So you're on a tight budget, but you'd like to go on a fun and relaxing cruise vacation. At first glance, cruise line websites lead many to mistakenly assume that cruising is all-inclusive. In reality, cruise lines are ingenious at devising ways to separate you from your cash. Shore excursions, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, gambling, alcohol and more are additional out-of-pocket expenses that can add up quicker than you may think. But fear not, you can sail without breaking the bank just by employing a few savings tips in combination with taking advantage of what’s already covered in your fare.

Included in your fare

  • Lodging: Your shipboard cabin featuring a private bath, television, twice daily housekeeping, and other amenities.
  • Meals: Multi-course breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the full service main dining room or self-service buffet. Juices are complimentary at mealtimes, with coffee, iced and hot teas, and milk free all day. Also included is room service, 24 hour pizza (on most lines), and a variety of other eats such as ice cream, sushi, deli sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs.
  • Entertainment/Activities: Theater shows, stand-up comedy, karaoke, night club, piano bar, themed deck parties, pool side games, sports matches like table tennis or water volleyball, jogging track, miniature golf, guest-participated game shows, dance classes, cooking demonstrations, movies and more, depending on the line.
  • Gymnasium/Spa: Fitness machines, select fitness classes, sauna, and steam room.
  • Pools: Including hot tubs and water slides.
  • Youth and teen programs: Organized daily age appropriate activities (though fees apply for late-night babysitting).

Don’t go overboard with extras

The surefire way to save a bundle cruising is to not allow yourself to be nickel-and-dimed by the cruise line. However, with cleverly promoted spending opportunities lurking around every corner this can prove to be difficult, even with so much already included in the fare.

  • Research ports of call. Don't spring for expensive shore excursions in ports with plenty of attractions, shops or beaches easily explored on your own in close proximity to the ship dock.
  • Don't fork over up to $75 per person for specialty restaurants — remember there are plenty of dining options already included.
  • You have your own camera, so don't get roped into posing for the ship's photographers. It eliminates any impulse to buy later.
  • Spa treatments a must-have? Look for embarkation day or port-of-call day specials.
  • Resist the temptation to browse the ship's duty free gift shops. Otherwise, do so only toward the end of the cruise when items are more likely to be marked down, or contribute to the local economy in ports of call by bargaining for inexpensive handicrafts from resident flea market vendors.
  • Refrain from gambling — including bingo, which can set you back a whopping $10 to $20 a game for notoriously small jackpots.
  • Keep tabs on your shipboard account balance by getting printouts periodically from Guest Services or from self-service kiosks.  On some ships, you can access your account via your cabin television.

Keep a handle on your beverage tab

  • Don't shell out big bucks for bottled water when cruise ship tap water is quality, highly filtered desalinated sea water.
  • Avail yourself of complimentary juices available at mealtimes and all-day coffee, teas, and milk instead of paying for soda.
  • Carry on your own bottled water, soda, or juice on lines that permit it.
  • Check the cruise line's policy on bringing personal bottles of wine or champagne aboard.
  • Pre-order spirits from the line's gifts department for delivery to your stateroom. Prices are an arm and a leg by land-based liquor store standards, but usually less than paying per-drink at the ship's bar.
  • Don't even think of touching the in-cabin mini bar.
  • Die-hard soda lovers, specialty coffee buffs, or drinkers may want to investigate and assess the value of any all-you-can-drink plans available.
  • Attend events such as art auctions, captain's cocktail parties, and past passenger parties for drinks on the house.

A word about gratuities

Major cruise lines automatically charge gratuities for dining, stateroom, and behind-the-scenes staff to your shipboard account. Expect to pay around $12 per passenger per day, including children.  While tipping is technically optional, this is not the place to scrimp and save, because the gratuities are the crew's salary and they work very hard for it. For budgeting purposes, I regard the gratuities as simply part of the cruise fare and opt to pre-pay them when I make my booking so they're not charged to my ship account.
Controlling out-of-pocket, back-end expenses can make the difference between the ability to go on a cruise or having to stay home. With so much already included in your fare, you can avoid spending extra money without depriving yourself!

This is a guest post by Deidre from Dania Beach, FL
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