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What Does It Really Cost to Take a Cruise?

The allure of the ocean is undeniable, and cruising to warm, historic, and fascinating ports is a favorite form of vacation for thousands. Cruising – once the exclusive pastime of the privileged classes – has become affordable for all. Or has it? If your cruise deal is advertised for a fare of $249 per person, you may not realize how much it will really cost.

Cruises are called “all-inclusive” because meals and many activities are included in the fare, but there are costs that are not included, and you should be prepared to cover these added costs before you leave home. Here are some of the extras, both required and optional, that you’ll have to add to your cruise budget:

Government fees, port charges + taxes (required): These mysterious fees are added as a separate line item to your cruise fare. They are supposed to cover the cost of docking the ship at a port. This would include tugboat services, a per-passenger tax, tonnage taxes, garbage disposal fees, and harbor dues. But the cruise lines do not specify exactly what the fees cover for each cruise. On a 3-day Bahamas cruise on Royal Caribbean, port fees are $86.64 per person. A 7-day Mexico cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line has “government fees” listed as $189.20. It is a one-time addition to the fare, per person, not per night.

Gratuities (required): $10 to $12 per guest, per day is standard. It is split among those who provide key services such as waiters and stewards. So, a couple on a 3-day cruise will automatically pay around $66-$72 for gratuities. The amount can be adjusted by the purser onboard, but it is unfair to the ship’s crew to cut it down by much. In general, the stewards and waiters are not well-paid and rely on tips to earn a meager full-time salary.

Cocktails/Alcohol: The all-inclusive nature of cruise fares does not cover alcohol. Don’t be fooled, because when your bill is tallied up on your cruise card, you may be tempted to dub it the “booze card.” On Royal Caribbean, you can have unlimited beer, wine by the glass, cocktails and soda for $55 per person, per day. There are cheaper options that cover just beer and wine, or frozen cocktails, beer and sodas. You can always abstain. (Just kidding.) If you don’t purchase a beverage package and you aren’t vigilant about the drink charges being added to your card, you risk becoming a member of the “drink and sink” club.

Specialty dinners: Cruise ships have multiple restaurants where passengers may eat for free. Food – a lot of food – is included in your fare. But there are many specialty restaurants that charge extra for a meal. On the luxury ship Crystal Serenity, there is a specialty restaurant that beats all others. For $1,000 per person, guests can enjoy The Ultimate Vintage Room Dinner with a selection of rare wines and an intimate, multi-course meal prepared by a master chef. But don’t despair: Most specialty restaurants will only cost $15 to $75 per person, and allow you to taste five courses of authentic Italian fare, or experience a Benihana-style Japanese meal sliced up and sautéed right at your table.

Onboard activities: Many onboard activities are free, including mini-golf, zip lines, rock walls, and water slides. But you’ll pay $10 to $15 for that on-deck yoga class and more for the special wine-tasting event. Babysitting is extra after hours. Spa treatments are slightly higher-priced than at a fine spa on land, so expect to pay $120 to $150 for a massage. The casino will cost you, so be careful to limit your time (or losses) there.

Onshore excursions: These excursions are part of the fun, and range in price from $20 for an hour at a water park to $250 for a scuba diving excursion with equipment. Some of these activities can be booked on shore, separate from the cruise, for less money. If you research ahead of time and can guarantee that you won’t miss the boat coming back late, go ahead and book your own excursions. But you won’t get priority disembarkation and the ship won’t wait for you if you’re late. There is a great variety of activities available, and some are reasonably priced. Rent a jet ski, go parasailing, take a kayak tour, go whale watching, or just rent a blow-up raft. Order the brochure, and sign up before you board. Some excursions fill up.

Internet usage: There is good news and bad news about internet usage. The good news is that most ships have either free in-room wifi or 24-hour internet cafes. The bad news is that the ships charge $.55 to $.75 per minute for a slow connection. On some ships, you are not allowed to use high-bandwidth applications such as Skype. Norwegian offers 250-minute and 100-minute packages for less per minute. The entire Carnival fleet has a custom-designed portal in its computers at the internet cafés, allowing access to news, sports, iTunes, and photo applications. Cell phones can be used to call, receive calls, and text, but your cell phone carrier may slap you with roaming charges. Call and ask before you leave home.

Example: Cost of a 3-day Bahamas Cruise for Two on Royal Caribbean

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