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  • Writer's pictureTara Wilson

First-Time Cruisers: The Actual Cost of Cruising

One of the best perks of choosing a cruise for your next trip is how much value you get for the price! In many cases, you get so much more on a cruise than you would at an all-inclusive resort, but for the same price or even less. However, I know for my first cruise, I was completely blind-sided by all of the additional fees that came up both before and during my trip!


I still believe that cruising is a more affordable option than all-inclusive resorts (and is one of my favorite ways to travel), and so my hope is that I can help you be better prepared than I was when budgeting for your first cruise!


Our Royal Caribbean Cruise Docked at CoCoCay in The Bahamas
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How to Budget: Things to Consider Before Booking Your Cruise






Booking Process


Fees to Expect


Cruises are always advertising some sort of sale on their websites, which can be enticing but also a little misleading. This is why it's important to know ahead of time what kind of extra fees to expect.


For my first cruise, it was a 5-night trip to the Bahamas advertising a buy one get one 50% off deal, at $359 per person. This being my first time, that looked to me like a 5-night, all you could eat & drink trip for only $538 for two people, which is an incredibly awesome deal (factoring in some extra for tax, of course), and it's not completely wrong...on the receipt, it was $359 per person, and then $180 subtracted off of the second person's cost. However, after all of the extra fees, that initial $538 jumped up to $903!!

Some fees & discounts you may find on the receipt when booking:

  • Cruise Fare per person

  • Taxes and Fees per person

  • Port Expenses

  • Gratuities

  • Travel Insurance

  • Resident or Promo Savings NRD (Non-Refundable Rate)

To give you an idea of what to expect when booking, here is a snapshot of my receipt from the first Royal Caribbean cruise I booked:



As you can see, a little over $900 is quite the jump from the cruise fare. Now, when you take into consideration that the $450 per person includes a 5-night stay, all you can eat (in most of the restaurants onboard), access to pools & other activities, as well as a trip out to Key West & The Bahamas, that's a great value at only $90 a day per person! To give you an idea - if I look right now, the price range for all-inclusive resorts in The Bahamas is anywhere from $250 - $900 a night.


Cruise Fare


Your cruise fare will vary depending on several things like what cruise line you're booking with, the length of your trip, where your cruise is going, and what state room you choose.


For our first cruise, we saved money by staying in a state room with a small window as opposed to paying extra for a balcony. When going with a group, we spend most of our time outside the room, so it didn't make sense to pay extra for a balcony when we could enjoy balcony views with our friends around the ship. However, if we wanted to spend more time together with just the two of us, the balcony option is definitely nice because it's more intimate, and you can wake up to great views of the ocean, not to mention - it made our vacation feel extra luxurious!


Need help on choosing a state room or want to know where on the ship is best for you? Check out this Insider post on the best and worst rooms to stay on a cruise!

Enjoying Room Service on our Balcony

I wouldn't recommend going with the cheapest cruise line available, because sometimes you run into quality issues on the cruise (there's a reason it's priced so low among its competitors). What good is it to have access to all you can eat food venues if all of the food onboard is terrible? When docked at a port, we've run into people from other cruise lines complaining about roaches and sewage issues on their boats. Safe to say we'd rather pay a little extra than save money sailing with those cruise lines! It's also good to check out what kinds of free activities they'll have onboard, so you can make the most of your time and money while on your trip. We've loved our trips with Royal Caribbean - they've always felt luxurious and high quality while also being affordable with plenty of activities to do onboard (to check out my latest cruise review on Royal Caribbean, click here!).


When trying to compare ships & rates to find the best cruise (and price) for my group, I like checking out Cruise Critic - there is so much helpful info on each specific ship as well as competitive rates and deals.


Gratuities


You have the option to pre-pay gratuities for the cruise staff at the time of booking, which I recommend doing. If you don't, you'll be billed the gratuity daily instead, and have a bill to pay at the end of your trip, so to me it's just easier to pre-pay. On the last day of your trip, though we've pre-paid our gratuity, we still leave a little thank you for our server and our stateroom attendant. Why, you ask?

If you look back up at my receipt, gratuity was $72.50 per person. For our 5-day trip, that means we tipped out $14.50 to the staff per day. If you account for all of the various people that help you out on a typical day, that might barely add up to $1 tip per person (especially if you have the drink package). So when you take into account that your specific stateroom attendant cleans your room 2x a day every day, and your server (and the server assistant) at dinner waits on your party and takes care of you for the whole five days, the tip that they receive after splitting that $14.50 with the rest of the service staff isn't a great thank you for their service, in my opinion.


On the last day of your trip, the room attendant will usually leave a gratuity envelope in your room, and though it's not required, this is why we leave them a little extra cash, and why we also leave a little extra for our server after our last dinner onboard. Since this gratuity is extra, you of course can leave whatever you'd like - the most common suggestion I've found is tipping between $3-5 per person/per day for your server and your stateroom attendant. We also like to have smaller bills on us in case a bartender goes above & beyond and we'd like to tip them more than the pre-paid gratuity.


For an easy to follow guide on cruise gratuities, check out this Cruzely post!


Extra Packages


The most popular add-on when booking is probably a drink package - if you plan on having several cocktails every day while onboard, these packages can save you a lot of money. Some cruise lines include this in the cruise fare (thank you, Norwegian!!), but in most cases, it's extra. Just be aware, though, that when we were cruising with Royal Caribbean, if one person in a stateroom had the alcohol beverage package, the other person in the same room needed to have the package as well.


Nothing says summer vacation like sitting poolside with a drink in your hand!

If you're not a big drinker, then you probably don't have to factor in a drink package into your budget. You can also, of course, pay as you go, it's just way less convenient and your tab can add up quicker than expected. If you think you want the alcohol package, in most cases I've found that it's cheaper to add that on before your cruise - there's an option to add it on once your cruise has started, but it is more expensive.



Some other popular add-ons are Internet/wifi, spa treatments, shore excursions, miscellaneous activities (sushi-making class, whiskey tasting, etc), specialty dining, and professional photography.


Shore excursions: Shore excursions are activities for when you dock at a location that you book through the cruise line. These are not necessary if you like to explore on your own, and in some cases, you can find a better deal for a tour once you arrive at a destination. However, booking through your cruise line can save some of the stress of trying to plan activities once you arrive at a port, and you also have the peace of mind knowing that the shore excursion is vouched for by the cruise line, and the cruise can't leave without you if the shore excursion is running late.

Surf & Turf Dinner in the Dining Room

Specialty Dining: Though most of the food on a cruise line is free and all-you-can-eat, some cruises will offer specialty dining that you can pay extra for. For example, the last cruise I went on had an upscale steak restaurant, Italian restaurant and a sushi restaurant that you could make reservations to, but were not included in the free dining. I will say, however, that we have yet to pay extra for these specialty dining restaurants - we've usually been impressed with the dining room options available on Royal Caribbean ships.


Photography: Some cruise lines will have professional photographers onboard, who take photos throughout the trip that are available for purchase at the end of the cruise.



Before & After the Cruise


Airfare & Hotel


If you have to travel to the departure port, you'll have to factor in either airfare or other travel costs to get there. If the cruise departs later in the afternoon, you could possibly risk flying in that morning and not having to spend money on a hotel, however, a lot of unforeseen events can happen, like delayed or canceled flights. If you're late, the ship will leave without you, so it's a good idea to fly in the night before, which also means you'll have to factor in a hotel stay into your budget.


On that note, if you're flying to and from the port, then you'll have to compare costs of flights for when you get back from the cruise. For example, if your cruise gets back to your port at 8am on a Friday, hopefully you're able to find an affordable flight out that same afternoon. If not, you may have to fly out the next day, which means you'll need to budget for another hotel.


Our cruise this summer gets back on a Sunday, and the flights leaving Sunday afternoon and evening were almost triple the cost of flights leaving the next morning. In this case, it was cheaper for us to get a hotel and fly out the next day than try to fly out that Sunday.


Another helpful tip to keep in mind is how much time you can afford to take off from work -definitely figure out how many days you'll need before & after the cruise for travel before you book!


Helpful Tip: Some of my favorite sites to quickly compare rates (and save money!) on flights & hotels are Trip Adviser, Hotels.com and Expedia!

Transportation To/From the Cruise Terminal


Now that you know whether or not you'll be flying in and if you'll need a hotel, you'll still need a way to get to and from the cruise terminal, so definitely factor those rides into your budget. If you find a really great deal on a hotel stay, but it'll end up costing you over $50 in an Uber to the terminal, it may be best to pay a little extra to be closer to the terminal. You can also check and see if some hotels possibly offer a shuttle service to the cruise terminal.


Parking


If you plan on driving to the departure port, you'll have to factor parking into your budget. If you're driving a far distance and are staying in a hotel the night before, some hotels offer free parking for the duration of your cruise, so that could definitely save you some money!


Our Shuttle to the Cruise Terminal

Some cruise terminals have their own parking. However, if there is a safe parking garage near the cruise terminal that offers a shuttle drop off to your ship, then I definitely recommend that instead. They're usually cheaper, easier to park your car, and then the shuttle will drop you (as well as all of your luggage) right to the ship's drop off point by the terminal. When parking in the terminal's parking garage, you usually have to drive up several levels in the garage, carry all of your luggage to your ship's drop off point outside the cruise terminal, and most likely wait in traffic exiting the garage on the day you come back.


For example, when our cruise was leaving out of Port Canaveral in Florida, the cruise terminal parking was $17/day, not including tax. Several other parking options near the terminal though were almost half that price. We chose to go with Port Parking Space, and had a great experience with them (p.s. they offer a military discount for both active duty & veterans)!

View of our Cruise Ship from the Shuttle

Is a Cruise Really a Good Value?


Now that you're more aware of what fees to expect when booking a cruise, you're probably wondering whether or not a cruise is still a better value than a regular trip to an all-inclusive hotel...and to that, I say yes!!


If we continue with the same cruise that I mentioned above, our total receipt for the cruise comes out to $1,757.72, or $878.86 per person.


Cruise fare plus all fees & gratuities: $903.12 ($451.56 per person)

Alcohol drink package: $554.60 ($277.30 per person)

Cash for extra gratuities & spending money at destinations: $300 ($150 per person)


Blue Lagoon Island in The Bahamas

If we divide that total by 5 since it is a 5-night cruise, that means the total cost per person is only $175.78 per day. That's including the room, all of your meals, all of your beverages, all of the gratuity, and access to the majority of activities onboard (our cruise ship had multiple pools, hot tubs, a rock climbing wall, a golf simulator, an arcade, nightly shows & entertainment, and a casino, to name a few), as well as a stop in Key West, Florida and Nassau in The Bahamas.


It'll be pretty hard to find a good quality, highly-rated Caribbean all-inclusive resort for two people for five nights that'll cost less than $175 per person per day. If it's not all-inclusive, then you know how cocktails alone can add up quickly each day, let alone paying for three meals a day and maybe snacks in-between. Then when you take into account the taxes, gratuities, and resort fees, you probably won't have much leftover for spending money outside of the resort. At least with a cruise, you also get to stop at several destinations, instead of staying at one stationary location.


Water Park in Royal Caribbean's Private Island in The Bahamas

There are some all-inclusive hotels that look comparable in price to this cruise, however, most of the ones that are around $300 or less per night don't seem to be rated higher than 3.9 out of 5 stars. Another common complaint I've heard from friends who have stayed at all-inclusive resorts was how dissatisfied they were with the food. I can't speak for all cruise lines, but we've been happy with the food on Royal Caribbean cruises so far.


Also, traveling to a U.S. port for the cruise is most likely going to be less expensive than air fare to an international location, depending on where you're traveling from. This is why we love going on cruises! We feel like we're able to make the most out of our money and vacation time!


I hope this post helped you understand the real cost of booking a cruise, and if you're ready to start traveling, then happy planning! Here's to a fun summer of travel!



Ready to compare rates for your first cruise? Click here to compare last minute deals, competitive rates and a variety of cruise itineraries!



***A couple disclaimers: I was not sponsored by any specific cruise line mentioned in this post - all opinions are my own. Also, the cruise ship that my example receipt was based on is not pictured in this post.

 

If you found this post helpful, feel free to click the little heart icon or subscribe to my monthly newsletter! If you have any questions or have some cruise budget tips that I missed, let me know in the comments - I'd love to hear from you!

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