Build Your Own All-Inclusive Cruise

One of the biggest complaints we hear from cruise travelers is that they feel nickel and dimed onboard. The scenario goes like this: You think you've scored a fabulous price on a vacation, but then discover a cruise really isn't all-inclusive because you have to shell out for drinks, specialty dining, spa treatments and shore excursions.

You could avoid the problem by booking a luxury all-inclusive cruise -- some even include airfare and pre-cruise hotels -- but these sailings can easily run $1,000 per person per day (or more!). Perhaps a more cost-effective strategy is to combine promotional perks from the various cruise lines with extra-fee packages to build your own all-inclusive cruise. While you still might pay more than just the base cruise fare, you won't pay for lots of things once onboard, so you can avoid sticker shock when you get that final bill.

If you like the idea of knowing your total cruise bill (as much as possible) up front, here are our tips for how to build all-inclusive cruises.

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Promotional Freebies

Cruise lines have switched their sales strategies. Instead of slashing rates, they are luring travelers with pick-your-own-perk promos. For example, Celebrity generally offers your choice of one or two of the following amenities for outside cabins and higher: free drinks for two people, unlimited Internet for two people, prepaid gratuities for two people or $300 in onboard spending money. Book a suite and you'll get all four perks. Norwegian has a similar promotion, offering your pick of a shore excursion credit, a dining package, drinks package and free Wi-Fi; passengers can pick one, two or get four free, depending on the stateroom category booked. Royal Caribbean and Holland America offer onboard credit.

Take advantage of these promotions to get more amenities included in your fare, gratis. It's the first step to making your cruise more all-inclusive.

Dining and Drinks Packages

If you hate deciding whether or not to pay $10 for that tempting pina colada or $30 for a date-night meal in a more intimate specialty restaurant, consider purchasing a dining or drinks package. Unless you score one of these free of charge (see the previous tip), you will have to shell out either before or on the first day of your cruise. But once that's done, you won't need to pay again.

Drinks packages range in inclusions, from all nonalcoholic drinks or wine-only all the way up to premium liquors. Prices vary by type and by line. Once you've purchased the package, you don't have to think about ordering that morning latte or Bloody Mary, trying a creative cocktail or testing out new wines. Dining packages, offered by Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, bundle three to 14 meals in extra-fee restaurants for one price, typically at a discount off the individual restaurant surcharges.

Luminae on Celebrity Constellation

Onboard Credit

Onboard credit is the cruise industry term for "free spending money." A credit can be used to pay for anything onboard, from souvenirs to shore excursions. The more credit you have, the less real money you have to hand over for onboard purchases -- and the less you have to agonize about purchasing decisions.

There are many ways to get onboard credit. As said earlier, free money is often offered as a booking incentive by cruise lines or even travel agents. You can nab some by booking your next cruise onboard, or sometimes as a reward for being a loyal cruiser. If you have a cruise line credit card, you can sometimes cash in your points for shipboard credit.

Suite Perks

Paying up front for a higher-category cabin can mean a more all-inclusive cruise experience for you. For example, book a Royal, Penthouse or Reflection Suite on Celebrity, and you'll receive a free premium beverage package, unlimited complimentary specialty dining (as well as access to exclusive suite-only restaurant Luminae), free Internet, access to the exclusive Michael's Lounge and its concierge services and a stocked in-cabin minibar.

In addition, suite passengers usually get more perks as part of cruise line promotions. For example, if you book a suite on Norwegian, you will get all four of its promotional offers, rather than having to choose just one or two.

Inclusive Ships

A few mainstream cruise ships are more inclusive than their fleetmates, meaning freebies for all passengers. Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas offers high-speed Internet to all passengers free of charge. Norwegian Sky includes free unlimited soda, juice, beer, wine, cocktails and liquor in their fare (up to an $11 value per drink). The perks are automatic and available to all cruisers, regardless of cabin category.

Final Caveat

You've probably figured out that unless you take advantage of complimentary amenities offered by cruise lines and travel agents, building your own all-inclusive cruise will cost money. Do the math to make sure you're getting the best value by going all-inclusive. With an alcohol package, for example, you have to drink quite a bit to break even with the a la carte pricing. Is it worth the price not to have to think about every purchase, or would you rather choose the cheaper option?

Also, if you're upgrading your cruise experience for more inclusions, it's wise to tally up the total cruise cost to make sure you wouldn't be better off with a higher-end suite or cruise line. For example, if you're considering a suite on Celebrity for all the complimentary perks, you might find it's similar in price to an actual luxury cruise, where inclusions are bundled in the cost and where you could receive a more intimate, service-oriented, high-end vacation. Or if you're looking into Norwegian's dining and drinks packages, perhaps you'd be better off with a suite, which comes with those amenities, plus more perks.

Whether you choose to build your own all-inclusive cruise, book a more inclusive cruise line or stick to paying for onboard purchases individually, you'll want to compare the total price and overall cruise experience to make sure you're getting the most bang for your buck.