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Cruise-onomics: 12 money-saving tips

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 31 - 2017

Cruising is one of the best vacation values going. The all-inclusive fare includes accommodations, meals and entertainment. But did you know that cruise lines get most of their revenue from the things passengers buy aboard ship? Yep. That’s why they aggressively peddle their photos, spa services, art auctions, shore excursions, jewelry, casino and drinks of the day.

Do you really need that faux-gold-by-the-inch jewelry or another souvenir cocktail glass? If you’re not careful, you can easily spend more for onboard extras than you did on the cruise fare. The key to avoiding a bank-breaking bill is knowing what to expect.

Tipping. Except on a few luxury cruise ships, which have no tipping required policies, you are expected to tip your cabin steward, dining room waiter and assistant waiter. Don’t fight it. These crew members work very hard for low wages, and your tips are necessary to their livelihood. Many lines recommend that each passenger tip on average about $13 per day, as follows: cabin steward, $5.50; dining room waiter and assistant waiter, $6.50 (shared); bistro service waiter and cooks, $1. Bar bills are automatically charged a 15 percent gratuity for the bartender. Special service personnel such as the maitre ‘d, deck stewards and bellmen should be tipped as service is rendered; for other crew tips, payment at the end of the cruise is customary.

Airport transfers. The cost of a round-trip airport transfer purchased through the cruise line is often $60 per person or more. A better (and often faster) way to get to and from the ship is by local taxi or Uber or Lyft. The fare is usually around $30 for a cab and less for Uber and Lyft.  Best of all you can take up to four people.

Photo opps. It starts before you even set foot on the ship, with the obligatory pose by the S.S. Life Preserver. Ship photographers are everywhere — in the dining room, on the pool deck, in the showroom. You’ll feel like you are being stalked by paparazzi before you sit down to your first dinner. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to have your picture taken and you don’t have to buy any photo taken of you. Considering that prices range from $20 to $30 for each picture, you can certainly save a lot of money by bringing your own camera and asking fellow passengers to snap photos for you. On the other hand, professional portraits do make nice souvenirs, especially when you’re all gussied up for the formal night of the cruise.

Art auctions. Shipboard art auctions can be a lot of fun, and they do offer free champagne and that’s the problem. If you’re not careful with the cheap bubbly, you could end up owning a picture that resembles four dogs playing poker. I’ve seen this happen a number of times, and I’ve seen the remorseful bidder go home hundreds of dollars poorer. If you see something you really like, take a picture of it and see if a local art gallery can find it or something like it for you. You usually get better art deals on land, where you can play the competition among art galleries.

Bar bill. Soft drinks, bottled water and alcoholic drinks can really add up. These refreshments are seldom included in the cruise fare, except on luxury cruises, so you have to think ahead. Find out if your ship offers a soda package — a deal that offers unlimited sodas for $44,  a real boon for people traveling with kids. Cruise lines prefer that you buy alcoholic drinks directly from them, but you can bring your own wine aboard to be served to you at dinner. The catch is that you will be charged a corkage fee usually around $10 per bottle. (Do not try to bring bottles of liquor aboard; the cruise line will confiscate them, though they will return them to you at the end of the cruise; however, you might get away with a flask.) One of the easiest ways to save beverage money is to bring a water bottle or coffee mug on board and fill it up in the self-serve buffet. Instead of plopping down $2 for a bottle of water, I fill up a few of my own.

Specialty restaurants. Many mainstream and premium cruise lines now have onboard alternative restaurants, which offer specialty menus with prices ranging from $15 to $75 per person. Sure, the food is interesting, but is it any better than what’s served in the ship’s dining room for free? It depends on your taste and what the cruise line is offering. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a variety of excellent alternative dining choices, including an amazing teppanyaki table experience at a reasonable cost of $25.

Internet access. Most ships have Internet access, but they often charge a fee. Some cruise lines like Viking River and Viking Ocean offer unlimited internet access whereas most offer package deals for a set fee. You can save a lot of money by visiting an Internet facility in port. Ask a crew member where to find an Internet cafe on shore, or check out the local public library, where you can sometimes check your e-mail for free.

Gambling. Shipboard casinos are getting bigger and bigger, which means that more and more money is being lost at sea. If you decide to roll the dice, set a limit on how much you are willing to risk, then leave as soon as you lose it.

Spa services. While pampering should be part of every cruise vacation, frequenting the ship’s spa can be costly. A massage can range anywhere from $80 to $180 per hour not to mention the 18 percent tip. You can save money on spa treatments by looking for discounted spa specials, which are usually offered when the ship is in port. Keep in mind that the spa staff works on commission; this means you will often get a sales pitch for their products after your treatments. Unless you really like the products, don’t feel obliged to purchase them. Many shipboard spas feature products by Steiner Leisure. If you like them, check out the prices on TimeToSpa.com; you can often get a better deal there than on the ship.

Shore excursions. Shore excursions can be pricey, especially on such destination-intensive itineraries as Alaska, Europe and Hawaii. In most cases, it’s easy to arrange your own excursions and save money. Visit the port’s official tourism Web site for up-to-date information on tour operators and pricing. You can find a comprehensive list of worldwide tourism sites at JohnnyJet.com.

Companies that specialize in planning tours for cruise passengers include Viator and Shore Trips. Both allow you to book your shore excursions before you leave home, and the savings can be significant.  If you are going to Alaska, try to get your hands on Alaska TourSaver.  You can order the book or download the App, both offer coupons for free admissions, two-for-one tours, flight-seeing, whale watching, free car rentals, second night free hotels and much more.

Despite the cost, there is one very good reason to purchase your shore excursions through the cruise line: If your excursion runs late, the ship will not leave port without you. Anytime you schedule an independent trip, you lose that safety net, so be sure to leave enough time to get back to the ship before departure because, believe me, the ship will leave without you.

Laundry. Laundry and dry cleaning charges on a cruise can be exorbitant. For example, a T-shirt can cost $4 to wash and a pair of underwear $2. Check to see if there is a self-service launderette. That will be much cheaper typically $3 to $5 per load. If you don’t feel like doing your own laundry and need some clean clothes, don’t despair. Most cruise lines set aside one day on each voyage when they will wash a bag of laundry for a set fee, usually $15 to $25 per bag (the cruise line provides the bag).

Film and sundries. Buy plenty of film and other camera supplies at home, because once on board, the price doubles.  The same can be said for pain relievers, sunscreen and many other small, personal-use items.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating spending nothing aboard ship, just that you stay the course within your allotted budget. If you don’t, your next hard-earned cruise vacation could be at risk.

By Anita Dunham-Potter (editor@www.expertcruiser.com)

© www.expertcruiser.comYour online consumer guide for cruise travel and information.

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12 Responses to “Cruise-onomics: 12 money-saving tips”

  1. John F says:

    Good article. I agree with MOST of it 😉

    Often times the transfer to the ship is a better deal. You cannot assume a cab is $20 everywhere. Compare the cost of a transfer from LHR to Southampton and a cab.

    And as for the Internet–if you must have internet, pay for it. Most people will not want to wast their shore time looking for a cafe–the best time for internet access on board is while your girlfriend (or wife) is screwing around getting ready for that formal night!

  2. The one that catches a lot of the younger crowd is buying drinks each night (or all day!) alcohol can really hit you in the pocket, especially since after a few you don’t care how much it costs 🙂

  3. Fred says:

    Nice job. I completely agree with you.

  4. Bob Fast says:

    This blog is very interesting, I’ll be visiting here again. Keep up the good work!

  5. Charity says:

    Just so you know: I just got cruise docs for our Mediterranean trip in about 3 weeks (hooray!), and Celebrity’s corking fee is $25!

    Also, when we were last on Celebrity, they had drinks specials. If you got the cocktail of the day, it was half price.

  6. Marco Rigby says:

    I just looked at your RSS feed and it gave me an error. Can you post your RSS feed url when you have a chance? I don’t check email very often.

  7. Stephen Dunn says:

    Some great tips here. When I booked my first cruise I found some really good hints and tips about money saving ways to cheapen your cruise at http://www.cruise.co.uk/, I think when I go to book my next cruise I will have to try some of these ideas. Lets hope they actually do work! 🙂

  8. Well, one thing I was never sure of is how much to tip employees on cruise ships. I would of given a $1. lol. So that is good to know. Drinks are expensive. Can we bring our own Pabst beer in our suitcases? Jk.. Thank you for answering some of my questions. Now I am not looking forward to my honeymoon.

  9. Karl says:

    Spending money on food, tipping, laundry or drinks is worth. However, losing bucks in gambling seems sheer waste of money. The best way to save money while cruising, or while on a holiday is taking part in every activity, but limiting yourself. Thanks for a an article that provides a comprehensive list of money saving tips.

  10. I definitely could have used this list before I ventured on my first cruise. We found all free activities when we got to our destinations which was a big money saver. But I have to agree, be careful with the gambling, that was my big downfall because I had just turned 18.

  11. Cory says:

    I got hammered with a bar bill on our first cruise. Are there any affordable all inclusives for the bar tab?

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