The Cruise Debate: Is It Really the Best Bang for Your Vacation Buck?

PHOTO: Viking Ocean Cruises

From pricey drink packages and excursions to who you travel with and what you get to see, we vet out both sides of the argument.

Much like blurting out the “T” word—“Trump”—at Thanksgiving dinner, cruising is a divisive topic. You either love it or tolerate it. Diehard cruise fans will go on and on about the convenience and the value of all-inclusive travel (true), while the anti-cruisers will complain that you pay way too much to be trapped on a boat and eat mediocre food with hundreds of people you don’t know (…also true). Is one side more right than the other? Let’s dig deeper.

All-Inclusive Food and Drink

Cruise food and drink packages are a major sticking point when it comes to the cruise debate. For years, cruises got a bad rap for food (thank you, Norovirus) and still, the food served in main dining rooms is more about quantity than quality. Luckily, times are changing! Celebrity chefs like Guy Fieri, Jamie Oliver, and Thomas Keller have cruise restaurants, and newer ships have poolside burger joints, sushi, fine-dining, steakhouses, wine bars, dinner theater, and even room service. That said, specialty restaurants and room service usually cost extra, so when you argue in favor of “all-inclusive food,” know that you’re mostly eating in the main dining room.

Drinks are another story. Water, iced tea, milk, coffee, hot tea, and juices are usually included, but soda, specialty coffee drinks, and alcohol cost extra. Expect to pay big city prices and an automatic 15-18% gratuity. For big drinkers, the all-you-can-drink package is the way to go, but they average at $99 per person, per day, before that automatic 18% … so it’s not exactly a “discount.”

INSIDER TIPMost cruises let every passenger bring two bottles of wine onboard. Also, if you don’t get a drink package, take advantage of daily drink and happy hour specials and welcome events with free champagne.

Price-Gouging on Land Excursions

Cruise passengers get so excited about shore excursions, but the truth is, they tend to be a rip-off. Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, excursions can average at upwards of $300. To make money, cruise companies partner with trusted tour operators for guided tours and activities, and charge passengers the operator’s price plus a surcharge—an average of $100 per passenger, according to Cruise Market Watch—that they can pocket. Why pay that when you can do a lot on land for free or a fraction of the cost? If you do choose a shore excursion, here’s what you’re actually paying for: security (knowing a verified company is guiding you through an unknown destination), convenience (not having to find a third-party operator on your own), and time (cruises come and go at weird hours, and while independent tours can work, shore excursions are designed to fit their schedule).

INSIDER TIPAlternate options like renting a car and exploring, attending local festivals, doing self-guided walking tours, and hitting local beaches and restaurants are all great ways to immerse yourself in a destination at a nominal cost.

The Real Value: Group Travel

Whether you like cruising or not, there’s no denying that it’s a great deal if you’re traveling in a group. Cruise lines differ on what qualifies as a “group,” but in general, you can expect them to require a minimum of five to eight staterooms (with a two-person occupancy). Spending that much money on rooms comes with some sweet perks like onboard spending credit, a welcome bottle of Champagne, free internet, and even discounts on shore excursions. For every five cabins booked on Norwegian Cruise Line, one cabin in the group sails for free. Want to be the guy or girl who does all the legwork and books everything? Perks abound.

INSIDER TIPYou get the best group rates when you set sail in May, June, September, October, and early November.

Sleeping on Land vs. Sleeping Onboard

Cruises charge based on the number of people sharing a cabin and the type of cabin you book. For a standard interior cabin with two people, your cabin costs around $50 per person, per day. Snag a balcony cabin, and you can expect to pay at least $200 per person, per day. Whether you like cruising or not, paying $50 a night is a steal, especially compared to staying in hotels.

Cystal Cruises

However, with the advent of Airbnb, today’s travelers can spend that same amount of money (or less) and get everything from a houseboat to a beachfront condo or house all to themselves. Nightly rates and choice of accommodations obviously differ by destination, but since cruise cabins aren’t known for their space or comfort, having a whole house all to yourselves already has its charms. Added bonus? Airbnbs often come with luxuries like free internet, cable, Netflix, access to kayaks or paddleboards, area guides, and snacks, too.

INSIDER TIPAirbnb now has Airbnb Experiences, where a local host can take you and your group on a local activity or even a trip. It’s like a shore excursion, but local and more cost-effective. Activities average at $25-$150 per person, while excursions are a lot more.

Traveling by Plane vs. Boat

It goes without saying that cruise prices depend a lot on where you’re going, what kind of cabin you want, and the cruise line you use. But for argument’s sake, let’s look at Caribbean cruises, which tend to be the cheapest and average at $1,500 per person for a seven-night cruise—before extras like drink packages and excursions. Caribbean cruises go anywhere from the Bahamas and Jamaica to Mexico and Puerto Rico. Round-trip flights from NYC to Jamaica average at around $300. You can fly between Miami and Cancun for less than $200. Budget airlines, like Spirit Airlines, can get you from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Rico for $150 round trip. In that example alone, your basic transportation costs are much less—and you have total freedom to see and sleep wherever you want, which is priceless.

INSIDER TIPIf you don’t live in the city where your cruise is departing, keep in mind that you’ll have to budget for additional transportation to that destination. That can be anything from paying for a rental car and parking to booking a round-trip flight to and from the port city.

Can You Stay Entertained?

Short answer: Yes. Today’s cruise ships have no shortage of onboard entertainment, from comedy acts, piano bars, cooking demos, and trivia games by the pool, to figure skating, lectures, late-night movies, Cirque du Soleil performances, concerts, and even “Broadway at Sea” productions. A lot of these are included in the cost of your ticket, but some—like fitness classes, spa treatments, wine tastings, IMAX movies, laser tag, escape rooms (because there’s nothing like feeling like you need to escape when you’re trapped on a ship), and gambling—will cost you extra.

What’s included aside, the question isn’t if you’ll be entertained, but how. Designed to accommodate all passengers, cruise entertainment is far from a local experience, so if you’ve paid all that money to see cool destinations, you’ll want to deboard and get the real thing. That said, entertainment is subjective, so choose activities you’ll actually enjoy doing, onboard or not.

INSIDER TIPLook over the list of included entertainment and activities prior to booking your cruise. If everything you like doing costs more, consider that when evaluating the cost of your trip.

The Ideal Cruise Passenger

Families with young children and large groups. For parents, the convenience of knowing your children are safe and entertained is something you can’t put a price tag on. Plus, young kids don’t need special food packages or to pay exorbitant prices on drinks, so it really is an all-inclusive deal for them. For large groups, the discounts speak for themselves. For either, cruising does guarantee the best of both worlds: you get uninterrupted quality time with the people you came with (especially since smartphones don’t usually get service on the open sea), but there’s also plenty to do if you want to be alone. For some, traveling with family might make that last part especially crucial.

INSIDER TIPParents! Ask about supervised children’s areas or events. They’re designed to give you a break so you get a vacation, too.

Repositioning Cruises Are the Way to Go

When cruise ships need to switch itineraries and embark from a new port, they “reposition,” or take a one-way trip to get from their original port to their new one. Since the main objective is to simply transfer a ship, trips like these usually involve multiple days at sea, less port stops, and more random itineraries. If that doesn’t bother you, book a repositioning cruise! Prices are a fraction of the cost of a regular, round-trip itinerary (we’ve seen 16-day cruises from Europe to South Africa for as low as $2,000), the trips are longer, and you might even get to do bucket-list experiences like cross the Panama Canal or do a transatlantic cruise from the U.S. to Europe. Cruising is rarely cheap, but if it’s a relaxing escape you’re looking for, a repositioning cruise might just be the best bang for your vacation buck.

Viking Ocean Cruises

INSIDER TIPContact cruise lines to find out about their repositioning cruises and book fast before they sell out.

Are You Actually Seeing the World?

You’re seeing it, yes, but you’re not seeing much. One benefit of cruising is that it’s quick, meaning (depending on how long your trip is) you can visit multiple cities or countries in one fell swoop. But once you get to those destinations, you typically only have between a few hours and one day to actually explore it. Expect to get no more than a quick “overview” of any given port city. Even if you’re there for a full 24 hours, think one excursion, a city tour, and a couple of local meals and maybe some evening bar-hopping.

INSIDER TIPTo make the most of your time, plan what you want to do in advance and get off the ship as soon as you’re allowed.

In Conclusion

Are cruises the cheapest way to travel? If you live in a port city and you’re going to expensive destinations like Iceland or Hawaii, then it probably is. But is it the best bang for your buck? It depends what you’re looking for. With the right crowd, cruising can be fun and relaxing, but as a means of travel, it’s definitely not the best way to see the world. When you book a cruise, you have to think of it like going to an all-inclusive resort. You’ll get to eat, drink, relax, and be entertained as much as you want, but you’ll spend a lot of money and hardly be able to say you experienced a new destination—especially if you only spent four hours there.

The type of cruise you book also matters. For example, Alaskan and Antarctica cruises give you the once-in-a-lifetime experience of cruising past glaciers and icebergs. River cruises are interesting because they’re often culinary-focused (so the food and wine quality is excellent and included) and the ports are closer (so you get more land time and destination views the entire time).

We can debate the price points and experiential quality of cruising for hours, but at the end of the day, travel is subjective. If cruising is your style, go for it. If not, start looking for a cheap flight somewhere fabulous. All that really matters is that you get out and see parts of the world that are different from your own. The cruise debate aside, you can’t put a price tag on that.