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Cruise Ship Upcharges: Should You Skip or Splurge on Onboard Extras? (Photo:  Maridav/Shutterstock)
Cruise Ship Upcharges: Should You Skip or Splurge on Onboard Extras? (Photo: Maridav/Shutterstock)

Cruise Ship Upcharges: Should You Skip or Splurge on Onboard Extras?

From alcohol and gambling to massages and excursions, you have lots of ways to run up a large bill onboard. Cruise Critic offers resources that can help you learn about these hidden costs and how the cruise lines might be nickel-and-diming you. But just because certain things cost extra doesn't mean you should avoid them completely -- nor does it mean they are definitely worth the extra fee.

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.

Updated July 27, 2018

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. 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) at these alternative restaurants. 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 pricy 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.

Skip: Spa Treatments and Salon Services

Vacations should be relaxing, but the after-effects of that massage won't linger long when you're presented with a budget-busting bill and a hard sell to buy expensive products. While we love to visit the spa or salon on vacation, it's simply not worth paying cruise line rates for treatments you can get cheaper on land. Get your mani-pedi before the cruise so you're ready to sport those sandals upon embarkation. Or, fly in a day early and look for a local spa in your departure port to soothe away the aches from your long flight (like one editor did in Hong Kong).

Caveat: If you absolutely must spend time in your cruise ship's spa, look to snag deals on port days when many of your fellow cruisers are ashore. You'll see the discounted rates announced in the daily newsletter or in flyers left in your cabin. Or, take advantage of complimentary saunas and steam rooms in the spa's changing rooms.

Splurge: Internet

From above, young woman lying on bed using a laptop, flat lay. Selective focus, depth of field

Yes, it can be slow, and yes, it's expensive, but let's face it -- many of us can't live without internet access. You might as well budget for Wi-Fi from the beginning and consider it a fixed cost. Luckily, for social media junkies, cruise lines are catching on that travelers need to stay connected. Lines like Royal Caribbean have invested in super-fast Wi-Fi (look for ships with Voom), whereas Carnival is striving to make internet access affordable, with social plans starting from $5 a day. Or, look for booking promotions that offer free Wi-Fi or onboard credit that you can use to buy access.

Caveat: If you can't stomach the exorbitant fees on your ship, consider disconnecting from the world while you're onboard. You can always log on once you're in port, either through an international plan on your cellphone or at a restaurant or coffee shop with free Wi-Fi.

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 crew members 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.

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 $25 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.

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.

Splurge: Private Cabanas

If you're planning to bake yourself in the sun on your cruise line's private island while ashore, grab a cabana if it's within your budget. They're pricy, but they're worth every penny if you're traveling in a group of four or more and want to get the most out of your beach day.

You'll have a spot to call your own where you can lie in the sun (or escape it) and, usually, other perks like snacks, drinks, Wi-Fi and snorkel gear. 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. Some are even located on private or adults-only beach areas.

Be sure to reserve your cabana 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.

Skip: Professional Photos

Professional photographer taking picture in city

Nothing makes you look more like a cruise newbie than posing for -- and actually paying for -- silly photos of yourself with crew members dressed as pirates, animals or "natives" of whichever port you happen to be visiting. Politely decline when the cruise ship photographer turns his camera in your direction, 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.

Instead, 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.

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.

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 will require anyone 21 or older who's sharing your cabin or your credit card to purchase a drinks package, too. With costs in the $50-per-day range, it's not a cheap decision.

Caveat: Some lines offer complimentary drink packages as part of choose-your-own perk booking promotions. If you like the idea of unlimited beverages but can't stomach the cost, these deals can be a great way to have the best of both worlds. Just note that the "free" perks aren't always completely free; you might be asked to pay the gratuity portion of the package.

Splurge: Shore Excursions

Shore Excusrsions Desk on Carnival Imagination

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 is the operator? How much are you really saving? What happens if the guide gets 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.

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