When it comes to cruise vacations, the term all-inclusive should come with a big, fat asterisk. Cruise lines are taking a cue from airlines, adding or increasing fees to keep base fares low while still boosting revenue. “In this day of such easy and pervasive price comparisons, it’s important to have the lowest price out there,” says Ed Perkins, an editor with SmarterTravel.com. “If they can’t charge more for their basic product, cruise lines have got to make it some other way.”
Many of the new fees target food -- specifically gourmet items, such as lobster, steak, premium coffees and fancy desserts. Carnival recently beefed up the entrance fee for its steakhouse from $30 to $35 per visit. Royal Caribbean raised the price of entry into its Chops Grille restaurant from $25 to $30.
Once imposed, fees tend to stay. “When the economy starts to recover and fares go up, you won’t see cruise lines dropping these fees,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, of CruiseCritic.com. The good news for cruisers is that these charges are typically optional. And so far, the fees are limited to big cruise lines, such as Carnival and Celebrity.
But pesky fees make it tougher to budget for your cruise vacation, especially if you’re caught off guard by a new charge or give in to an impulse purchase. And sometimes the fees aren’t transparent, says Brown, citing the example of a waiter handing out flutes of champagne at dinner without letting diners know that they cost $20 each.
Unlike airlines, which must follow fee disclosure rules, cruise lines aren’t regulated as to how they display extra charges. To better estimate what your next cruise will cost, go to Independent Traveler’s budget calculator. It provides a worksheet with boxes for typical cruise fees, including dining surcharges, cocktails and soft drinks.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.