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Clarifying confusing onboard currencies  Apr 14, 2009

One of the big pluses of cruising for North Americans is being able to visit foreign countries, but pay for shore excursions and onboard purchases in U.S. dollars. The system makes cruising abroad more affordable than land vacations, and gives passengers a break from constantly converting euro amounts to dollars in their heads—especially difficult when you're enjoying your third margarita. But if you venture onto a foreign-owned line (think P&O Cruises, Star Clippers, Fred. Olsen, easyCruise, and a few others), say goodbye to these perks—you'll find drinks, gifts, and tours bought onboard charged in euros or pounds.

That might be a bummer for North Americans, but at least it's clear. In some cases, however, the currency charged onboard is anything but straightforward. On MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, both Italy-based and internationally focused, the currency used onboard varies depending on where the ships are sailing.

Vessels cruising in Europe use euros for onboard currency. Sailing in the Caribbean? You'll pay everything in American dollars. But the policies are not quite that straightforward. For example, Bob N. is booked on a 17-night transatlantic cruise to Spain, the Canary Islands, and Brazil on Costa Mediterranea. He bought and paid for his fare in dollars, and was also able to pre-book his shore tours online in the same currency. Or so he thought. Costa later changed the prices to euros, which made his tours roughly 50 percent more expensive.

A similar situation happened to Dan B. He'd planned to sail on MSC's seven-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise on MSC Poesia, and was told he could pre-reserve tours in his home currency at U.S. dollar rates. He was unable to pre-book them, and instead had to buy his tours onboard—where the currency was the euro. However, the euro prices onboard were more expensive than the euro equivalent of the dollar prices Dan was originally quoted.

As Costa and MSC increasingly reach out to North American travelers, the currency issue is becoming more complicated. Our sister site Cruise Critic asked Costa and MSC to clarify their policies, which aren't always explained on their websites or in their cruise contracts. If you're thinking of cruising international-style on either of these lines, here's everything you need to know to navigate the murky waters of onboard currency switcheroos.

Costa Cruises

Cruise Line Background: Costa, part of the Carnival Corporation family of cruise lines, emphasizes its "Cruising Italian Style" ambience, which is manifested in its Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, warm decor, and entertainment options like toga parties and Italian street fairs. The cruise line, which markets to an international audience, offers a wide variety of itineraries from typical Caribbean, Mediterranean, Western Europe, and Baltic cruises to more exotic sailings in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. Its new ships are increasingly innovative—the elaborate Samsara Spas on Costa Concordia and Costa Serena were the first to create a resort-like atmosphere, complete with spa cabins and dedicated spa restaurants.

Cruise Fare: Where you book your cruise determines how you'll pay. Americans pay in U.S. dollars, Canadians in Canada dollars, Brits in pounds, and Europeans in euros.

Onboard Purchases: Euros in most regions. The exceptions are round-trip Caribbean and South America cruises, where the onboard currency is the U.S. dollar. Curiously, ocean crossings always employ the euro as the onboard currency—even when the trip starts and ends in either the Caribbean or South America.

Excursions Booked in Advance: Costa offers the same pricing on shore excursions booked in advance of the cruise or onboard. That means if you're traveling to the Mediterranean where the onboard currency is the euro, shore tours booked in advance will be also priced in euros. If you're traveling to the Caribbean, where the onboard currency is the dollar, shore tours booked in advance will also be in dollars. You can also book spa treatments and specialty restaurant reservations in advance; these advance purchases will also be charged in the same currency that is used onboard the sailing (regardless of how you paid for your cruise fare itself).

Caveat: An unfortunate website error last year had some shore excursions priced in dollars, when they should have had euro prices. Cruise Critic reader Bob N. signed up for several excursions at the dollar rate, but after the line confirmed his purchase, it informed him that an error was made and the prices were actually in euros. Costa would not honor the dollar prices it originally quoted and confirmed, but did give Bob a $100 onboard credit as acknowledgment of the line's error and inconvenience caused to him. For future reference, know that the above policies are accurate—if you see prices listed differently, alert your travel agent or cruise consultant, as there's most likely an error.

MSC Cruises

Cruise Line Background: Based in Naples, Italy, MSC Cruises, one of the few family-owned cruise lines with a major cruise industry presence, has been tentatively dipping a toe into the American market for years. But an ambitious slate of new-builds debuting over the next few years (one or two per year through 2012) is coinciding with a greater effort to reach out to the North American market. MSC offers itineraries that include regions such as the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Northern Europe, South America, and South Africa.

Cruise Fare: Where you book your cruise determines how you'll pay. Americans pay in U.S. dollars, Canadians in Canada dollars, Brits in pounds, and Europeans in euros.

Onboard Purchases: Euros in Europe and dollars in the Caribbean. Transatlantic cruises, regardless of direction, use the dollar as onboard currency. The same rules apply to shore excursions booked onboard. The currency on South America and South Africa cruises is also dollars, despite the fact that these cruises aren't marketed to Americans.

Excursions Booked in Advance: Caribbean shore excursions booked in advance are priced in dollars. Shore tours in Europe are trickier. At the beginning of each calendar year, MSC chooses a conservative dollar-to-euro conversion rate (2008's was $1.35 to the euro—a terrible rate now that a euro is worth $1.27, but great this past July when the euro was $1.59). The line prices all its excursions in euros, then calculates the dollar equivalent of each price. Americans then have the opportunity to book shore excursions in advance of their cruise in dollars. For example, a €45 Ephesus tour would cost $60.75 if booked in advance. If you purchased the same tour onboard today, you'd be charged $57.15 (plus whatever foreign currency charges your credit card tacks on)—a few dollars less. If you booked the tour onboard a cruise this July, you'd pay $72—over $10 more than the advance-booking price. Therefore, if the actual value of a dollar weakens against the euro (as it did last summer), the shore tours booked in advance are a better deal than those booked onboard. If the dollar strengthens, you'll get the better value by booking onboard.

You can also book spa packages (but not individual treatments) in advance through a travel agent for all ships except MSC Musica. The pricing is the same as with shore excursions: On euro-using cruises, Americans can book in advance in dollars at a fixed euro-to-dollar exchange rate. Specialty-restaurant reservations must be made onboard.

Caveat: Shore excursions and spa treatments cannot be booked online. You can book them through your travel agent, or if you booked your cruise directly with the cruise line, you can book the tours through MSC. In addition, the deadline for booking shore excursions in advance is three business days prior to sailing. However, booked passengers may not be able to purchase shore tours in advance if the number of tickets allocated for pre-sale sell out or if a specific tour is not eligible for advance purchase.

I don't know why Dan B. couldn't pre-book his tours, but if you want to make sure you can lock in a specific price, be certain to give yourself enough leeway.

Clarifying confusing onboard currencies
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