By Joshua Head
I’ve posted before about how cruising can be a great value for your money. What other type of vacation can you pay $40 a day and get your room and all food (and quite a bit of entertainment) included?
There can be negatives though, and one of them are the “hidden costs” associated with taking a cruise. Check out my list of the top 10 hidden costs of taking a cruise and ways to avoid them.
1. Internet / Cell Phone usage – My recommendation is to just not do it. Turn your phone and computer OFF. If you just really need to check email while on your vacation, pick one day in the middle of your vacation to check and respond and let that be it. As for cell phones, unless you are wealthy, don’t even think about using one on board a ship. Many cruises charge you extra fees and your provider will most likely charge you international roaming fees on top of your own minutes and data charges. Again, enjoy your vacation and keep the phones OFF. If you must use the Internet, find an Internet café in one of the ports of call where many times access is free.
Tip: If you use your cell phone on the ship for any purpose on the cell network you’ll be greeted with a hefty bill upon your return home. Don’t Do It.
2. Tips and Gratuities – Although it varies by cruise line (some even require you to pay gratuities upfront), gratuities paid to ship staff are part of the cruising experience. Most cruise lines allow you to pre-pay when you make your reservation. Some allow you to pay at the end of the cruise and even provide you small envelopes to hand out to the ships staff. Recommendations from Royal Caribbean include $3.75/day per guest to the waiter, $2.15/day to the assistant waiter, $0.75/day to head waiter, and $5.00/day to your stateroom attendant. Although voluntary, I recommend tipping your stateroom attendant well. You might even consider giving a portion of the tip to him/her on the first day in cash. I’ve learned by doing this, you tend to get great service. I remember on one cruise, our group had been out partying in the Crypt (on-board nightclub) and didn’t get back to the cabin until around 5 AM. Of course we slept in until around 2:00 PM. As we were leaving our cabin to get lunch, our attendant was literally waiting outside our door for us to leave so he could clean our cabin for us. We were the last one on his list to clean. We of course told him that was totally unnecessary, but we really appreciated it. The entire cruise, we never needed to ask for ice or towels because we always had a fresh supply. Keep in mind that the ship employees often work 10 and 12 hour days, 7 days a week for several months at a time for fairly low wages.
3. Alcohol and Soft Drinks – Much has been said on message boards and online articles about the high cost of alcohol on cruises. Usually those comments are complaints about prices. While I will agree, some of the alcohol products are a bit overpriced, most prices are on par with bars and clubs in any metropolitan city. In many cases, the prices are much cheaper on the cruises. Soft drinks on the other hand; your best bet is for one of your party to get a soft drink package and then share.
I don’t recommend trying to smuggle alcohol aboard. If discovered, it is usually confiscated and returned to you when the cruise is over. Some cruise lines allow you to bring limited quantities on board (a bottle of wine for example). Honestly, the base price for cruises tend to be reasonable anyway, so if you’re going to drink, factor that into your vacation cost and just pay for what you drink. Cruise lines make up for the low prices of cabins by the alcohol sales many times.
Tip – On day one, find a bartender and tip him well for your first drink. Let him know you’ll be coming back to him and get his name. Bartenders often move around the ship and work different areas, so ask when/where he’ll be working. More times than not, your drinks will be much “better” and you’ll get prompt service even at the busiest times. Another tip, if you’re a wine drinker, buy a bottle of wine in the dining room and have your waiter save the extra for later. Most cruises will save open, unfinished bottles for you so that you can enjoy it at another meal.
4. Shore Excursions – Cruise lines sell shore excursions not only for your benefit of making things easy, but to also make money. Prices are inflated and many times you can do the same thing on your own for much cheaper.
On rare occasions, a shore excursion can be valuable especially if you know you will be pressed for time to see the things you would like to see. Sometimes, just using the excursion for transportation can be a benefit. In general though, it really would pay for you to do a bit of research and hire your own tour guide (especially if you’re traveling in a group where you can split the costs) or just go it on your own. For example, on my next cruise, I’m using an excursion as my transportation into the city, just for convenience. For the other ports though, I’ll be taking a quick cab ride to the local train station for transportation to the sites of my choice. If you do a little research ahead of time, this process can be quite easy. Especially with the invent of Google Maps and Street View.
Tip: If on a Western Mediterranean cruise, it is usually much cheaper to take a train into the city and perhaps do a hop on/hop off bus tour. The trains are very cheap, usually under 10 euro round trip. The hop on/hop off bus tours usually cost around 29-39 Euros for an all day ticket. On those, you can hop off and see what you like and then catch the next bus when it comes around 30 minutes to an hour later. Just make sure you plan for your return trip to the ship as train schedules can change, cabs can get caught in traffic, etc.
5. Alternative Dining – Cruises offer excellent dining and even on the more budget friendly cruise lines, the food is quite good. Some ships offer specialty dining experiences (such as “Chops” or “Johnny Rockets” on Royal Caribbean) where you can get extra high grade cuts of meat cooked to order; all with that “fine dining” experience you would expect from a 4 star restaurant. Or you want that “American hamburger” you can’t get anywhere except in the States. You will pay an extra supplement for this experience and the prices can be as high as $75 per person. It can be a special treat for a couple to celebrate a special event such as an anniversary or birthday, but can also be a special treat to just dine in a quieter setting with generally much better quality food and service.
Tip: As for the other pay-for-food venues, skip them unless you really enjoy the particular type of food the venue serves. On many cruises, room service is free, so paying an extra $7 plus to get a hamburger or $5 ice cream is just not value oriented.
6. On Board Activities (Bingo) – Most on-board activities are free. That’s what makes cruising such a great value. However, cruises offer activities such as yoga, Pilates, or even Bingo that you’ll pay extra for. On my last cruise, all of my friends wanted to play bingo. Lo and behold, it was one “game” and you paid $20 for a 3-card sheet. NOT worth it. That $20 would have been better spent on a partial payment for a bottle of wine or partial payment on the fine dining experience at Royal Caribbean’s Chops.
As for the yoga, skip that and go to the gym for free. There are many types of equipment to use that can accommodate any level user and you can get in and out fairly quickly without having to be on someone else’s time schedule.
7. Spa and Salon Treatments – Cruises offer a wide array of spa and salon services such as facials, massages, and hair dressing. Unfortunately, the prices for these services are as astounding as the beauty of the locations you’re visiting. Massages can range from $110 to $150 with some treatments running up to $200 or more.
Tip: Many cruises have specials on days the ship is in port or even daily discounts. If you do book one of these services, you’ll likely get a sales pitch to buy beauty products, creams, lotions, etc. If you don’t want the products, simply say “No” and enjoy your treatement. I’ve never received poor service at the spa and I’ve never purchased the add-on products they sell. If you’re interested in what they’re selling though, go ahead and give it a try. I have friends who have been very happy with the products they’ve purchased on-board. I’ll stick with my regular regimen from the local drug store though.
8. Photos – From the time you walk on to the ship until the time you exit the ship, you’re going to see photographers everywhere snapping your picture. Step on-board SNAP, sit down to dinner, SNAP, ride the Flow-rider, SNAP, put food in your mouth, SNAP SNAP SNAP. They’re everywhere. In the days of digital cameras and cameras on cell phones, this is truly unnecessary. And the charge for these photos can easily go upwards of $10 to $15 for an 8”x 10”.
Tip: Take your own pictures or ask another guest to take your picture and offer to do the same for them.
9. Souvenir Cups – Many cruises have a “Drink of the Day” in a souvenir cup. Or, they’ll just serve their regular cocktails in souvenir cups that you can take home with you as a souvenier. The cups are not free, but you’re often not told this.
Tip: To save money, usually $1-$2 a drink, ask for it to be in a regular cup or glass.
10. ATM Fees – Using an ATM on a ship can be extremely costly. I’ve seen ATM charges as high as $10-$11 US. That is not counting what your own bank will be charging you for using an out-of-network ATM.
Tip: Getting money before boarding the ship or at an ATM in port during the cruise can many times be much cheaper. If you absolutely must use an onboard ATM, make it worthwhile it by extracting enough cash to last you a few days so that you avoid the ATM fees. Also, many cruise lines allow you to cash personal checks for no additional charges. Finally (less common these days), some cruise lines allow you to get cash at the casino cashier for no fee. The cash you receive appears on your final bill at the end of the cruise.