Avoid the Cruise Money Pits

If it's one of the seven deadly sins—gluttony (booze), greed (gambling), sloth (spas), extravagance (shore excursions), etc.—it's how a cruise line makes all its profit

Cruising's dirty little secret: Cruise ships usually don't make a dime off the cabins. In fact, with the exception of upscale balcony suites and such, they often take a loss on the actual cost of carrying you around and feeding you endless buffets. They can do this because they soak you to make their money in other ways.

Once you know what those ways are, you can avoid over-spending and turning that great bargain price on the cruise into a pricey shipboard bill at the end. Here is a list of the major money-generators on board a cruise ship, and the best solutions for addressing each.

  • Booze - This is one of the Big Three moneymakers. You only get water and maybe juice and tea for free. Alcohol (and, on many ships, sodas) cost extra...and come at a premium. So before you tie on another mai tai on the lido deck, consider waiting until you get to port and can seek out a dive bar with low prices.

    Solutions: (1) Smuggle your own (unwise; it violates the contract of carriage, plus they have x-ray machines now). (2) Buy wine packages for dinner (cheaper than selecting a new bottle every night). (3) Do your drinking in port.
  • Gambling - Another of the Big Three. Those flashy casinos on the ship make their money the same way those flashy casinos in Vegas do: the game is rigged. While a few lucky b@$!@rds might strike it rich on a lucky hand, in the end the house always wins.

    Solution: Don’t gamble, and you won't lose that money.
  • Shore excursions - The third in the Big Three. Cruise lines contract with local outfitters to run their shore excursions (everything from tours to adventures to simple city transfers), pay a discounted group rate to do so, then pad the cost they charge you by outrageous amounts. In other words, they're getting something for less than the retail price, yet turning around and charging you a premium for it. Luckily, this is the easiest moneymaker to get around.

    Solution: I have a whole separate page devoted to avoiding high shore excursion fees. » more
  • Spa treatments - Yeah, yeah. Spa treatments are always pricey. But they're even pricier on a boat than on land. You do pay a premium for a floating masseuse. Not that you shouldn't indulge, just that you'll be paying for the privilege.

    Solutions: (1) Spa packages save you a bit on individual treatments. (2) There are often deep spa discounts on shore days (when the boat is otherwise empty).
  • On-board shops - Those outrageously overpriced boutiques on board count on two things: your boredom (might as well shop), and your inability to pack wisely.

    (1) Come prepared with all the sunscreen, floppy hats, camera memory cards, and other impulse buys you'll need. (2) If you run out or find you forgot something, wait until you get to a port of call to buy it in port (though be sure you walk a few blocks in from the street where you dock, where prices can be just as high as on the ship).
  • Laundry - That little plastic bag hanging in your stateroom closet for the maid, maybe with a sheet of paper where you can tick off the dirty clothing items inside? Look at the prices. They want to charge you, like, $4 per item—and when I say "per item," I mean "per sock."

    Solutions: (1) Pack wisely so you needn't launder much. (2) Use the self-service laundromat on the ship (way cheaper). (3) Rinse unmentionables out in your sink every few nights with some travel detergent to help delay laundry day.
  • Tips - Ships nowadays often "conveniently" add a daily gratuity charge to your final bill. That would be great if they actually then passed the money along to the maids, waiters, kitchen staff, and hundreds of other, often invisible, people who work incredibly long days at low pay to make the ship run. The sad truth is, most cruise lines do not do this. They take this money and use it to "defray the cost" of these poor people's wages. Only if there's any left over will they split it up and disperse it as "tips." That's bogus. They should pay all wages out of their profits like any law-abiding business and leave the tipping to us—we, at least, will be sure the folks who deserve the gratuities get them. (Note to any cruise PR person who wants to tell me their system is "more fair" because this way the gratuities get split amongst all the workers, not just the maids and waiters the passengers deal with directly: I've heard that lame excuse before.)

    Solution: No-win, really, but at least but do tip your maids and waiters directly at the end of your cruise, and suggest it is for them "and their friends in the kitchen" or whatever to encourage sharing.
  • Fuel “surcharges” - As long as I'm being pissy, this one infuriates me no end (as do the airlines who pull this same stunt). I'm sorry, but the fuel is an operating cost, not a surcharge. If you need it to make the ship go, it is not an "extra." I don't care if it makes the cruise cost more—fine, we all know how expensive oil is getting—but they have to include it into the base ticket price, not break it out and hide it in the fine print of fees, taxes, and surcharges. That's sneaky at best, a swindle at worst.

    Solution: It's a huge scam; no way to avoid.

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