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Don't let onboard cruise expenses bite into your budget

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 16, 2003. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: cruise, Misc. Cruise, Molly Feltner, senior travel.

For your upcoming cruise vacation, you carefully researched the options, compared rates, and then booked a cruise that offered everything you wanted—all for a great low price. Time to kick back and to stop worrying about spending, right? Not quite: Although billed as all-inclusive, your cruise fare may not cover everything.

Shore excursions, gratuities, beverages, souvenirs, and other onboard expenses are extra on most cruise lines. And if you're not careful, you may be unpleasantly surprised when you get your final bill for onboard service at the end of your sailing. According to the online cruise magazine Cruise Mates, you should expect to pay at least $200 to $300 extra per person on a weeklong sailing.

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Incurring some extra costs is inevitable if you want to take full advantage of your cruise experience. However, if you plan ahead and understand what the potential expenditures are and how much they'll cost you, you can keep your expectations in check and costs under control.

In most cases, cruise lines list on their websites what services are not included in the base fare and how much they cost. Using these estimates to plan a budget for onboard spending ahead of time can be very helpful. After all, once you're onboard and start using cruise credit, it's easy to forget about prices and get carried away with ordering drinks, picking up souvenirs, or signing up for pricey shore excursions.

Here are some of the most common onboard cruise expenses, along with tips for minimizing costs and getting the best value for your money:

  1. Shore excursions: If you are adventurous and willing to do some research, you can save by planning your own shore excursions. However, you may feel more comfortable going on a tour set up by the cruise line, especially if you are unfamiliar with local languages and customs at the port you are visiting. Most large to medium-size cruise lines offer a wide variety of shore options, which vary greatly in price and can range from $10 for a glass-bottom boat tour to $250 for a scenic helicopter ride. Most tours have a limited number of spots and may sell out, so if you reserve late you may be left with options that are either undesirable or very expensive. Clearly, the key to getting the most out of your shore excursion spending is to book early. With some major cruise lines such as Carnival and Radisson, you can only reserve an excursion once you board. Other lines such as Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, and Princess, allow you to reserve shore excursions in advance through their websites—a major advantage.
  2. Gratuities: Tipping policies vary greatly from one cruise line to another, so be sure to find out where gratuities are required so that you do not overtip. Several cruise lines, such as Holland America, Seabourn, Silversea, and Radission, include gratuities in the cruise fare and have a "tipping not required" policy onboard. Carnival, Norwegian, and Princess do not include tipping with the initial fare, but automatically add a daily tipping charge of around $10 per person to your shipboard account. Other cruise lines outline suggested tipping amounts for each service provided. Finally, keep in mind that in addition to other gratuity charges, most cruise lines automatically add an extra 15-percent tip to all bar tabs.
  3. Food and beverages: Meals are almost always covered as part of your cruise fare; however, some ships, such as those operated by Royal Caribbean, have specialty restaurants that charge a per-person fee. Beverages including soft drinks, beer, wine, and hard liquor are almost always extra. Ask how much drinks costs before you order (those pretty tropical drinks cost more than you'd think), and remember the 15-percent automatic gratuity included with bar tabs.
  4. Salons and shopping: Onboard salon treatments and shopping are extra and expensive. To avoid inflated onboard prices, bring extra film, batteries, and other necessities with you. Before indulging in a pricey massage or a souvenir shopping spree, consider taking advantage of the many free activities and entertainment options onboard, such as gyms, classes, lectures, and shows, instead. That said, it's ok to pamper yourself on a cruise, just be realistic about the prices.

As with all travel services, the listed price is only a base upon which many other expenses can be stacked. To really get the best value cruise, you'll have to consider these extra costs when comparing cruises.

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