Continuing low cruise fares, new ships (more choices equals more competitive rates), and accessible home ports (no pricey flights required!) have combined to make cruises more popular and affordable than ever.
Budget-savvy cruisers can nab the lowest fares by learning more about what impacts cruise costs, as well as ways to save on that dream cruise vacation. Keep in mind, however, that despite common misconceptions, most cruises are not all-inclusive and have never been. Increasingly, cruise lines devise creative ways to entice passengers to spend additional money, above and beyond their upfront cruise fare, once on board the ship. In the industry, it’s called “onboard revenue enhancement,” and charge, charge, charge is the mantra; pay heed to the running-tab practice and resist temptation, or be unpleasantly surprised when your cruise vacation ends.
What’s Included with Cruise Fares
While there are many potential add-ons to any cruise fare, your cruise ticket price actually includes quite a bit—accommodations, food, entertainment, taxes and port charges, and more. If you read the fine print and stick to what’s covered, you can expect a pretty incredible deal. Here’s the rundown on what comes with the upfront cost of your cruise fare, though note some luxury and all-inclusive lines offer many more inclusions than the standards outlined below:
Your accommodations are always included in the base fare.
Basic options for all meals are included, but there are many extra-charge options on most mainstream and premium ships.
Limited nonalcoholic drinks (tea, coffee, juice with breakfast, perhaps lemonade or flavored water) are included; alcohol and soft drinks are usually extra (except on luxury lines).
Use of Facilities:
Almost all facilities are included, but you may have to pay extra for private day-use areas and cabanas.
Regular offerings are always included, but some special events can cost extra.
Programs and organized activities are almost always included, except for things like wine and martini tastings and gambling.
Port Taxes and Fees:
These fees are always included, but the amounts may not be quoted in teaser rates in ads or online.
What’s Not Included with Cruise Fares
While some cruise lines (usually luxury companies) are fully all-inclusive, the majority of ships tout enticing onboard extras. Most are strictly discretionary: for instance, whether you purchase that mai tai or cappuccino is your choice, and no one will blink an eye if you shy away from the casino or spa. However, unless you’re completely immune to temptation on vacation, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid all extras. Of course, tipping isn’t truly optional, and should always be factored into the overall cruise cost. If you read the fine print and budget accordingly, however, you should face no spending bombshells once you board. For an idea of what to expect, review this list outlining what some of the most popular cruise-line extras cost (then see our section on paying for things on board):
Only a few luxury lines ban tips; when not included, expect to pay $11 to $15 per person per day, 15% to 18% on drinks and spa services.
Except on luxury lines, there are lots of options, either à la carte or for a base surcharge of $5 to $75; ice cream can cost $4 to $6.
Most nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks cost extra: bottled water ($2.50 to $4), sodas ($2 to $2.50), specialty coffees ($2 to $5, but sometimes included at mealtimes), cocktails ($6 to $10), beer ($5 to $6), wine by the glass ($7 to $12), and wine by the bottle ($20 and up).
Spa and Salon Services:
These are pricey ($120 to $200 for treatments, $30 to $100 for salon services), like at a regular resort; “medi-spa” service costs, like teeth whitening and acupuncture, can add up quickly.
Casinos and Gambling:
Casinos have plenty of penny slots as well as table games and bingo.
Fitness classes ($12 to $30) and personal training ($75 and up) are rarely included; special workshops like digital photography and scrapbooking may have costs.
Except on a handful of lines these are always extra, at $25 to $110 per person, with premium experiences much more.
Though sometimes included when you book airfare through the cruise line, transfers are more often extra, starting at $25 per person.
Consider the cost of passports, travel insurance, transportation to the city of departure, and Internet and cell service on board.
What Impacts Your Cruise Fare
You think airline fares are confusing? Cruise fares rise and fall like waves during a tropical storm. On a single day, it’s possible to get as many as a half dozen different price quotes directly from many cruise lines because fares fluctuate so frequently. You and your shipmates may have paid for the same cruise, but you may not have paid the same fare. One thing never changes: you should never, under any circumstances, pay the full brochure rate. You can do better, usually as much as half off those inflated fares. Keep these factors in mind when pricing cruises:
The Date of Your Cruise:
Fares are seasonal, with the lowest offered from about the second week of September until the week before Thanksgiving, and the highest in summer and during holiday periods.
When You Book:
Early booking discounts are nearly always offered; last-minute discounts might be available as well.
Popularity of the Ship:
Some ships are stars and fill quickly, while others are wallflowers and just don’t book up as fast.
Certain itineraries hold higher appeal, especially those considered unique or exotic.
No, not the ship’s age (though that can factor in, too). Fare discounts may be available for senior citizens, and children sometimes sail free or at reduced rates.
Where You Live:
Regional discounts may be available, particularly if a cruise line is trying to introduce a ship into a port near where you live.
Even if you’re not a member of a group, travel agents may have access to lower group fares.
Who Your Travel Agent Is:
Top-performing agencies can pass along lower fares to their clients.
If You’re a Repeat Passenger:
Discounts and other goodies are often available to loyal passengers.
Advertisements for low fares inevitably give rates for the lowest cabin category; if you want a better cabin, you’ll pay more for the space and location you prefer.
Ways to Save on Cruise Costs
When shopping for a cruise, don’t overlook strategies to save money: there’s no reason that you should pay full brochure rates for your cruise! Here are a few simple ways to save when booking your cruise:
Comparison Shop for Deals:
Get quotes from several sources so you can compare your options. Be sure to monitor your preferred cruise lines’ websites and online travel deal sites, and follow both on Twitter for spot sales.
Take Advantage of Your Buying Power:
Senior citizens often qualify for discounts, as do airline employees. Residents of certain states (particularly those that have cruise ports) are often able to obtain discounted fares during advertised promotions. If you’re on active military duty, retired from military service, a first responder (police officer, firefighter, paramedic), or educator, you may qualify for discounts with some cruise lines.
Consider Cruise-Specialist Travel Agents:
Many travel agents who specialize in booking cruises belong to consortiums that book blocks of cabins on a number of ships, thus enabling them to pass along group savings to their clients. Just because a travel agency is small doesn’t mean it can’t get you the bargains offered by bigger, name-brand agencies.
Be Flexible with Timing:
Timing and flexibility can also save you money. A one-week cruise in May can cost you hundreds of dollars less per person than the same ship and itinerary in travel-heavy June.
Be Flexible with Your Cabin:
If you’re willing to sail in an inside cabin rather than a balcony cabin, you’ll certainly save on cruise fares. Also consider “guarantee” bookings, where you reserve a cabin category instead of a specific stateroom. The cruise line assigns the cabin of its choice within that category, or you might even be upgraded. Just be aware that you don’t get to choose your cabin’s location.