (£6). On Island Star, the price was £15 – not such a bargain, so I declined.

Days at sea are the easiest time to part with your money. I could have started the day with yoga (£5), paid a visit to the captain on the bridge (£2.50), painted some pots (£3) and checked my e-mail (£4.50 for 30 minutes). It soon mounts up. Luckily, there are plenty of cost-free options.

I optimistically checked out a seminar called Secrets to a Flatter Stomach. I've been to one of these on another ship and found that it was a heavy sell for some detoxifying herbs that cost more than a whole week on Island Star. This seminar, although geared towards getting people into the spa for anti-cellulite treatments, did offer some useful nutritional pointers. Not a bad start.

Unwilling to fork out £2.50 for a bridge visit, I collared Captain David Bathgate as he did his daily rounds. Island Cruises hires its captains for their sociability and he was quite happy to stop and chat. Island operates an unusual system called Shipboard Management, whereby the captain is directly responsible for onboard revenue, hence the much more hands-on approach. The passengers love it; I've seen another Island Star captain working behind the reception and pulling pints in the bar. It makes for a great atmosphere.

Next, I went to a cookery demonstration by the executive chef who did things with steak, salmon and creme brulee. Following the demonstration, the audience fell on the food like vultures, as if they hadn't eaten for weeks.

After lunch in the sunshine – grilled chicken and salad with a big jug of water (free) - I did a Brazilian cha-cha-cha class which was enormous fun and actually the best activity of the day, before repairing to the pool bar at Happy Hour for another of the ubiquitous Pina Colada deals and the tail end of an afternoon of hilarious pool games.

Later that evening, I had a very tasty chicken stir fry in the Island Restaurant and sat in the theatre listening to an opera-singing comedian called Carl de Marco. My total expenditure for the day was £2.70 as I drank the remainder of the previous day's wine with dinner.

Touring on Two Wheels

I did book one excursion on this trip because it seemed such good value and because I had never been to Olbia, gateway to Sardinia's Costa Smeralda, playground of the ultra-rich. Designer shopping and yacht-envy in Porto Cervo were clearly out of the question, so I opted for a 35km bike tour.

Both Island ships carry a fleet of mountain bikes – a concession run by Austrian company Star Bikestations - and for just £29, you get a full day tour, a free water bottle to keep, an energy bar and a chance to burn some calories, see a destination and leave no carbon footprint.

I enjoyed the day so much that I could quite happily rebook on Island Star and do a bike tour every day. We set off through the uninspiring backstreets of the port, in a long string behind Markus, our guide, and were soon out on the open road inhaling the gorgeous scent of the macchia, a unique concoction of wild herbs and flowers that grow in this part of the Mediterranean: sage, thyme, juniper and myrtle. The route was quite hilly but the bikes are of such high quality that you barely notice and the views were stupendous as we wound our way along the coast past aquamarine bays and small villages. We stopped for a swim and I ate the packed lunch I had tight-fistedly prepared at breakfast (cheese, rolls and fruit). So essentially, there was no cost attached to this trip apart from the price of the tour.

That night, we ate in the Beachcomber Restaurant, good, wholesome British fare of macaroni cheese, chicken casserole and shepherd's pie. I went to bed early, pleasantly tired after the bike ride.

Rome Alone

Normally on a day in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, most cruise ships empty as everybody heads on excursions into the city, about an hour and a half away. On Island star, 600 passengers were content to stay onboard and enjoy the sunshine. "Our passengers do go ashore independently, but they're always back by lunchtime," explained Captain Bathgate. Of course, this is not possible from Civitavecchia but I couldn't pass up on a visit to Rome. I took the train, pottered into St Peter's, tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain and had a fantastic mushroom pizza, a big bottle of water and a proper latte for lunch right on the Piazza della Rotunda, facing the Pantheon. It only cost €15, no more than a pizza at home.

The real value for the day was yet to come, though. Island Cruises has a deal with the leading comedy club, Jongleurs, and that night, the Bounty Lounge was transformed into a club for stand-up. I've been to Jongleurs at home and normally it's around £16 a ticket, so this was a fantastic opportunity to see top British comedians at close range, free of charge.

To Pay Or Not To Pay?

On Island Star, you can eat at no extra cost in the Island Restaurant or the Beachcomber, both of which offer casual, buffet-style dining. There are two speciality restaurants, The Steakhouse and the Oasis. When I travelled on Island Cruises before, items on the menu in these were individually priced, with a couple of free things, so it was possible to dine with waiter service and an a la carte menu without paying anything.

Now, The Steakhouse costs £15 and the Oasis £12.95. "We found that guests actually prefer to have the cover charge as they would rather have the fabulous menu then be restricted in what they could eat," explained Captain Bathgate. "Adding this charge means that we can offer an enhanced menu and a lot of wine promotions. As a result, the restaurants are much busier."

In fact, the promotions do make sense. There was one for £25.90 for two people to eat in the Oasis, including a bottle of wine. Assuming you would spend around £10 a bottle of wine anyway, the actual price you pay per food works out at less than £8 each.

The Steakhouse turned out to be one of the best meals I've had at sea and exceptionally good value. The salad buffet was quite incredible, with smoked salmon, sushi, cold cuts, fresh asparagus and a huge array of beautifully-prepared salads. I followed this with a skewer of giant prawns in a Pernod sauce with rice, garlic mushrooms and vegetables (you can order three side dishes with every main course). My companions all had steak, generously sized and juicy. I finished with a cheese plate while they tucked into sticky, chocolatey puddings. The food in Oasis is good, too – swordfish, Steak Diane, lemon sole, rack of lamb and so on.

One thing that really impressed me is that children can eat for free in both The Steakhouse and Oasis (there is a special children's menu) which makes both reasonably affordable for a family. On Island's big rival, Ocean Village, I paid full price for my children to dine in the two waiter-service restaurants and the cost mounted up.

DIY Excursions

My cruise leant itself well to independent exploration in port and the bike tour was my only cost. Having 'done' Florence and Pisa, I mooched around La Spezia instead of joining a tour, which was pleasant enough (and got me back onboard in time for my free lunch). Villefranche is an easily walkable village and the tourist office in the terminal hands out free maps. The town is so pretty there's no real need to go on a tour so I sat in my favourite bar, Beluga, in the sunshine, with a decadent glass or two of chilled Provencal rose. Mahon, too, is simple to do on your own; there are some great fish restaurants down by the port and the old town is a short stroll up the hill. My flight out of Palma was in the morning but for late departures, the cruise line offers a free city tour, a point worth noting if you've never seen the elegant Mallorcan capital.

The Final Reckoning

My final bill came in at under £100. Although I was scrimping by my usual standards, I could have saved even more by not eating in Oasis or The Steakhouse, or booking the tour. It felt odd, trying to cut costs all the time, but strangely liberating. For the average British drinker, I imagine a bar bill in single figures would be hard to achieve but there's no doubt that Island Star is a great week in the sunshine without breaking the bank.

How do you save money on a cruise? Be sure to vote in our poll and please post any handy tips you may have.

--by Sue Bryant, a London-based journalist who also covers cruising for the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Express

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