In today's tough economy, cruising can offer travelers a good value - lodging, food, entertainment - all for a pre-set price. But the "not-included" fees and onboard "extras" add up fast onboard cruise ships. Soda and cocktails, shore excursions, gratuities, photos, spa treatments, tuxedo rentals, Internet access and more are available at sea - for a charge. Passengers who research and plan before embarking on their cruise vacation can help themselves have fun and avoid a shocking bill at home port.
USE A TRAVEL AGENT Travel agents know the personalities of cruise lines and their fleets, said Lanie Fagan, spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry trade group.
"By and large, you're not going to be paying extra for their services," Fagan said. They can help vacationers find a cruise that fits their budget and provide details on fees for on-board extras.
Consumers should ask if the travel agency is cruise-only or a member of a professional organization such as CLIA, as these agencies are more knowledgeable than others on cruise travel. To find CLIA-affiliated agents in your area, go to cruising.org.
LOOK FOR SPECIAL DISCOUNTS Most cruise lines offer discounts for seniors, repeat passengers and active or retired military personnel, said Jeffrey Sherota, senior vice president of cruisesonly.com, a cruise travel agency. Discounts vary based on trip details.
BOOK EARLY, BE FLEXIBLE Passengers can save by planning and reserving a year or two in advance of departure, said Jennifer De La Cruz, spokeswoman for Carnival Corp.
"The more flexible you are with your dates, the better the deal," De La Cruz said.
Passengers who are willing to bunk with multiple people in a cabin also can save. Fares for the third and fourth passenger in a cabin can be lower.
CONSIDER INDEPENDENT TOUR OPERATORS Travel agents note that some shore activities, such as snorkeling or kayaking, may be slightly cheaper if equipment or trips are reserved independently of the cruise line once in the port city. Cruise lines capture a portion of all shore excursion costs, so they encourage passengers to opt for convenience and book through them. Often, travel agents can guide vacationers to reputable independent on-shore operators at a port of call.
BUY DRINK CARDS Soda and alcoholic beverages cost extra on cruise ships. Most major cruise lines offer a pre-paid drink card/account that can help cruisers control beverage spending or offer unlimited consumption for a set price. These can be cost-effective, particularly if you're cruising with kids.
Many cruise operators will automatically add a gratuity to the bar tab. It's 15 percent on Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.
DON'T FORGET THE TIPS Gratuities are a major cost not included in the cruise fare.
On all Norwegian Cruise Line ships there's a required "pre-paid service fee" of $10 per adult, $5 per child per day. Carnival also strives to take the guesswork out of tipping by automatically adding a 10 percent gratuity to the bill customers receive at the end of the cruise.
Other cruise lines do not include gratuities on the onboard account but encourage them at the end of the trip. Gratuities totaling about $10 per person per day are encouraged to show appreciation for dining room servers and cabin stewards. Passengers can put aside money for this at the beginning of the trip.
STAY OUT OF TOUCH Most cruise lines charge heavily for Internet access. Royal Caribbean, for example, charges cruisers 55 cents per minute for an Internet connection, but customers can purchase packages such as 60 minutes for $28; 90 minutes for $38; and 150 minutes for $55.
Sherota said pricing for cell phone usage on board a ship can vary, even if roaming charges and international calls are included in a person's calling plan.
SKIP THE ROOM SERVICE The high-end steakhouses or fancy Italian restaurants on cruise ships often charge a per-person reservation fee - unlike main dining rooms that offer a set menu of items included in the cruise fare.
On Princess Cruises, a cover charge of $15 to $25 per person may apply at alternative dining venues.
Ships generally offer free room service as part of the included cruise fare, but some automatically charge a gratuity.