AskEd & AnswerEd
by Ed Perkins – April 17, 2009
Some of the cruise deals you see these days seem too good to be true. Whether you get them by email, see them online, or see a print ad, lots of cruises—on good ships—are going for under $100 a day per person, some are going for as little as $50 a day, and even some outside and “balcony” cabins are going at near those prices. A reader recently asked the simple question:
“Are those cruise deals we see real, or are they bait & switch come-ons?”
The short answer is that they’re real—well, almost real—provided you understand the economics of cruising. You do face a few mandatory extras, but they’re within reason; it’s the optional extras that can gouge you.
The Base prices
In early April, I saw great deals from several of the big online cruise agencies, such as and Vacations to Go. Among the best deals was an Alaskan trip, from Whittier (Anchorage) to Vancouver, May 16, starting at $349 per person inside, $379 outside, and $599 balcony. Those are all at least 67% below brochure rates. Other good deals started at $499 per person, seven nights, Western Caribbean from Miami, May 2; $599 per person, seven nights, Western Mediterranean from Pisa, May 16; and $599 per person, seven nights, Mexican Riviera from Long Beach, May 3.
I also saw lots of good deals for later in the summer peak season and into the fall, but none quite so low as the last-minute rates available for sailings within a month to six weeks. That’s par for the course.
It’s too late to book most spring transatlantic repositioning cruises from the U.S. and the Caribbean to Europe. The next good transatlantic deals will be returning from Europe this fall.
How Do the Cruise Lines Do It?
These days, cruise line pricing is sort of like the pricing you find on some of the most tight-fisted low-fare airlines: Sell the basic product cheap and make your profit on the extras. Thus, cruise lines try to sell as many cabins as they can at brochure or near-brochure rates, then top off their empties with last-minute discount deals. In some cases, those deals can be almost unbelievable: A few weeks ago I heard about travelers, at the port just disembarking from a $4000 cruise, who were offered a second cruise leaving that same day for $500.
According to some recent trade sources, with today’s squeezes on costs and revenues, the break-even occupancy rate on some mass market lines is 100%. They make their profits on the extras.
Extras You Can’t Avoid
No matter what you do, you can’t really cruise for the hyped per-day prices. You have to pay at least two extras that the cruise lines don’t pocket for themselves:
Tipping, although nominally “voluntary,” is a virtual necessity. The mass-market lines generally recommend a total of $10-$12 per person per day, to a mix of cabin attendants and restaurant staff; more for “special” services. A few lines assess mandatory tipping or service charges—theoretically a good idea, but not unless it’s coupled with a strict “no extra tipping” policy, and it generally isn’t. Here’s a useful online guide to cruise tipping.
Port taxes and immigration/customs fees collected on behalf of various port and government agencies are extra, just like airport taxes, although they generally add only a few dollars a day. Fortunately, the big cruise lines no longer do what they once did: split the true fare into a low-ball featured price plus a big phony “port charge” that really went to the cruise line.
As of last December, most of the big cruise lines had eliminated fuel surcharges. All told, the unavoidable extras are generally modest.
Extras You Can Avoid
The avoidable extras are those that the cruise lines do pocket for themselves or split with someone else. Those lines are generating significant profits by a combination of adding fees to features that once were “free” and by imposing big markups on optional expenditures:
Several lines have instituted extra fees to eat at some onboard “gourmet” dining rooms, surcharges for some menu items in the remaining dining rooms, and fees to use some of the ships’ recreational facilities.
Merchandise at a ship’s “boutiques” generally carries a stiff markup—more than you’d pay at a conventional retailer.
Beer, wine, and liquor, once sold at “duty free” prices, are now marked up to fancy-bar price levels. And most lines forbid you from bringing your own bottles aboard (although I suspect that lots of cruisers manage to circumvent this rule).
Almost all casinos are big moneymakers, and cruise ship casinos are rumored to be less generous than those in, say, Las Vegas or Laughlin.
You’re apt to be constantly pestered to pose for ship photographers, and then buy the pictures at inflated prices.
Shore excursions are marked up well beyond the price you’d pay by arranging your own tour after you arrive. We’ve previously covered shore excursions in greater detail; the risk you face in organizing your own tour is that if you’re delayed, the ship won’t wait for you.
Clearly, you can avoid any or all of these optional extras. However, avoiding all of them may limit your cruise experience to an unacceptable degree.
The longstanding suggestion to potential cruise travelers—buy very early or very late—appears to remain valid:
For maximum choice and flexibility, buy early enough to take advantage of “early bird” discounts offered by many cruise lines.
For bottom prices, wait for really good last-minute discounts, generally a month to six weeks before sailing.
Buying late requires a bit more flexibility: The number of ships, destinations, and itineraries available at rock-bottom last-minute rates is typically limited