We just returned from a 16-day cruise, and I'm always amazed at how many fellow passengers face bills from their onboard accounts that exceed the amount paid for their cruise fare. A cruise can be a bargain vacation, but beware, the low fare is a loss leader.
These days, unless you take a high-end cruise that includes the tips, you'll owe a big bill for the automatic gratuities. For example, the service charge on our last cruise was $13.50 per person a day. We used to present an envelope filled with cash to our cabin steward and servers on the last night of the cruise—and that option still exists on many cruise lines—but now with "anytime dining," i.e., "freestyle" or "open seating" it's fairer to go ahead and allow the pooled gratuities. (Hopefully, the money makes it to the people who served you; you'll hear conflicting stories from staff about how equitably the tips are allocated.)
When we first started cruising, many amenities were complimentary: assorted flavors of premium ice cream at a stand by the pool, soft drinks at the buffet, cappuccino after dinner, room service. The gym used to be free; now there are many classes or exercise machines you have to pay to use and secluded relaxation areas only accessible for an extra fee. Just like at home, you have to decide if the pampering is worth the cost.
More and more items offered on cruise ships incur a charge: bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees, specialty ice cream, specialty restaurants. If you indulge, it adds up. We avoid the bottled water expense by bringing water bottles from the airplane and refilling them so we can take water with us when we go ashore. We chill it in the cabin's refrigerator and request a daily bucket of ice to chill our glasses of tap water when we drink in the room. I can do without soft drinks, but my husband likes an occasional cola. We'll buy soda in a grocery store in port and bring it on board (spending around one dollar as opposed to five).
Not being gamblers, we're not tempted by the casino or the growing bingo jackpot. But plenty of passengers are. It can be good fun in moderation. Someone has to win that jackpot. I haven't heard about many people winning big in the casino, though. And those who do usually go back and "reinvest" their winnings. If you play in the casino, set aside an amount you're willing to lose each day (an "entertainment budget") and then stop when it's gone.
As soon as the ship leaves port, the shops in the atrium open up, always advertising some sort of "sale." The T-shirts you didn't get around to buying in the last port. Alcohol and perfume because it's "duty-free." And of course, jewelry. Spend your sea day shopping when you get tired of lying out by the pool. My solution: resist. There's nothing in those shops I need. Keep walking. Go find a nice corner to curl up with a good book.
And then there's the spa/beauty salon. As soon as you board, spa employees coax you to take a complimentary tour, bribe you with free demos and giveaways. You can even have your teeth whitened or get acupuncture. At the end of your free tour, the sweet sales person with the charming accent tries to make you feel guilty if you don't book an appointment. On a previous cruise, one of our tablemates bought $800 worth of stones—he wasn't sure what they did—because he didn't want to hurt the salesgirl's feelings. He suffered from buyer's remorse almost the same day.
I once won a $100 gift certificate to the spa. I was excited until I looked at the price list. My gift certificate wasn't valid for anything I might want, like a haircut, manicure, or massage. The cheapest treatment it could be used for cost $229. I offered my coupon to my table mates and trivia partners, but I couldn't even give it away!
Probably the biggest expense for most travelers (and revenue generator for the cruise line) is alcohol. The markup is so high on board that many passengers try to smuggle their own stash. But the cruise lines are fighting back, confiscating onshore alcohol purchases and keeping the liquor in storage until the last night of the cruise. If they catch you at embarkation, you might not get it back at all.
Our cruise line allowed us each to bring on board one bottle of wine or champagne. However, if you want it served to you in the dining room (and most wine drinkers like wine with their meals), they assess a corkage fee. Some wine connoisseurs feel that, even with the corkage fee, they can still enjoy a better bottle of wine for less than if they bought from the ship's wine list. So far, we haven't been chastised or charged for bringing a glass of wine (poured elsewhere) into the dining room.
Some passengers opt for beverage packages, but the last one I saw was $60 per day per person. And it doesn't even entitle you to premium drinks or bottles of wine in the dining room—you can only order the house wine by the glass. On a cruise last year, one of our tablemates bought a beverage package. Whenever we saw him, he was red-faced, bent over one of the ship's bars, determined to drink his money's worth. He probably doesn't remember where the cruise went.
Because it's so hard to get a free or reasonably priced alcoholic beverage on board, some passengers are sucked into attending the art auctions, with the promise of free champagne. It seems that almost every ship I've sailed on in the past decade holds art auctions on sea days, so the cruise lines must be making money from them.
I have yet to receive a bill for an onboard account that exceeded my cruise fare. But I'm glad there are others who do; the extra revenue the cruise lines are making from onboard sales keeps the fares low!
What tips do you have for saving money on a cruise? I'd love to hear your comments.