Onboard the Cruise Ship
Onboard the ship you get breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks whenever you want them with certain beverages included with each meal. You can even get room service delivered to your room for no additional charge, a service I have always thought justified the cost of a cruise in its own right. You also get free admission to all entertainment facilities, children's facilities, sports activities like rock climbing or miniature golf. When the ship docks you are free to walk off the ship and explore the destination on your own or book a tour with a local operator. Or you can purchase shore excursions from the cruise line with the confidence that they will get you back to the ship on time.
When you check in, you are given a magnetic strip "key card" which gives you entrance to your stateroom. It also becomes your onboard "charge card" that will get swiped anytime you want something the cruise line charges for onboard - a cocktail, for example. During check in they will take an impression of a credit card to cover your expenses during the cruise. This credit card will be charged the day you leave the ship. The night before you leave you will be given a copy of your onboard charges, be sure to read it carefully and dispute any charge you don't agree with immediately.
What kinds of charges can you expect to find onboard that you will end up paying for at the end of the cruise? Briefly, you will pay for alcoholic beverages and soda pop. Other onboard charges include your gift shop purchases, any gambling you may do, small charges for special treats like gelato or espresso, service charges to go to the gourmet restaurants onboard and spa services like massages or haircuts. You will be strongly urged, and in some cases required, to pay gratuities, unless the cruise line specifically states they are not expected.
Gratuities: While the policy on most contemporary cruise lines is that tipping is optional, most will automatically charge about $9.50 per person per day for gratuities to your onboard account. These fees are broken down as $3.50 for your room steward, $3.50 for your waiter, $1.50 for your busboy and $1.00 for your Maitre D'.
The policy of charging tips to your onboard account came about in the early 2000s to replace the practice of leaving envelopes in your stateroom. You were expected to fill these envelopes with cash on the last night and hand them directly to your wait staff. This was an admittedly clumsy and inconvenient practice. Either you kept aside some $300 in cash for the entire cruise or you had to find dollars someplace during the cruise, which can be challenging when sailing in the Caribbean or Europe.
Adding gratuities to your onboard account makes the whole practice of tipping much less complicated - unless you want to dispute the amount. Yes, even with "automatic" tipping it is still an optional cost. If you are truly unhappy with the service of a specific individual on some cruise lines you can elect to go to the front desk and have the amount of your tips reduced.
On some cruise lines this is no longer an option - they are service fees, not gratuities. If this is important to you, you should double-check the policy with the cruise line web site before you book. We don't generally advocate that people reduce gratuities, so we are not going to list cruise line policies here. The truth is that your gratuity payment is distributed throughout the entire shipboard labor pool, it does not go directly to your service people.
Beverages: When it comes to what you drink, your cruise fare includes lemonade, some fruit juices, regular coffee and iced tea. If you order an alcoholic beverage you will pay anywhere from $4.25 to $7.50 plus a service fee of 15% to 18%. A can of soda can be $2.50.
Some cruise lines offer drink "setups" for your stateroom where $60 gets you a bottle of spirits and six cans of your preferred mixer. Some cruise lines offer wine packages where one price gets you a different bottle of wine served with every evening meal. Some cruise lines allow to bring two bottles of wine onboard, but if you want to drink it at the dinner table you will be charged a corkage fee from $10 to $25 depending on the cruise lines. For more details see our article on cruise line alcohol policies.
The good news is that if you drink the wine in your cabin you will not be charged the corkage fee - a good reason to spurge on that veranda cabin. Some people have suggested filling your wineglass in your cabin and carrying it to your dining room table. You won't be charged if you do this, but you are limited to the one glass since getting up with an empty glass and coming back with a full one in the middle of dinner will attract attention.
Poolside, you can save a little on beer by buying a "bucket o' beer" which is literally six bottles on ice in a pail. This will generally get you one six bottles for the price of five.
If you love soda pop then children and adults can get unlimited soda passes for fees that vary by the length of your cruise. Adults generally pay $6.00 per day and children are charged $4.50 per day. This is good if you are not supervising your children 24-hours/day. Some kids have been known to spend hundreds of dollars just on cokes.
Other Little Pleasures: Most new contemporary ships now offer a specialty coffee cafe where you can get a latte or mocha for a few dollars. While they also give away tasty pastries for no additional charge, they might charge a few dollars for a generous serving of gelato or a delicious candy apple. Princess Cruises charges $2.50 for six scoops of gelato, enough for two people. They charge $5 for an enormous and gooey caramel apple with nuts, chocolate chips, coconut and drizzled frosting.
Room Service: Room service is free, which is wonderful. You can pre-order your breakfast with piping hot coffee to be delivered at a set time the next morning. It has become more expected to give the attendant a small tip, usually a dollar bill, or Princess has you sign a slip where there is a space for a gratuity. Princess also charges a small fee for some room service items, such as hot pizza. Royal Caribbean charges a delivery fee of $3.95 between midnight and 5:00 a.m.
Alternative dining venues: While food is available for all mealtimes at no additional cost on every cruise, almost every modern cruise ship offers special alternative dining restaurants with gourmet food and highly attentive service. On average, a special restaurant will charge about $20 to $40 per person, but the cost of these alternative restaurants ranges from free on some smaller cruise lines up to $500 per person on Silversea. The $500 charge on Silversea has every course (seven all together) paired with a rare vintage wine, sherry, cognac or aperitif. Some ships have as many as 12 of the alternative dining spots (Norwegian Cruise Line) ranging in price from $10 to $50 per person. There is also an 18% service charge added to most bills.
Most people try these restaurants at least once on each cruise and they are more than worth it. On Princess a $30 surcharge will get you a fresh 1.5 pound live Maine lobster steamed to perfection. You can't beat it.
Spa Services: Almost every contemporary cruise ship offers professional spa services that are purely optional, but available for splurges if you care to pay for them. A typical 60-minute massage is available at prices that are generally much pricier than “chain store” places like Massage Envy, and more in line with pricing at name-brand land spas like Canyon Ranch or La Costa.
Spas usually cohabitate with the fitness center. In the fitness center several aerobics classes are usually offered for no extra charge during the cruise, but there may also be certain yoga or pilates classes that carry a small fee of about $10 per person.
Many ships now have what are called "thermal suites" for about $10 to $25/day, or you can save by paying a per-cruise price. These fees provide you with unlimited access to several steam rooms, each infused with a different aromatherapy, heated ceramic beds and wet or dry saunas. Some ships include a Thelassotherapy pool, basically a large Jacuzzi tub with several high-speed water or air jets to help you relax.
Adults Only Serenity Areas: A relatively new surcharge option on larger cruise ships is a deck area set aside just for adults featuring hot tubs and plush deck chairs. Waiters will bring you cool fruit and spritz your baking body with Evian water. These deck chairs may be queen-sized Balinese beds, which have thick cushions and plenty of cushy pillows. For an additional charge you can rent a private cabana within the area.
The cabanas will have a Balinese bed big enough for two or more, and offer complete privacy by a closable canvass tent. These same cabanas, rented by the day, can also be found outside the serenity area by the regular pool. What's the advantage? Mainly, it secures you a prime but private location in the sun without having to fight the crowds or worry about strangers invading your space. You can also order picnic lunches, wine, spirits, video games and iPads with Web access, etc – all at a price.
Shore Excursions: The tours you choose to take in port will usually be the most expensive part of your final bill. Most tours cost anywhere from $50 to $250 per person. Are they worth it? When you think about how much you paid to get to the region of your cruise then it doesn't make sense to skimp at the last minute and not see the local sights.
The main advantage of ship-offered excursions is convenience and knowing you will make it back to the ship before it sails away. There are ways to economize your sightseeing, however, which we have covered in other articles here. You can rent a car - sharing the cost with another couple. You can catch a local bus or taxi or arrange with local tour providers before you leave on your cruise.
Some cruise lines include sore tours in the cost of the cruise. This is common on river cruises and on Regent Seven Seas – probably the priciest yet most inclusive cruise line in the marketplace.
Summing Up Hidden Costs
No added charge item is mandatory. You can drink iced tea with every meal and just walk around in every port. How much you choose to spend over and above your cruise fare is entirely up to you. Still, this is your once-in-a-lifetime vacation and you may never see Russia or Alaska again, so it doesn't make much sense to skimp at the last minute. Although there are many cruise enthusiasts who have been to the Caribbean so many times they no longer bother to get off the ship – and when you think about it, why leave the perfect environment just to walk around in humid and dusty streets?
On the other hand, I can get a better massage at a lower price on land, but you may want to have one at sea just so you can spend the rest of the day relaxing with no interruptions.