10 Hidden Costs of Cruising and How to Save Money

10 Hidden Costs of Cruising and How to Save Money
Cruises can be budget-friendly vacations if you’re savvy. Think about it: the cost of a cruise includes lodging, meals, snacks, activities and entertainment are all free to some extent. But, really, how much is a cruise?

There are some things you may want to do or experience on your cruise — but they may cost you extra. And those fees can quickly increase overall cruise prices and your final bill.

While it’s A-okay to stick to what’s included with your cruise fare, the truth is that most cruisers add on a few extras. That can include shore excursions, dinners at specialty restaurants that aren’t built into your fare, spa treatments, cocktails and soda, Wi-Fi and more.

In truth, “all-inclusive” is a term that really only applies to a handful of high-priced luxury cruises.

If you want the full cruise experience, you’ll need to set aside some cash to cover these extra expenses. To make sure the incidentals don’t break the bank for you, here are 10 things that will cost you extra onboard (and how to score them at a discount).

1. How to Lower Cruise Prices: Saving Money on Shore Excursions

Ventures by Seabourn (Photo: Seabourn)

Ventures by Seabourn (Photo: Seabourn)

Cruise lines sell shore excursions — guided tours and experiences in the various ports of call — but they do inflate prices above what the actual tour operators charge.

Prices for these cruise ship shore excursions range from about $35 per person for a quick city and shopping tour to more than $300 for some all-day tours, overland programs including meals and snacks, and such over-the-top offerings as helicopter flightseeing and hot-air ballooning

Most tours are priced somewhere between $50 and $175 per person, depending on the length and activities involved, and it is worth noting that prices for many excursions can be higher in some areas of the world. Alaska, for example, consistently has some of the industry’s highest per-person excursion costs, while many Caribbean itineraries offer tours for less.

First-time cruisers may want to take it slow by dipping their toes into excursions before signing up for all-day tours. Some cruise ship’s packages may even come with discounts on excursions.

Self-Guided Tours Can Save You Cash

While you might wish to sign up for some of the ship’s tours (particularly if you’re not familiar with the port and do not speak the language), you also have the option to tour independently at a fraction of the cost — or even for free, if you go on a self-guided walking tour.

Before setting sail, visit your ports’ tourist boards online or Cruise Critic’s Destinations section to get ideas on things to see and how to get around on your own in port. Online travel guides and apps can also help you plan your time ashore.

Looking to lower the average cruise cost per person? Become your own tour guide and orchestrate your itinerary.

Look for Free Local Festivals for Entertainment Onshore

Local festivals and craft displays can be sources of good, free entertainment. Parks, beaches and art galleries are other free or nominally-charged attractions to check out. Or perhaps you prefer to simply wander through town, browsing in shops and stopping for a coffee or snack.

Book an Independent Tour Through Tripadvisor, Viator or Other Trusted Tour Resource

If you decide to hire a car and driver to give you a private tour (generally less expensive than the ship excursions, especially if you have a group) or just to take you to the center of town, always agree on the price (and, in the case of a tour, which specific points of interest will be covered) before you get into the car.

If you do want an organized tour, you can book directly with a tour operator or through third-party shore excursion sellers; you might save a few dollars that way.

When booking any independent tour, always plan to arrive back at the ship well before the all-aboard time for passengers. Unlike those on ship-sponsored tours, ships will generally not wait for passengers who arrive late to the vessel after independent touring.

Not sure if a cruise line shore tour is worth the splurge? Find out in our feature Ship-Sponsored or Independent Shore Excursions: Which Is Right for You.

2. How to Lower Cruise Prices: Save Money on For-Fee Specialty Dining

Wide-angle shot of La Mer tables on Sky Princess, without passengers

La Mer on Sky Princess (Photo: Dori Saltzman/Cruise Critic)

All ships offer free dining in the ship’s main dining room and buffet, but nearly every ship today has one or many extra-fee dining venues (specialty restaurants).

You’ll pay extra for everything from casual Italian to exclusive private degustation experiences and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs. Meals at specialty restaurants are unfortunately not included with cruise tickets.

Even room service, once free 24/7, now comes with a surcharge on many lines, with fees applied for certain items during certain late-evening hours or all the time.

Lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean tack on a fee to all room service orders, which certainly increases cruise costs.

Most alternative restaurants charge in the range of $15 to $60 per person (or more), but a chef’s table experience or wine-paired meal could be upward of a hundred per passenger.

Some lines, like Norwegian, are starting to move toward a la carte prices in their alternative venues. Specialty dessert venues, dinner theater, pizza delivery and even pub grub could cost extra. Keep these extras in mind while cruising so you’ll end up with an average cruise cost.

Stick to the Free Dining Options on Your Cruise

You can typically find 24/7 dining for free onboard, and main dining room meals are often quite good, with multiple courses and decadent desserts. The newest, largest ships often have additional casual, fee-free eateries.

Carnival is a good cruise line to choose if you want variety in free dining options.

Leverage Any Onboard Credit Toward a Specialty Dining Charge

If you’re tempted by the specialty options — and many are worth a splurge — just be sure to budget the price of dinner into your onboard spending (or skip those afternoon cocktails or wine with dinner to mitigate the cost).

Alternatively, look for cruise deals that offer onboard credit or free meals in specialty venues as part of the incentive package to book. Some cruise ship packages offer perks to get tickets booked quickly.

Look for Package Bundles of Curated Specialty Restaurants

Some lines, including Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, offer dining packages that bundle several for-fee restaurants for a discounted rate; others, like Holland America, offer lunch in the specialty venues for a lower price than dinner, allowing you to enjoy the alternative dining experience at a lesser cost.

You can enjoy specialty restaurants and food while keeping the cost of a cruise manageable.

Avoid Room Service to Save on Fees That Add Up

Finally, consider skipping room service if there is a surcharge for it, especially if your cruise cost is high. With the exception of the small hours of the morning, food is usually available almost around-the-clock in other dining venues, and can generally be brought back to your cabin from casual eateries like the buffet or onboard burger joint.

Read about the best cruise ship alternative restaurants that are definitely worth paying for.

3. Cruise Ship Drinks: How to Save Money on Alcohol and Other Beverages

Water, iced tea, milk, coffee, tea and juices are free during meals, but alcoholic beverages are not included in the cruise fare on most lines (with the exception of some luxury lines and river cruises).

Many cruises also charge for soda, bottled water, certain juices and espresso-based drinks. Your drink tab can quickly add up as you’ll be paying restaurant — not grocery store — prices for your beverages, as well as an automatic gratuity on your bill in the range of 18 to 20 percent.

If you’re conscious about your drink spending, adding up our money saving tips will help you lower cruise costs quite a substantial amount.

Look for Daily Drink Specials and Happy Hours to Lower Your Drink Bill

Many cruise ships advertise discounted daily drink specials or offer happy hour specials that are advertised in the daily cruise planner. These can be a great way to get your drink on without spending a fortune. Holland America Line still offers daily happy hours in the Ocean Bar, for example.

Skip the Souvenir Glass to Save More Money

If you’re ever offered a drink in a souvenir glass (usually at sailaway on the pool deck on the first day), ask for the drink in a regular glass instead; you will likely save a few bucks.

Ship-Hosted Events Might Include Free Drinks

Look for events with free booze, such as Champagne art auctions or captain’s cocktail parties. At meals, you can order a bottle of wine and save whatever you don’t finish for the next night, which can be cheaper than ordering wine by the glass. The bottle is simply marked with your room number and brought to your table the following evening.

Check Out Drink Packages and Consider Your Beverage Consumption Needs

Most lines offer beverage packages, which have options from just soda to multiple bottles of wine and unlimited alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. However, you need to make sure you drink enough to actually see savings.

Keep in mind that these packages are priced per person, not per cabin, and that all members of a stateroom have to purchase them. This can make drink packages very expensive, sometimes pushing nearly $800 total on top of the price of the cruise — and most lines will want an 18 percent auto gratuity when you purchase the package.

Do the math: If you have to drink six or seven cocktails per day to break even, but only typically have a beer or a few glasses of wine, the cost/value benefit may not be there.

Many lines will allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine onboard, but you might have to pay a corkage fee if you drink it in a restaurant.

Cruise line alcohol policies are highly restrictive, so be sure to read your line’s rules.

4. How to Lower Cruise Prices: Saving Money on Cruise Spa and Salon Treatments

Hydro Pool on Eurodam

Hydro Pool on Eurodam

Cruise line spas charge rates equal to high-end salons, and you might be shocked by the prices. A 50-minute massage is typically about $120 to $180, with more exotic treatments running higher into the $200 to $400 (not to mention medispa treatments, which can start in the four-figure range). Plus, rates don’t include an automatic gratuity that typically runs 18 percent.

Passes to thermal suites and thalassotherapy pools offer a per day rate averaging $25 to $40, with cruise-long packages also available that run between $100 to $200 per voyage, with couple’s packages offering a slight discount.

When considering the cruise cost in its entirety, don’t forget to add on extras, like relaxing visits to the spa. Hitting the spa doesn’t mean you have to blow your budget and increase the average cost of a cruise. By taking advantage of discounts, you can lower your bill.

Time Your Spa Visits for Discounted Days

Take advantage of spa discounts, typically offered on embarkation and port days when the spa is less busy. Check your ship’s daily program for spa treatment specials that might be available one day only or during certain hours.

Some lines offer progressive discounts if you book multiple treatments all at once. This is a great way to lower your overall average cruise price.

Avoid the After-Treatment Sales Pitch to Keep Cruise Costs Low

Resist the product sales pitch that often (bordering on always) comes at the end of your appointment. Better yet, ask up front not to be bothered with sales pitches at all.

Does the spa menu have you overwhelmed? Check out our breakdown of cruise ship spa services.

5. How to Lower Sneaky Cruise Prices: Keeping More of Your Money on Cruise Ship Activities

Go-Kart Racetrack on Norwegian Bliss

Go-Kart Racetrack on Norwegian Bliss

While many onboard activities are free, other special activities incur extra fees. Among them are fitness classes like Pilates, yoga and spinning; wine-tasting events; after-hours group babysitting for young children; behind-the-scenes tours; and bingo and casino play.

New attractions like laser tag, escape rooms and IMAX movies often come with an extra fee that can vary by line and ship.

When considering how much a cruise costs overall, keep in mind that many fun extras and activities will increase your total bill.

Free Entertainment Abounds on Cruise Ships — Use It

You can certainly stay entertained with free activities. Attend shows, live music performances, cooking demos, pool or trivia games and free lectures — or simply spend your time chilling by the pool, reading a book or chatting with your travel companions.

Many of the top entertainment offerings — Broadway productions, onboard surfing and watersliding, live music and comedy acts — are free (though reservations might be required).

If you’re intrigued by the for-fee activities, set a budget and choose the ones you find most interesting.

For the lowdown on which activities are free and which incur a fee, read up on what’s included in your cruise fare.

6. The Cost of Laundry on Your Cruise: Saving Money on Laundry and Dry-Cleaning

Guest Laundry on Marina

Guest Laundry on Marina

Laundry and dry-cleaning charges on a cruise can be steep (approximately $3 to $7 to wash and press a shirt, for instance). Check to see if there is a self-service launderette, and use it. Typically, washing and drying one load of clothes comes to a reasonable price, though some lines offer complimentary self-service laundry.

If you’ve signed up for an adventurous month-long cruise, ask about their laundry services, availability and pricing before setting sail. While the cruise ticket price may be a good one, extras like laundry, activities and drinks can certainly add up.

Opt for Extra Clothing in Your Luggage or Consider Light Washing in Your Bathroom Sink

You have two options here: Pack enough clothes for the cruise and do the wash back home, or bring your own travel-sized detergent, wash necessities in your cabin sink and hang-dry them in the shower.

Washing a few clothing items yourself is a savvy way to save money and lower the overall cruise price. Or stay true to your favorite cruise line. Some upper-tier loyalty program members receive free laundry service as a status perk.

If you’re really motivated, you can also find a laundromat in port — it could be a cultural experience!

Find out how much cruise line laundry services will cost you.

7. Tipping on Your Cruise: How Much to Tip Cruise Staff

Cruise Line Tipping Policies (Photo: elwynn/Shutterstock.com)

Cruise Line Tipping Policies (Photo: elwynn/Shutterstock.com)

Tipping policies vary by line; most mainstream cruise lines recommend about $14 to $20 per person, per day, to be distributed among those who provide key services: dining room waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards. Check with your cruise line for best tipping practices.

If you have a suite, be prepared to tip extra. These are generally automatically added to your cruise account.

Additionally, bar tabs are automatically charged a 15 to 20 percent gratuity; some lines also add on a 15 to 20 percent gratuity to spa services. When the maitre d’ performs a special service, such as arranging for a birthday cake to be brought to the table, he should be tipped as well.

Travelers on ships catering to Brits and Australians will find that tips are sometimes built into the cruise fares.

When asking the rather loaded question, “How much is it to go on a cruise?” consider the cost of cruise tickets, then add up all the add-ons and extras to get a more realistic total.

Cruise Staff Work Hard — Allow the Autogratuities to Stand

Generally, tipping on a cruise is not and should not be an area where you can save money. You can adjust the auto-gratuities at the ship’s purser’s desk or choose to tip below the recommended amount if you feel you’ve received subpar service.

However, Cruise Critic discourages this in most cases. The ship’s crew members — particularly the waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards — work hard and depend on tips to round out their salaries.

If you are disappointed with service, speak in person to guest services while you’re still on the ship — it’s more effective and can generally resolve most issues. Don’t wait until you are home to complain about an issue.

If tipping drives you crazy, let us lead you to sanity with the ultimate guide to cruise ship tipping.

Victoria's Secret on Carnival Horizon (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Victoria’s Secret on Carnival Horizon (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Most people purchase something to remember their cruise, and it can be tough to pass on the beautiful — and expensive — figurines, perfumes, designer fashions and leather goods if your budget doesn’t allow for them.

Even tacky trinkets and T-shirts can add up if you’re buying for your extended family-and-friend network. Prices can range from low-budget tee’s to a piece of jewelry valued in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Wait Until the End of Your Cruise for Big Souvenir Sales

Avoid temptation by not browsing in the boutiques onboard and ashore if you cannot afford to buy. Typically, bargain tables appear on ships toward the end of a cruise, so wait for the latter portion to buy onboard if you’re so inclined.

Unfortunately, most cruise ship packages don’t include souvenirs. Using shopping sales to your advantage is a great way to reduce the average cost of a cruise.

Compare Prices on Items You Can Easily Buy at Home Instead

If you do plan to purchase jewelry, clothing or duty-free liquor onboard, check the prices of merchandise at stores back home, and bring a list so you can compare prices. Remember that the prices on ships are not always deals.

Consider Skipping the Art Auction

Don’t invest in a piece of art at an onboard auction unless you’ve done your research in advance and know the value of what you’re purchasing.

If you don’t have time to research an art piece, it’s best to leave the art for others to purchase. It’s a very expensive addition to your total cruise price.

Stick to Handicrafts and Food Items in Port to Keep Your Souvenir Bill Low

In port, good and inexpensive souvenirs include handicrafts from outdoor markets and street vendors, and local products such as coffee, jellies and candy purchased at grocery stores in port, where souvenirs are generally less expensive. Many souvenir stores carry the same products, so compare prices before buying.

9. How to Lower Cruise Prices: How to Save Money on Photos and Camera Equipment

Photo Gallery on Noordam

Photo Gallery on Noordam

Cruise travelers are often lured into dropping big bucks at the onboard photo gallery, where an 8×10 photo can easily cost more than $20.

Buying additional batteries, memory cards and other camera supplies onboard will likely cost you more money than it would back home. By bringing the right tools with you, you won’t have to worry about how much your cruise bill is at the end of the trip.

Use Your Own Camera or Consider Photo Packages

If you’re worried about blowing your budget on photos, just say “no thanks” when the ship’s photographer asks to take your picture. Or resist the urge to check out the photo in the gallery — once you see the printed version, you’re more likely to want it. Take your own pictures, and rely sparingly, if at all, on the ship’s photographers.

If you do plan on buying a lot of professional photos, look for cruise ship packages or ask about any specials on offer.

Pack Extra Camera Batteries and Your Charger

On the equipment side, buy plenty of batteries and other camera supplies at home where they’re cheaper — and bring more than you think you will need, just in case.

You won’t need to rely on the ship’s photographers if you heed our top tips for taking better pictures on your next cruise.

10. Staying Connected Drives Up Your Cruise Costs: How to Save Money on Cruise Ship Wi-Fi

iLounge on Celebrity Constellation

iLounge on Celebrity Constellation

Whether you bring your own laptop and use Wi-Fi on your cruise, or park yourself at the computer center onboard, you will pay high rates for often slow to mediocre connections. On the up side, connection speeds are improving, and select cruise lines can offer land-like speeds.

Cruise lines are no longer consistent in how they package or price Wi-Fi. Some lines offer packages for the entire voyages, while others sell packages that come with preset time or data limits. The latter (and sometimes the former) can be chewed up by modern sites like Facebook or apps that refresh in the background.

You may also see packages only meant for email and social media usage. In any case, the fees will add up (especially if you want streaming and high-download access), so be sure to choose wisely.

Look for Wi-Fi Promotions When Booking Your Cruise

Many cruise lines offer Wi-Fi packages as an added perk when booking certain promotions. Also look for free Wi-Fi access in port; you might need to buy a cup of coffee or a snack at a cafe to access it. You can also find cheaper internet centers in port.

Use Your Cruise Line App to Communicate with Fellow Cruisers

New cruise line apps offer certain planning and communication services — often for free or discounted rates — when you’re onboard.

Discover your options for staying connected at sea with our piece on internet and phone use onboard.