The sneaky ways cruise lines squeeze every penny from their passengers

·6-min read
cruise holiday money
cruise holiday money

Everyone I’ve known who’s ever treated themselves to a spa pampering on a cruise can recount stories of pushy therapists trying to sell them overpriced creams and potions.

I still recall, with annoyance, one particularly persistent masseuse who not only tried to force $160 of products on me, but suggested I increase her gratuity over and above the 18 per cent “service charge” automatically slapped on to my bill.

Her forcefulness only succeeded in sparking my stubborn streak, which meant she got nowhere, but the relaxing massage I’d arranged to mark my at-sea birthday was wasted as I departed feeling rather more stressed (and angry) than when I’d arrived.

Cruise ship spas are, by their very nature, luscious sanctuaries where pampered guests waft in a sybaritic cocoon of indulgent therapies.

But nothing jolts you back to reality more harshly than being presented with the bill containing an automatic service charge, which on American cruise lines can be as high as 20 per cent, and there’s even a box for an extra discretionary tip to boost this further.

With some spa treatments easily topping $150, it doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that the gratuity, plus some products (if you succumb to the sales pitch), can take the final bill northwards of $200.

Made in America

The thorny issue of cruise ship gratuities has long dogged the industry, especially as amounts are higher on US lines where bills for drinks, as well as spa treatments, carry an automatic service charge.

drinks cruise - Getty
drinks cruise - Getty

This is in addition to the main daily levy which now averages around $14 per person, rising to about $19pp or more for suite guests. On the likes of Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) it is higher, while Cunard Line, MSC Cruises and boutique line Star Clippers charge less.

With children on most ships having to pay too, it can add a whopping £330 to the bill for a family of four on a week-long sailing.

Gratuities on UK-facing lines tend to be significantly lower, with the likes of Ambassador Cruise Line and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines charging £6pp per day and £5pppd respectively.

However, upmarket brands such as Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea include tips in the overall price, as does Viking. It’s a policy that has been adopted by a growing tally of other companies, notably P&O Cruises, Azamara and Tui-owned Marella Cruises.

Watch: This Luxury Cruise Line Just Announced an Around-the-World Sailing — to 30 Countries in 136 Days

The rise of the ‘crew appreciation’ charge

A more recent trend neatly sidestepping misgivings over this practice, which has never sat comfortably with a British audience less accustomed to the American tipping culture, is the rise of added-value deals from lines such as Princess Cruises and NCL.

For around £40pppd, guests can bolt on packages that include selected drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities or, as some lines call them, “crew appreciation” charges.

“Around 90 per cent of my customers opt for these packages,” said Hampshire-based travel homeworker Sarah Bolton, a cruise specialist who works for Travel Counsellors.

“People want to know what they’re paying upfront and prefer an all-inclusive package so they’re clear about what’s covered. Then it just leaves other extras such as spa treatments, excursions and speciality dining, which are optional.”

The cost of Wi-Fi and drinks, especially on US lines where higher prices (cocktails at $12 or more) are exacerbated by the poor dollar/sterling exchange rate, can quickly ramp up on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Speciality dining, where charges can comfortably reach $50pp or more, is another area that can run away, particularly for family groups, though some mainstream lines offer pre-purchase dining packages that can be more cost-effective.

It’s also worth remembering that even in the complimentary dining restaurants, there are often dishes on menus that also command a supplement.

Another area where charges can ramp up are excursions, though cruise companies have sought to increase the choice of shore outings in recent years, offering more exclusive arrangements and some cheaper alternatives.

Alternatively, guests can explore under their own steam or pick up port-side tours from local operators, which in some cases may be cheaper.

Unexpected extras at sea

Call it penny-pinching or, in American parlance, nickel and diming, but there are several less obvious ways that cruise companies try to ramp up the on-board spend of customers.

It starts as soon as you step on to the ship and are met by waiters gliding across the decks with loaded trays of mouth-watering sailaway cocktails. They may look tempting, but they come at a price.

Exclusive deck areas, such as The Sanctuary on Princess, The Retreat on P&O Cruises and the Vibe Beach Club on NCL, all serve a mix of rarefied exclusivity with plush sun-loungers, waiter service and titbit treats for fees that can range from a few dollars to over $100 and even more if you book a cabana.

It’s a similar story for spa thermal suites with day passes on sale for around $50 (sometimes half-day passes are offered too), while those wanting more access can snap up a pass for the entire cruise.

Fees have also started to creep in for some onboard attractions with NCL charging $15 to race around its go-karting track and $9.95 to do battle in its al-fresco laser tag arena, while Royal Caribbean International (RCI) charges for its sky-diving simulator and North Star viewing pod. There’s no wriggling out of the extra fee on the Escape Room attractions on some ships too.

Families cruising to RCI’s private island resort, Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas, may also get caught out by charges for its water park, which boasts the highest waterslide in North America, as it costs an eye-watering $99.99pp.

Yet despite such a variety of ways to part cruise passengers from their money, it’s worth noting that many are discretionary, so can be easily avoided.

“I still think cruising is one of the best value holidays out there,” said Bolton.

“I had a customer wanting to take her family away in the school holidays who’d been quoted over £5,000 for a two-bedroom self-catering apartment with flights. I found them a 12-night cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands in a balcony cabin on full-board and including gratuities – and it was £3,457. This shows that cruises can still be great value.”

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