That $399 (or 400 pound) seven-day Caribbean cruise may sound like a bargain, but know this: the price is really only the point of entry. As ships have become fancier and more amenity-laden than ever before, trying to figure out how much your trip will cost is a little bit like peering into Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole. There's no one answer.
Traditionally, the only extra fees involved crew tipping, liquor and soda, ship-to-shore telephone calls, gambling, shore excursions and gift shop indulgences. These days, cruise lines have added all sorts of nifty features on their ships, but the cost is almost always extra. Extra costs may include exercise classes, cappuccino at a ship's swanky coffee bar, onboard Internet centers with per minute rates and alternative dining eateries charging up to $30 per person.
If you find that a lot of these "extras" are an important element of your vacation, consider upgrading: often luxury lines are more all-inclusive. Travelers who tend to ring up big shore excursion bills should consider booking a cruise with a line that's more destination-oriented; several actually include port visits in the overall cruise fare.
From bargain-hunting cruise fares to restraining onboard expenditures, Cruise Critic offers our top tips for getting the best value for your cruise vacation budget.
1. Never Pay the Brochure Price
Never. We repeat: Never. Cruise lines all issue gorgeous, glossy brochures with "sample" pricing, but unless it's a very special (and very well-sold) trip where demand is higher than supply -- and that's incredibly rare -- consider those prices to be about as accurate as those per-day hotel rates posted on the back of your room's door.
2. Be Flexible
Pricing a cruise is a lot like that of an airline ticket -- the fares go up and down constantly. Travelers who are willing to travel at the drop of a hat and have the flexibility to wait until the last minute (in cruise parlance, anywhere between three to six weeks before departure) may find the best rock-bottom fares. Be prepared, though, for the least desirable accommodations. These days, in fact, cruise lines are wooing "advance planners," those who book a cruise and pay a deposit six months in advance, by offering excellent fares and throwing in otherwise-expensive upgrades. The most valuable upgrades? A "balcony stateroom for the price of an outside cabin" and free airfare.
3. Seek the Sales
The Internet is the best medium for sales, ranging from last minute to long-distance. Need help snagging a deal? Check out Cruise Critic's Deals section for the best bargains hand-picked by our editors.
4. Cruise Close to Home
Cruise lines have embraced "homeland cruising," which translates to establishing home ports -- many on a seasonal basis -- in cities all along the U.S. coast. This impacts itineraries that sail in regions such as the Caribbean and the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Mexican Riviera, Canada and New England, and Alaska. The primary benefit? No need to tack on the cost of an airline ticket to more traditional send-off port cities, like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and San Juan. Do plan, however, to pay $10 a day to park your car in port garages.
5. Surf the Web Before you Book
Virtual travel agencies -- particularly geared to do-it-yourself type travelers -- make it possible to shop around, from selecting a cabin to booking a cruise. They are also a great place to shop around and gather tips.
On the Internet there are a handful of high-profile travel agencies -- with every bit as much certification as the traditional kind. The best-known names are Expedia and Travelocity. Generally, they offer a lot of bells and whistles from deck plans to cruise reviews. And you can book a cruise with or without the help of a "real" person. However, just as in important is the fact that many brick and mortar agencies also have helpful Web sites.
6. Cruise For Free
Convince a group of friends to cruise together, and you can go free. Many cruise lines reward "group planners" who organize a trip of at least 16 people (two to a cabin) with a free cruise -- and it's not necessary to be a pro. Those who coordinate a minimum of 32 people (in 16 cabins) may nab a free cabin for two.
Admittedly, group leaders earn that free cruise by putting in a lot of planning time; requirements include working with a travel agent to determine the best trip for the group (cheapest group fares tend to be offered in May, June, September, October and early November) and choosing a ship and an itinerary that pleases everyone. The group leader also works with a travel agent to make sure all deposits and final payments are made. Our At Your Service: Planning a Friends and Family Cruise feature offers first-hand advice on organizing a successful trip for your pals and loved ones.
If you love the idea of group cruising but can't seem to recruit at least 16 of your friends, why not connect with thousands of other cruise fanatics with our Cruise Critic community? It's easy to become a group cruise leader and you'll receive one free berth for at least 8 cabins sold, or two free berths for at least 16 cabins sold. Learn more about it in our guide to planning a group cruise.
7. Use E-mail to Stay in Touch
Calling ship-to-shore has always been exorbitant (plan to pay anywhere from $6.95 - $15.95 per minute). Most cruise ships these days have onboard Internet centers, though connecting@sea is still pretty pricey (expect to pay anywhere from 35 cents to $1.25 per minute). If you're really cost-conscious, save your emailing for ports of call; most have cyber centers. Need to find one? Check out Cruise Critic's port profiles, which include address information on local Internet cafes wherever we've found them.
8. Save on Your Bar Bill
One of the quickest ways to ratchet up the onboard tab is buying sodas and alcoholic drinks. Four drinks a day, at about $5 apiece (not to mention the occasional $40 bottle of wine with dinner) can cost $180 per person over a week long span. But: Discount packages involving alcoholic drinks are on the increase with "wine-and-dine" type promotions beginning to spread. For instance, on a seven day cruise, one cruise line offers a bottle-of-wine-per-day package for $109.
Cruise lines also offer occasional special discounts such as a bucket-of-beer (buy four get one free) and the "drink of the day" offer. And in many cases, all-you-can-drink-soda cards, once limited to kids, can be used by adults as well.
9. Savor the Spa at a Discount
Cruise lines typically have state of the art spa facilities. But cruise ship treatments are generally pretty pricey, about what you'd pay at a top-notch resort (rather than at a day spa), such as $99 and up for a 50-minute massage. There are strategic ways to save -- even if it's just 10 - 20 percent. Spas often discount services on days in port. Another way to shave a couple of dollars off your treatments is to book an existing package, or work with the spa to create your own. And finally, try not to let the pampering go to your head. A controversial tactic on cruise ship spas, most of which are operated by the United Kingdom-based Steiner Ltd., is to follow up treatments with a sales pitch for the company's beauty products. To eliminate that extra tab, just say no.
10. Shore Excursions
Cruise lines offer a variety of shore excursions in every port of call they visit. The main advantage to booking the cruise line's own tours is that, ideally, the ship will stand behind its quality (and if the tour runs late the ship will wait). On the other hand, they tend to cost more, often involve fairly large groups, and, particularly on larger ships, the extremely popular tours can sell out quickly. One alternative: independent shore excursion specialists book similar or better day-trips at ports of call for the same or less money.
11. Extend Your Trip
Want to spend a few extra days in the port on either end of your trip? Cruise lines happily package hotel stays (usually with transfers to or from the ship), but you may pay a lot extra for the convenience. Either book your own hotels (you can always book a cruise line's airport-to-ship transfers on an a la carte basis) or go with a cruise line pre- and/or post-cruise stays into the overall fare package.
--updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Editor's Note: Cruise Critic is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.