What's included in your cruise fare?
You'll hear that cruise fares are all-inclusive, but if you're a newbie to cruising, that term may be misleading.
While mainstream cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival offer incredible value in their cruise fares, they are not 100% all-inclusive. In other words, not every single thing is included in your fare. You'll pay extra for all kinds of extras, from bar drinks to meals at certain restaurants and even specialty coffees.
Of course, there are a few luxury, small ship and expedition cruise lines with fares that do bundle many more amenities together. You just need to pay attention to what's included and what's not, and then determine the best fare for you.
So, let's talk about what you can expect to be included in cruise fares -- whether you book with Disney Cruise Line or the posh Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection.
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Cruise fare basics
Your typical mainstream cruise line fare will get you a nice cabin on a ship that calls on a series of ports and may also include a sea day (with no port stop) or two. Fares include complimentary dining at the ship’s main restaurant and a few other outlets, such as the buffet and pool grill. A few types of nonalcoholic beverages (coffee, tea, non-bottled water, lemonade and ice tea, for example) are also included, as are other perks like entertainment.
Let’s break down what you get with your cruise fare from the most popular mainstream cruise lines and how luxury lines sweeten the deal with extras.
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While cabins vary in size and accouterments, you'll find that most ships offer -- from least expensive to priciest -- interior rooms, ocean views (with a window), balconies and even suites. Generally speaking, older ships have smaller cabins.
In recent cruise history though, stateroom size has grown as cruise lines build new ships with a ton of bells and whistles. For example, Celebrity's new Edge-class ship, Celebrity Apex, offers oceanview cabins that range from 200 to 242 square feet. An oceanview cabin aboard Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas is a bit snugger at 175 square feet.
Related: The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
The least expensive fares are usually attached to interior or obstructed-view cabins. (Views can be obstructed by, say, the ship's lifeboats.)
No matter which cruise line you pick, your cabin will include a comfortable bed(s), television with multiple channels, a room service menu and a bathroom (most of the time with just a shower and no tub unless you book a higher-category cabin). Cabins are serviced daily by room stewards.
Meals in the main dining room (known as the MDR in cruise lingo) are included in your cruise fare. Additional venues, such as a buffet (often open all hours of the day) and pool grill are also free. On larger ships from lines such as Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line, expect a pizza place or hotdog joint like Royal Caribbean's Boardwalk Dog House to also offer complimentary vittles.
Other dining establishments, called specialty restaurants, charge either a per person surcharge or have an a la carte menu. For example, if you want to dine at a steakhouse at sea, you'll pay anywhere from $29 to $45 per person for the privilege. Conversely, you won't pay a dime to eat at Prime 7, the steakhouse aboard the ships from luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Related: 5 reasons you should splurge on a cruise ship specialty restaurant
When you want free ice cream on mainstream cruise ships, head to the buffet, since it often has a soft-serve ice cream machine. Other lines have standalone ice cream shops but may charge extra. Be sure you know your free options from the paid ones before you decide where to dine.
In the olden days, room service was also free on most cruise ships. That's not the case now, so if you plan to dine in your cabin often, pick a line that still offers plenty of fee-free menu items and no service fee. Norwegian Cruise Line charges a $9.95 fee every time you order room service unless you're in The Haven (an upgraded VIP area of the ship). Royal Caribbean's service fee is $7.95. On MSC Cruises ships, there's a $4.99 delivery fee unless you book into the Aurea or Fantastic Experience, and the menu includes both free and for-fee items. MSC Yacht Club suite passengers can order room service with no charges at all.
Carnival doesn't charge a service fee for delivery of room service and many items, such as sandwiches and salads, are free — but you'll pay a la carte for items like pizza, chicken tenders and quesadillas (i.e., probably everything your kids want to order).
On most mass-market cruise lines, you’ll get complimentary water (not bottled), non-specialty coffee and tea, and beverages like lemonade, ice tea and assorted juices. You'll usually have the most options at the buffet where self-service drink machines are located. In the MDR, you may have fewer juice options but can almost always get water, lemonade or ice tea.
You'll always pay for alcoholic drinks. Read TPG's line-by-line guide to cruise line drink packages.
Complimentary entertainment varies from one cruise line to the next, but you’ll typically get free admission to Broadway-style theater productions and comedy shows. Live music can be found in many onboard venues and listening is free -- though you'll probably buy an alcoholic beverage or two since these bands usually play in the ship's lounges.
Outdoor movies are one of the coolest freebies on board when it comes to entertainment. Princess Cruises was the first to offer "Movies Under the Stars" and it has become an incredibly popular pastime for cruisers. Most lines offer something similar now. Sometimes, the movies are old favorites, but other lines, like Disney, offer first-run movies during their voyages. Expect free cookies and milk or popcorn and even the distribution of blankets on chilly nights.
Trivia is another popular daytime entertainment option that's free, but you'll sometimes pay to play bingo -- especially if there's a cash prize.
Cruise ships that have art galleries often have art auctions, which are free and often net you a complimentary glass of Champagne. But you'll need to dig into your wallet if you want to buy a piece of art you see at the show.
Other events to look for in your daily cruise program include cooking demonstrations, lectures and craft classes. In the evenings, it's always free to dance the night away in the disco or try out your inner Taylor Swift at a karaoke session.
Also look for cerebral pastimes like Discovery at Sea, a partnership between Discover and Princess Cruises, which offers fun activities for both kids and adults inspired by shows like “Mythbusters” and “Investigation Discovery.” The program includes a guest lecturer program called "Encounters," top-deck after-dark stargazing and more.
Finally, nearly every cruise line invites passengers to free parties. Study your daily cruise planner and attend events like the embarkation sail-away party or Norwegian Cruise Line's White Hot Party, where everyone is asked to dress in all white as DJs spin tunes to get everyone onto the dance floor.
And don't miss Celebrity Cruises' Silent Disco. Show up at the specified time and place and pick a pair of headphones. You can dial up one of several "channels" and dance to your heart's content while other passengers are dancing simultaneously to a different song! It's a wild experience and it makes everyone crack a smile, at the very least.
The gym, pool and kids club
Your cruise fare also typically includes complimentary access to onboard fitness centers (though some group and private classes may have a fee), pools and kids programming. The perks, of course, depend on what cruise line and ship you’re sailing with.
Most cruise lines also include complimentary kids programming in the cruise fare. This includes age-appropriate activities in exciting onboard settings with trained child care professionals. Most programs are free, but you may pay for after-hours group babysitting or babysitters who come to your cabin (not all lines offer this).
Related: 11 extra charges on cruise ships that will drive you nuts – and what to do about them
Extra amenities with luxury lines
So, what makes a cruise line stand out when it comes to fares? Here are some extras wrapped up in the per person price you'll pay for a voyage with a luxury line.
Higher-end cabins and suites
Luxury cruise lines typically provide extra living space and more storage, a stocked minibar, premium bathroom and toiletries (think: Bvlgari and Molten Brown) and even butler service.
Oftentimes, luxury ships are "all-suite" vessels, meaning everyone is in a suite and, on Silversea, butlers and cabin stewards cater to all.
Unlike mainstream cruise lines, luxury cruise lines usually include free dining at specialty restaurants and 24-hour room service. For instance, Regent Seven Seas and Viking Ocean Cruises include dining at specialty or alternative restaurants for free. These lines also offer complimentary 24-hour room service.
And, the specialty restaurants are, well, special -- often with menus crafted by renowned chefs. Famed chef Thomas Keller, for example, created a restaurant for Seabourn ships. Chef Jacques Pepin has been Oceania Cruises’ executive culinary director since 2003. Sailing with a luxury line gives you the opportunity to dine out at restaurants that rival Michelin-starred venues on land.
Related: Cruise ship restaurant nirvana: The 7 best meals you can have at sea
Beverages — including alcohol
Luxury cruise lines typically include complimentary soft drinks, specialty coffees and select wines and spirits in the cruise fare. Aboard Azamara cruises, you can order select standard spirits, international beers, wines, soft drinks and specialty coffees. On Viking Ocean Cruises, sip beer, wine and soft drinks during lunch and dinner, and enjoy your specialty coffees at any time of day.
Silversea offers complimentary select wines, premium spirits and soft drinks in all bars and lounges on board its ships. And, you have a minibar stocked with your preferred beverages, which will be replenished by your butler upon request.
On Regent Seven Seas cruises, you’ll enjoy unlimited complimentary beverages, free open bars and lounges (plus Champagne in the main show lounge), and an in-suite minibar replenished daily with soft drinks, beer and bottled water.
Free shore excursions and onboard programming
Regent Seven Seas includes a selection of shore excursions in its cruise fare -- though you can pay to upgrade to some more bespoke options. On Viking Ocean Cruises, there’s one complimentary shore excursion in every port of call and Silversea often runs promotions that include shore tours on certain itineraries.
With Azamara, you’ll be treated to a complimentary AzAmazing Evenings (available on most voyages), a special nighttime excursion that provides cruisers exclusive access to attractions and a glimpse into the local culture.
Some lines offer free transportation from the ship to the port's city center and back. You generally won't find that with the less-expensive, mass-market lines.
And, luxury lines generally offer myriad onboard lecturers to help you connect with the world around you and the destinations you're visiting.
Additional luxury cruise line perks
Luxury cruise lines also include some appreciated perks, such as complimentary Wi-Fi and gratuities.
Lines such as Regent Seven Seas and Viking Ocean Cruises provide cruisers with free Wi-Fi, though on the latter connection speeds may vary and it’s limited to one log-in, one device per suite on the former.
Gratuities are included in the cruise fare for lines such as Azamara, Regent and Silversea (except beauty salon and spa treatment gratuities). And, free self-service laundry is available aboard Azamara and Viking Ocean Cruises.
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Only you can decide which cruise line -- and fare -- work best for you. If you're comparing two different cruise lines, be sure to understand what's included in each fare. You may find that a luxury line is better for you on a certain itinerary that's port-heavy, while a cost-effective fare on a mainstream line is the right choice for a Caribbean voyage. Try to compare apples to apples before making a decision and booking your cruise.