Saving on the High Seas

Follow these tips to rein in expenses while still enjoying your cruise.
By Rebecca Antioco

At the disembarkation talk on a recent cruise to Mexico, the cruise director reminded passengers that if they had left a credit card number on file at the start of the cruise, they need not check out at the front desk before heading home. Don’t worry about the itemized bill that showed up under your stateroom door, he said. Just confirm that the charges are correct, pack the statement in the suitcase and it will be like “cruising for free.” Hardly.


Above: Indulging while on vacation is great; however, services like massages and other spa treatments can be expensive, so plan ahead for your pampering. Disney Cruise Line photo

In Title: Once in port, excursions and soft adventure activities, like para-sailing, will cost extra. Holland America Line photo

While cruising can be a cost-efficient way to travel, especially to popular destinations like the Caribbean and Mexico, be sure to set a budget for costs that will add up quickly after you’ve paid the cruise and airfare portion of your vacation. The handy identification room/stateroom key/onboard charge card that you get at the beginning of your cruise is easy to use at the bar, spa, gift shop and so on, but to avoid sticker shock at the end of your trip, consider before you depart what you want to spend on these expenses.

Services and gratuities

Most cruise lines have abandoned the tip-as-you-go policies, instead charging gratuities directly to your stateroom. Plan on spending on average $10 per day for the cabin steward and dining room wait staff, although this amount can be adjusted by you through the ship’s front desk on the last day of the cruise.

If a relaxing massage during one of your days at sea sounds delicious, you should know that it will cost upwards of $100. And these popular time slots often fill up quickly. To save money, consider booking a treatment while in port as many onboard spas will offer discounted rates during these times.

Onboard entertainment and dining

While it’s true that most meals are included in the cruise price, many ships today offer alternative dining menus. Try one of these restaurants to add variety to your meals, but understand there’s often a surcharge ranging from $15 to $25 per person. However, the quality of experience is often worth the cost. Holland America ships feature dining in the Pinnacle Grill. At Palo, Disney Cruise Line’s adults-only restaurant, parents can enjoy some time alone. I enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve ever had–land or sea–at Palo. Reservations are required for most alternative dining restaurants, so make plans early, perhaps right after boarding ship.

Have a bottle of wine with your dinner. Sip a tropical drink by the pool, or enjoy a brandy as a nightcap on the deck under the stars. Several drinks per day for seven to 10 days can add up. Even if you don’t drink alcohol, ships charge for soft drinks.

A way to keep a handle on drink costs, especially for families traveling with teens, is buying a soft drink card or refillable mug for a set price. Then enjoy unlimited refills. For adults who would like to indulge, understand that pina colada is going to cost about $7.

Night owls may be tempted to wander into the ship’s casino–the only place onboard that actually accepts cash–but to avoid over-spending for this entertainment, don’t charge gaming costs to your stateroom account. Keep gambling money separate from your traveling cash.

Paying out in port

Tours and onshore activities–shore excursions–vary in pricing, depending on duration, complexity and other factors. During the cruise to Mexico, a city tour costs about $24 while swimming with dolphins set me back $165. My husband and I spent $612 to book an excursion in each port. The good news here: most cruise lines allow passengers to book excursions in advance, which helps with the budget process and ensures a place on the popular tours.

And you’ll save money taking your own photos in port. Those ever-present ship photographers can sell “candid” shots but it will be $6 to $8 per photo.

Ports are teeming with shops, often just steps away from the cruise terminal or dock. Only the most thrifty traveler can resist all of that temptation. Be wise and budget accordingly.

And plan for the unexpected, such as losing sunglasses on a sailing excursion. You may not cover everything, but it’s good to have a cushion in your travel budget.

Rebecca Antioco is editor of AAA’s Arizona Highroads.

Nov/Dec 2008 Issue

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