Updated July 24, 2019
Cruise lines pitch trips as "all inclusive," with accommodations, transportation, food and entertainment included in the base fare. Yet, step onboard, and you'll be bombarded with sales pitches to buy everything from shore excursions and massages to souvenir photos, alcoholic concoctions, romantic French dinners and even tours of working areas of the ship.
If you're ready to lock up your wallet and run, pull up a complimentary chair and take a deep breath. There's no need to spend any extra money onboard, with free shows, pool access and meals in the main dining room or buffet. However, if you want to partake in some of the extras without blowing your budget, you can find discounts on for-fee items. Here are 10 easy ways to stretch that vacation budget as far as it will go.
1. Book restaurant packages.
You can always save money by eating in the free dining venues (main dining room, buffet venue, outdoor grill and more), rather than splurging on specialty restaurants that charge extra fees. But if you like the intimacy and varied menus of the alternative venues, look for dining packages that will save you money. Some lines, like Celebrity, bundle together multiple dinner reservations at discounted rates from booking the same tables individually.
2. Look for specialty restaurant specials.
Want to dine in Holland America's Pinnacle Grill? Go for lunch when the cover charge is less. Looking for a discount on dinner? Carnival will often offer a free bottle of wine to those who dine at their steakhouses on the first night. Celebrity occasionally offers specialty dining discounts, such as reduced cover charges, so it can't hurt to inquire whether any are available on your sailing. If it doesn't make sense to book a package, definitely ask onboard or keep an eye out for the occasional alternative restaurant deal to save money on a special meal.
3. Book spa treatments on port days.
Cruise ship spa treatments are generally pretty pricey -- about what you'd pay at a top-notch resort (rather than at a day spa). Never fear: There are strategic ways to save.
Spas often discount services on days in port or put together packages of mini-treatments during slow times. Ask at the spa, or check your daily newsletter for special offers. If you're a spa junkie and plan to spend lots of time being pampered, look for discounted packages of multiple treatments. If you don't see one listed, talk to the spa staff about all the appointments you'd like to make and whether they can offer you a bulk rate.
Finally, many onboard therapists, especially those employed by the ubiquitous Steiner Ltd., follow up treatments with a sales pitch for the company's beauty products. To eliminate that extra tab, just say no.
4. Don't over-tip.
These days, most cruise lines add to your cruise bill an auto-gratuity or service fee that covers your cabin steward and dining staff. Bar bills often have a 15 or 18 percent gratuity included, as do many spa and fitness charges. Yet, the slip you have to sign indicates a space for an additional gratuity. You're always welcome to give an extra tip for outstanding service, but you shouldn't feel pressured to give more than the auto-gratuity if it's not warranted. Uninformed travelers see the blank line on the bill and add 15 to 20 percent without thinking -- and end up tipping double.
5. Go on your own on shore.
Cruise lines offer a variety of shore excursions in every port of call they visit. The main advantage to booking the cruise line's own tours is that, ideally, the ship will stand behind its quality, and if the tour runs late, the ship will wait. On the other hand, they tend to cost more, involve fairly large groups and cannot be customized.
If you want to save, skip the shore tour desk, and book independent shore excursions or tour guides (often for less money -- or at least the same price for a smaller tour where you get more input). Alternatively, rent a car and sightsee on your own, or simply wander around a walkable port, hoofing it to attractions, snapping photos at interesting sites and whiling away the hours in a cute cafe.
6. Disconnect at sea.
Calling ship-to-shore has always been exorbitant, whether you're using your cabin's phone or your cell phone on roaming rates. Most cruise ships these days have onboard Internet centers and Wi-Fi, though connecting at sea is still pretty pricey. If you're really cost-conscious, tell family and colleagues that you'll be out of touch for a week.
If you can't bear the radio silence or must plug in, save your emailing for ports of call; most have Internet Cafes or Wi-Fi hotspots. Ask your provider about limited-time international plans that might be reasonably affordable; most T-Mobile plans offer free texting and data in specific foreign countries. Oh, and if you must check email onboard, do buy your package on embarkation day. Many ships will offer extra-minute specials if you sign up on day one.
7. Save on your bar bill with discounted packages.
One of the quickest ways to ratchet up the onboard tab is buying bottled water, sodas and alcoholic drinks. Not only do ships charge restaurant prices, but they often add a 15 or 18 percent gratuity on top. If you're a serious drinker (alcoholic or non), you might save by purchasing a beverage package. Offered by most lines, they run the gamut from soda packages aimed at Diet Coke addicts to wine packages for the oenophiles or overall drinks packages that let you switch from beer to water to coffee to cocktails.
Just do the math and read the fine print; some lines force everyone sharing a cabin to buy the package and set rates high enough that occasional drinkers won't benefit.
8. Look for drink specials.
If you don't drink enough to make a beverage package pay, look for occasional special discounts, such as a bucket-of-beer (buy four or five bottles, get one free) and the "drink of the day" or "happy hour" special. You can also nab free Champagne by attending an art lecture or special parties on select lines.
But just say no to souvenir glasses. That colorful cup with the ship's logo the bartender is flourishing doesn't come free with your drink. You'll shave a few dollars off the cost if you ask for the fruity concoction in a boring, stay-on-the-ship glass.
9. BYO beverages.
Many lines are sticklers about bringing wine, beer and hard alcohol onboard (or they'll charge you a corkage fee), but a few let you bring on all the soft drinks, juice, bottled water and iced tea you want, within reason. (Check with your cruise line for specifics; Carnival, for instance, only lets you bring canned beverages onboard.)
If you're cruising from a local homeport, hit up Costco or Wal-Mart on your way to the ship, and buy a case of water or your favorite fizzy drink to lug aboard. You'll definitely save over ship prices.
10. Don't waste the wine!
If you order a bottle of wine with dinner and don't finish it, don't give it up for lost. Ask your waiter to cork it and save it for you for another night. The bottle can be accessed from any restaurant onboard; simply request it the next time you're ready for vino with dinner. If you're paying inflated prices for Chardonnay or Cabernet, you can at least get your money's worth by drinking the whole thing. Plus, it's often cheaper to buy by the bottle than by the glass.