Beware of On-Board Charges

| June 2, 2003

Last week, I received an e-mail from a nearby travel agency promoting a seven-night Caribbean cruise on Grand Princess for $399, including port changes. My first reaction was "Wow, what an incredible price!" This cruise was not originally scheduled; it came about because Princess decided to keep Grand Princess in the Caribbean instead of moving her to Europe as planned.

How can Princess offer this cruise at such a low price? How can any of the contemporary or premium lines offer their cruises at the prices they're promoting these days?

Can they really make it up with on-board charges as some are suggesting? Let's take a look at on-board activities, break them down into various categories and see if the negative slant being placed on them is really fair.

First are those expenses that cruisers should expect to pay, over and above their cruise fares. Cruise fares (including port charges, government charges and taxes) routinely cover rooms, meals, entertainment, and a wide range of activities on board the ship. When you compare this to an equivalent land based vacation, you immediately see the value of a cruise vacation.

The most basic expense will be tips for your dining room and housekeeping staff. Whether this is added to your room bill or doled out in envelopes at the end of the cruise is incidental. It's not that much money out of your pocket, and it's your opportunity to say thank you to those who take such good care of you. In fact, think about going over the minimum rather than cutting tips to the bare bone, especially when someone has done something special. They'll appreciate it and you certainly will make a difference in their economic life. For bar bills, virtually all cruise lines now routinely add 15% to your check so you don't have to think about it. When in doubt, ask.

Two other areas for budgeting extra are beverages and shore excursions. You are probably going to drink during your cruise, whether it's soft drinks or alcohol. These drinks are not as cheap as they used to be on ships (cruise lines have raised the prices a lot in recent years to help offset the lower cruise fares, but they're still a decent price compared to equivalent land-based resorts). Just be careful not to overdo the quantity--a temptation when you're not paying cash out of pocket. (Hint: Cruise lines love customers to drink an alcoholic beverage such as scotch on the rocks. It's easy to drink quickly and there's no mixer involved. A scotch and soda can be sipped, and is actually more expensive for the cruise line to serve although the price is the same to the customer.)

As for shore excursions, cruise lines put a lot of work into organizing expeditions in each port, and they deserve to make money for doing this. While prices in this area have also risen in recent years, they're still the safest, best way for newcomers to see a place. When I went to St. Petersburg a couple of years ago, I could not have conceived of arranging the trip to Moscow on my own. I took the organized trip, and even though it was pricey, it was worth it. In the other hand, if you're going to the beach on a Caribbean island, do you really need an organized tour? Hardly. Just make sure you arrange for transportation back. You don't want to be stranded at the end of your day.

There are lots of other ways to spend your money on board a ship. And cruise lines are becoming ever more creative in this area. Among them:

*Shopping. Most new ships have ever-larger shopping areas. Often there are name-brand shops. Are the prices better here than on land? Usually, but not always. For big ticket items, make sure there is a money-back guarantee of some sort. For booze, know the prices on shore.

*Gambling. Exception for the Disney ships, all of today's new vessels have large, glitzy casinos. Odds are similar to Las Vegas, but not as fair in all cases (most notably craps). Be sure you know what you're doing.

*Photography. This is one area where prices have risen steeply and it's easy to overdo it. Just pick out the photos you really want.

*Spas. Shipboard spas are becoming much more luxurious and expansive on today's new ships. The newer treatments are also more elaborate and expensive. Don't let yourself be talked into buying something more expensive than you really want. Also, find out whether or not tips are included. You do not want to be hit twice.

There are lots of other ways to spend your money on board, including art auctions, Bingo, wine tasting, yoga/kickboxing/Pilates classes, computerized golf, special educational programs/classes with fees attached, horse racing. No one forces you to participate in any of them. And I must say, having just looked at the daily programs for a random day at sea on Carnival Conquest and Coral Princess, so many activities are included in the fare that the guest could really keep busy without spending too much extra.

And don't forget communications charges. In addition to the usual (and expensive) ship-to-shore phone systems, one of the latest offerings is Internet service for incoming or outgoing e-mails, faxes, etc. And the charges are all over the place. On a cruise last fall, a friend sent me a nine-page fax that cost me $13.50 to receive. On Seven Seas Mariner's computers, you are only charged for Internet transmission time, not on-line time. It costs nothing to type for an hour, and then about $1.50 to transmit the document. Celebrity Cruises offers unlimited e-mail and Internet services for $25 per day. Historically, phone calls used to cost about $15 per minute. Now the range is about $4.95 to $14.95 per minute. Just know what services you really need and use them carefully. It is often cheaper to go ashore to do your e-mails, and it's absolutely cheaper for phone calls. You'll usually find Internet cafes close to the piers in major cruise ports.

Cruise are a great value today -- certainly compared to land-based resorts. Just remember that all those frou-frou drinks with umbrellas can really add up at the end of the week. Think twice before you hand over your key card for an on-board charge, and be sure to create some kind of a budget for extra expenses as part of your overall trip planning before you book.

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