Cruises can be money-saving vacations if you're savvy. Think about it: lodging, meals, snacks, activities and entertainment are all free to some extent aboard your cruise ship. Those basics are often not included with vacations on dry land. However, there are some things you may want to do or experience on your cruise that may cost extra. And those fees can quickly run up your cruise bill.
While it's perfectly acceptable to stick to what's actually included with your cruise fare, the truth is that most cruisers add on one or a few extras. That can include shore excrusions, dinners at specialty restaurants that aren't built into your fare, spa treatments, cocktails and soda, Wi-Fi and more. In truth, "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 expenses. 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 score them at a discount).
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. Prices for these excursions range from about $35 per person 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 per person, depending on length and activities involved, and it is worth noting that prices for many excursions can be higher in some areas of the world. Alaska, for example, consistently has some of the industry's highest per person excursion costs, while many Caribbean itineraries offer tours in the $35 to $60 range.
Self-Guided Tours Can Save You Cash
While you might 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 Destinations 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.
Look for Free Local Festivals for Entertainment Onshore
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.
Book an Independent Tour Through Tripadvisor, Viator, or Other Trusted Tour Resource
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. If you do want an organized tour, you can book directly with a tour operator or through third-party shore excursion sellers; you might save a few dollars that way.
When booking any independent tour, always plan to arrive back at the ship well before the all-aboard time for passengers. Unlike those on ship-sponsored tours, ships will generally not wait for passengers who arrive late to the vessel after independent touring.
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?
All ships offer free dining in the ship's main dining room and buffet, but nearly every ship today has one or many extra-fee dining venues (specialty restaurants). You'll pay extra for everything from casual Italian to exclusive private degustation experiences and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs. Even room service, once free 24/7, now comes with a surcharge on many lines, with fees applied for certain items, during certain late-evening hours, or all the time. Lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean tack on a fee to all room service orders.
Most alternative restaurants charge in the range of $15 to $60 per person, but a chef's table experience or wine-paired meal could be upward of $100 per passenger. Some lines, like Norwegian, are starting to move toward a la carte prices in their alternative venues. Specialty dessert venues, dinner theater, pizza delivery and even pub grub could cost extra.
Stick to the Free Dining Options on Your Cruise:
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. Carnival is a good cruise line to choose if you want variety in free dining options.
Leverage Any Onboard Credit Toward a Specialty Dining Charge:
If you're tempted by the specialty options -- and many are worth a splurge -- 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.
Look for Package Bundles of Curated Specialty Restaurants
Some lines, including Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, 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 lesser cost.
Avoid Room Service to Save on Fees That Add Up:
Finally, consider skipping room service if there is a surcharge for it. With the exception of the small hours of the morning, food is usually available almost around-the-clock in other dining venues, and can generally be brought back to your cabin from casual eateries like the buffet or onboard burger joint.
Read about the best cruise ship alternative restaurants that are definitely worth paying for.
Water, iced tea, milk, coffee, tea and juices are free during meals, but alcoholic beverages are not included in the cruise fare on most lines (with the exception of some luxury lines and river cruises). Many cruises also charge for soda, bottled water, certain juices and espresso-based drinks. Your drink tab can quickly add up as you'll be paying restaurant -- not grocery store -- prices for your beverages, as well as an automatic gratuity on your bill in the range of 18 to 20 percent.
Look for Daily Drink Specials and Happy Hours to Lower Your Drink Bill
Many cruise ships advertise discounted daily drink specials or offer happy hour specials that are advertised in the daily cruise planner. These can be a great way to get your drink on without spending a fortune. Holland America Line still offers daily happy hours in the Ocean Bar, for example.
Never Bought a Souvenir Glass? Consider One on Your Cruise
If you're ever offered a drink in a souvenir glass (usually at sailaway on the pool deck on the first day), ask for the drink in a regular glass instead; you will likely save a few bucks.
Ship-Hosted Events Might Include Free Drinks
Look for events with free booze, such as Champagne art auctions or captain's cocktail parties. At meals, you can order a bottle of wine and save whatever you don't finish for the next night, which can be cheaper than ordering wine by the glass. The bottle is simply marked with your room number, and brought to your table the following evening.
Check Out Drink Pacakages and Consider Your Beverage Consumption Needs
Most lines offer beverage packages (everything from just soda to multiple bottles of wine and unlimited alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks), but you need to make sure you drink enough to actually see savings. Also keep in mind that these packages are priced per person, not per cabin, and that all members of a stateroom have to purchase them. This can make drink packages very expensive, sometimes pushing nearly $800 total on top of the price of the cruise -- and most lines will want an 18 percent autogratuity when you purchase the package.
Do the math: if you have to drink six or seven cocktails per day to break even, but only typically have a beer or a few glasses of wine, the cost/value benefit may not be there.
Many lines will allow you to typically bring a bottle or two of wine onboard, but you might have to pay a corkage fee if you drink it in a restaurant.
Cruise line alcohol policies are highly restrictive, so be sure to read your line's rules.
Cruise line spas charge rates equal to high-end salons, and you might be shocked by the prices. A 50-minute massage is typically about $120 to $180, with more exotic treatments running into the $200 to $400 range (not to mention medi-spa treatments, which can start in the four-figure range). Plus, rates don't include an automatic gratuity that typically runs 18 percent.
Passes to thermal suites and thalassotherapy pools average $25 to $40 per day, with cruise-long packages also available that run between $100 and $200 per voyage, with couple's packages offering a slight discount.
Time Your Spa Visits for Discounted Days
Take advantage of spa discounts, typically offered on embarkation and port days, when the spa is less busy. Check your ship's daily program for spa-treatment specials that might be available one day only or during certain hours. Some lines offer progressive discounts if you book multiple treatments all at once.
Avoid the After-Treatment Sales Pitch
Resist the product sales pitch that often (bordering on always) comes at the end of your appointment, or better yet, ask up front 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.
While many onboard activities are free, other special activities incur extra fees. Among them are fitness classes like Pilates, yoga and spinning (typically $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). New attractions like laser tag, escape rooms and IMAX movies often come with an extra fee that can vary by line and ship.
Free Entertainment Abounds on Cruise Ships -- Use It
You can certainly stay entertained with free activities. Attend 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 watersliding, live music and comedy acts -- are free (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.
Laundry and dry-cleaning charges on a cruise can be steep (approximately $3 to $7 to wash and press a 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 about $6, though some lines offer complimentary self-service laundry.)
Opt for Extra Clothing in Your Luggage or Consider Light Washing in Your Bathroom Sink
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!
Or stay true to your favorite cruise line. Some upper-tier loyalty program members receive free laundry service as a status perk.
Find out how much cruise line laundry services will cost you.
Tipping policies vary by line; most mainstream cruise lines recommend about $14 to $20 per person, per day, to be distributed among those who provide key services: dining room waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards. If you have a suite, be prepared to tip extra. These are generally automatically added to your cruise account.
Additionally, bar tabs are automatically charged a 15 to 20 percent gratuity; some lines also add on a 15 to 20 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 sometimes built into the cruise fares.
Cruise Staff Work Hard -- Allow the Autogratuities to Stand
Generally, tipping is not and should not be 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 crew members -- particularly the waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards -- work hard and depend on tips to round out their salaries.
If you are disappointed with service, speak in person to guest services while you're still on the ship -- it's more effective and can generally resolve most issues. Don't wait until you are home to complain about an issue.
If tipping drives you crazy, let us lead you to sanity with the ultimate guide to cruise ship tipping.
Most people purchase something to remember their cruise, and it can 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.
Wait Until the End of Your Cruise for Big Souvenir Sales
Avoid temptation by not browsing in the boutiques onboard and ashore if you cannot afford to buy. 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.
Compare Prices on Items You Can Easily Buy at Home Instead
If you do plan to purchase jewelry, clothing or duty-free liquor onboard, check the prices of merchandise at stores back home, and bring a list so you can compare prices. (The prices on ships are not always deals.)
Consider Skipping the Art Auction
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.
Stick to Handicrafts and Food Items in Port to Keep Your Souvenir Bill Low
In port, 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. Many souvenir stores carry the same products, so compare prices before buying.
Don't be fooled into buying these 8 tacky travel souvenirs.
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.
Use Your Own Camera or Consider Photo Packages
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 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. If you do plan on buying a lot of professional photos, look for packages or ask about any specials on offer.
Pack Extra Camera Batteries and Your Charger
On the equipment side, buy plenty of batteries and other camera supplies at home where they're cheaper -- 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 top tips for taking better pictures on your next cruise.
Whether you bring your own laptop and use Wi-Fi on your cruise, or park yourself at the computer center onboard, you will pay high rates for often slow to mediocre connections. On the up side, connection speeds are improving, and select cruise lines can offer land-like speeds.
Cruise lines are no longer consistent in how they package or price Wi-Fi. Some lines offer packages for the entire voyages, while others sell packages that come with preset time or data limits. The latter (and sometimes the former) can be chewed up by modern sites like Facebook or apps that refresh in the background. You may also see packages only meant for email and social media usage. In any case, the fees will add up (especially if you want streaming and high-download access).
Look for Promotions When Booking Your Cruise
Many cruise lines offer Wi-Fi packages as an added perk when booking certain promotions. Also look for free Wi-Fi access in port; you might need to buy a cup of coffee or a snack at a cafe to access it. You can also find cheaper internet centers in port.
Use Your Cruise Line App to Communicate with Fellow Cruisers
New cruise line apps offer certain planning and communication services, often for free or discounted rates, when you're onboard.
Discover your options for staying connected at sea with our piece on internet and phone use onboard
Updated September 16, 2022