Tricks of the Trade: Secrets the Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know

Cruise ships remain hugely popular getaways, but confusing pricing and nickel-and-dime fees can dampen the experience. Try these tips to help you save on the high seas.


Bargain seekers looking for vacations offering adventure and relaxation increasingly are setting out on cruise ships.

Lured by prices promoted as including all the fun, food and fantastic destinations visited by floating hotels, more than 22 million people worldwide are expected to try their sea legs this year, estimates Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group.

It can be a great way to travel, visiting multiple destinations without changing hotels day after day, but it can also have hidden costs. Before making your booking, assure smooth sailing for your wallet by learning these tricks of the trade that the cruise lines employ.

Get the price right

You should never pay the price listed in the brochure, says Stewart Chiron, The Cruise Guy.

“Cruise prices in the brochure are always going to be much more expensive than what they’re selling at the time,” Chiron says. “There’s going to be all kinds of deals, all different kinds of incentives, depending on the availability of a specific ship and sailing date.”

You’ll need to study those deals carefully to compare costs.

For example, the brochure price for two adults sailing away on a late September seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise on a popular ship is $779 per person, double occupancy, for an inside stateroom, one of the lowest price categories on a ship. We found a deal for $539, so the 31 percent savings sounded like a bargain at first glance — you’re getting your traveling hotel room with all the cruise ship amenities for $77 a night each.

That might be the best price you can find, but it’s not likely the final price you will pay.

First, remember the stateroom price quote is per person, and there are two going, so double it: That’s $154 a night, or $1,078 for seven nights. Still seems like a great value, but wait, there’s more.

Price quotes usually do not include taxes, fees and port expenses, which in the example we found were $130.84 per person, or $261.68 total. That brings the stateroom booking to $1,339.68, or about $191.38 per night.

Or does it?

Credits and perks

Travel agencies and cruise ship companies often offer onboard credits that may offset your bill. These can be confusing but can also be substantial, so they are worth studying.

You might see a promotion like this: “Early Booking Bonus! Book now and receive a FREE $100 per cabin onboard credit on select categories.” Or this: Use the cruise ship company’s branded charge card and “you can earn up to 17,500 Bonus Points after qualifying transactions that can be redeemed for up to $175 in onboard credit.”

AllThingsCruise.com explains credits this way:

  • Cabin credits are money placed in your shipboard account to be used for tips, drinks, excursions – anything you can charge while on board.
  • “Spa credits,” “shore excursion credits,” and “casino credits” are intended for specific services but can be used for almost any onboard expense. You might even redeem a casino credit for chips and, instead of gambling, cash them in.

You may need them.

Extra! Extra!

The nickel-and-diming starts the instant you’re on board, warns Money Talks News financial expert Stacy Johnson.

While most food is free and seemingly unlimited, cruise lines increasingly offer specialty venues that have cover charges. However, you can find deals on those, too, before you even leave your home. Royal Caribbean, for example, says if you book reservations at three or more specialty restaurants (that’s $25 to $75 per person per restaurant), it will give you back 30 percent of the total cost of the specialty restaurants in the form of onboard credit waiting for you when you board.

Also extra are booze, soft drinks, photos, dry-cleaning, spa treatments (often discounted the first day and during port calls), branded ice cream and the Internet.

“I see parents tell the kids, ‘I’m not giving you $20 to go to the game room, go play on the Internet,'” Chiron said. “And they see what that hourly bill could be, which could be about $50 an hour. They’ll be more conscious of it the next time.”

More ways to save

Book your own shore excursions: Cruise line prices for land tours often are higher than prices you can get by booking tours yourself online. But don’t miss the boat. Carnival Cruise Line notes that it waits for all its excursions to return to the ship before departing ports.

Gamble ashore: Many land-based casinos have to pay out a certain percentage on things like slot machines. Ships in international waters often don’t.

Don’t jump at the balcony: Travel experts say a balcony is alluring but not worth the typically extra 25 percent cost above an inside cabin. Between off-boat trips and on-boat activities, you won’t spend much time in your room. Use the savings for something else.

Crime happens: With 3,000 to 5,600 of your favorite travelers sharing your voyage, you need to protect yourself and your belongings as if you were on land.

Guard against germs: If one person on a cruise ship gets sick and doesn’t wash his or her hands, illness can spread quickly, as happened when more than 700 were sickened in 2014 on the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. Wash your hands and keep hand sanitizer within reach.

If you follow these tips to save, stay safe and healthy, you are set to embark on a bon voyage.

Do you have tips for taking cruises? Share them in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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