Like any vacation, cruising can come with good and bad surprises. Finding out your favorite specialty restaurant is bargain-priced for lunch or that spa treatments are discounted on port days might make you feel like you've discovered buried treasure. On the flip side, realizing you have to pay a $15 corkage fee to drink the wine you brought onboard or that the room service you ordered is saddled with a surcharge can be a real letdown.
Despite the "all inclusive" lingo commonly used to describe cruises, all lines have "hidden" cruise fees. Additionally, each cruise line has its own policy when it comes to tipping, room service and more. Ordering bacon and eggs from your cabin might be free on one cruise line, but cost you on another.
If you're under the impression something is included, having to pay can put a damper on your worry-free vacation mood and potentially leave your budget in a bind. So how do you prepare for fees that aren't as obvious? Here are 11 cruise fees that might take you by surprise.
1. Room Service
Most cruise lines offer free room service, but some have now implemented a service charge for each order placed. Expect to pay $7.95 per order on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian (excluding deliveries to guests sailing in The Haven on Norwegian), or $4.95 for late-night orders (11 p.m. to 6 a.m.) placed on Celebrity. Some lines like Carnival, Disney and Holland America offer free basic room service, though some menu items (like chicken wings and personal pizzas on Carnival or popcorn and M&M's on Disney) carry supplemental fees.
While gratuities are commonly included in the upfront rates on luxury cruise lines, that's not the case on the mainstream lines. Instead, gratuities are automatically charged to your onboard account ($13 per person, per day, on average for standard staterooms; note that suite-level passengers usually pay a couple of dollars more each day). While this eases the process of tipping everyone who serviced you throughout your sailing, it can come as a surprise to new cruisers who haven't read the fine print. In addition, not everyone is covered under the auto-gratuity. For instance, spa and beverage service typically carries a gratuity surcharge of 15 to 18 percent. Room service stewards, baggage handlers and tour guides should be tipped on the spot -- so it's good to have a little extra cash on hand.
3. Select Menu Items
It's no secret that specialty restaurants -- which offer higher-quality food and a more intimate ambiance than the main dining room or buffet -- carry a fee on most cruise lines. But if you want to upgrade your dinner with, say, a dry-aged steak or Maine lobster, it could cost you, whether you're in a specialty venue or in the main dining room. For instance, filet mignon will cost you $16.95 in Royal Caribbean's main dining venue, while lobster will set you back $20 in Carnival's. Note, too, that for refined palates, some luxury lines have caviar menus carrying supplemental fees.
4. Corkage Fees
On most lines cruisers can bring wine and Champagne onboard to avoid paying inflated alcohol rates on the ship, or to simply enjoy a favorite label from home or to sample something new that they've found in port. Before you hit the liquor store or local winery though, know that most cruise lines limit how many bottles you can bring -- and oftentimes charge a corkage fee. (Most luxury lines -- as well as Royal Caribbean -- don't apply the fee.) You'll pay $10 to $25 just to drink your cabernet or merlot in the main dining room, but you can usually curtail the charge if you opt to consume the bottle inside your stateroom instead.
For parents in need of grown-up time, a number of cruise lines offer free group babysitting via their onboard kids' clubs, which are conducted during the day and are generally reserved for kids 3 and up. For late-night sitting (usually after 10 p.m.), you'll be shelling out an hourly per-kid fee for "late-night parties" (aka, group babysitting); a handful of lines also offer in-room babysitting, which is paid by the hour. On lines like Disney and Royal Caribbean, nursery care is available for youngsters ages six months to three years, also for an hourly fee. (Note that many of the upscale lines -- like Azamara, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, etc. -- don't offer babysitting services at all.)
6. Soda and Bottled Water
Despite the fact that most iced tea, lemonade, milk, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and breakfast juices are complimentary on cruise ships, soda and bottles of water are not (with the exception of some luxury lines that do include them; Disney also offers free soft drinks with meals). One can of soda costs roughly $3, and a large bottle of water closer to $4. The best way to combat these prices is by purchasing a soft drink package or bringing your own soda and water onboard (just make sure it's allowed before you pack it).
7. Specialty Coffee
Got a latte addiction? Free coffee can be easily found at the buffet or ordered in the main dining room, but anything higher quality or fancier than a plain cuppa joe will almost always cost you (on the non-luxury lines, at least). Most cruise ships have cafes serving up specialty coffee a la carte, where a cup will typically run in the $3 to $5 range.
8. Sauna and Steam Room
While use of the spa-area saunas and steam rooms are free on most ships that have them, some cruise lines charge per day or offer a cruise-length pass to their fancier hydrotherapy areas/thermal suites. For example, Carnival's sauna and steam room is free, but access to the thalassotherapy pool and thermal suites will cost you $40 per day (or $169 for a cruise-long pass on a seven-night sailing). Norwegian Cruise Line charges $199 per week to access the sauna, steam room, heated loungers, hot tubs, thalassotherapy pool and other spa extras in its thermal suite.
9. Select Onboard Activities
Onboard activities, like salsa classes and towel-folding demos, are generally free, but you may find some attractive pastimes that cause you to spend extra. Noteworthy onboard splurges include MSC Divina's wine-blending class ($25); Holland America's America's Test Kitchen cooking classes ($39); and specialty fitness classes on various cruise lines ($12 yoga classes on Carnival or Pilates on Cunard, for example).
10. Cruise Taxes and Fees
Don't be fooled into thinking that attractively low cruise fare is all you'll need to pay aside from extras like gratuities and shore excursions. Cruise fees and taxes -- which include U.S. and/or foreign government taxes, U.S. custom fees and port charges to cover the ship when leaving, entering, docking and anchoring -- can nearly double the advertised cruise fare depending on the line, itinerary and length of your sailing. For example, we priced out a four-night Bahamas cruise on Carnival with a lead rate of $189 per person that jumped to $284 per person after $95 in taxes and fees; a seven-night Bermuda cruise on Holland America that cost $399 per person climbed to $614 after $215 in taxes and fees. Make sure you factor these hidden fees into your budget when choosing sailings.
If you're flying to meet your cruise, you'll need to get yourself from the airport to the cruise port, which can be quite a trek when you travel to places like Rome and London. You can purchase the cruise line's ground transfers to the terminal, but chances are that you'll pay just as much as -- if not more than -- a taxi or shared van service. It's easy to book transfers with your cruise line, but as long as you're arranging a ride in advance, you can sometimes save quite a few bucks by going on your own -- especially if you can split the fare.