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Tips for spending wisely onboard a cruise ship

Here’s a sample day on your all-inclusive cruise:

In the morning, you get a latte at the cafe downstairs. Then, you stop by the sundries shop to pick up a bottle of water before heading to a morning yoga class in the fitness center. In the afternoon, you order a beer by the pool, then play a round of bingo. You have a late-afternoon appointment at the spa to get your hair done before your fancy dinner in the ship’s specialty restaurant, where you order a glass of wine with dinner. In the evening, you sip a cocktail in one of the lounges while listening to music.

If you’d been sailing with Holland America, you’d have just spent a minimum of $126 in one day, not including the $10 per person per day gratuity you’ll pay at the end of the cruise. On Princess, you could have spent a bit less at $89. On these cruise lines, as well as the other mainstream and premium lines, you could have easily racked up an even higher per-day bill with shore excursions, premium drinks, extra gambling costs, expensive spa treatments, and babysitting.

Don’t let the cruise lines trick you into thinking that vacations at sea are truly all-inclusive. On Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean, you can easily spend more on your daily expenditures than you did on the cruise itself. I’ve asked the cruise lines to reveal some of their onboard prices so I can show you where you’ll be paying extra and offer you some savings strategies.

NEXT >> Food and beverages

Food and beverages

According to Royal Caribbean, “When you’re onboard one of our cruise ships, almost everything is taken care of—your accommodations, gourmet meals in our dining rooms and cafes, and snacks throughout the day.” For a new cruiser, this policy sounds like heaven. Once you’re onboard, you can eat as much as you want for no extra charge.

It is true that you can eat and drink all day without paying a cent above your cruise fare. But it’s also true that the cruise lines will tempt you to pay more for alternative food and beverage options. Want a latte, Coke, or glass of Chardonnay? That’ll be extra. Tempted by the beautiful specialty dining room and its gourmet menu? How about some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Hand over your cruise charge card. And trust me, when you’re on vacation, you won’t want to deny yourself the pleasures of an intimate meal or several cocktails. You can’t spend 10 minutes by the pool without seeing waiters carrying delectable frozen drinks that you instantly crave.

Just how much will you pay? From my survey of six cruise lines, here are the average food and beverage prices:

  • Soft drinks: $1.25 to $2.50 for a range of soda sizes, or from $4 to $6 per person per day for an unlimited soda card
  • Beer: $3.50 to $6.50
  • Wine by the glass: $4.25 to $15
  • Cocktails: $4.25 to $15.50
  • Bottled water: $1.50 to $5.50
  • Specialty coffee: $1.50 to $6
  • Specialty dining: $10 to $30 per person
  • Additional snacks: $1.50 to $5

I’d be very impressed by anyone who could get through an entire cruise without buying a single drink. So given that you’re going to shell out for at least some of these extra food and drink options, here are a few ways to save.

  • Bring your own: While most cruise lines won’t let you bring alcoholic beverages onboard, many will let you bring coolers of soda and bottled water. You can buy these items in bulk at home for far less than the cruise lines will charge and stock up on the islands should you run out. A soft-sided cooler can be packed up at the end of the trip or used to transport all of your new souvenirs. However, if you’re flying to your cruise port, remember that you can’t take liquids in your carry-on bag. Alternately, bring an empty water bottle and fill it up every morning at the buffet’s self-service beverage station.
  • Buy a soda card: If you don’t want to schlep a case of soda across the country, the next best thing for soft-drink addicts is to take advantage of the cruise line’s soda card offerings. You pay one price up front and can order unlimited soft drinks. If you plan on drinking four to five sodas a day, these cards become a good deal; kids’ prices are even cheaper than adults’.
  • Order specials and house drinks: Cruise lines usually will have one or two drink specials each day. However, these discounts may only be available at a certain time or in a certain lounge. House wines and non-brand-name spirits are also cheaper than premium wines and liquors. Using these strategies, you can get a nice buzz without the downer of a hefty bill.
  • Budget for special meals: If you have any interest in good food, you’ll want to eat at least one meal in the specialty restaurant or indulge with a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cone or a fancy treat like chocolate-covered strawberries. To avoid breaking the bank, budget in these costs and make compromises. For instance, eat lunch onboard instead of in port if you’re only going to be having a sandwich and not an island specialty. You can use the money you save on that meal to pay for your fancy dinner. Or, skip wine with dinner one night and splurge on a treat instead.

NEXT >> Onboard activities

Onboard activities

Everyday, a cruise ship’s activity staff offers all sorts of free entertainment, such as dance classes, evening shows, lectures, and poolside games. However, some of the most interesting events cost extra. These may include specialty fitness classes (yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, etc.), wine tastings, or cooking classes. Fitness classes usually cost $10 per class plus a gratuity, and other onboard activities can range from $20 to $40.

Your savings strategy: Plan smart. A shoreside fitness class is likely to cost $10 or more and have more participants than an onboard class. If you love Pilates or always wanted to try yoga, sign up for a class or two and know you’re getting your money’s worth. At the same time, you’ll want to mix up your extra-cost classes with the free offerings to save a few bucks.

Similarly, a unique onboard event, such as a cooking class in Holland America’s show kitchen, will often give great value for the money. But before you sign up, think about how much you’ll benefit from the experience and whether a free activity will give you just as much enjoyment.

You’ll also want to set limits on your onboard gambling, a favorite pastime among cruisers. I’ve seen a couple win more at blackjack than the cost of their cruise, but I’d bet more people blow hundreds of dollars at the slot machines and card tables. A per-day gambling budget will help keep you in the black.

NEXT >> Splurges


A splurge can range from getting a full-body massage in the spa to hiring a babysitter to watch the kids while you and your spouse enjoy a romantic evening. Vacation is all about a little indulgence, but you might want to give yourself a splurge allowance before you step onboard.

Spa services can cost more onboard than onshore because the ship’s spas are high-end. If you usually go to the local mom-and-pop salon in your neighborhood rather than fancy day spas, you’ll be shocked by onboard spa prices. Manicures can range from $25 to $44, pedicures from $40 to $61, hair-styling from $39 on up, and full-body massages from $99 on up.

Babysitting can be considered a splurge or a necessity depending on your view. Most ships offer some sort of babysitting service, either in-cabin or at the children’s play area. Prices are calculated per child per hour, with additional kids in one family or in one room priced cheaper than the first child. Starting costs range from $5 to $8 per hour for the first child.

Want to save? Here are some tips.

  • Budget in advance: Before you set foot on the ship, give yourself a splurge budget. Your guidelines could be anything from $150 in spa services or two nights of babysitting. As long as you don’t cheat on the rules, you’ll get to indulge yourself without spending more than the amount you set aside.
  • Look for specials: Spa treatments are often cheaper on port days when most guests are ashore. If you leave late or return early from your day in port, you can get signature spa services for less. Be sure to check in the salon for additional specials on new treatments or pampering at off times.
  • Share the childcare: If you’re cruising with another family, you can share the responsibilities and costs of childcare. Couples can take turns watching the other’s children, giving each set of parents a night off with no fee. Or, put all the children in one cabin and hire one babysitter at a lower rate than two babysitters in separate cabins. Invite the grandparents or other relatives to sail with you—they may be thrilled to spend some together time with the kids and give you a break.

NEXT >> Gratuities


You can’t avoid gratuities unless you sail on a very high-end cruise line. The mainstream and premium lines recommend paying $10 per guest per night in gratuities.

Some lines, such as Princess and Holland America, charge a flat fee to your cruise bill, and you can adjust the rate up or down or give extra cash to your favorite staff members. Other lines, such as Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, recommend gratuity amounts for your dining-room waiter, stateroom attendant, assistant waiter, and head waiter, to be put in envelopes and handed out on the last night.

The best way to deal with tipping is to budget for it in advance. Remember that you’ll have to tip on spa and fitness services, and may want to give a little extra to your favorite bartender or kids program counselor. Drinks often have a 15 percent gratuity added to the price automatically. Come up with a generous amount and factor that number in when you plan your vacation budget, so you won’t receive a nasty surprise on your last night.

In addition, if you’re cruising with a line that requires you to hand out tips in cash, get the correct bills from your bank before you leave home and save that stash in a safe place so you don’t spend it during the cruise. Then on the final night, you can take the money out and pop it into the correct envelopes.

Find the right balance

A very determined person could get through an entire cruise without paying extra for meals, drinks, activities, or other indulgences. If you’re on the tightest of budgets and have an excess of willpower, you can have a fun (though sober) time without whipping out your cruise charge card to make a purchase. I contend that if you have a little bit of cash in your vacation fund you should definitely treat yourself to a few nice things while onboard. It’s not every day that you get to try five-star dining for as little as $30 or get a massage under the warm Caribbean sun. The trick is to make smart purchasing decisions and to know the limits of your cruise budget. That way you can enjoy a few splurges without feeling horrible about them in the end.

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