This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the real cost of a cruise:
Beyond the Cabin Fare
Are you thinking about taking a first cruise, but wondering how much a cruise will actually cost you? Now as nearly all cruise fares include your accommodation and food, the uninitiated might think that there are few other costs to budget for. The reality is that for most people, the cabin fare is just the start. Your first cruise is likely to prove more expensive than the fare alone implies.
Once onboard, the cruise lines cannot make you spend your money, but they do put a lot of time and energy trying to persuade you open you wallet at regular intervals. They do this by using all methods of communication at their disposal including; announcements over the PA, adverts in the daily news sheet and on your cabin TV, tempting money-off coupons, 'sales' and 'shopping' meetings etc. Many passengers will spend as much on additional goods and services as they paid for their cruise fare. Many will spend much more.
The cruise lines first trick was to make the ships 'cashless'. All onboard expenditure is charged to your onboard account, which is supported by your credit card. All you do is sign a receipt to make any onboard purchases. This makes it easy to buy items without ever seeing the greenbacks change hands. Fortunately, most modern ships also allow you to check your account at any time by using your interactive cabin TV. On older ships, I'd recommend an occasional visit to the Purser's desk to get an account 'summary' printed-out.
So what is there to spend your money on? The four main temptations are Tipples, Tours, Treatments and Tables. Firstly Tipples: Most of us enjoy a drink on holiday and alcoholic drinks onboard cruise ships normally attract an additional charge. Today's mega-ships have bars everywhere, including by the pool or in the theatre. You are rarely far from your favour tipple. You cabin may even have a min-bar. It is easy to be unaware of the cost mounting up, when you are not actually paying with notes. If you enjoy a nice bottle of wine with our dinner, this will be charged at restaurant prices. However, if you don't finish the bottle the waiter will carry it over to the next evening's meal for you.
Tours are another major expense. Each port will have a whole range of excursions on offer. Theses tend to be of good quality and very convenient; they pick you up from the dock side, take you to the main tourist sights, and drop you back to the ship in good time for sail away. If you are a nervous traveller and lack the confidence to explore on your own, they are ideal. However, they do tend to be overpriced in my opinion. It is nearly always cheaper to get a taxi or bus and go it alone. Some shore-side operators may well offer cheaper excursions than those offered by the cruise line. Keep in mind though, if you go it alone, and you return late, the ship has no obligation to wait for you.
The gambling tables and slot machines are the third temptation. Modern mega-ships have giant Casino's that are just like a mini-Las Vegas. As with the real thing, there are no windows or clocks, so the concept of 'time' cannot distract you from your investments. There is also likely to be daily Lotto or Bingo games available for a small charge.
Treatments: all ships have beauty therapy centres where a whole range of spa, massage and beauty treatments can be purchased. Scary women dressed in white medical-like tunics await your presence. They will only be too happy to perform peculiar rituals on your semi naked body, like covering you in mud or seaweed. They may also try and sell you 'Essential Oils'. (They never used to be essential, did they?) Although very popular, the various treatments seem exceedingly expensive to me. In addition, a hairdressing salon is also available on many ships.
As well as the big four distractions above, there are others. Although your food is included, many ships now have alternative dining venues with a cover charge. An example of this is Royal Caribbean's Portofino and Chops restaurants, which cost $20 per head. However, many passengers are of the opinion that the higher quality of and service is well worth the extra fee. Although basic self-service tea, coffee, water and sometimes juice are provided free of charge, soft drinks (soda) and speciality teas and coffee (such as Cappuccino) cost extra, as do bottles of water for the cabin. Some ships offer luxury ice cream for an additional cost, too.
Then there are photographs to buy. The ships photographers will snap you when you board, at a formal meal, at the captains cocktail party and even in port. They can be surprisingly expensive, although you are not obligated to buy them.
Perhaps one of the cruise lines cleverest hidden costs is the 'Tipping' system. The waiters and room stewards etc. are not paid very much at all by the cruise line. We are effectively expected to pay their wages by giving them tips. Therefore as your cruise fare does not include most of the staff's wages, it can be maintained artificially low. When you book a cruise it is easy to forget that you need to budget for tipping. However, I would urge passengers to comply with the tipping system as the staff work very hard and will not get paid very much, if you opt out.
The good news is that most entertainment, the gymnasium and deck sports are free. Group sessions like yoga and Pilates may have charges.
Oh, I almost forgot the 'Art Auction'. This is your chance to bid on a variety of mediocre and overpriced prints. Then we have the onboard shops, selling snacks, clothes, jewellery, perfume and various gifts. The' kids Club' may have a fee for late night child care and the video arcade may have fees, too.
So finally, if all the above is starting to make cruises seem like a bad value, just remember this: if you stay at a luxury hotel you may actually pay more money per night than a cruise, but all you essentially get is a room. Food and entertainment are all extra. Remember, on a cruise ship, you get your cabin; your cabin tended to twice a day, a whole range of onboard facilities, many of which are free, quality food and your ocean transport to exotic places. Quite a bargain really. Just keep half an eye on those purse strings.