Once you have booked your cruise, paid for your air and travel insurance and chosen your shore excursions, set a budget for extras. A world of temptations awaits.
While your cruise fare covers accommodations, meals, entertainment and activities, cruise lines know how to get you to part with more dollars. Onboard expenditures are a big part of their profits.
You might have an idea of what you’ll spend on drinks (pre-booked drinks packages are geared toward big drinkers) and a budget for the casino, but don’t underestimate the other carefully crafted enticements.
Here are our picks for what’s worth spending extra for on cruise ships and what’s not.
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Worth the splurge
You can have a good or even great meal in your ship’s main dining room, at the buffet and at other casual dining venues, such as the burger or pizza stands. However, for extraordinary food, you’ll pay extra on most vessels.
Cruise ships operate intimate specialty restaurants, typically based on a culinary theme — Italian, French, steakhouse, Asian, Brazilian, sushi — and these come with an extra fee (or what the cruise lines like to call a “cover charge”).
Prices range from a reasonable $15 per person to more than $100 per person — the latter for a multicourse chef’s tasting menu. Some restaurants are priced a la carte, so you pay for each selection as you would on land.
If you are a foodie who wants to experience the best a ship can deliver on the culinary front, it’s worth the expense.
Tip: Planning to sample several specialty restaurants? Look for discounted packages you can book pre-cruise.
While some cruise lines provide free Wi-Fi (including Virgin Voyages, Viking and ultraluxury lines), most do not. If you’re hooked on social media or otherwise need to stay connected, you must pay extra.
Basic Wi-Fi, with just enough juice to send and receive emails, might be less than $10 a day.
If you plan to send photos or post videos, you’ll want to upgrade the plan to a high-speed package. You might buy a day or two of streaming service, but then you may find yourself frustrated on the days you don’t have it.
A better bet is upgrading to a length-of-cruise streaming package, which often costs $150 or more for a seven-day cruise (for two devices). Look for discount offers pre-cruise and on board.
Among cruise ship activities, cooking classes are one of our favorites, but with this caveat: Look for classes where you actually get your hands dirty rather than just lectures.
On Royal Caribbean, you can take a sushi class ($35) and learn to make a hand-rolled lunch. On some Oceania Cruises, Holland America and Regent Seven Seas Cruises ships, you can acquire cooking skills from master chefs in a professional culinary center that's equipped with workstations, including stovetops. A favorite class on Oceania is one focusing on learning knife skills ($69).
Room service breakfast
Don’t underestimate the luxury vacation experience of breakfast in bed — or while admiring the sea from your cabin balcony. Most cruise ships will bring you coffee and a basket of pastries for free. However, if you want eggs, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches or other items, you might have to pay extra — either a set fee of $5 to $10 or a separate charge for each item.
It’s worth it (although if you want to get out of your PJs and fetch free items from the buffet to bring back to your cabin, that’s an option too).
Plenty of fun cruise ship activities are free, from waterslides and minigolf to rock climbing walls and ropes courses. However, if your ship has a marquee attraction, there could be an upcharge. It’s worth it for the thrill and the bragging rights.
Spend the $15 to experience Bolt, the first rollercoaster at sea, on Carnival Cruise Line’s 5,282-passenger Mardi Gras, and whip around a nearly 800-foot track at speeds of up to 40 mph. On Norwegian Cruise Line’s latest ships, zip around a go-kart racetrack as you compete with other riders for the fastest score at $9.95 per ride (or $199 for an unlimited package for a week).
On most ships, you can bring your own bottle or two (or sometimes more) of wine or Champagne on board. This allows you to select your favorites, whether you go with something standard or a fine vintage that you’ve been saving, and not have to worry about marked-up cruise ship prices.
If you bring your bottle to a restaurant or bar, you will likely have to pay a corkage fee of $10 to $30, but it's likely worth it.
Tip: If you are purchasing wine on board, look for packages that provide a discount for purchasing several bottles.
Related: The ultimate guide to cruise line drinks packages
For those who are fussy about coffee, be forewarned you might not like what’s served at the buffet. It’s typically a generic brand, and some may find it too strong, others too weak.
For coffee snobs, better coffee will be available at the ship’s coffee shop for a fee. You’ll find drip coffee and baristas making espressos, lattes and cappuccinos. You can even buy Starbucks on Norwegian Cruise Line ships and select Royal Caribbean vessels.
Maybe not worth it
Some people claim they bought the best painting ever on a cruise ship — and spent big bucks in the process. Others are totally disappointed with their splurge purchases once they get home. Extra costs for shipping and handling could mean you end up paying more than you would at a gallery (or on eBay).
It’s best to skip the temptation — though you might want to witness the action and sip a complimentary glass of Champagne in the process.
Grab those $10 watches and rings at the gift shops, but if you’re looking at fancier watches, diamonds and other fine jewelry items, know your stuff and do research in advance. Jewelry is not returnable if you buy it on board.
Also, be aware that duty-free applies to taxes. If you spend big, you could still owe customs fees when you return to the U.S.
Cruise ship photographers are all over the ship and at the pier, trying to catch memorable moments. But do you really want the $20 snapshot taken against a cheesy background as you board the ship with puffy eyes because you caught a 6 a.m. flight to get to the pier? Or that photo of you with your mouth full of spaghetti at dinner?
Yes, you can do silly poses with your friends, but rather than pay, ask another passenger to snap a photo with your smartphone. (The only time photos might be worth it is if you’re doing family portraits with you and the kids dolled up for the ship's formal night.)
Related: 21 tips that will make your first cruise go smoothly
Big ships have extensive ocean-view gyms with the latest, greatest workout equipment, as well as jogging tracks. Fitness centers will offer free stretch and abs classes. So, you may want to think twice before shelling out $12 to $40 for other classes or $85 to $110 for a personal training session (learning things you’ll promptly forget when you return home).
We suggest you reserve your extra energy (and money) for cycling and other activities on land.
We get it. You're on vacation, and you finally have time to relax. However, you'll pay from $105 to $180, depending on the cruise line, for a 55-minute basic Swedish or deep tissue massage — more than you would pay at home. A manicure and pedicure will cost you $45 or more each. It’s better to get these at home, too.
Thermal suites in the spa are reserved relaxation areas equipped with such enticements as thalassotherapy pools or hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms, aromatic showers, mud rooms, salt rooms and snow rooms, as well as warm heated loungers. These retreats have mellow music, soothing decor and smell really good, offering a multisensory experience.
Our issue is pricing, from $30 to $70 per person for a full day. (There is also a set rate for the whole cruise.) Most people don’t spend more than an hour there, so consider that when you decide whether it’s worth it.
Laundry delivery service
On cruise ships, you will pay big-city prices for dry cleaning and laundry. It’s great to have your undies delivered all neatly folded (for $2 or $3 per pair) and to see your T-shirts neatly pressed and on hangers, but do you really want to pay extra for that?
Tip: If you need to wash clothes, see if your ship has a self-serve laundry room where you can use the washers and dryers for free or for a few bucks’ worth of quarters.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 15 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.