Cruises offer some of the best bargain vacations on the market today. But to make sure your cruise remains a true bargain, you have to be smart about “the spend.” Cruise lines, particularly those on the lower end of the market, can offer promotional prices that seem almost like giveaways. That’s because they expect you to spend freely once you’re onboard.
It’s easy to lose track of what you spend (especially if you’re a first-timer) when your money is locked away in your cabin’s safe and all you have to do is hand over a card for that souvenir photo, time spent in the Internet café, the delicious frozen cocktails or the premium coffee that smells so good when you pass the smiling barista.
Plan ahead and you can have a great time without running up a big credit card bill. Here’s how.
1. Do your homework. Know in advance what is included and what is not. Cruise ships generally have specialty restaurants – sushi bars, Italian trattorias or steak houses, for example – in addition to the main dining rooms and buffets. Some are free, some carry fees. Shore excursions are not free, though the cruise line may provide shuttles from the dock to a city’s center. Though fitness centers are generally free, special classes often carry a small fee. Spas and salon services are a la carte. Entertainment is generally free. Most programs for youngsters are free, though babysitting is not. Internet use is not included; it is much more expensive than the cost at an Internet café in port.
2. Make a budget. Plan ahead what you can comfortably spend and check the prices of things before you hand over your ship’s charge card.
3. Be careful with drinks. Here’s where costs can mount up quickly. You can find dispensers of water and iced tea around the ship, and you can order tea, coffee and (unbottled) water from room service at no charge. Everything else will cost you. Cocktails and wine are free during the Captain’s welcome party. At other times, they’re expensive, so plan ahead on how you’ll use your alcohol budget. Soft drinks are pricey, too, so if you have to have them, buy a beverage package after you board. Instead of spending money on those specialty coffees, order a latte or cappuccino with your meal in the dining room – at no cost.
4. Look for spa specials. If a spa treatment is on your list of must-have treats, find out when there might be “specials.” Many lower-end cruises offer substantial discounts on the days when the ship is in port. Thermal suites on cruise ships come at a cost; the Jacuzzis on pool deck are free.
5. Explore on the cheap. Shore excursions are pricey. Do some advance research and find out what free or low-price options are available at your ports of call. For example, many large cities have guided hop-on, hop-off bus tours that cost less than similar tours booked through the cruise company.
6. Skip that Internet. Internet onboard is both expensive and slow, so unless you have an urgent need to be online, stop instead at the Internet cafes you’ll find on land.
7. Do your own laundry. Some ships have washers and dryers onboard; many do not. Having your laundry done by the ship’s crew is expensive, so pack accordingly and bring along a small supply of detergent so you can wash out small items in your cabin.
Finally, if you decide that you really do want a lot of these extras, check the prices on the more upscale cruise lines and calculate the value of the extras they include – like specialty dining, etc. Do the math to compare cheap cruises with few inclusions with pricier ones that offer more perks.