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I’ve talked on the site before about the ability to get free cruises, and a reader had a pretty fair and straightforward question around the idea:
I have been offered a cruise and this is my first time. I do not understand all the resort fees, taxes and other expenses to be incurred during the cruise. I need to know from the start of the cruise, during and after. I would like a estimated cost this “free” cruise would cost me with all expenses included. I understand the monies I spend in the casino is at my expense BUT I need to know about cost of meals, tips off ships visits etc. I need to know if I should pursue this further or forget it. Yes I am uneducated about cruising.Comment on the site from Gail
Thanks for the question Gail, and that’s a really good area to discuss, because when you receive a free cruise, it is speaking to the core fare, meaning there’s plenty of other things that you are on the hook to cover.
Most of my experience to date has been through Royal Caribbean and booking through URComped, although I recently had my first experiences booking through Carnival recently as well. As such, if you’ve experienced differences on other cruise lines, please share in the comments! I know there are examples of more all-inclusive cruising options out there – I just personally haven’t taken one or experienced it, so my knowledge is more limited.
With that said, here are some areas to be aware of when it comes to non-core fare expenses.
Port Taxes and Fees
When it comes to a free cruise, the cruise line will still require you to pay port taxes and fees. They usually work out to something like $125 a person on average for a week long cruise, but the number and location of the ports will determine that final number. Presuming the standard two people per room, you should expect something in the neighborhood of $250 for a pair in the room.
If you happen to travel solo (which tends to be allowed on casino comps), you don’t have to pay taxes and fees for two, so plan accordingly.
Also not included in a comped cruise fare is gratuities, charged as a daily rate, per person. For example, on Royal Caribbean, a standard room gratuity is $14.50, per person, per day; suites are a few dollars higher per person, per day. Carnival’s numbers are a bit different but not far off.
You can prepay gratuities, or have it charged as the cruise progresses – there’s no difference in cost going one way or another.
Technically you can request to opt out of the automatic gratuities and handle it yourself, but I don’t know of too many people who go through that trouble.
I have never had to pay a deposit for a Royal Caribbean cruise – I’ve just paid the port taxes and fees upfront and that was that. With Carnival, my comped cruise had a $100 deposit per person. Those deposits are then returned as onboard credit during the cruise, which nets out but effectively requires you to spend an additional $200 for the booking (even though with proper planning you can recover that value easily enough).
Carnival doesn’t require the port taxes and fees until final payment, so depending on how long it is until your cruise, you can space out some of these payments, or even break it into installments. So you’ll need to review the offer to see what you get there.
Travel To/From Cruise
One other factor is where the cruise is departing, and how you’re going to get there. I have had to fly in to town for each of my cruises to date, and it’s generally recommended you arrive the day before to reduce risks in case of flight delays or rescheduling scenarios, which means a night at a hotel as well.
At least with flights and hotels you have some flexibility; I’ve been able to use my hotel points to book during busier times of the year to avoid a pricey hotel booking for a winter Florida cruise. A similar scenario could be possible with airline miles. Otherwise, that’s on the tab for the cruise, even though it’s not specifically a charge the cruise line hits you with.
From here we begin to shift from more mandatory decisions to things you have more control over. Food and Drink tend to go together, but are each a decision.
Around food, there is a baseline of food on every cruise ship, including the main dining room and buffets, that tend to be included in your cruise fare, whether you got a comped cruise or paid for it. If you stick to those you’ll be well fed and not have any issues in most cases, so you can certainly make that work.
There are also, however, an array of specialty dining options, growing over time, that offer a more specific or premium option for those seeking it. These aren’t a requirement, but you can book in advance, or even onboard if spots are still available, for an additional fee. Royal Caribbean has an unlimited specialty dining option that effectively removes the pay a la carte option and lets you use it as much as you want.
In many cases booking and buying early can yield a discount vs. buying on board, so if you think this is something you want to do, be sure to book ahead if you know upfront that’s part of your plan.
Drinks tend to be quite limited in what’s included by default – tap water, for instance, is all you get by default – bottled water costs extra. Sodas are extra, and most certainly alcohol is extra. You can buy drinks a la carte or get a drink package.
An unlimited soda package tends to run very cheaply, and mostly just gets you soft drinks (although Carnival throws in juices, something Royal offers in the short complimentary list).
There’s also an alcohol-inclusive package that runs over $50/day/person, but given the cost of alcoholic beverages even a few of those a day can help the package pay for itself.
One thing to keep in mind though is that many times, cruise bookings can include drinks in the casino. My Carnival booking included that as an explicit benefit of the casino comped cruise option. Royal offers free drinks in the casino to anyone who is PRIME level status and above.
With that, in the case of Royal Caribbean I’ve bought the middle drink package they’ve offered quite often, which is basically an all-in non-alcoholic package, which is nice because that includes bottled water, some specialty coffees, and even mocktails. The price of that has tended to be around $20/person/day, which compared to the alcoholic drink packages is still a great bargain. And I can still drink in the casino whatever I want.
When I booked my first cruise through URComped I was granted PRIME status as a perk of booking through them; since then I’ve maintained PRIME status on my own. A nice side benefit to the casino drinks option is you can ask for things like bottles of water as well; I more than once got giant Evian bottles from the casino, which made it easy to bring water back to the room after I was done for the night.
If you want to do guided tours or other experiences off the ship, expect to pay for excursions. These, too, are optional – you can explore on your own, or stick close by to the ship and browse the tourist-focused shops in or by the port – but since many people take cruises in part to get to try new things or explore, you’ll definitely want to browse what’s available.
You can buy them through the ship or on your own; through the ship, even when bought in advance, will be more expensive but tend to come with more protections if the excursion is running late or gets cancelled. If you’re new to cruising and want an excursion, you might want to start there, even if it’s more pricey, so you have better assurances until you find your sea legs of booking on your own, so to speak.
WiFi is probably the one last standard add-on I know a lot of people consider and either get or don’t – without WiFi Internet will be limited to what your cell phone offers while in port. My particular plan offers low-speed Internet and unlimited texting in most places cruise ships go, but not everyone has this, and bills can rack up crazy hi if you’re roaming.
That said, some people like the idea of being able to disconnect while on a cruise ship, and for that I can’t blame them. WiFi pricing varies; there tend to be multiple speeds, and cruise lines can price them differently.
On Royal, it’s a per device per day cost (although you can sign out one device to allow another to log in). For practical purposes that works out to a per person per day fee, unless you have the rare situation of a person needing to use two devices concurrently. For Carnival, it’s a per person per day cost.
Once you get past that, there are a variety of other things you could pay for – onboard experiences, the spa, fitness classes, other types of food-driven classes (learn to make sushi, for instance) – and I sort of bucket these into the same sort of category as excursions – optional experiences you can buy.
Of course, those experiences are priced out and you can say yes to what you want to enjoy and can afford.
While a lot of things have a per day cost, you can’t say “give it to me for one day” in most cases – you pay for the daily price times however many days you’re on the ship. So you can’t just buy one day of a drink package – if you’re on the ship for a week, you’ll pay for seven days.
Even though you’re paying gratuity for the cruise, if you buy anything extra that links in to staffing like a drink package, there’ll be an additional gratuity added for that at the time of purchase too.