Cruise lines use low-ball pricing to entice you. But a $199 cruise can easily cost well over $1000 by the time you are done.
So we booked a cruise. A four day, three-night Bahamas cruise on Royal Caribbean. How much does a cruise cost? Well, as I have noted before, the more complicated you can make any financial transaction, the easier it is to put one over on the consumer. And in cruising, the pricing is anything but transparent.
So long as you know this going into the gig, you will be OK. But don't be fooled by the come-on pricing that the cruise lines use. Your actual costs will be much, much higher than the advertised price.
For example, the cruise we booked was advertised as as low as $189. Wow! That's cheap! But of course, that is per person, double-occupancy. If you want to go alone, you'd have to pay more, of course. And that low-ball price is for an inside "stateroom" which has no window or balcony.
The balcony rooms can be very expensive, and since smoking is allowed on the balconies, we wondered whether it would be worth it. If a smoker is upwind of you, well, forget using the balcony. Also, for such a short cruise, it didn't seem worthwhile. After all, most of the time on the ship is at night, so you don't see much from your balcony.
So we settled for "stateroom" with an "ocean view" - basically a huge, non-operable porthole. That was $209 per person. So right off the bat, we are up to $418 for the cruise. Still pretty cheap, as things go, but clearly not $189. But of course, like with airline tickets, there are other fees involved, including port fees and various excise taxes. All of this brought the minimum price up to $556.14
OK, a four day cruise for about $150 a day, not bad. But of course, there are other charges. For example, they suggest you tip the staff 10%, and offer you the option to "pre-pay" the gratuity. If you pre-pay this, you don't have to mess around with it when you get off the boat, and also are eligible for some extra services, such as "my time dining".
Most of the people working on these boats are from third world or former Eastern bloc countries, and they aren't doing it for funsies. And a lot of their income is from tips. I certainly wasn't going to short-change them on tips. So we pre-paid the gratuities, which of course, doesn't mean that we won't hand out some cash tips once we are on board. This brought the price up to $614.64
Of course, beverages are extra. If you drink soda, they suggest a soda plan. There is also a fruit juice plan, a water plan, and a wine plan. Soda pop is poison, so we ditched that idea. However, my partner was afraid about water quality on the boat, so we opted for a water plan, which was $46.34 for 12 750ml bottles of water. Some of the reservations people suggested that they are also handy for shore excursions. If you pay for bottled water on the boat, it will cost more, of course. This way, when you get on board, your bottled water is already in your stateroom.
Now when you go on a cruise, most of your time will be spend on the ship. Your time in port is very limited. So you need to research and plan your trips carefully. We have one stop in Nassau, in the Bahamas. The more I read about Nassau, the less I wanted to see it. Bahamanians are very backward people, overly religious and homophobic. They actually protested a Gay cruise that went there - and I'm not talking in 1982, but in 2007. If you show any sign of public affection in the street, you risk getting the shit kicked out of you. And if caught having sex, you face jail time. Such nice folks.
So exploring Nassau on our own didn't seem like a good idea. I am sure there are hidden beaches and small restaurants that are very nice (if you like Grouper and Conch, both endangered species), but the odds of us finding them in an 8-hour stopover were nil.
Frankly, my only interest was in "Paradise Island" which was the scene of one of the recent James Bond movies, which used the Atlantis Resort and the Ocean Club as backgrounds. The Atlantis Resort is just so over-the-top that I had to see it, if nothing more than for the irony. Of course, they are a business, and they don't just let you wander around there for free. If you go there directly, there is a charge to tour the place and sit out on the beach. And the charge wasn't cheap, either.
So we decided to take one of the "shore excursions" offered by Royal Caribbean, which boats you over to the resort, provides a reserved place on the beach, with beach chair and towel, and allows you to tour some of their tacky faux ruins and aquarium. Total cost was $72 per person, which does not include beverages or food at the resort. So that adds another $144 to the cost.
If we were staying in Nassau for several days, I'd rent a car and explore, but frankly, I am not sure that would be a fun vacation. I think a better approach would be to bareboat charter a sailboat with some friends and enjoy a real island vacation. But a cruise on a cruise ship is not that, and it helps to bear that in mind before you go.
Again, some folks say that shore excursions are overpriced. But taking into account what Atlantis charges, plus the cost of a water taxi or regular taxi, this excursion was fairly reasonable. Plus, they provide chairs and towels, so you don't have the schlep these. In addition, if you take a sponsored shore excursion, you don't have to worry about the boat leaving without you - they will hold the ship until all planned excursions return.
The second day is at Royal's "private island" which for us will involve just sitting on the beach, getting sun, having a cocktail, and listening to the drone of jet skiis. We did not opt for a shore package, but might rent a kayak or something, if the opportunity arises.
Drinks are another area where you have to pay extra. Cocktails, beer, and wine all cost extra and there is a 15% additional gratuity added to each. Most cruise lines offer a "wine package" that gives you a 25% discount on wines. Royal offers three (Gold, Platinum, Diamond) with different numbers of bottles. We went for the Diamond, with five bottles, which was another $190.34 with the 15% gratuity and taxes. How this works will be interesting to see. The bottles are opened at the restaurant, but whatever quantity you don't use can be taken back to your stateroom.
By the way, some cruise sites and blogs recommend buying beer and wine, as some bartenders tend to make weak drinks, and you pay a lot of watered booze. Others recommend ordering a "double" just to get a drink with a regular amount of alcohol. The extra expense is only a couple of dollars.
So, with the "ocean view" stateroom, double-occupancy, water plan, wine plan, pre-paid gratuity, and shore excursion, the total is $1011.98 so far.
Now, some people might say, "Well, you didn't have to buy all those add-on items to the cruise! You could have gone for less than $500!" And this is true, but going on a cruise and then not doing anything other than gorging yourself on food and drinking tapwater doesn't strike me as fun. And if your "shore excursion" consists of getting off the boat and looking at the tourist traps within walking distance of the boat, well, I've already seen the T-shirt shops in Key West, thank you.
The point is not that the cruise lines are "ripping you off" but that the pricing is so a la carte, that the come-on pricing is almost meaningless. We haven't even left yet, and we've already spent more than FIVE TIMES the come-on price for the cruise. Expect this.
Will there be additional expenses? Yes. Parking at Port Canaveral is $15 a day, so that will be another $45. Cocktails, drinks and lunch at Atlantis will be extra. Miscellaneous cash tips and other expenses might also be incurred as well. So overall, the cost of this short cruise could be as high as $1500, which is a long way from $189.
In fact, the "other charges" end up dwarfing the "price" of the cruise, even for double-occupancy.
And of course, there are plenty of other places to spend money on a cruise. For example, most ships have an a la carte premium dining restaurant, where you can go and eat, for an additional fee, of course. If the main dining room fare does not seem attractive, you have that option, but it does cost extra. (There are usually other dining options on many boats, including cafes, pizza shops, and the like, which are free).
And of course, most cruise ships offer gambling "casinos" which are mostly slot machines, Keno, and wheel games. The amount of money you can squander on gambling, is of course, unlimited. Which is why it is a good idea to not gamble - at all. If you gamble, the amount of money you spend on a cruise is basically unlimited, and I suspect a lot of people who go on cruises will tell you it was a "$199 cruise" when in fact, they spent thousands of dollars on each trip (and spend the rest of the year paying off the credit card bill). But that is the nature of most people in the US.
NOTE ALSO that there are other "options" you can select and should select before going on board. The website was not very good at these, and we had to call to make requests. For example, it assigned our dining time to 5:45 and we had to call to get the later 8:30 time. We were able to "request" a two-top table, but such requests are only preferences, not reservations. Also, you can request how you want your bed made - as two singles or a large queen-size. I pays to call and make these requests in advance, as your options will be limited once onboard.
Our "stateroom" selection was made for us by their computer. You can select specific staterooms if you are purchasing an upgraded package, such as a balcony room. And savvy cruisers know which rooms are best, in general or on particular boats. Being amidships in a middle deck provides the best ride in rough weather. Ironically, many premium staterooms are up front on the top deck, which can be a rough ride in rough seas. Of course, as newbies, they put us in a lower level near the bow, so we will hope for calm weather.
CHECKING IN in advance is important, and you can download a host of documentation and print it out, including your check-in pass. Waiting until the day of departure can add hours to boarding. And you cannot check-in online within three days of boarding. So do it in advance and get your documentation ready and you will be able to board with fewer hassles.
Whether we find the cruise to be worthwhile - worth the cost involved - remains to be seen. I'll tell you in 12 days, when I get back. Some people love cruises and can't wait to go on the next one. There are hundreds of cruise ships in the world, each capable of carrying thousands of people, and they leave port every 3-10 days or so. So literally millions of people do this every year. There must be some attraction to it.
UPDATE: January 31, 2011
The following additional costs were incurred on the way to the cruise and during the cruise:
1. Parking at Port Canaveral $45
2. Gas - trip down: $44
3. Gas - Trip Back $35.76
4. Breakfast, last day of cruise (Dennys) $21.50 incl tip.
5. Lunch, Jacksonville, $73.85
6. Bar Bill, Boat (and Coco Cay) $213.64
7. Drinks, Atlantis Resort: $34.99
8. Cash Tips (in addition to pre-paid tips): $50
OVERALL TOTAL: $1,525.72
That's a long way from $189, ain't it?
Now, some of you may quibble that some of these expenses, such as transportation to and from the ship shouldn't "count" - but its not like you didn't spend the money, right?
And others might note that there are some savings in meals not eaten at home, etc. while you are gone, and to be sure, that expense should be deducted from the total.
And perhaps others would argue that we could have cut corners and scrimped and gotten away with less. For example, we could have parked at the "park and sail" and saved $7 a day on parking - and been driven 20 minutes to the parking lot. Or we could have tipped less, not drank so much alcohol (or any, for that matter) or not taken shore excursions. True enough, but then again, not doing any of these things sort of diminishes from the fun.
But the point is not to say that it was expensive or cheap, but to understand what the overall costs are, without trying to put a positive or negative spin on it.
Until you can really evaluate costs of things, without thinking emotionally, you can't really understand how much things cost.
So it was about $500 per day per couple, for this three day cruise. Was it fun? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I do it again? Perhaps.
I am booking a Georgia Bar CLE cruise in November, which should be interesting. This time, I am opting for a cabin with a balcony, which, while expensive, should be worthwhile. That cruise has a book price of $959 per person, which means it will be about $2000 just for the base price, not counting any shore excursions, drinks, or other extras. How much will the overall cost of that cruise be? Probably more than $5000, I think.
UPDATE 2020: The seven days on the "Allure of the Seas" trapped with 7,000 people was less than optimal. Never again Royal Carribbean! We ended up taking an "inside passage" cruise on Holland America in Alaska - a much better cruise line. Moral: Smaller ships, shorter cruises. Allure of the Seas was like being trapped in a shopping mall in New Jersey for a week with pushy people.