How Much Does a Cruise Cost?

Of course, there are millionaires who cruise, but you don't have to be one to enjoy a wonderful vacation at sea! Many people don't realize how economical a cruise can be. Cruises start at as little as $100 per person per day (double occupancy), which wouldn't pay for a night at most land resorts or hotels. When you consider that all your meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, afternoon tea, midnight buffet) and entertainment (shows, movies, dances and lectures) are also included, it becomes a terrific deal! A one-week cruise generally ranges in price from $600 up into the thousands. (Pay attention -- some of those higher prices may include soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, airfare, port charges and excursions -- all the things that cost extra on most ships!)

Once upon a time, cruise line rates were structured so that last-minute-Joe could scoop up a still-vacant cabin for a fraction of what passengers who planned ahead paid. That became a public relations problem for cruise lines. So the new rate structure, now in place for a few years, rewards those who plan ahead six months or a year with discounts or shipboard credits. This is also a winning strategy for cruise lines -- ships are filling up more quickly! Also remember that, since repeat cruisers are the lifeblood of most lines, the more you cruise with a line you like, the better your incentives will be.

Make sure you know what your cruise includes. Ask about tipping policies. Since many cruise ship cabin stewards/stewardesses, waiters, busboys and other service staff are paid small base salaries and are dependent on tips to make a living wage, it's important that you know your ship's system. Except for top-of-the-line cruise ships in which tipping is not allowed (or is included), most ships recommend per diem tips per person, usually adding up to $9 to $12 per day per person; a recent trend, in light of more restaurant-style open seating arrangements for meals, is for ship department heads to pool tips and distribute them fairly among staff. In keeping with the cash-less system, tipping is done in person on the last day of the cruise -- not all along. Do what you will with the ship's guidelines; however, be fair and forgiving of little imperfections. Don't ever stiff them -- they work hard!

All cruise lines offer excursions in the port cities visited by the ship. You can go to a cruise talk or lecture and learn about the various places you'll be visiting and then decide what you'd like to do at each stop. The cost of excursions is rising; cruise lines say they don't have any control over that since they must work with local vendors, who set their own rates. You may not need to pay for a tour -- you might be able to do it on your own. Investigate and ask the shore excursions staff about ground transportation for passengers not going on group tours. However, you'll find in some more exotic locales that it's best to avail yourself of the excursion transportation. (For example, you'd have difficulty getting from the port of Kusadasi, Turkey, to the ruins of Ephesus (40 minutes away) on your own. If you were able to arrange transportation, it'd cost a fortune! So go with the tour -- sometimes local guides are wonderful!) These tours range in price from $25 or $30 (per person) up. (Hint: if part of your excursion includes travel by airplane or helicopter, you'll pay more!)

If you want to take your family on a cruise, inquire about lines that offer special deals for children. American Hawaii just announced free passage for children traveling with full-fare-paying parents. And many lines offer special add-on rates for parents who are brave enough to cruise four-to-a-cabin with their kids. In today's market, a family of four could probably take a one-week Caribbean cruise for about $2,200, give or take a couple hundred dollars. And remember, that includes food and entertainment for four for a week!

Most cruise lines offer add-on airfare from major gateway cities. You may or may not be able to beat their rates (check some of the low-rate airfare Web sites). It's not necessary that you travel on the same flights with other passengers, but there's one good reason to do so, especially if you're traveling great distances: cruise lines know which flights contain their passengers and they're more likely to hold the ship for a late flight for a group of their guests. If you travel independently, they don't necessarily know your arrangements and you're on your own as far as making it to the ship on time. (If you're late, there are often ways to catch up with your ship in the next port, but they're expensive and disruptive and you don't want to try them out!)

At each destination around the world, there's high season (the most popular time to go) and off season. Obviously, this affects prices. Most cruise brochures print high season and economy season rates and schedules, so you can see the difference. One more word of advice -- don't pay "sticker price" without checking with a cruise specialist to see what else is out there. Travel agents get regular notifications of empty berths and special deals, information they'll gladly share with you.