Are you looking at booking a cruise? Perhaps you’ve just booked a cruise and are being bamboozled by optional extras? Let’s talk about what’s included in a standard cruise ticket.
Firstly, it depends on what cruise line you’re sailing with
This might sound obvious, but many people new to cruising may not realise that different cruise lines offer vastly different products aimed at very different markets.
The old adage of “you get what you pay for” very much applies to cruising.
If you pick a budget cruise line you’re unlikely to get much beyond the basics included, but on the flip-side if you opt for a high-end boutique cruise line the chances are almost anything you could want will be included in your initial cruise fare.
In this article I’m going to talk about mainstream cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Princess, NCL, MSC etc in general terms, but will highlight important variations where necessary. As with all things, your milage may vary, and offers change by cruise line and time of year. Check the terms & conditions of your cruise ticket for exact details.
Before I start on individual sections it goes without saying that your cruise fare includes your stateroom, and passage on the ship’s itinerary between ports.
What food will be included in my cruise ticket?
One of the things new cruisers are most eager to check out is what food is included in their cruise fare. You’ve just booked a cruise, you’ve looked at food photos instead of working, you ended up hungry – I get it.
Across most mainstream lines your cruise fare will include breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as around-the-clock snacks. You’re not going to go hungry.
Your meals will be in either the ship’s buffet (these are bigger than anything you’ve ever seen on land), Main Dining Room (MDR), or the snack bar/cafe.
You can opt to eat all your meals in the buffet for a casual experience, all your meals in the MDR for a more refined experience, or mix and match as you see fit. Many people eat breakfast and lunch in the buffet, and visit the MDR for their evening meal. But do whatever suits what you want out of a holiday.
What isn’t (usually) included:
- Speciality Restaurants: Specialty dining (more on Specialty Dining here) gives you the chance to eat at some smaller more exclusive restaurants – for a fee. At the time of booking you may be able to get an offer that includes a specialty dining package.
- Up-charge menu items: Many cruise lines offer “up-charge” menu items in their buffets and MDRs, you can pay an extra $10 for a super juicy rib-eye steak over the standard sirloin, for example.
- Coffee shop coffee & treats: Cruise lines have always offered included tea, coffee and cake in their buffets & MDRs, but recently they’ve rolled out barista style coffee shops onboard which aren’t included. You can expect to pay high street prices.
- Room Service: Room service used to be free, and many cruise lines will maintain that it still is, however there is usually now a service charge per order of around $5-10 so you’re paying for the service not the food. You say potato… etc.
Drinks (hard and soft)
Selling passengers drinks is a large part of where cruise lines make their money, so don’t expect too much to be included for free here.
Many cruisers choose to buy a ‘Drinks Package’ which gets you unlimited drinks for a flat fee per day (more on ‘Drinks Packages’ here). Depending on what deal you get when you book your cruise you may get a drinks package thrown into the deal which can be a huge cost saver.
Let’s start off by saying that pretty much any branded soft drink, and any alcoholic drink isn’t going to be handed to you for free. But you can refresh for free around the ship.
The buffet will likely offer ice water, fruit drinks (squash or cordial in a dispenser machine), brewed coffee, iced tea, and a variety of teabags.
The MDR will automatically give each table glasses and jugs of ice water. At breakfast in the MDR you’ll be offered fruit juices, tea and coffee, at dinner in the MDR you’ll be offered tea and coffee at the end of your meal.
Any of the bars will be able to provide you with chilled tap water, but if you want variety you’re best off heading back to the buffet.
There are a couple of ways to get alcohol for “free”…
- Attend onboard events. Many cruises have art auctions onboard and attendees usually receive a free glass of sparkling wine – no art purchase necessary. Some cruises have parties such as ‘Captains Cocktail Night’ where for a limited time staff hand out free drinks.
- Be loyal to a cruise line. If you’re a member of a cruise line’s loyalty scheme (such as Crown & Anchor, Captains Circle, Latitudes, etc) you’ll be rewarded with things like a free bottle of wine in your room, invitations to “welcome back” parties where drinks are often free. If you rack up enough points on the loyalty scheme you’ll also gain access to private member bars which often serve free drinks.
- Bring wine onboard with you. Now this one varies wildly from cruise line to cruise line, so check yours carefully – but many cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine onboard at your point of embarkation. If you only fancy one drink a night this could be your solution.
Onboard Entertainment and Activities
Most entertainment on cruise ships is free of charge, but some of it will require booking – sometimes before you even leave home.
All cruise ships have theatres and show lounges. There are home to the ship’s performers. Expect colourful revue style shows, exotic dancing, singers, comedians and on some of the bigger ships even broadway shows such as ‘Hairspray’, ‘Mamma Mia’, or ‘Priscilla Queen of the desert’. Heck, larger Royal Caribbean ships have ice skating rinks (pictured above) and Aqua Theatres with professional shows.
Throughout your cruise there’ll be activities happening around the ship such as dance lessons, quizzes, yoga, lectures etc. These are usually free unless donated in the daily programme with a ($) symbol.
Talking of up-charge ($) activities, these often include bingo, gambling lessons, cooking lessons, cocktail or sushi making classes. These can be great fun – but check how much they cost first.
You’ll be able to use the pools, hot tubs, sun loungers, waterslides, rock climbing walls, surfing simulators, and mini-golf etc free of charge, so relaxing won’t cost you a penny – and if you want to burn some calories most cruises don’t charge for access to the gym either.
Now, gratuities and tipping can be a thorny subject. The customs and traditions around tipping staff change from country to country, and indeed person to person. Some of the most heated debates on cruise forums are around tipping – but we’ll try to keep it civil here.
Unless stated at the time of your booking, your cruise line will place a daily “service charge” or “auto gratuity” on your onboard account each day. This is usually in order of $14 per person, per day – so for a week long cruise for two people you’re looking at around $196.
This gratuity is split between your stateroom attendant (the person who cleans your stateroom, makes and turns down your bed, brings you breakfast, fetches your laundry, etc), and your waiters, assistant waiters and beverages waiters in the restaurants.
You can ask to remove this tip, but I don’t encourage it. The hospitality crew on cruise ships rely on gratuities to bolster their pay which is often sent home to their families, as well as reducing their pay removing tips also reflects badly on their service and can incur them performance reviews. $14 per day for all the amazing service you get onboard is incredible value in my opinion.
You may choose to tip extra on top of the automatic gratuities. This is an entirely personal choice and is not expected.
Costs you might not have anticipated
Sometimes things cost money on cruise ships that would be free or cheap on land, here are some of the common ones that catch people out – and how to avoid them:
- Laundry. Cruise ships will charge to do your laundry, just like a service laundrette or dry cleaners. Expect to pay around $5 an item. Some ships offer self-service laundrettes, but these aren’t common. Look out for special offers in the daily programme, ships often run “as much as you can fit in a laundry bag for $25” offers on the first and penultimate days of the cruise.
- Mobile phone use. Most modern ships have WiFi and their own mobile (cell) network so you can stay in touch with home. WiFi you have to make a conscious effort to join, but unless you’re careful your mobile phone can automatically join the ship’s mobile network and you’ll start getting charged for every text you send/receive as well as data used. Turn off data roaming, or better turn off your phone entirely – you’re on holiday.
- Common medications. Got a hangover? Indigestion from that tomahawk steak? Common medication like painkillers and antacids will put you back around $8 in the onboard shop, pack your own £0.16p paracetamol from home. Feeling sea sick? Don’t buy medication in the onboard shop – ask for free medication at the Guest Services desk.
- Pool Towels. Relax, you don’t need to bring bath towels or pool towels with you, there are plenty of towels onboard for everyone. Just be aware that you’ll likely need to sign out pool towels on the pool deck, and if you don’t return them you’ll get charged a penalty fee.
Hopefully I’ve been able to give you an insight into what is, and what isn’t, included in your cruise fare. There’s a lot to enjoy onboard cruise ships without breaking the bank.
One of the biggest tips I can give you for saving money on your cruise holiday is to shop around and look for offers. Choosing a cruise that’s on sale or offer doesn’t mean you’ll be getting any less of a wonderful holiday.
Frequently cruise lines will have ‘all inclusive’ sales which include your alcohol and wifi packages, or flights. Talk to travel agents, with their bulk buying and insider knowledge they can often get you freebies thrown in that most people won’t have – and who doesn’t love a freebie?
If this was helpful to you consider sharing it using the buttons below. Thinking of booking? Got a sailing lined up already? What was your biggest bar bill? Got a question I haven’t answered here? Feel free to leave a comment, or contact me on twitter at @CruisingWithTom or Instagram at @TomLovesCruising