One of the best things about cruise vacations is that they minimize the need for you to make all the decisions. Cruises come with set itineraries, meal options, planned excursions, and options like spa treatments and the luxury of room service. With everything taken care of, you can feel free to sit back and (perhaps literally) go with the flow, which is one of the most relaxing aspects of the whole journey. The one drawback is that cruises tend to be expensive — it’s just the price you pay for all that inclusivity. 

Many first-timers are caught off-guard, however, by some of the fees and charges associated with taking a cruise. Here is a helpful breakdown of booking tips, deals to look out for, and some of the charges included in the fine print that could take you by surprise.

Booking Tips

Consider *When* You Book 

Most cruise lines increase prices as ships sell out, so book as early as possible for the widest choice of cabin types and locations, as well as dining time options. Conversely, booking at the last possible second can also save you money, because cruise lines will sometimes drop prices or add promotions to cruises that aren’t filled as they get closer to their departure date. (You may get a great deal, as long as you’re not too picky about your cabin options.)

A beach umbrella made of palm fronds wears a santa hat somewhere in the CaribbeanThe timing of the cruise can also have a big impact on cost. Spring and fall trips are usually cheaper, because demand is lower. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are notoriously slow, so they’re often heavily discounted. Being flexible about the dates that you travel can also allow you to take advantage of more sales and promotions. Watch for deal opportunities like those that waive the “solo supplement” (if you’re a solo traveler), or watch for weeks when kids sail free, or cruise lines offer discounted third and fourth guests. You can also save money by being loyal to a particular cruise line: many will offer a loyalty program after your first trip, which can include fare discounts, upgrades, and other perks.

Consider *What* You Book

Booking a cruise on the shiniest, newest ship in a fleet can grant you bragging rights in a certain crowd, but you’re usually not getting that many actual upgrades. By booking on an older ship, you can usually get a better deal and still take advantage of all the same perks. Most cruise lines meticulously maintain their older ships with regular make-overs, so it’s likely you won’t even be able to tell it’s an older boat. (*Author’s note: this may be true superficially, but there can be drawbacks. My family just traveled on the Disney Magic — their oldest ship at 25 years running — and while it had all the latest and greatest restaurants and topdeck activities, the air conditioning was unfortunately showing its age.)

Cruise ship cabin view, with two twin beds in front of a balcony windowWhen it comes to cabins, the trick is to not be too picky. The cost difference between an inside cabin and one with a window is often significant, not to mention if you feel the need to spring for one with a balcony. The size difference of the rooms is actually negligible, and if you’re one of those travelers who plans on taking advantage of all the ship has to offer, you won’t even be in the room long enough to notice. Some people even prefer inside rooms, claiming that the darkness and subtle motion of the boat grants them the best sleep of their lives.

You can also save money by booking any excursions, activities, or packages in advance. Prices go up the instant you set foot on the ship, and your choices will be more limited as well. You could save even more money by booking your excursions independently. Cruise lines need to mark up the prices because they have to pay the provider and still turn a profit. By booking your own tours, you can skip the middle-man fee and customize the trip to get exactly what you’re looking for (as well as a more personal experience.) A woman wearing a floppy beach hat smiles as she holds up a starfish while sitting in the waterPro tip: Look at what the cruise offers for excursions and then book it yourself. Or don’t book an excursion at all. Many ships dock into ports that are located conveniently close to your destination, where you could explore at your own pace without paying someone else to walk backwards and yell facts at you.

Finally, try to book a cruise that leaves from a port you can drive to. Flying anywhere is challenging these days, so skipping airfare and a hotel room just to get on a ship will most definitely save you money.

On-Board Savings Tips

Packages: Are They Worth It?

One of the biggest considerations when planning a cruise is whether or not to buy a drink package deal of some sort. And the answer is, frustratingly, it depends. It depends on which cruise line you’re traveling with, what kind of packages they offer, and what and how much you typically drink. For example, river cruise ships usually offer wine and beer with lunch and dinner. That might cover your needs just fine, but if you are someone who guzzles Diet Coke by the gallon, you can rack up quite the bill without even including alcohol in your considerations.

Beautiful, colorful fruity drinks sit on a bartop in front of an ocean viewTo figure out whether a drinks package will be the most cost-efficient option, you’ll need to ascertain what the cruise line offers and your personal proclivities. Try to estimate how much you would typically drink while on-board, and also what you will want to drink. It helps to break it down into a per-day calculation. Divide the cost of the package by the number of days you’ll be on the ship, and then figure out if you’ll drink that much per day to make it worthwhile. For example, most beer drinkers will find that drink packages are too expensive, but if you prefer fruity cocktails — as many do, while in the Caribbean — at upwards of $15 per drink, you may be hitting the target amount more quickly.

In addition, many of the bigger cruise lines have two different levels of drink packages, and the less expensive one won’t cover any top-shelf alcohol, which is important to factor in. On the other hand, some cruise lines will include lattes and sodas and other “specialty” non-alcoholic drinks in certain packages. So, while you may not drink the cost equivalent of the package in alcohol, if you consume several coffee drinks and sodas per day it could be worth it. (Pro tip: Be sure to consider how much time you’ll be spending off the boat while in port when you calculate your estimated daily consumption.)

Things to Keep In Mind Regarding Packages:

They can be a helpful budgeting tool, if you’re one of those people who prefer to know all of the potential costs up front. (This website very helpfully gives you all the basic information you need by cruise line, if you’re interested.)

Also, some lines offer drinks packages as part of a booking promotion or other deals. Be sure to read the fine print closely; Some of these packages charge customers an automatic gratuity fee — 15%-20% of the total package cost — which can end up being more than $100/week.

Finally, be aware that most cruise lines stipulate that if one adult in a cabin buys a drinks package, then both need to purchase the same one (to ensure no one gets away with sharing a package, heaven forbid.) 

Little Things Add Up Quickly

As for the other on-board costs, here are a few ways to save some money during your cruise: 

  • A fruity cocktail with an orange slice garnish sits next to a tiny chalkboard that has "happy hour" written on itIf you opt to enjoy the specialty restaurants at lunch instead of during dinner time, you will get almost the same menu with a reduced price tag. You’ll also be able to take advantage of a less-crowded atmosphere in the complimentary dining options at dinner. 
  • Definitely look for any daily or happy hour specials. Many ships offer a “Drink of the Day” for a reduced price, and bars will often rotate a happy hour throughout the week with lowered costs.
  • Waiters often circulate, handing out drinks in a souvenir glass. Skip it. Those souvenir glasses are expensive, difficult to pack, and do you really need a bunch of glasses in the shape of Carnival’s famous funnel? 
  • Pay attention to the different seminars about wellness or “understanding gemstones.” These events are often marketing ploys to get you to sign up for spa treatments or shoe insoles or overpriced jewelry. However, they usually drum up business by giving away spa credit or various raffle prizes that will totally be worth your while. (I have attended two Disney cruises and twice I have won free spa treatments just by showing up to the “Introduction to the Gym” speech they give on the first day.)

Charges that Could Take You By Surprise:

an envelope is filled with $100 bills fanned outAutomatic Gratuities: The one downfall to taking a cruise is that you are at the mercy of each operator’s fine print policies. For example, if you’ve never cruised before, you may not anticipate the fact that most ships have automatic gratuities they expect to be paid at the end of the trip. These usually go towards your servers at dinner and the person who makes up your room each day, and they are per person, not per cabin. So, with big lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, it’s not uncommon for four people staying in one cabin to see around $60/day added to the bill — which is more than $400 in fees for a week-long trip.

Internet Access: Also, although most hotels offer free Wi-Fi these days — and cruise ships are just hotels that happen to float — Wi-Fi and cell service are not gratis. Check with your service provider before your trip to see what they might charge for out-of-country data usage. At the very least, put your phone into airplane mode the minute you step on board, and only use it when you’re in port if necessary. Be sure to know what the cruise offers in terms of on-board Wi-Fi, as most plans are expensive.

Taxes, Fees and Port Charges: If you want to take advantage of a trip that’s being advertised at some advantageously low price, check to see if that covers the taxes, fees, and port charges. These usually only appear on your final invoice during the booking process, and can run into hundreds of dollars per person.

We are looking over the shoulder of a hotel person delivering room service on a wheeled tray cartRoom Service “Convenience” Fees: Complimentary room service used to be standard on cruise ships, but that’s not the case for a growing number of lines that now charge extra for it. For example, Royal Caribbean levies a $7.95 service charge per order, even if all you requested was a single hash brown. It also adds an automatic 18% “gratuity fee” on top of the service charge, making that a roughly $10 hashbrown. So when in doubt, put on a robe and go to one of the casual buffet eateries that are almost always open.

Adults-Only Lounge Areas: If you’re traveling without children, you probably don’t feel the need to be surrounded by other people’s children. However, some cruise lines charge access fees for adults-only areas, despite using that perk as one of their advertised features. Some fees are between $20-$40 per day, but some lines (ahem, Norwegian) charge the exorbitant rate of $99 per person for a single day pass. [Quick note: Disney and Carnival ships offer adults-only areas to passengers free of charge. Or, go on a Viking or Virgin Voyages cruise, which don’t allow kids to begin with.]

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