10 hidden costs of cruising: How to prepare for - and fight - extra expenses

10 hidden costs of cruising: How to prepare for - and fight - extra expenses

A voyage at sea is one of the best values around because all major expenses (lodging, meals, snacks, activities and entertainment) are included. However, there are some items — mostly of a personal or optional nature — that are out-of-pocket expenses. Those extra purchases can quickly run up your bill.

Cruise lines tempt travelers to come onboard with sometimes low upfront prices and then charge extra for everything from massages and fruity cocktails to onboard activities and meals outside the main dining room. "All-inclusive" is a term that really only applies to a handful of high-priced luxury cruises.

If you want the full cruise experience, you'll need to set aside some cash to cover these extra expenditures, or make a vacation budget and stick to it. To make sure the incidentals don't break the bank for you, Cruise Critic put together a list of 10 things that will cost you extra onboard — and how to find discounts and savings.

1. Shore excursions

What you'll pay: Cruise lines sell shore excursions — guided tours and experiences in the various ports of call — but they do inflate prices above what the actual tour operators charge.

Savings tip: While you might wish to sign up for some of the ship's tours, you also have the option to tour independently at a fraction of the cost — or even for free, if you go on a self-guided walking tour. Before setting sail, visit the websites of your ports' tourist boards to get ideas on things to see and how to get around on your own in port. Online travel guides and apps can also help you plan your time ashore.

If you decide to hire a car and driver to give you a private tour, always agree on the price (and which specific points of interest will be covered) before you get into the car. If you do want an organized tour, you can book directly with a tour operator or through third-party shore excursion sellers; you might save a few dollars that way.

2. Alternative dining

What you'll pay: All ships offer free dining in the ship's main dining room and buffet venue, but nearly every ship today sports one or many extra-fee venues. You'll pay extra for everything from casual Italian to exclusive chef's tables and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs.

Even room service, once free 24/7, now comes with a surcharge on many lines.

Most alternative restaurants charge in the range of $15 to $50 per person, but a chef's table experience or wine-paired meal could be upward of $100 per passenger.

Specialty desserts (ice cream, gelato, cupcakes and other fancy pastries), special dishes in the main dining room (such as high-quality cuts of steak and whole lobsters), dinner theater, pizza delivery and even pub grub will cost extra.

Savings tip: Don't go! You can typically find 24/7 dining for free onboard, and main dining room meals are often quite good, with multiple courses and decadent desserts. The newest, largest ships often have additional casual, fee-free eateries. Carnival is a good cruise line to choose if you want variety in free dining options.

Alternatively, look for cruise deals that offer onboard credit or free meals in specialty venues as part of the incentive package to book.

Some lines, including Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, offer dining packages that bundle several for-fee restaurants for a discounted rate; others, like Holland America, offer lunch in the specialty venues for a lower price than dinner, allowing you to enjoy the alternative dining experience at a lesser cost.

3. Alcohol and other beverages

What you'll pay: At meals, water, iced tea, milk, coffee, tea and juices are complimentary, but alcoholic beverages are not included in the cruise fare on most lines. Plus, many will also charge for soda, bottled water, certain juices and specialty coffees.

Savings tip: Many vessels advertise discounted "daily drink specials" or offer happy hour specials. If you're ever offered a drink in a souvenir glass, ask for the drink in a regular glass instead; you will likely save a few bucks.

Look for events with free booze, such as Champagne art auctions or captain's cocktail parties. At meals, you can order a bottle of wine and save whatever you don't finish for the next night, which can be cheaper than ordering wine by the glass.

Most lines offer beverage packages (everything from just soda to multiple bottles of wine and unlimited alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks), but you need to make sure you drink enough to actually save. If you chug soda or bottled water, some lines will let you bring your own. You can typically bring a bottle or two of wine onboard, but you might have to pay a corkage fee if you drink it in a restaurant.

Cruise line alcohol policies are highly restrictive, so be sure to read your line's rules.

4. Spa and salon treatments

What you'll pay: Cruise line spas charge rates equal to high-end salons, and you might be shocked by the prices. A 50-minute massage is typically about $120 to $180, with more exotic treatments running into the $200 to $400 range. Plus, rates don't include an automatic gratuity that typically runs 18%.

Savings tip: Take advantage of spa discounts, typically offered on embarkation and port days. Check your ship's daily program for spa-treatment specials that might be available one day only or during certain hours. Some lines offer progressive discounts if you book multiple treatments all at once.

5. Onboard activities

What you'll pay: While many onboard activities are free, other special activities incur extra fees. Among them are fitness classes like Pilates, yoga and spinning; wine-tasting events; after-hours group babysitting for the youngest children; behind-the-scenes tours; and bingo and casino play. New attractions like laser tag, escape rooms and IMAX movies often come with an extra fee.

Savings tip: Attend the free production shows, live-music performances, cooking demos, pool or trivia games and free lectures — or simply spend your time chilling by the pool, reading a book or chatting with your travel companions. Many of the top entertainment offerings — Broadway productions, onboard surfing and waterslides, live music and comedy acts — incur no extra charges (though reservations might be required).

6. Laundry

What you'll pay: Laundry and dry-cleaning charges on a cruise can be steep (approximately $3 to $7 to wash and press a shirt, for instance). Check to see if there is a self-service launderette, and use it.

Savings tip: Pack enough changes of clothes for the cruise and do the wash back home, or bring your own travel-sized detergent, wash necessities in your cabin sink and hang-dry them in the shower. If you're really motivated, you can also find a laundromat in port — it could be a cultural experience!

7. Tipping

What you'll pay: Tipping policies vary by line; most mainstream cruise lines recommend about $13 to $15 per person, per day, to be distributed among those who provide key services: dining room waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards. If you have a suite, be prepared to tip extra.

Additionally, bar tabs are automatically charged a 15 to 18% gratuity; some lines also add gratuity to spa services.

Savings tip: Generally, tipping is not an area where you can save money. You can adjust the auto-gratuities at the ship's purser's desk or choose to tip below the recommended amount if you feel you've received subpar service. However, Cruise Critic discourages this in most cases. The ship's crew members — particularly the waiters, assistant waiters and cabin stewards — work hard and depend on tips to round out their salaries.

8. Souvenir shopping onboard and in port

What you'll pay: Most people purchase something to remember their cruise. Even tacky trinkets and T-shirts can add up if you're buying for your extended family-and-friend network.

Savings tip: Typically, bargain tables appear on ships toward the end of a cruise, so wait for the latter portion to buy onboard if you're so inclined.

If you do plan to purchase jewelry, clothing or duty-free liquor onboard, check the prices of merchandise at stores back home, and bring a list so you can compare prices.

In port, good, inexpensive souvenirs include handicrafts from outdoor markets and street vendors and local products such as coffee, jellies and candy purchased at grocery stores in port, where souvenirs are generally less expensive.

9. Photos and camera equipment

What you'll pay: Cruise travelers are often lured into dropping big bucks at the onboard photo gallery, where an 8x10 photo can easily cost $20 or more. Buying additional batteries, memory cards and other camera supplies onboard will likely cost you more money than it would back home.

Savings tip: Just say "no thanks" when the ship's photographer asks to take your picture. Or resist the urge to "just check out" the photo in the gallery — once you see the printed version, you're more likely to want it. Take your own pictures, and rely sparingly, if at all, on the ship's photographers.

On the equipment side, buy plenty of batteries and other camera supplies at home where they're cheaper — and bring more than you think you will need, just in case.

10. Internet

What you'll pay: Whether you bring your own laptop and take advantage of shipboard Wi-Fi or park yourself at the computer center onboard, you will pay high rates for often slow internet connections. On the up side, connection speeds are improving, and select cruise lines can offer land-like speeds.

Cruise lines are no longer consistent in how they package or price Wi-Fi. Some lines offer packages for buying internet time in bulk; for example, Cunard charges 50 cents a minute for the 30-minute package, and 17 cents per minute for the 1,920-minute package.

Other lines charge daily rates based on how much bandwidth you use and which types of sites you can access. For example, a social media plan on Carnival might be $7 a day, while a premium plan with no streaming is $15 per day. An unlimited plan, including streaming, on Disney is $89 for 1,000 megabytes.

Savings tip: Many cruise lines offer Wi-Fi packages as an added perk when booking certain promotions. Also look for free Wi-Fi access in port; you might need to buy a cup of coffee or a snack at a cafe to access it. You can also find cheaper internet centers in port.

Some cellphone plans offer free or package data plans in foreign ports that might be cheaper than the cruise ship options.