All-Inclusive Cruises? Not Really

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John and Mary were thrilled with the bargain price of their first cruise. They would sail from Florida and visit three Caribbean ports -- all for the average cost of a hotel room in their area and a few meals at a nice restaurant. They would have dining, entertainment and travel, along with their cabin on the ship. The couple had a great time. But when they were ready to disembark, they were stunned. When they went to the purser to settle their account, John and Mary found that they had run up a bill that nearly doubled their bargain fare. Does this really happen? Yes. Is it necessary? No. Read on to see where John and Mary went wrong.

Except on the most upscale lines, cruises are not all-inclusive, and they never were. First-timers may be confused because many elements of the cruise are included in the fare – which makes it difficult to keep track of those that aren't. Promotional cruise fares are designed to get passengers on board; the cruise companies assume that passengers will spend once aboard the ship.

John and Mary fulfilled the cruise company's expectations. They couldn't resist those cool tropical drinks and ordered a couple whenever they were lounging poolside. In the evening after the show, or in between dances at the club, they shared a few more drinks with new shipboard friends.

They ordered wine at dinner every night and went to the Internet café to send digital images of themselves enjoying their vacation to friends and family at home. They opted for one, sometimes two, shore excursions in each port of call and picked up logo T-shirts and duty-free alcohol in the shops for themselves and friends. Some nights, they went to the casino and played the slots.

They tried different restaurants most nights, had a couples massage in the spa, and bought copies of some good pictures the ship's photographer had taken of them during formal night. And then they saw the bill.

John and Mary learned a lesson the hard way. To a first-timer, a cruise vacation may seem all-inclusive, but it is not. Make a budget before you hand over your credit card and you can beat the spend.

Here's how:

• Have a latte after dinner in the dining room or all the coffee or tea you want in your stateroom (free) rather than at a specialty coffee shop (generally not free).

• Enjoy one of the Jacuzzis on the pool deck (free) instead of the thermal suite in the spa (not free).

• Order all the room service you want (free).

• Skip the Internet café on the ship and use one in port at a quarter of the cost or less.

• Have your wine on the captain's night (free) and watch your tab the rest of the time, as you would on land. Soft drinks are expensive, so if you want to indulge freely, buy a soda package.

• Find a cruise line you like and stick with it -- loyalty programs give repeat passengers parties with open bars, wine in their staterooms, reduced Internet costs, free laundry, upgraded staterooms, spa credits and more.

• Get a few friends together and create a group, which entitles you to one free stateroom, wine or fruit in the cabins and other privileges.

• If you play the slot machines in the casino, don't use your credit card. Set yourself a cash limit and stick to it.

• Enjoy the complimentary soft serve ice cream, instead of the specialty shop frozen dessert.

What's free and what isn't:

Today, cruise ships offer specialty restaurants from sushi bars and teppanyaki rooms to steak houses, Italian bistros and New York delis, all in addition to the main dining rooms and buffets. The majority of the dining choices are free. Those that aren't free usually carry fees of $5 to $30 per person.

Spas and salons are not included in the cruise fare; they are concessions run by companies like Canyon Ranch, and their services are à la carte.

Shore excursions are operated by local companies, and they are not free either. In many cases, though, the cruise lines offer free shuttle service from the port into the nearby city.

Fitness facilities are free, from exercise bikes to resistance equipment and free weights. Some classes are free. Rock climbing walls, bungee trampolines, wave pools, steam rooms and saunas are nearly always free. So are ice-skating, in-line skating, tennis, basketball and volleyball. Classes in Pilates, yoga, spinning, etc., carry a fee, usually $10-$12.

Entertainment is nearly all free, and the cruise lines offer real Broadway-style productions and acts from the Blue Man Group to classical ensembles. Karaoke, dance classes, stand-up comedy, rock and roll acts, folk artists, magic shows and cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs are all free; hands-on gourmet cooking classes with limited enrollments typically carry a fee.

Kids' and teens' programs are spectacular on many ships, and they are free for young cruisers. If you want babysitting in your stateroom, though, there will be a fee. On most cruise ships, the usual tips for staff run $8-$10 per passenger per day.
The more upscale cruise lines are more inclusive, so check the offers and calculate the value of included shore excursions, tips, fees, beverages and special dining. Always do the math to compare cheap cruises that have fewer inclusions with pricier ones that provide more perks.

At any price point, a cruise can be one of the best vacation deals around -- but to enjoy a real bargain, you have to be smart about beating the spend.

Going to a beach soon? Check out the top beach drinks from around the globe at National Geographic.
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