The best thing about cruising is that it makes everything easy: it’s easy to see lots of exotic places in one vacation; it’s easy to make friends; it’s easy to relax.
Unfortunately, it’s also easy to waste a boatload of money.
According to Cruise Lines International Association, the average cruiser spends $2,200 per person on a cruise: $1,635 on the fare plus another $565 for onboard costs and shore excursions (that doesn’t include the price of the airfare for those who fly to the port). The fare is supposed to be all-inclusive as the meals and lodging are taken care of.
But with all the extras the cruise lines throw at you once you’re on board — from drink packages and specialty restaurants to tourist excursions and those infernal casinos — an unsuspecting cruiser can rack up a shocking amount of extra costs. If you’re not careful, you can very easily spend more on onboard extras and unnecessary excursions than you did for the original “all inclusive” cruise fare. The result: when you return to land and get the final bill, you find you’ve effectively doubled the cost of your vacation. Now that’s a bitter homecoming.
So it helps to be prepared. “Our best piece of advice is to do your research in advance and familiarize yourself with what’s included in your base fare, and what’s not,” Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, tells Yahoo Travel. “By preparing in advance, you can pick and choose which costs are worth your while, without being caught off guard once you’re already onboard.”
Your pre-cruise preparation starts now. Here are the top five ways people waste money on cruises.
1. Booking too many shore excursions
You’ve booked your cruise and now, flush with excitement over your upcoming vacation, you run through the catalogue of shore excursions like a kid locked in a toy store. “Zip lining! Parasailing! Museum tours! Bus tours! Walking tours! Helicopter tours! Tours of tours! Sign me up for all of `em!!!!.” You can pay anywhere from $20 to $300 for a single, day-long shore excursion. Multiply that by the four or five ports you may visit during a 7-day cruise and you can easily add hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to your vacation cost.
“The biggest mistake people make is they over-program; they try to book all the shore excursions and activities,” says cruising expert Stewart Chiron, a.k.a., “The Cruise Guy.” “They didn’t do a lot of research and they tend to fall in line and do what everyone tells them — which may go against their way of doing things.” The best way to combat that is to carefully research each shore excursion. Whittle them down to your must-dos.
Or better yet, see which excursions you can safely do on your own. Instead of a bus tour organized by the cruise ship, it may be cheaper to rent a car on your own (do this only in destinations considered relatively safe for tourists. Otherwise, stick with a larger group). In some places, car rental companies will pick you up from the dock or third-party companies like Viator can plan your tour for less than what your cruise company would offer.
2. Buying needless soda packages
While food and water are free on cruise ships, you’ll likely be charged for soft drinks and cocktails. Instead of paying by the drink, which can add up (especially with the gratuity some cruise lines automatically add to some drink orders), cruise ships will offer “bottomless” drink packages, where you pay a flat rate for unlimited soda or alcoholic drinks. These packages often are a waste of money.
“I don’t buy the soda packages,” says Chiron. He notes that one has to drink a lot of soda in order to financially justify buying the flat-rate drink package. Frommer’s looked at drink packages offered by major cruise lines and found that on many of them, you need to drink around three or more cans of soda a day on a seven-night cruise to break even. So it’s best to check the per-drink prices on your cruise line beforehand and ask yourself if you’re going to drink enough to justify the price of a pre-paid package.
Or, CruiseCritic.com recommends looking for cruise fares that include drink package incentives. That way, you’ll get the package without spending the extra money.
3. Specialty Restaurants
Cruise lines have figured out that adding premium restaurants to ships are a great way to wring even more money out of passengers. These specialty restaurants, which usually cost between about $20 to $45, have a more premium menu than the shipboard dining rooms and buffets that are included in your fare for no additional cost.
But ask yourself: Why pay extra money to eat on a cruise when there’s literally tons of food you’ve already paid for? “You have 20 ways to dine on a cruise ship [at no additional cost],” Chiron says. Many of those options are first-rate. So if you must dine at a premium restaurant, limit it to once during your trip. Maybe twice if you’re feeling festive.
4. Internet packages
Connecting to the Internet on board your ship will typically cost you around $.35 to $1 per minute of Internet time. Most cruise lines offer packages where you can purchase a block of Internet time at a reduced rate. But some people buy too much time, wasting money on minutes they never use. Or they don’t buy enough time, meaning they have to buy an additional package for more money than they would have spent had they just bought the bigger package at a smaller rate beforehand.
“For someone who’s looking to stay completely connected on vacation, an Internet package has the potential to save a ton of money,” says Cruise Critic’s Brown. “But for those looking to unplug completely, purchasing a package could certainly be considered a waste.” So just like a drink package, carefully estimate how much time you’re going to use online before buying an Internet package — keeping in mind that with all the cool stuff you’re going to be doing onboard or in port, you’ll likely be spending far less time online that you would have at home. At least, we certainly hope so.
And remember: when using an Internet package on board the ship, don’t forget to log-off the Internet portal when you’re done. Otherwise, ou’ll waste money paying for Internet access that you aren’t using.
5. Going “Full Vegas”
CruiseMarketWatch.com estimates more than half (55 percent, to be exact) the average cruiser’s onboard expenditures are for alcohol and gambling. Note that we said “average”; plenty of people go way beyond that. The bright, colorful decor, the festive atmosphere and the fact that you’re surrounded by thousands of strangers out to have a good time can entice you to turning a cruise into a floating Vegas-style orgy of vices — really, really expensive vices. So keep track of how much you gamble, how much you drink, and how much you spend. Set a limit and stick to it. Hungover and in debt is no way to end a cruise.
Having said all that, definitely go on a cruise. “It’s a wonderful experience,” says Chiron, a veteran of more than 200 cruises. “It’s definitely the most cost-effective way to see the world.” But it’s only cost effective if you plan ahead, stick to your limits and don’t leave your common sense back on land.