Cruise costs often look very alluring. Sometimes it’s only $250 for a 5 day vacation. Sounds great! But things are never exactly how they seem in the world of marketing. How much does a cruise cost in reality?

Most large cruise lines advertise cruise cost rates that include only the base fare for one person based on double occupancy and the minimum amenities with the price.

However, first time cruisers are often surprised by hidden cruise costs. 

Prepaid Cruise Costs Before Departure

Some cruise vacation costs must be prepaid 100% before you set foot on the ship. This is what you absolutely must pay for to take a cruise.

Cruise Fare: Primary Cruise Costs

The base fare is shown per person, so the actual cost will always be at least double what you see advertised. If you have a 3rd or 4th person staying in your cabin, there may be additional fees for them although they’re usually reduced.

Here are offers from the three major cruise lines, Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean:

Carnival cruise line offer eastern caribbean with cruise costs
Norwegian cruise line offer Bahamas with cruise costs
Royal Caribbean cruise line offer western caribbean with cruise costs

The cruise fare includes the cost of staying on the ship (a room), at least 3 meals per day in the main dining room or buffet, cabin steward service, dining room service, and all activities on board which do not require an extra cost.

Taxes and Port Fees: Mandatory Cruise Costs

When budgeting for a cruise, taxes and fees are important to keep in mind. 

Taxes and port fees are required at the time of full payment with the cruise fare and can increase the cost by $150-250 per person. 

Suddenly, you’re paying 50% to 100% more than you originally thought, because taxes and port fees can add several hundred dollars to the advertised price. Even people given free cruises must pay taxes and fees out of pocket. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid this fee, but you can reduce it by choosing an itinerary with more sea days. The more ports a cruise visits, the higher the port fees. 

Optional Cruise Costs Prepaid Before Departure

Although only the cruise costs required paid in full prior to boarding, you may find additional expenses you prefer to pay ahead of time.

Transportation to/from Port

Air – Many people fly to cruise ports and it makes sense to purchase airfare in advance when the prices. You can buy airfare from the cruise line directly, the airline directly, or at fare aggregators like Kayak or Expedia.

Train – Trains run up and down the east coast and many people find it less stressful than flying or driving. While train fare pre-purchase is not required, if you want a specific class of travel, such as a private room, it makes sense to buy it ahead.

Rental Cars – Ports like Fort Lauderdale and Miami can get tens of thousands of cruise travelers in and out on weekends, so rental cars are not always available. You can book a rental car ahead, but most don’t charge you until you pick up the vehicle.

Transfers – While there’s no need to pre-book taxis, some travelers enjoy using private transportation companies with a van to transfer from the airport to the port. They run about $25-$30 per person, and it’s best to book ahead of time to ensure availability.

Port Parking – Although you don’t need to book your own car ahead of time, you may find parking difficult. Many Park and Cruise lots require reservations and prepayment, but offer door-to-door shuttle service. 

Shuttle – Some hotels offer Park and Stay packages for cruisers. For an extra fee, they allow you to park your car on their property and provide a shuttle to and from the Port. Of course, you must plan to stay the night before or after the cruise.

American planes at terminal in Charlotte NC on rainy day copyright 2018 Alyce Meserve

Hotels Pre/Post Cruise

Arriving to the port city the day before and spending the night makes a lot of sense. You never know what airport or highway delays you may run into, so traveling the day before makes sure you get to the cruise on time. 

In addition, if you plan to explore the embarkation city before or after the cruise, booking a hotel ahead of time can make sure you get the location you want. Keep in mind, when 15 cruise ships come into Miami and Fort Lauderdale on the same day, hotels book up quickly.

Also, some hotels offer great discounts if you prepay for a non-refundable room. Otherwise, most don’t charge you until the day of or day before check-in.

Hotel room interior in Florida a preplanned cruise cost copyright 2019 Alyce Meserve

Drinks & Alcohol

Drinks and alcohol on board can be some of the highest cruise costs. Cruise lines may charge $5-10 each for soda, alcohol $8-$15 per glass, and wine $40-50 per bottle. 

If you prefer the freedom to drink whatever and whenever you want on your cruise, get a drink package. Non-alcoholic beverage packages run $9-$25 per person per day, while alcoholic drink packages range from $50-$60 per person per day. 

The advantage to a beverage package is that you can drink without $1,000 per person surprises at the end of the trip. No surprise drink bills.

If you prefer to skip the onboard alcohol, plan to drink in ports since it’s far less expensive. 

Red and Orange Frozen Drinks on Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas

Specialty Dining

All cruise costs include the main dining room and buffet restaurants at no extra expense. In fact, large ships often have more snack spots like cafes, pizza or sandwich shops also included in the cruise cost.

Steakhouses, Italian restaurants and Asian cuisines often add cruise costs since they are specialty restaurants. If you want to try those restaurants, you can get an additional dining package through the cruise line ahead of sailing. Instead of paying $50 per person, the package may bring the cost down to $25 or $30 per person per night.

Instead of specialty dinners onboard, you might treat yourself to a local restaurant in port for lunch. While this might not be prepaid, budget at least $20 per person, or more if you’ll get alcoholic drinks with lunch.

Fish dinner with garnish and sauce at 150 Central Park on Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas

Spa Treatments

Spa treatments, like massages and facials, increase cruise costs and can be booked prior to travel. Most spa services range from $130 to $500 per person, depending on the type of treatment. 

Internet Access

Many cruisers enjoy accessing social media, email and keeping in touch with family with internet access onboard. You can purchase a wifi internet package ahead of time or once you board the ship. They run $10-$15 per person per day if you prepurchase, or $15-$20 per day if you buy onboard.

Fortunately, some packages let you share access with other devices if you log out on one device and log in with another. They just can’t access the service at the same time.

In addition, most ships have an internet cafe where you can sit down and access the computer for a timed fee.

Voom Internet Service on Royal Caribbean

Activities Onboard

Even though cruises include a variety of onboard activities in the base fare, there are a few specialized activities come with an upcharge. Cruise lines allow prepayment on the cruise planner section of their website.

Ship tours – Unless invited by a crew member, officer or brand loyalty ambassador, ship tours cost extra — about $90-$120 per person.

Premium Activities – Many cruises offer activities like cupcake decorating, sushi rolling, guacamole making and laser tag. All of these top tier activities come with cover fees of $30-$50 per person and are good for one use only.

Arcade – Most ships have arcades where kids of all ages can game the day away. Arcades cost $1-$2 per game, so this can increase your cruise costs by $100-$200 per person per hour. Some ships offer prepaid arcade credit of $25-$100 per person at a discounted price of $15-$80. 

Sushi Rolling Class on Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas Extra Cost Activity

Sushi Rolling class on Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas

Galley Kitchen Behind the Scenes Cruise Ship Tour Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas

Behind the Scenes ship tour starting in kitchen galley

Excursions

Whether you book through the cruise line or a third-party, excursions can greatly increase your cruise costs.

Generally speaking, two- to four-hour tours of the locale cost $50-$100 per person, but adventures like zip lining, kayaking, diving and aerial tours can be in the hundreds per person.

Snorkeling excursion in St. Maartin near Maho Beach

Snorkeling excursion in St. Maartin near Maho Beach

Automatic Gratuities

One of the most hotly debated cruise costs is automatic gratuities. 

The majority of cruise lines charge an automatic $15-20 per person per night gratuity fee added to your onboard account. Most lines allow you to prepay gratuities, or you can pay for it on the day you disembark the cruise.

We recommend paying the gratuity charge instead of only handing out cash, as it is also distributed to behind-the-scenes crew like cooks, public area cleaners, laundry operators and mechanics. Officers do not receive a share of gratuities and prefer not to, as they’re well compensated.

Photographs

If you already know this is the trip of a lifetime, you may find it most convenient to pre-purchase the photo package. They range from $250-$500 per stateroom and usually arrive by USB or email. For best results, contact the photo staff on embarkation day and find out where the photographers will be each day.

Special events like weddings or anniversaries may have separate, more expensive packages.

If you choose not to prepay for the photo package, the onboard a la carte costs may be $50 per photo. 

Travel Insurance

Last but not least, one cruise cost that can literally be a lifesaver is travel insurance. You must buy this before the trip if you want cancellation protection. Ideally, buy travel insurance within a week or two of your initial deposit or payment to get the full benefits. 

Travel insurance pays you back for the money you’d lose if you had to cancel your trip, or go to the ship’s doctor or a hospital while on vacation. 

We always recommend buying from an independent market, not the cruise line, since cruise lines offer weak and pitiful coverage. Also, cruise line insurance also doesn’t cover any bookings you make outside them, like hotel, air or transfers.

Overall, most travel insurance plans run 8%-10% of the total trip cost. 

Cruise Costs Paid During Trip

Finally, there are always extra out-of-pocket cruise costs you may or may not expect once you’re already on the trip.

Cash Tips

Many Americans are familiar with paying cash tips, but might not know when or whom to tip.

Here are a few of the people customarily tipped during a cruise:

  • Baggage handlers at port/airport – sky caps or drivers handling your baggage
  • Good service onboard – cabin steward, bar staff, dining staff, entertainers like musicians
  • Drivers in ports – Drivers, particularly in Caribbean ports, expect tips
  • Tour guides – Tour guides rely on and expect tips for their normal income

To learn more about how much to tip, check out our Guide to Tipping on Cruises.

Gambling

Casino – The casino is one of the biggest sources of revenue for cruise ships. For people who spend a lot of time (and money) in the casino, they can often get their next cruise for free. For the rest of us, we usually just play for a while and lose money.

If you plan to gamble, bring a set amount of cash to deposit into the casino and quit when you run out. 

Casino on board cruise ship Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas

Bingo – The iconic game isn’t just for seniors on cruises. People of all ages participate to win cash pots. While you can’t prepay for Bingo before the cruise, plan to bring a few hundred dollars for buy-in.

Bingo sign on Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas

Onboard Shopping

Every cruise ship has shops onboard for souvenirs, jewelry, watches, designer clothing and bags. It might be tempting to shop more since it’s duty free, but this can significantly increase your cruise costs.

Art Shows & Auctions

Cruise ships sell licensed replicas of art works and promote their art galleries and auctions heavily since it’s a high ticket source of revenue. Typical prices are in the thousands.

Art display on Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas cruise ship

Port Shopping

Port shopping can be affordable or expensive, depending which stores you visit. Cruise ships give a Shopping Guide to passengers for each port which usually includes a lot of jewelry stores. 

But if you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, you’ll find the best prices in the port. Always haggle.

Laundry

Every ship provides laundry service for an added fee, either through paid laundry service or coin-operated laundromats.

Service – Cruise ships offer laundry service based on a per item cost. However, some lines promote “All You Can Stuff” laundry bags for a flat fee. 

Laundromat – Some cruise ships like Princess and Holland America provide limited coin-operated laundry machines accessible to passengers.

Laundry service on Royal Caribbean Harmony of the Seas cruise ship

How to Avoid the Extra Nickel-and-Dime Expenses

You don’t have to be taken to the cleaners on your cruise. Here are a few strategies to prevent surprise cruise costs on your credit card bill.

Plan to Be Cheap

Know exactly what the cruise includes and doesn’t include, and plan your activities around that. Stick to the restaurants and entertainment included with the base fare. Don’t spend anything extra on drinks, dining or shopping while on board. Set a budget for how much to spend in ports. Skip excursions or plan inexpensive ones through third-party websites. In the Caribbean, beaches are only a taxi ride away. 

Pay For Excursions and Onboard Expenses Ahead of Time

It’s easier to manage your budget when you know what the total cruise costs will be. You can plan for almost all extra expenses ahead of time and plan how to spend your time and money.

Change Your Mentality

Major cruise lines are often criticized for “nickel-and-diming” passengers that greatly increase cruise costs. Instead of complaining about everything that costs extra, focus on what’s included and be happy about that. Be relieved that you don’t have to spend more money on things you don’t use. 

Choose a Cruise Line That’s All Inclusive

Alternatively, if you want to board the ship and know everything is included, choose a cruise line that’s all inclusive. Some cruise lines like Celebrity have promotions that include drink packages and gratuities. 

Luxury lines like Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea include everything in the fare: all dining options, alcohol, excursions, gratuities and onboard activities. The only things none of them include is shopping, casinos or spa treatments.

Viking Ocean Cruise All Inclusive Offer

Conclusion

Cruise costs don’t have to be high if you plan ahead. Simply budget how much above the cruise fare you want to spend and prepay for it wherever possible. For things that cannot be prepaid, assign a dollar maximum so you do not exceed your budget. Or, for the most peace of mind, choose a cruise line that’s all inclusive. 

Did we miss anything? Have comments or questions about this post? Leave a comment below or join our Facebook group discussion.

Have an opinion about Cruise Costs?

Let us know about your experience in the comments, or post any questions you’d like answered.

Tell us about your experience with Cruise Costs

Join the discussion on Facebook and share your strategies for saving money on cruises.

Click Join Now!

Cruise ship and Invitation to Join DIY Cruise Plan Facebook Group