Cruise lines happily trumpet the view that their vacations are a big bargain. And they are -- or can be -- if you are aware of what is and is not included in the basic price and act accordingly.
What's included? A whole lot comes with your cruise fare: your cabin, food (lots and lots of it), Broadway- and Vegas-type shows, and onboard activities ranging from exercise classes to cooking lessons. (On the newly launched Coral Princess, for instance, an enrichment program cleverly called ScholarShip@Sea lets passengers choose from about 20 free courses per voyage in culinary arts, visual / creative arts, photography and computer technology.)
If you were to add up the cost of comparable items on a land vacation, you might indeed discover savings at sea. There are also intangible benefits: not having to pack and unpack for every destination, and being pampered by the staff in a way you are seldom pampered on land. No wonder people get addicted to cruising.
What's not always included? Depending upon the deal, airfare and port charges may or may not be part of your initial price. When you see a weeklong cruise advertised for $399 or less, chances are you're going to have to add the cost of your flight to and from the ship's embarkation point and perhaps the port charges, which can range from $40 to $100 or more depending upon the ship's destinations.
If you book your flight through the cruise line, transfers to and from the ship are often part of the package, but there could be a charge. Ask your travel agent about these kinds of costs and force yourself to read the fine print in the cruise contract. Additionally, you may well want to consider trip cancellation insurance, which isn't part of the basic price.
What's definitely not included? With the exception of some upscale lines like Silversea, which is virtually all-inclusive, here's where the cruise lines' boast that "one price covers everything" can break down. Tips for the waiters, cabin stewards and others, said to be optional but actually expected on all but a very few lines (Holland America is one), can easily add $100 or more to a week's sail.
Alcoholic beverages usually cost no more, and sometimes less, than on land, but those costs, with their built-in gratuities, can add up. (Soft drinks usually are extra as well -- often about $1.50 each -- and one way to save is to begin the cruise by buying a card that allows unlimited refills; more and more ships are offering this option for around $20.)
Shore tours (or excursions, as the brochures call them) can be fun and rewarding, but figure on paying from $20 for a basic city tour to $400 or more for one in which you leave the ship for a day or two, travel overland and stay in a hotel a night or more.
Spa treatments at sea are increasingly popular, but at typically $75 and up for various services, you pay for that glowing feeling.
There are a variety of miscellaneous costs. Pictures of your happy moments, captured by the ship's ubiquitous photographers, usually cost $7 to $15. More ships are adding specialty restaurants, serving every style of food from Southwestern to Chinese, but there are usually service charges of $10 a person or so.
Internet cafes are a handy way to check your e-mail, but prices are lower on shore. Some ships charge $2 to $5 for specialty coffees and deluxe ice creams as well. And clothing, jewelry, souvenirs and sundries are for sale in the ship's shops.
Then there is the ship's casino, present on nearly every line but Disney's. Hearing the clink of coins and the whir of wheels, it's sometimes hard to resist dropping money into the slot machines or heading for the gaming tables, but try to set spending limits or you could find that your cruise cost more than you ever imagined.
So, yes, cruises can be an amazing bargain when you stick to the basics. Yet the extras can enrich your experience, and they are one reason cruise lines can offer such low basic prices. Just remember one word: moderation.