Cruising Still “All-Inclusive?”

September 4, 2001
This summer on Cruise Critic’s bulletin board a thread of postings protesting Royal Caribbean’s policy of charging passengers for alcohol brought on board for in-cabin consumption reached a fairly unprecedented 20,000 page views before winding down. The intense interest in the issue -- not to mention the vociferous passenger criticism -- lifted the lid for a lot of travelers on cruise vacationing’s “all-inclusive” hallmark. The truth is cruise lines, particularly mass market ones, have for years been moving away from the concept of being truly “all inclusive.” Passengers have long paid for incidental charges rung up at the spa, the bar, and with the sommelier at dinner. They’re now used to tipping stewards and dining room attendants for service rendered. They understand why it costs extra to rent a tuxedo, send or receive email, shop at onboard boutiques, buy art at auction and purchase shore excursions. But by and large one of cruisedom’s best selling points – particularly compared with the land resorts it claims as competition -- is its (otherwise) virtually all-inclusive aspect. You don’t pay a cent for meals on board (though you may have to pay for that soda or cappuccino). Cabaret performances and Vegas-style theatrical shows are “free.” Hot and cold beverages, from coffee to iced tea to juice, are available around-the-clock. There’s no extra charge for room service. Despite cruising’s inarguably great value, however, the increasingly common expansion of a’la carte charges occasionally rankles. Says one message board poster, a Carnival devotee, “we felt like we were on a high pressure sales pitch from the moment we boarded.” In many ways you are. Economic reality is hitting the cruise industry in a number of ways. Those fabulous $399 - $599 7-night deals on Caribbean cruises (and often on new ships!) that might have cost $999 and beyond a couple of years ago do come at a price. Cruise lines have to make up the revenue somewhere; a’la carte items help them do it. Sometimes it’s silly stuff -- a $2 cup of coffee in the Cova Cafe Milano coffee bar on Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships, the $2.95 you’ll pay on Princess ships for Haagen Daz ice cream, the $1.45 charge for an iced tea at the Johnny Rockets on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager and Explorer of the Seas. Other times, it simply makes more sense to let people who want to enjoy some of the newfangled options that mass market cruise lines are adding pay for them -- rather than upping cruise passage tabs for everybody. In that category? Sevruga caviar, for instance, at the aft bars on Carnival’s Fantasy class ships. One of the newest areas of confusion lies with alternative restaurants. Now becoming quite common, particularly on newer vessels, most charge a per passenger service fee (though the meal is considered part of your cruise fare, just like the dining room). These “tips” range from the quite-reasonable -- such as Disney’s Palo ($5) and Crystal Harmony and Symphony’s Prego ($6) -- to the seemingly pricey -- Carnival Spirit’s Nouveau Supper Club ($20) and Celebrity’s Millennium-class boutique eateries’ ($25). Holland America and Radisson Seven Seas are the only lines -- for now -- that don't charge fees for patronizing alternative restaurants on their ships. Truth is, those higher-end charges aren’t just covering service. When asked about the rationale behind the higher-end charges, cruise lines tend to duck-and-weave, explaining that passengers eating in these restaurants get a “higher standard” of meal. Carnival points out that one highlight of Spirit’s Nouveau Supper Club is stone crab legs from the famed Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami. And taking that trend to a new level is Norwegian. When Norwegian launches two new ships this fall -- Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Star -- it’s creating an entirely new class of onboard charges. Both ships, purpose-designed for flexible dining, have numerous restaurants (nine and ten respectively). Within them, however, is a revolution that goes beyond mere variety. In addition to traditional cruise-style dining rooms where food is part of your cruise fare, these ships will be the first to offer a’la carte menus. For instance, on Norwegian Star the all-a’la carte SoHo Room, an upscale Pacific Rim-themed restaurant, lists menu items like a 1 oz. Sevruga caviar appetizer for $22; most starters, admittedly, fall in the normal $4 - $8 range. A 1 1/2 pound pick-your-own live Hawaiian lobster will run you $25. Desserts, alas, are “compliments of the chef.” Wave of the future? It’s way too soon to tell.