The "real" cost of cruising, says a new report from our sister site Cruise Critic, could be as much as an additional $300 per day, per person, if you buy into all the available extras. The figures are averages for seven mass-market cruise lines (Carnival, Disney, and such). Given that the regular price of a cruise on a mass-market line in a popular area can be less than $100 per person, per day, those extras can turn a frugal vacation into an extravagant one pretty quickly. Some of those extras are rip-offs while some are reasonable, but either way, you can control how much you spend on most.
Tips: The one "extra" you really can't avoid is tipping. Cruise Critic estimates this expense at about $12 per day, per person, with hardly any line-to-line variation. Some lines are now adding about that amount to your bill automatically unless you tell them you want to change the figure.
Specialty Dining: Despite the promotional emphasis on "meals included," most big cruise ships these days have at least one "specialty dining" venue—typically an Italian restaurant, a French restaurant, or a steak house—where you pay extra. The cost on the sample ships ranges from $20 to $35 per person, with a $29 average. Obviously, you don't have to eat in a specialty dining room at all, and you certainly wouldn't do that every day. But $29 per person on top of the supposedly included dinner price seems to be at least a minor rip-off.
Latte: Again, basic nonalcoholic drinks are normally included, but you pay extra for a specialty item such as a latte. The cost ranges from $2.50 to $5, averaging about $3. A latte is easy enough to avoid but $3 isn't a bad price if you like one.
Massage: A 50- to 120-minute massage runs anywhere from $120 to $200. It's easily avoided, but the prices aren't over-the-top if you want one.
Shore Excursion: The price of a shore excursion in St. Thomas, a typical and popular island port, ranges from $55 to $70, with most coming in around $60. If you want an organized shore excursion, that's not a bad price. You can usually beat it a bit by buying excursions in advance from a specialist tour agency such as Viator, but you won't gain much. The best way to beat shore-excursion prices is to buy from an operator at the pier when you arrive or to organize your own taxi trip. Even better, in some ports, you can use public transportation or just walk.
Fitness Class: If you really feel like it, you'll pay $12 on most lines. No big deal.
Souvenir Photo: Prices for an 8 x 10-inch photo range from $9 to $30, with most coming in near $20. This is a pure rip-off: The photographer hounds you throughout the cruise for a result that you probably stick in a drawer once you get home and never look at again. If you need a picture, have someone take it with your own camera or phone.
Bingo: Prices and plans vary a lot and figure anywhere from $6 for one card to $30 for more play. Overall, the experts tell us that shipboard casinos are a lot less generous than those in Vegas.
Internet: Getting online on a cruise is expensive. Typical plans call for a minimum of $55 for 90 to 100 minutes, with the cost averaging out at $34 per hour. That's a lot more than you pay for Wi-Fi on airlines these days, but if you need an Internet fix, you can get it—for a stiff price.
In Sum: Cruising can be one of the best-value vacations anywhere. But, as with any sort of vacation, you'll never run out of opportunities to overspend. The basic rule: Have fun, give yourself a daily limit for extras, and keep to that limit.
Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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