Written by Rick Sallinger“So, how much is your cruise costing you?” one of my colleagues at work asked while comparing our vacation plans. I told him the price and with a jealous look in his eye he responded, “Not bad for a family of four, where are you going?” I had researched the trip as much as time allowed. I preferred a starting and ending point at an interesting city that my family had not seen before, so we picked New Orleans. Getting there would not be as expensive as say, Miami. How did I come up with a good price during one of the most expensive weeks of the year? The answer in this case was a web site called “Cruise Compete” (cruisecompete.com).

I had never heard of that site before, but I think I must have stumbled across a reference to it somewhere while researching for the trip. First, I determined which cruise we wanted to take. The NCL Norwegian Spirit’s departure city sounded good as did the dates and the length of the cruise, a week. What I especially liked were the destinations; first a day at sea, then Costa Maya in Mexico, Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras, then Belize, followed by Cozumel, Mexico, and another day at sea before returning to New Orleans.

“Cruise Compete” is actually a competition between travel agents bidding for your business. I marked down the cruise we had chosen, then sat back and waited for the bids to come in. Happily I discovered the price coming down. There were varying factors that made it different to compare, such as “onboard credit.” Generally the higher the price of the cabin, or number of cabins, the more onboard credit you were offered. I went with the lowest price and they threw in $50 onboard credit and a free bottle of wine. This bid was from a travel agency in Princeton, New Jersey, which I then contacted to seal the deal. They sweetened it with $100 onboard credit, but when I got on the ship I learned I was only being given the $50.

Speaking of wine, there’s another cost to keep in mind. Not just wine, but all drinks. On this line dubbed “freestyle cruising”, there’s not a whole lot that is “free”. As soon as you board the waiters come around with “welcome aboard drinks” which you then learn are up to $9.50 a glass. If that’s hard to swallow, the kids’ pop comes with a price too. And that bottle of water in the room, that’s $4.50. No, you are not allowed to bring your own alcohol on board.

Now, on to the meals. On this ship there were basically two categories of restaurants; those you could eat at with no surcharge and the specialty restaurants which are very, very nice, but at an extra price. How much extra? Well, we opted for the steakhouse for a special occasion and it was $25 per person ($100 for our family). I’m happy to say the melt-in-your-mouth filet was well worth the extra money, but again something I hadn’t budgeted for before the trip.

While we made some wonderful stops, the costs you rack up while off the ship can be costly. Here is where a little research beforehand paid off. Cruise companies make a good amount of money offering shore excursions. There is a convenience and safety factor in booking it through the ship, but that comes at a price.

The best example on our trip was “cave tubing in Belize.” The moment I saw this on the list of excursions offered I knew this is what my kids would want to do. Then I saw the price … $109 per person. That’s $436 before tacking on a tip! Ok, I thought, there has got to be a cheaper way of doing this. I can’t remember for sure, but I think I went to tripadvisor.com and somehow came across a recommendation for a company based in Belize called “Belize Jungle Trek” (belizejungletrek.com). They offered what sounded like the same cave tubing (riding an inner tube through a series of caves in the jungle of Belize) for $45 each ($180 for us four — no lunch included). I went for it!

Arriving in Belize we were a little nervous since the tour operator did not provide a good pre-arranged meeting time. We didn’t pay in advance so there was no money at stake, but I knew the kids would not be happy if the excursion didn’t come through. We exited Terminal One and after a few minutes were greeted by a tall native of Belize named “Major Tom” with our name on a sign. The major (the intelligent one, he proclaimed) and his son (the good looking one, he insisted) and their crew provided a fantastic day of adventure. Yes, we added on a nice tip.

Speaking of tips, I did budget this in for the ship’s crew beforehand, but not in the way they do it here. Usually I get a bunch of cash put it in envelopes, look my waiter or steward in the eye, thank them for their hard work and see the pleasure on their faces. “Freestyle Cruising” is a bit different. Because you go to different restaurants and sit at different tables you don’t have the same waiter every day. So “freestyle tipping” is not what I imagined. A fee of $12 per person per day was added onto our bill. That’s $336. You do have the option of going to the front desk and asking to reduce the amount of your tip, but that might be a bit embarrassing. Let me say right here the crew was worth every cent. They were very friendly people from the Philippines, Peru, India, and other countries who have left their families behind in hopes of earning a wage they could not achieve at home. We especially liked the Jamaican man with the bottle of sanitizer who would squirt your hands and yell “good morning” every day.

Since I am typing this on my laptop in the ship’s beautiful wood-paneled library let me not forget that if you want to use the internet that may cost you too. On this ship there are various plans. To give an idea, one of them offers $12 for 30 minutes of Internet time.
In the end, I suppose the cruise lines could certainly charge more for the cruise and then offer drinks or whatever included in the price. At least that would make it easier to know what you’ll end up paying. I just find it a bit harder to unwind when I keep thinking of the week’s memories coming in the form of a bill.

Comments (3)
  1. KG says:

    Great advice! We also visited Belize on another cruise line and I did my research and found Major Tom’s company as well. He was great, the day was great and the cave tubing was a real adventure. The bus ride was alot longer than we expected and the trip burned the whole day in Belize. Major Tom is highly recommended tho.

  2. Richard White says:

    What would have been a better start to your vacation would be to first find a good travel professional. A travel agent has all the information at their fingertips, saving you hours in front of a computer screen. As a travel agent myself I work for the client and not a travel supplier. We are there to make sure you get where you want to go, when you want to go and for the lowest price. You should have been informed on what to expect on costs before you left home. Hoping your next trip will be about how much you enjoyed the experience instead of worrying about your bill.

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