If you read last week’s post and weren’t absolutely convinced at that MOMENT to book your first cruise, you may still have some lingering concerns or questions. Never fear! Today I plan to address some of the misconceptions, misunderstandings and perhaps lesser known aspects of taking a cruise vacation. If there are any questions or concerns that I neglect to address, feel free to speak up in the comments section!

Are Cruises All-Inclusive?

Short answer? NO.

Long answer? Kiiiiindddaaaaa. 

Your cruise fare pays for your cabin, meals*, on-board activities*, and beverages*. It’s quasi-all-inclusive.

See all of those asterisks? Those are services that can potentially have additional surcharges on board. Don’t be alarmed though: you do have the ability to eat three meals per day for each day of your cruise and never pay a dime. 

But honestly, the cruise line doesn’t want you to do that. So you will be tempted throughout the week by Drinks of the Day, candid and formal photography opportunities, on-board sales at the boutique, martini tastings…the list goes on and on. Many ships have splashy and enticing specialty restaurants on-board that – for a surcharge – allows passengers to dine on a variety of cuisine not available in the general dining venue. These are addressed in greater detail later in this post.

While rock-climbing and ice skating are free on Royal Caribbean ships (for example), you will have to pay a small fee to participate in Bingo or Cupcake-Decorating Class. Likewise, alcoholic beverages and soft drinks are not included in the price of your cruise, so expect to pay extra for these if you don’t want to drink water and lemonade all week.

An exception to this rule are the luxury cruise lines, such as Azamara and Crystal. Most of them offer an all-inclusive experience due to the elite nature of their product.

How do I pay for items/services on the ship?

Don’t go ANYWHERE without this card!

 Cruise ships are cashless, with the exception of the casino and – on some ships – the arcade. (And maybe bingo –  don’t know because I’ve never played!) When you check in for your cruise, you will be asked to provide either a debit or credit card to open your ship account. At this point, you’ll be issued a ship card which will serve as your room key/currency/lifeforce. This card is linked to your on-board account (credit card).  This means that every item you purchase on board…from that poolside margarita to that massage in the spa, even your shore excursion…is charged to your on-board account a.k.a. credit card. It is VERY easy to forget that you are actually being charged for these things — that is, until you check your account balance! Yikes. That little card can be the devil.

If you use your bank debit card, expect a hold to be placed on your funds while aboard the ship. The amount of the hold varies across cruise lines; some hold up to $100 per day. You need to ensure that you have enough cash in your account to cover that hold AND manage your spending while in port….otherwise, you may want to consider using a major credit card or cash for your on-board account.

What About Tipping?

Commercial cruise lines (i.e. Carnival, RCCL, Norwegian, Princess, etc) charge a set gratuity/service charge amount per passenger per day.  For example, passengers on Norwegian Cruise Line are charged $12 per person, per day. This charge is pretty much mandatory, so expect to pay it – it will be charged to your on-board account.  You can increase the amount of your tip if, for example, your room steward went above and beyond the call of duty. To do this, you will either be provided an extra envelope in your cabin or will need to visit the Guest Services desk on the ship.

Being treated like royalty on Princess

You have the option of paying your service charge/gratuities before you sail, which will free up your spending while on your trip. It’s your call. You would do this through the cruise line’s website or through your Travel Agent.

Gratuities will be automatically added to alcoholic purchases and spa services purchased on board at time of purchase, at a rate of 15-18%.

You should also expect to have a few dollars on hand to tip the curbside luggage porters – common practice is $1-2 per bag.

But Cruises ARE all-you-can-eat, right?

YES. And eat you will. There is always some delectable morsel of food available to grab, no matter the time of day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available in the ship’s dining room(s) and buffet; room service is available 24/7; most ships offer a poolside grill and 24-hour pizzeria. (I never said the always-available food was healthy, did I?)

My one piece of advice? Bring a bottle of Tums and some Ex-Lax.

Midnight Buffet on a Cruise.    Wear elastic pants.

Dinner Seating. Most cruises still offer traditional assigned dining. In this set-up, you will eat dinner at the same time every night, at the same table, with the same waiters. It gives larger groups the opportunity to catch up on their day’s activities at dinner or, if traveling as a couple, meet some fellow travelers and perhaps make new friends. Some cruisers also enjoy the rapport that is built with their wait staff, as the waiters begin to learn the traveler’s preferences and adapt their service accordingly.

Increasingly, however, cruise lines are beginning to offer a more flexible dining option that allows cruisers to eat dinner at their convenience, either by making same-day reservations or just showing up at the dining room. Princess Cruise Line pioneered this option and it has now been adopted by Carnival and Royal Caribbean, amongst others. Norwegian has completely eliminated the assigned dining model, as it does not fit into their “Freestyle” Cruising Concept.
Specialty Restaurants. Another fairly recent trend on cruise ships is the increasing availability of alternative dining venues, or specialty restaurants. As previously mentioned, Norwegian’s “Freestyle” concept not only eliminates assigned dining, but offers cruisers a variety of cuisine options including French, Italian, Brazilian, Teppanyaki and sushi. Many ships, across many brands, have specialty steakhouses and other fine dining options that are not available in the main dining room. Royal Caribbean offers a Johnny Rockets on many of their ships, and newer Carnival ships have a for-fee Mexican and BBQ stands at poolside.

But these are not free. Specialty restaurants charge a nominal fee, ranging from $5-30 per person. This is also charged to your on-board account. (noticing a trend, here?) These restaurants, however, are also “all-you-can-eat” and will let you eat until your body explodes, if that’s your prerogative.

That takes care of a few of the basics. There are so many more to cover, so there will likely be a sequel to this post. In the meantime, what other cruise questions may you have? If you have cruised before, what information do you feel is important for a first-timer to know?