Beware hidden costs aboard ship, on shore

Would you pay thousands for monthly Internet service?

Would you pay thousands for monthly Internet service?

You would if you used a month’s worth of service on a cruise ship. The best deal you can get on the Web on a Royal Caribbean liner is $55 for 150 minutes. Calculate that over a month, and it could be more than $16,000.

No one would pay that, of course, but the point is this: On a cruise, there may be such a thing as a free lunch. But virtually nothing else is.

Vacationing on the high seas means running into hidden costs that only cruise veterans may know about. That wouldn’t be me. I’ve done two voyages and was stunned both times by what costs extra and what’s included.

To newbies: Insist on knowing the schedule of fees before you go. It won’t necessarily reduce your costs, but you’ll be less shocked when you’re hit with them.

“The way cruise lines put it, they’re not hidden costs; they’re optional costs,” said Paul Motter, editor of, an online trade publication. “No one is required to drink or go ashore. You choose to do it.”

Well, yes, but try sitting in the sun on deck and not opting for a $5 fruity drink with paper umbrella or not going ashore in Jamaica for $94 per person for the canopy experience, zip-line ride included. I mean, what are you supposed to do, stay on board, read, and drink tap water?

You also get charged for all kinds of things on the ship, and it’s easy to not notice since you pay for nothing in cash. They charge your cruise card and at the end, lob it all onto your bill. Some beverages are included, such as coffee and tea, but soda? Nope. It’s often $6 per day for a cup you keep, or $36 for a six-day outing – ever drink $36 worth of soda a week at home?

“People familiar with cruising know the costs,” said Motter, who has lost count of the number of trips he’s taken since 1983 and worked as a stage manager for two years on a cruise line. “If you don’t know, ask your travel agent or look on the cruise line’s website; it’s usually outlined.”

Two things that usually aren’t outlined are fuel surcharges and taxes, which Motter said generally make up less than 5 percent of the total cost. The average fuel levy is $10 per person per day, he said, capped at $140 for 14 days. The Enchantment of the Seas, which I was on in January, has a capacity of 2,446, meaning fuel surcharges on a full boat would total more than $145,000 for a six-day trip.

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Some luxury lines such as Miami-based Seabourn – part of Carnival Corp. – are all-inclusive but expensive. You can expect to pay as much as 50 percent more than what you would for a conventional cruise, Motter said.

“And those may or may not include shore excursions, but do include tips and alcohol,” he said, adding that lines don’t make money from excursions, which can cost more than $150 per person, depending on the activities.

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You don’t have to tip, of course, but cruise workers are notoriously poorly paid. A typical stateroom attendant might get $400 a week in tips, Motter said, but when you realize these people are usually from poor countries, work long hours and weeks, and are away from home for months at a time, it might make you want to dig deeper.

Industry standards for tipping run $8-$15 per guest per worker (waiter, assistant waiter, stateroom attendant, etc.), and many cruise lines have instituted a system of charging guests for those tips. You can decline to have the tips added to your bill, or have the rate reduced.

Ships tend to be brimming with food, all of it free, right? Not always. Dining at Enchantment of the Seas’s Chop’s Grille, an alternative dining spot boasting “great view, fantastic food and outstanding service,” costs $25 extra per person.

None of it is hurting the lines, Motter said.

“The cruise industry has always been the healthiest sector in the travel industry; every year the industry puts out as many as 12 new ships,” he said.

Cruise lines “always find that sweet spot people can afford,” Motter said, then layer it with extra costs.

Want to call home? No problem – at $8 a minute. Lose your towel on deck? That’ll cost you $20 to replace. Brought your own bottle of wine? It’ll cost you a $25 corkage fee to pop it open if you’re not in your cabin – and that’s if your cruise line even allows you to bring your own. Want a little extra cash from the onboard ATM to take ashore for an excursion? You pay $5.50 per transaction – not counting what your bank will charge.

All of it gave me a bellyache so I went downstairs to the ship’s infirmary for some Imodium – which they wouldn’t give me without a prescription.

I opted for Pepto Bismol – at $7.20 for a small bottle. So I went on deck and stuck a paper umbrella in it. You have to make the most of these things.

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