Cruising on a Budget

| February 22, 2008
Is it possible to take a cruise and not spend a fortune while onboard? Your end-of-cruise tab can be next to nothing if you have the right attitude.

Does this sound familiar to you? You know you are on a tight family budget, but you find such a great deal on a seven-day cruise that you decide to treat the brood to it. You are fully aware that even though the original price is great, you are still going to have to be extra careful about all the add-on charges like soft drinks, spa services, shore excursions and port shopping. But in the end, despite your best efforts, your budget family getaway turns into a budget-busting credit card bill that takes a good five months of scraping by to pay off.

How does this happen, and can you still beat it? Yes, you can.

The reality is that the base cost of a cruise vacation has actually come down over the last ten years, but the cruise lines today are offering a lot more onboard extras that go beyond the "all-inclusive" fare. They have found ways to make these additional incentive buys onboard especially enticing to you, so unless you are careful about discretionary spending every moment of the cruise these tempting extras can add up to an unpleasant surprise at disembarkation time.

So, allow us to offer you a little timely advice for avoiding "post-cruise sticker shock." With a little advance planning, and some savvy internet research, you can bring that bargain cruise cost well into your budget.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO Cruise lines are getting very creative in their onboard offerings. Many of them come at no added charge which is great for us, but others fall under the "optional" list of extra charges -- For example, some lines charge extra for scoops of ice cream. Just about all of them charge for soft drinks. Still others have elaborate video arcades that the kids will want to spend hours in -- all at extra fees.

Here are a few tips on managing onboard expenses, without compromising a great vacation experience. It's all a matter of setting priorities and making informed spending decisions.

DECIDE WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO YOU AND WHAT'S NOT Not every extra-cost option onboard is vital to your family's vacation experience. The trick is to determine what is important and what's not. Just a sampling of the extra fee items you'll come across once onboard include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Specialty restaurant cover charges
  • Cocktail and wine charges
  • Ice Cream
  • Freshly squeezed juices
  • Spa treatments
  • Fitness and other enrichment classes, such as cooking, floral design and computer offerings
  • Photos and cruise video
  • Bottled water
  • Film purchase and developing
  • Shore excursions
  • Casino and other gaming opportunities
  • Art auctions onboard
  • Purchases in the boutiques onboard

And the list goes on and on and on.

IMPULSE vs. WELL-THOUGHT-OUT SPENDING Don't fall prey to impulse spending onboard. The cruise lines depend on you spending more onboard than you really intended to. That is just one reason they operate on a cashless society. Without reaching into your pocket for every purchase, you're lulled into a false sense of security that you really aren't spending that much. It's not until disembarkation time that you are hit with the awful truth, and by then, of course, it's too late.

How do you avoid this trap of a false sense of security?

Research your specific cruise line's website (or get your travel agent to do this for you) and determine what services carry extra charges onboard your particular cruise, and how much those charges run. Then set about determining how to reduce or eliminate those extra fees, by bypassing some items not of great importance to you, and by working around some of those that are.

HAVE A FAMILY POW WOW A family vacation should be just that -- a family affair. Get the kids involved early in the process. If a tight budget is a serious reality for your family, have the kids help formulate the budget, by giving them a voice in the process. This strategy is sure to get their spirited cooperation with sticking to the budget once onboard. It will also avoid a lot of "no's" and the accompanying tears onboard as well.

Have everyone make a list of what is important to them. Your 12-year-old might be dying to ride in a helicopter, and one of those Alaska ports would be the perfect time to do so. But, as we all know, flightseeing tours are expensive, and there's nothing wrong with letting them know that either the family can't afford it, or if the teen wants to do it, he's gonna have to give up other things in return.

Maybe your youngest ones really love to swim and snorkel and want to go on some of these excursions in the various Caribbean ports your cruise will be visiting. Again, trade-offs have to be made, and there's nothing wrong with letting them know they will be expected to justify every expense they incur.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK Gratuities: First and foremost under the category of onboard expenses will be your tips. Most cruise lines will assess your onboard account a set amount per day per person in your stateroom. So, say the amount is $10 per day and you have four people sharing the stateroom. That will amount to $40 a day multiplied by the number of days of your cruise. If we're looking at a seven-day cruise, that's $280 added to your shipboard bill before you've charged one other item to it.

While most cruise lines will allow you to adjust this amount, think carefully before doing so. Remember that the service people work hard for their money, and your tips pretty much are all they get. If you're happy with the service of your cabin steward, waiters and other personnel, you might want to just let this amount ride. But, of course, that's a personal decision that only you can make. Just be aware that you do have the flexibility to adjust this amount if you wish.

Shore Excursions: Most cruise lines offer their shore excursion booklets online. Some even have online booking available. Print a copy of the booklet for your cruise and check pricing on the excursions of interest. Again, your travel agent can help you out with this. Then go through the booklet and determine the cost of specific excursions and set up a plan. Perhaps each child will be allowed to pick one excursion that they really want to do. In the case of a "pricey" excursion, maybe only one parent can accompany the child, while the others do something entirely different, and far less costly, in that port.

Also, don't forget to visit message boards such as CruiseMates to see if there are independent excursion providers who offer the same experience for less money. Remember, the cruise line's excursions will usually be priced the highest. You can often get a better deal booking tours independently. Or, you might do better just choosing local beaches instead of that "catamaran snorkel experience with free soft drinks" at $40 per person.

Also, scour websites for your various ports of call to see what low cost, or even free attractions may be available. Everything fun doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. There are lots of relatively low cost walking tours or other sightseeing opportunities that can be tons of fun for kids. Climbing a fort, walking through natural rock formations, or visiting that historic town center, complete with mimes and other street performers, can be very entertaining for children. And then don't forget the beaches. Especially in the Caribbean, a great day at the beach can often be had for the mere price of the cab fare to get the family there.

SET YOUR OWN PRIORITIES TOO Not only do the kids have decisions to make, but you do as well. The best way to get the kids involved in budget setting for the cruise is to lead by example. To meet your budget constraints, you're gonna have to make some trade-offs as well.

Decide what is important to you as an adult and what is not.

Spa Use: Does your vacation have to include a day at the spa? If it does, then just plan carefully. Many cruise lines offer spa appointments at a much lower rate on port days, when most others are off exploring. If you're not picky about the specific time your treatment is scheduled, you could also do well waiting until near the end of the cruise to book your appointments. The spa may be offering substantial discounts by that time, especially if bookings have been "off" during your particular cruise.

Also, look into spa options in the individual ports on your itinerary. You might be able to get that hot stone massage at a day spa in port at a mere fraction of what you would pay onboard. Remember, everything onboard ship usually costs more. Do your research carefully and you could wind up with a far better experience at a considerable cost saving.

Food: Food is another item that runs up expenses. Sure, it's great to sample the local fare in each of your ports, but is that really important to you? If it is, then eat away. But if not, you can save some major bucks by taking all your meals on the ship where they are already paid for with your cruise fare. Food is something I refuse to pay extra for. I've got all the food I can eat already included, so I won't spend more than the bare minimum in port. On a recent Hawaii cruise, everyone at my dinner table went to a luau one evening. I stayed onboard ship. I had a great steak dinner in the Lido that night and went to a special local folkloric show that was presented on the ship that evening. The next day all of my table companions were grousing about the lousy time they had at the luau the night before. Obstructed views of the stage, sitting practically on top of one another, food that was rubbery and unappetizing, watered down drinks, etc. I was glad I saved the close to $200 bucks they spent and enjoyed a relaxed dinner onboard.

If your itinerary involves lots of island ports, you might want to consider bringing along a small picnic cooler in your luggage. Some zip-lock plastic bags will come in handy too. You can grab some cookies and other such snacks from the Lido, and then have your cooler filled with ice. Add some bottles of tap water to the mix, and you've got everything you need for snacking while spending the day at the beach. A more substantial meal can wait until you are back onboard the ship. Especially if you're traveling with kids, this strategy alone could save you boatloads of money.

Bottled Water: This is another area where you'll get "soaked." Each time you leave the ship, there will be bottles of water for sale. These are not cheap and can run anywhere from $2.00 to $4.00 a pop. Take a family of four and multiply that by four or more ports, and you've got a totally unnecessary expenditure of around $50.00 bucks. The tap water on the ship is better than many brands of bottled water on land. Why not bring a water bottle with you, and then just fill it up from the tap? Ice cold tap water is available in the Lido -- 24 hours a day. No one need know that Evian water bottle contains nothing more than plain old ship's tap water, and you'll be saving bucks that can be put to better use on your family's vacation. Be sure to ask your room steward to supply you with plenty of ice, or make a quick trip up to the Lido on the morning of your excursion to get some.

Soda and Alcoholic Drinks: Are these items really important to you? If so, by all means, spend the money for them. You can buy "Coke Cards" onboard which provide a set number of glasses of soda for a set price. Each time you order one at the bars or restaurants, the card is punched. Once all the punch holes are filled, game over. Some cruise lines even offer "unlimited" Coke stickers that are applied directly onto your cabin key card.

But, if having soda readily available onboard is not that important to you or the kids, you can save a lot of money by bringing your own. Most cruise lines will allow you to bring a reasonable supply of soft drinks and wine onboard. It's only hard liquor that's generally forbidden. So, why not bring a couple of bottles of wine and enjoy "cocktail hour" in your cabin? Your kids can enjoy their sodas from the limited supply in the fridge. You can even pour your glass of wine and bring it along with you to dinner or a lounge. There's nothing wrong with that. Unlike a bar on land, many people just sit and enjoy the before-dinner music. They don't ever buy a drink.

As for the kids, they have other options. Ice tea and juice is generally available in the Lido 24 by 7. They can supplement their limited supply of soda with all the iced tea they can drink. Have them each pack their travel mugs, the larger the better. Then before going to the pool to enjoy a leisurely day at sea, have them fill their mugs in the Lido. The larger mugs will hold more than the relatively small glasses provided in the Lido and will eliminate the necessity of making constant trips back and forth for refills.

On the subject of beverages, beware of the "pre-stocked" fridge. Generally cruise lines will pre-stock your refrigerator with various beverage items. Each day the stock is inventoried and replenished. The first thing I do when I get to my cabin is request these items be removed. This way there is no temptation to consume them in a moment of weakness.

Onboard Enrichment Classes: Maybe you like to learn new things while on vacation, and if that's the case, you will surely have a lot of opportunities available to you onboard. Many ships offer various computer classes, pottery making sessions, cooking and floral design workshops and a host of other enrichment pursuits. Then there's the spa. You can take classes on spinning, pilates, kickboxing, nutrition, skin care, and a host of other items. You can even set up an appointment to work with a personal trainer if you so desire. But remember, these things generally cost anywhere from $10 to $25 per session, and sometimes even more. Personal training sessions can be very pricey, often running in excess of $100 per hour. Hands on cooking and floral design classes carry a hefty price tag as well. Some classes also tack on the cost of supplies, such as the pottery making ones. If you're not careful, you can easily burn through $100 bucks or more in one afternoon at sea in this manner.

Decide what's truly important to you. Do you really need to take all those fitness classes when you're perfectly happy just working out in the gym (which is free, by the way)? Decide in advance what, if any, classes you want to take onboard and then stick to your plan.

Gaming: Various gaming opportunities present one of the biggest moneymakers for the cruise lines today. Just about every ship has a casino, and these can be deadly to the family budget. Many ships also have high tech video arcades which can be just as enticing for the children. Before you know it, you've burned through $50 bucks or more -- in just one afternoon of playing virtual reality simulators or the penny slots. Again, the trick here is to make a plan and stick to it. Let the kids know well in advance of the cruise that they will be expected to save their money for items like video arcades, just as mom and dad have to squirrel away their extra pennies for the casino onboard. If you're gonna let the kids play in the arcade, give them a set allowance on their Sea Pass card, and make sure they can't exceed this without your advance approval. Depending upon the ages and/or maturity level of your kids, you may wish to deactivate their cruise card for onboard spending, thus requiring them to come to you if they want to buy something, such as additional gaming time on an expired arcade card.

The same basic technique can be applied to the casino. Bring only so much money each visit, and no more. Refuse to take advances charged to your onboard account. By planning carefully for gaming expenses, and then sticking to your plan, you'll avoid those unnecessary (and often very painful) surprises on disembarkation day.

And, on the subject of onboard gaming, don't forget the ever-present Bingo. This can also be an expensive habit onboard, since games are usually scheduled at least twice a day, at $20 bucks per session.

Shopping: Some of us just love to shop, and there is nothing wrong with that. The key here, though, is to avoid impulse purchases, especially when they involve expensive items. Advance planning is a lifesaver in this area as well. If there is a high ticket item you wish to buy during your cruise, such as a piece of jewelry or camera equipment, price it out carefully before you leave home. Yes, you can often get a deal in a duty free shop on one of the islands, but you can just as easily get ripped off. Know what the item you wish to buy should generally cost. Factor in the taxes as well. Then, when you are in that duty-free shop on St. Thomas you will readily know if you are getting a good deal or not, and can bargain with the shopkeeper from a position of strength. Only if the numbers work to your advantage should you buy. Otherwise, buy the item from a trusted source at home.

The same goes for the onboard art auctions. If you are thinking about acquiring a certain piece for your art collection, make sure you know what that piece is truly worth. Sure the art auctioneers will tell you each piece you buy from them is guaranteed to appraise for at least twice its value, but the question is, appraise by whom? Scour the internet auction sites, and talk to some trusted art dealers at home. Know what a certain piece is worth. Then, when you get onboard ship, you'll know just how much to bid for it. Be aware too that the bid cost often does not include framing and shipping the item to your home. So factor in those expenses as well before deciding on your bid amount.

SUMMING UP I can't tell you how many sour faces I've seen while waiting to disembark. I can't even count the number of times I saw couples fighting over the money that was spent on a cruise. A rather close friend of mine said she would never set foot on a cruise ship again after the experience she had on her first cruise several years ago. She booked a sweet deal, as she called it, but wound up paying five times that amount by the time she was done. She said that while the cruise worked out to be the cheapest vacation option initially, by the time she factored in all of the extra costs, the cruise turned out to be one of the most expensive vacations she has ever taken.

This sort of thing can be avoided simply by doing some advance planning. Know what the cruise line will expect you to pay extra for, and then decide what YOU are willing to spend. Weigh the cost/benefit of each item carefully. If it's important to you, and vital to your vacation experience, then by all means spend. But if it's nothing more than "fluff," then make a conscious decision not to spend a dime on that item.

And don't forget to keep careful track of your spending while onboard. Some cruise lines let you check your account balance at any time via your interactive stateroom TV. Where this option is not available, a quick stop at the purser's desk can get you an up-to-date printout of your account at any time. Use this information to adjust your spending patterns daily. If you went a bit over the budget yesterday, simply tighten the belt an extra notch today.

Only by making careful spending choices you can avoid the impulse buying trap and have a thoroughly enjoyable cruise vacation in the process.

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