Nickel & Diming on Cruise Ships

A history of cruise line strategies for getting more money from you onboard

Buy, buy, buy, the special moments on a cruise!

I see articles with titles like, "watch out for these hidden charges on cruise ships" all the time. They usually mention the high cost of bottled water or Internet access. But those of us who have been around awhile remember many more tricks the cruise lines have tried to generate more on board revenue, some successful and other rejected after an outpouring of complaints from the customers, often in forums like the one for this web site. Let's look at some of the wackier on board charges for cruise lines.

The "Welcome Aboard Cocktail" - one of the oldest schemes in the book. In the old days, upon your arrival finer cruise lines would hand you a complimentary glass of champagne - a very refined, and now rarified practice.

Now the common ruse is to have waiters with trays full of tall, thick and colorful tropical cocktails, usually with names like "Rum Paradiso." "Would you like a 'welcome aboard' cocktail?" he will ask as he extends the tray. As soon as you take your first sip he produces an invoice in the amount of $12 for the drink and the souvenir glass (molded plastic emblazoned with the name of the cruise line) which you "get to" keep.

You have already taken a sip - there is no backing out now! But you can tell him you don't want to keep the glass and he should say "just make sure I get it back when you are done."

Corkage Fees: Staying in the alcoholic drink category; almost all cruise lines now allow you to bring a bottle of wine onboard, one per adult, which is actually quite generous of them. The practice was started because some people had been saving special bottles for a special occasion that they wanted to bring on the cruise with them. But watch out for the "corkage fee." If you choose to bring that bottle of wine to any dining room or other public room other than your own stateroom you will be charged for opening it - as much as $25 per bottle. Yes, that is a lot considering you paid for that bottle of wine.

Service Charges: Another hidden "nickel & dimer" is the "service charge" added to every drink you order. Read the ticket you sign when served a drink; you will see a service charge as high as 18% has already been added. Yes, that is a lot. But then they also add a line suggesting you add an additional gratuity. If you add a dollar (a fairly common tip for a drink in a bar) - you have just paid $10.44 for an $8 cocktail.

Fruit Juice: It used to be very common to find self-service apple, orange and cranberry juice in the buffet stations, until some cruise lines got the idea of "fresh-squeezed" juices for as much as $5.00 a serving.

Bottled Water: Everybody needs water, and most cruise lines leave a couple of tall bottles in the stateroom for you upon arrival. But what you may not know is that you will be charged anywhere from $3.50 to $6.00 per bottle, depending on the size.

Soda: But perhaps the biggest "nickel & dimer" on ships, in my opinion, is the pre-paid soda card. These cards tend to cost about $45 for a seven day cruise; or about $6.50 per day. Yes, if your kid is going to order more than two Cokes per day that is probably a money saver, but it is a lot cheaper to develop their palate for iced tea (free in the buffet area).

Premium Steaks in Main Dining Room: Royal Caribbean was the first to come up with this idea. The ships have a steakhouse where you can get a 12-ounce filet mignon or a 24-ounce porterhouse for about $25, but the line decided to offer the same steak in the main dining room at a surcharge of about $15. Actually it makes sense, assuming you understand that you are getting the same steak for which you would pay a premium in the steakhouse, but if you went to the steakhouse you would also get a much grander selection of appetizers and desserts.

The Most Common "Nickel & Diming" Complaints

Here are some of the typical cruise charges which we hear about the most as being overpriced or unexpected:

Transfers: Any time a cruise line charges you to get to the ship it is a bit usurious. It especially irks me when the ships docks in a teeny utility port on a small island and then has a bus available to take you to the nearest semblance of civilization, but they want to charge you $5 per person transfer fee. What choice do you have? There is nothing to see where you except tractors and wooden pallets. Of course you have to pay the fee.

Airport transfers can also be a rip-off. If the cruise line wants to charge you $35 per person to get you and your spouse from Miami Airport to the Miami Cruise Terminal then take a taxi. It will transport the two of you for the same price - and they leave right away.

Gratuities: In fact, when it comes to tipping Americans are known to be most amenable. We know people expect tips and we leave them without a second thought. But the Brits are not so accommodating. "Over there" a common tip is often 5%, if the person tips at all. In Europe the service charge is not added in to the bill, but dining in a restaurant can be very expensive solely because they do not expect you to tip. The tip is built in to the cost of the food. Australians are the Western world's least likely tippers - they simply do not have the custom of tipping over there.

The Souvenir DVD: Many people pay as much as $100 for a souvenir DVD of their cruise having been told it contains nothing but footage from that cruise and that "they" are included. When they watch the DVD they sometimes find it is full of "B-roll" (a film industry term for stock footage) from previous cruises. Suffice it to say, they probably only watch it once.

Photographs: before the advent of digital cameras cruise ship portraiture was a logical and lucrative business. The onboard photographers would take your pictures, develop the film, and have lovely 8x10s glossies for you to view within a couple a days. They worked very hard and put out a high quality product. Today, everyone in the world and their dog owns a digital camera. My phone can take better pictures than the average digital camera of just five years ago. But to make matters even worse, the onboard photography has started using cheaper paper, and the prices have skyrocket to as much as $20 for a large print.

Embarrassing Attempts at Nickel & Diming that Failed

Sports Activities: When Royal Caribbean first started adding sports activities to its ships the line decided to charge people to use them. They itemized the "Flo-Rider," the rock climbing, goofy-golf and other diversions and came up with menu of prices they intended to impose at a future date. Such a hue and cry went up in the cruise forums that the entire idea was dropped within two weeks. For the first time a cruise line had to admit being "done in" by cyberspace, and beg forgiveness for its transgression. For the record, subsequent attempts by cyber users to have other cruise line charges eliminated have not been nearly as successful.

The Princess Camera Fiasco: One of the most memorable attempts at "onboard charge trickery" (although the line would prefer to forget this) was when Princess started leaving disposable film cameras in the rooms of each guest with a message telling them they were welcome to use the camera to create happy memories of their vacation. What they did not mention was that if the person opened the camera packaging they were charged something $9.95 for the camera. People did not see the charge until their final bill came on the last day of the cruise. Those who complained had the charge removed, and Princess wisely ended this practice after just a few months.

Entertainment Charge: I will not mention the cruise line here because my memory is foggy and I cannot find a reference online because it happened so long ago - but I distinctly recall hearing about a cruise line attempting to charge people to see a show in the main theater. It was a mainstream cruise line and the show had something of a Broadway theme. Guests who had been on the ship reported in our forums that they were told tickets to see the show were something like $20 per person. Needless to say, that was a one-time event and then we never heard about it again.

Ice Cream: When Princess cruises started charging extra for servings of ice cream way back in the 1990s it was truly scandalous. Very few cruise lines had ever tried charging anything extra for any kind of food before. But Princess had special "ice cream parlors" set up on the pool deck and a cup or cone was about $2.50. When people complained the official response all crewmembers were trained to give was "But it's Haagen Dasz." - It didn't matter, back in those days charging for ice cream made many cruisers insane with rage. This one didn't actually fail, but the amount of abuse Princess took for having it probably did not justify whatever money they made with it.

Nickel & Diming That has Succeeded

There are some examples where the cruise lines have imposed new charges for things and the cruisers have quietly accepted it as a new reality. A good example is the first alternative dining restaurants. When the concept was new (Norwegian Cruise Line was one of the first lines to charge extra for a premium restaurant with its "Le Bistro" that appeared as far back as 1992) many cruisers said they would never pay extra for any food on a cruise ship. They said "good food Is part of the expected cruise experience." In a way they were right to have concern, as many people will say the quality of food in the average main dining room on some cruise lines, especially those with an abundance of alternative restaurants, has slipped over the years.

Charges for Entertainment: Norwegian has devised a sneaky way to get people to pay for entertainment on ships; by including a meal such as with the new "Cirque Dreams" shows. However, according to many people who try it, it is questionable whether the meal or the show was worthy of the cost of admission on its own - so does putting them together justify the price? It doesn't matter, the show is basically a success.

Back of House Tours: Want to see the galley, the engine control room, the bridge (where the captain steers the ship?) In the old days you could sign up for this tour and it was free on a first-come/first serve basis. Today many cruise lines are charging for this tour, and it isn't cheap. The Princess "Ultimate Ship Tour" can cost $150 per person. Other cruise lines offer similar tours.

By the way - on Norwegian's newer ships there is a "free" viewing area where you can see the officers working on the bridge - and it is well worth seeking out.

Room Service: Royal Caribbean made a rule several years ago that any room service orders made between midnight and 5:00 am are charged a $3.95 surcharge. Now, room service is usually free on cruise ships, for the food as well as the service, so if the most you ever pay is $3.95 that is still a great deal. But they are the only American cruise line to impose a charge for room service. However, a room service surcharge and even charges per menu item are not unusual on European cruise lines like MSC Cruises.

Shopping Programs: Those of you who attend the "recommended shopping" lectures for your ports of call are really doing the cruise line a big service. The only stores that get recommended for these lectures are those who pay the cruise line. So, essentially you are listening to a long advertisement for stores have to charge you more in order to afford being included in the cruise line's shopping program. The only thing that would be more usurious would be an island where the cruise line actually owns the stores where you are shopping. Actually, that happens, too.

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