15 ways that cruising newbies waste money on their first cruise

Feb 18, 2021

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I can still remember my first rookie mistake on a cruise. It came about 15 minutes after I stepped on board a ship for the first time.

I had worked my way up to the Lido Deck to take in the view, and was almost immediately confronted by a beaming waiter holding out a tray of colorful umbrella drinks.

“Oh, nice,” I thought. “Free sail-away cocktails!” I reached out to grab one.

It was only then that the waiter whipped out an invoice pad from his back pocket. Ka-ching! It turned out the sail-away drinks on this particular ship weren’t free. Not by a long shot. I can’t remember the dollar amount that he wrote down, but I recall it was sky-high. I do remember the way I felt: duped.

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I never made that mistake again. But it wasn’t the last time that I spent money on a ship in a way that I later regretted. Even now, after sailing on more than 150 cruise vessels, I still make unforced errors from time to time when it comes to onboard spending. Don’t we all.

As anyone who cruises a lot knows, cruise lines are masters at the upsell. At some lines, the whole business model is built around getting you to spend more than you ever thought you could on board. They get you on a ship at a low rate. Then they blast you with spending opportunities.

The top mistakes new cruisers make

Are you a newcomer to cruising looking to maximize your dollars on your very first cruise? Read on for our list of the 15 most common ways first-time cruisers waste money on ships.

It’s a list drawn not just from my own experience over 20-plus years of cruising but the observations of hundreds of cruising fans who shared their tips in a robust conversation on the topic at our TPG Lounge on Facebook. If you’re not a member yet, we highly encourage you to join!

Buying too many shore excursions

Despite what you’ll hear at onboard port talks, you don’t have to book a shore excursion in every port. There are many big-name cruise destinations around the world — Barcelona, for example, or Venice — where it’s easy to visit the biggest attractions on your own, either on foot or by using public transportation or ride-hailing companies such as Uber. This can be much less expensive than touring with a group on an organized tour, and maybe more enjoyable, too.

My favorite site in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudi-designed Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, for instance, is easily reachable via the Barcelona metro for just a few dollars. Tickets to enter the basilica are 20 euros (about $24) for adults, less for students and seniors, and free for children under 11 (be sure to buy tickets in advance to ensure access). Compare those costs with the $90 or more per person you’ll pay for the typical four-hour cruise excursion to the basilica.

Related: How to tour Barcelona using points and miles 

Only buying excursions through your cruise line

Booking a shore excursion directly through your cruise line is easy. You just check a box on an online form before sailing or while on board, and — poof! — it’s all arranged. But booking tours through your line isn’t the only option, and it’s not always the best option. In many cases, you can save a lot of money — and get a better touring experience — by booking shore excursions through independent tour operators in ports or a tour booking service such as Viator or ToursByLocals.

Often, independent tours will be much more intimate than the tours offered directly through cruise lines. They might go to the same site but in a small van instead of a big motorcoach. You might have just six or eight other people on a tour with you instead of nearly 40. If your group is big enough, you might be able to book a private tour with an independent tour operator, which can be heavenly.

Pro tip: Use the excursion list from your cruise line as a guide to the possible tours and top attractions in each port. But don’t book one of the official cruise line excursions until you’ve researched whether it’s just as easy to do the top attractions on your own, or through an independent tour company.

Buying a drinks package (if you’re not a big drinker)

Drinks packages on ships often are quite pricey, and they generally only make sense if you’re a big spender on drinks — a really big spender. Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, charges as much as $59.95 per person, per day for its Cheers! drinks package. Royal Caribbean drinks packages sometimes cost as much as $89 per day. One Norwegian Cruise Line drinks package is over $120 a day. Think hard about how much you typically drink on vacation — and what type of drink you typically order — before you commit to one of these packages. You may find it’s less expensive to just pay as you go for your drinks.

If you’re a beer drinker, for instance, the packages often are not a good deal, unless you drink a lot of beer. On Carnival ships, many beers cost $6.25. You’d have to order more than nine beers a day at that price for Carnival’s Cheers! package to start paying off.

Related: Are drinks packages on ships worth the price? A line-by-line guide 

Drinks packages are available on Princess Cruises ships. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)
Drinks packages are available on Princess Cruises ships. (Photo courtesy of Princess Cruises)

Not buying a drinks package (if you’re a big drinker)

If you’re a big drinker, by contrast, a drinks package can be a money saver — again, depending on what type of drink you prefer. Drinks packages can make sense for wine drinkers, in particular, as the cost of wine by the glass on cruise ships often is high. To continue with the Carnival comparison: Wines by the glass on the line’s ships range from around $8 to $14. At the higher end of that spectrum, you’d have to order just five glasses a day for the package to start paying off.

Note that, in addition to alcoholic drinks, passengers purchasing a drinks package typically also have access to an unlimited number of nonalcoholic beverages such as specialty coffees and sodas that normally come with an extra charge. The packages thus can be a good value to vacationers who are fond of ordering a high number of lattes, Cokes and other nonalcoholic beverages during the day in addition to alcoholic drinks.

To use the Carnival example again, someone who orders two or three lattes in the morning, several sodas during the day and three or four glasses of premium wine in the evening would come out ahead by buying a drinks package.

Pro tip: Some lines will offer discounts on their drinks packages in advance of sailing. Royal Caribbean, for instance, is known for doing this. At Royal Caribbean, the deals will appear in the My Cruises section of the line’s website (once you log in, navigate to the Cruise Planner area for your sailing and click on Beverage Packages).

Related: A novice cruiser’s tips for better sailing the second time at sea

Not bringing on your own drinks, where allowed

One way to cut your bar bill on ships is to bring your own drinks on board. Not every line allows this, and those that do often have limits. But you can end up saving a lot of money by being your own bartender on lines where going BYOB is kosher.

Among the lines that allow this is Disney Cruise Line, where adults can bring up to two bottles of unopened wine or Champagne or six beers on board at the start of a cruise and at every port of call. Note that these beverages must be packed in carry-on bags. At Royal Caribbean, the bring-your-own allowance is two bottles of wine or Champagne per cabin at boarding, plus up to a dozen standard cans, bottles or cartons of nonalcoholic drinks such as sodas.

Note that many lines levy a “corkage fee” if you want to bring your wine into an onboard restaurant.

Buying the soda package

Unless you’re the type of person who drinks a soda every few hours, these packages don’t always make sense. Often, people buy them for their kids, who love the freedom of having access to soda all day long. But be sure to think through the drink-cost math before committing to one of the packages. At Royal Caribbean, for instance, you can get a soda a la carte for around $3, while a soda package runs $12.99 per person, per day. That means the package doesn’t really start paying off until you hit an average of five sodas a day. If that doesn’t seem too out-of-the-question to you, remember that on some days you will be off the ship for extended periods touring.

Not bringing every toiletry you could possibly need

Yes, you’ll be able to find sunscreen, aspirin and Band-Aids on a cruise ship. But it’ll cost you. Big time. Cruise lines know you’re a captive audience and price their shipboard stores accordingly.

I have a small “go bag” of over-the-counter medicines that I throw into my suitcase for every cruise, containing everything from cold medicine to seasickness pills. I rarely use any of it. But I also never get hit with a crazy toiletries charge.

While we’re on the topic of sundries, don’t forget extra batteries for your camera.

Not using a points card for onboard spending

You saw this one coming, no? Given TPG’s origins as a points-and-miles website, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you to maximize your credit card points while making purchases on ships. The way to do this is to tie a credit card that offers extra points for travel purchases to your onboard account. This could be the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3x Ultimate Rewards points on travel and dining (excluding the annual $300 travel credit). There’s also the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which brings 2x Ultimate Rewards points on travel 3x points on dining.

Related: How to book a cruise with points and miles 

Buying full-priced spa treatments

If there’s one thing that all cruise ships have in common, it is this: The pricing in their spas is sky-high. It’s not uncommon for a 75-minute massage at a cruise ship spa to run as much as $199, and that’s before a gratuity that, on many ships, is now added on automatically. A manicure can set you back nearly $50 on some vessels — again, before a gratuity that may not be optional.

One strategy that many savvy cruisers follow when booking spa treatments is to wait for the treatments to go on sale. This often happens when a vessel is in port. Cruise ship spas have a harder time getting customers on port days, as many passengers are out touring, so they often drop prices to boost demand. Often, you’ll find port-day spa discounts highlighted in cabin newsletters the night before a port call, and/or spa staff will be in corridors on port days promoting the deals.

Tipping twice for a spa treatment

As noted above, some cruise ship spas now are adding an automatic gratuity to the cost of spa treatments — often in the amount of 18% to 20% of the treatment cost. But that’s not always clear when you go to check out. Be sure to ask if a gratuity already has been included before adding another 15% or 20% to the total. Otherwise, you may end up tipping twice.

Related: Everything you need to know about tipping on a cruise ship 

Shopping on board, for just about anything

People buy the strangest things on cruise ships. On just about every ship bigger than a tugboat, you’ll find at least one store, usually many, selling everything from little models of your ship to gold chains sold “by the inch.” There’s also art, sold through auctions (how did this become a thing on cruise ships?), all the tanzanite you’ll ever need (for some reason, this is a cruise ship thing, too), and all sorts of tchotchkes, jewelry, watches and clothing, the latter often with the cruise line’s logo splashed all across it.

If you’re into all of this stuff, fine. Just know that it isn’t necessarily a bargain — no matter what the salespeople try to tell you. As mentioned above, you’re a captive audience, and the cruise lines know it.

Related: The TPG guide to maximizing online shopping portals 

Not keeping your phone in airplane mode

Some of the biggest cruise ship horror stories you’ll find on the internet are tales of cruising newbies who racked up thousands of dollars in cellphone charges while on ships. This can happen when you leave your phone turned on and, say, watch videos on the internet. Many phone plans — even international plans — do not include talking, texting and data on cruise ships, and you’ll pay exorbitant roaming rates for such services that will show up weeks later on your phone bill.

There are ways to make calls and access the internet from ships without spending a boatload of money. You can buy a Wi-Fi package, for instance, that will let you make FaceTime calls and stream videos (on some ships) by Wi-Fi without using phone data. Some phone companies also have cruise-specific plans you can buy in advance of a voyage. But I personally never go that route. I keep it simple. I just put my phone in airplane mode the moment I step on board a ship and never switch it back on. I then turn on the phone’s Wi-Fi, buy a Wi-Fi package and do all my calling, texting and internet surfing over Wi-Fi. That way, there’s no way that I can be surprised by an unexpected charge.

Young woman on the bench on deck of the ferry boat or ship yacht taking photos pictures using her smart mobile phone while sailing on the vacation in sunny day
Taking pictures is fine, but be careful how you use your phone for calls, texts and internet surfing when on a cruise ship. (Photo by Miljan Zivkovic/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Buying photo packages

Photography is big business on many cruise ships. You’ll often find ship photographers lying in wait for you as you arrive for a cruise, usually near the gangplank. They’ll want to take your picture in front of one or more ship-related backdrops. They’ll then resurface at the gangplank during port calls, in restaurants during dinner and corridors on formal nights, snapping away. All these photos then appear in ship photography galleries, available for a charge.

Our advice, and the advice of many TPG readers who cruise: Look but don’t buy. Some of the photos may be fun, but the pricing for photos on most ships is insanely over the top. You can easily pay $20 for a single photo given to you in digital form. You won’t even get a printout! Multi-photo packages often run into the hundreds of dollars. You may be excited about the photos when you first see them at the photo shop, but — trust us — you won’t be so thrilled when you get your final bill at the end of the cruise.

Not using points to get to your cruise

Using points and miles to pay for a cruise doesn’t always make sense, as it often requires a huge number of them to secure a cabin. But that doesn’t mean you can’t save big time by booking your flights to and from a ship using points and miles.

You’ll find plenty of stories here at The Points Guy about how to, say, pay the equivalent of $1,330 in points for a flight that cost $16,000, or book a $27,000 around-the-world trip for just $168 in out-of-pocket costs. Scroll around a little, and you may never pay cash for a flight to a cruise ship again.

Related: A beginner’s guide to using points and miles

Not asking for comps in the casino

Just like at casinos on land, casinos at sea often offer extra perks for their most loyal customers. If you’re going to play a lot in a shipboard casino, make sure you introduce yourself to the casino manager at the start of the trip and check to see if the line has a casino players card. Depending on the line, your play could be rewarded with such perks as free drinks, free dinners in extra-charge restaurants, free internet time, an onboard spending credit or even a free future cruise.

Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, has a formal Casino at Sea rewards program with five tiers that, at its highest tier, can bring a waiver of your onboard service fees, a complimentary shore excursion, private transfers from your home or hotel to the ship and back, cabin discounts, free drinks while playing and more.

Related: Everything you need to know about Las Vegas casino loyalty programs 

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.

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