The base fares advertised by many cruise lines rarely indicate the proliferation of onboard charges that can send the cost of the cruise soaring. Travel advisors are stepping in by counseling clients about the added costs and, in some cases, presenting all-inclusive cruises as a better value.
With the proliferation of automatic tipping and extra charges for everything from spinning classes to cappuccino, it’s little wonder that base cruise fares seldom reveal the actual cost of the voyage.
While most luxury cruise lines still offer all-inclusive pricing, those in the mass-market and premium categories have embraced the concept of onboard charges, said Mike Weingart, president of Air Land and Sea Consultants in Houston.
The practice has negative ramifications for passengers and travel advisors alike, he added.
“I don’t think these cruise lines are happy unless the cost to get off the cruise is more than the cost to get on board,” he said. “And all of these charges are sans commission.”
Taking a more philosophical attitude, Janet Blackwell, owner of Tidewater Cruise and Travel in Bel Air, Maryland, observed that extra charges are enabling lower-end cruise lines to keep base fares at levels that are not much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago.
“Yet today’s cruises offer significantly more,” she said. “If you want things like specialty coffee, premium ice cream, specialty dining or premium alcohol, you can get it. You just have to pay more.”
However, Blackwell dislikes what she increasingly finds is a “Turkish bazaar” atmosphere on some cruise ships.
“I hate being assaulted by cruise line staff the instant I board, hawking things like their premium beverage package, their specialty dining package, their photography package, their bottled water package, you name it,” she said. “This is not the experience I was hoping for when I booked a cruise.”
Not only are onboard charges unlikely to go away anytime soon, the practice is intensifying, much like the proliferation of resort fees, according to those who track cruise industry trends.
“The general trend with cruises seems to follow the road map seen in other places like Las Vegas,” said Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise site Cruzely. “Prices and extra costs continue to rise. While cruising can still be affordable, it’s also easy to spend a lot of money if you want to have it all and do everything.”
As cruise lines continue to add elaborate mega ships with an ever-growing range of specialty dining, entertainment, and onboard activities, the need to recoup the substantial investment is resulting in a wider range of onboard charges, Callais noted.
“You will pay extra for the optional specialty dining restaurants, which often include the bulk of the places to eat on the ship,” he said. “Meanwhile, many activities on cruise ships and on private islands run by the cruise lines are also moving toward being an extra cost. This includes not just thrill rides or experiences like escape rooms, laser tag, or go-kart racing but also exclusive pool areas on some ships.”
While cruisers have grown accepting of extra charges for premium dining and specialty activities, some costs are being met with more resistance, said Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic.
“There are certain fees that we hear more feedback from consumers than others — room service fees are a big one,” she said. “Increased costs for beverage packages are another.”
Even veteran cruisers are coming across new onboard charges they didn’t anticipate. Blackwell was recently dismayed to find that certain entrees in the main dining room, where dining is normally included in the base fare, came with an extra charge.
While gratuities for stewards and waitstaff were once left to the discretion of the passenger, many cruise lines now add predetermined tip amounts to the overall bill. Passengers who object can ask for the amounts to be adjusted at the guest services desk on board.
While automatic tipping draws mixed reactions among passengers, the cruise lines had good reasons for instituting the practice, Gray Faust said.
“Most cruise lines have added automatic gratuities in response to having more international passengers who might have different customs in their countries,” she said. “Making the gratuity automated makes sure that crew members are rewarded for service consistently, no matter where the ship is located or what nationalities are on board.”
Amanda Klimak, president of Largay Travel in Waterbury, Connecticut, also sees some positive reasons for automatic tipping but said it’s important for travel advisors to make clients aware of the practice.
“It’s a good thing in that sometimes passengers don’t understand what is appropriate, so it gives them a guideline,” she said. “However it’s essential that clients know what they will be charged at the end of a the trip. Tips can add up to hundreds and, in the case of a group, even thousands of dollars.”
While in support of fair tipping, Lisa Silvestri, owner of Silvestri Travel in Sarasota, Florida, said the automatic system poses problems for passengers who prefer to make their own decisions, particularly when unhappy with the quality of service.
“It’s a real hassle to opt out of it,” she said. “To have it removed, you have to wait in line, taking time away from your holiday to change things around. Another problem is that the tip amounts are always increasing, even if the service level isn’t increasing.”
Silvestri also objects to the way some cruise lines handle the charge for beverage packages.
“Not only is the cost for some of these packages exorbitant, but often both people sharing a stateroom are each required to purchase a beverage package when one person does so,” she said. “The assumption is that the drinks will be shared.
For travel advisors, helping clients navigate their way through the sea of extra fees is now an essential part of the cruise planning process, according to Klimak. Sitting down with clients to determine what onboard amenities are important or not important has become even more essential as the variety of fee-based amenities has increased, she said.
“Because onboard fees can easily add 20 to 30 percent to the cost of the cruise, it’s important that they know upfront what all those charges will be,” Klimak said. “There may be charges for Wi-Fi, fitness classes, specialty coffee drinks, and many other things that people don’t think about.”
Thomas Carpenter, co-owner of Huckleberry Travel in New York City, noted that the travel advisor’s job grows truly challenging when cruise lines run sales promotions offering deeply discounted fares.
“Sale promotions that cruise lines run only serve to highlight the fact that there’s an up-charge for everything,” he said. “If I’m selling a cruise to someone who’s never been on a ship before, and I’m offering them onboard credits, it forces me to list all of the many things that cost extra on a cruise. It actually has had the opposite effect of what’s intended — the client doesn’t see me as bringing added value to them, they see me as someone who’s selling them a product that has a lot of hidden costs.”
Are cruise lines playing a deceptive game of “bait and switch” by offering low base fares that don’t reflect the actual cost of the cruise?
“I don’t [think] the lines are trying to be deceitful, but they do want to look like they have a competitive edge,” Klimak said. “They truth, however, is that everyone has to get paid at some point. So the buyer needs to be educated about what they are purchasing.”
Is All-Inclusive a Better Value?
Can the all-inclusive pricing offered by many luxury cruise lines actually make them a better deal than premium and mass-market cruises with lower base fares and à la carte charges? Except in cases where clients are satisfied with just basic onboard amenities, the answer could be yes.
Weingart believes cruises with all-inclusive pricing, which enable travel advisors to earn commissions on the entire cruise, are a “win-win” situation for advisors and clients alike.
“I promote all-inclusive pricing whenever possible,” he said. “It is better for the client and for me. I had a client who took advantage of an alcohol package that wound up costing thousands of dollars when they did back-to-back cruises. I got zero.”
Silvestri makes it a practice to show clients a detailed cost comparison between an all-inclusive cruise and one that is not.
“Sometimes a client will have heard of a good deal on a premium or mass-market line, but when we sit down and compare each cost with a luxury cruise, the luxury fare is often a better value,” she said. “What is included in the luxury fare is often substantial — lines like Regent and Silver Seas include the shore excursions and the air as well. Plus, people aren’t being assailed for money everywhere on board.”
Chris Austin, senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Seabourn, maintains that the luxury cruise line’s all-inclusive pricing makes it an “unbeatable” value.
“Additionally, we also offer certain promotions and events at times, such as shipboard credits, air credit and other benefits, plus additional all-inclusive benefits for guests who book a premium suite, making Seabourn’s all-inclusive travel experience even more attractive,” he said.
While Carpenter said it’s becoming easier to persuade clients to switch from a premium to a luxury cruise “when you do the math for them,” he added that all-inclusive pricing is not problem-free.
“The one caveat is where there are exceptions on a luxury line to what’s included,” he said. “If a client is paying top dollar for an all-inclusive luxury cruise, but the free shore excursion they wanted is already fully booked, they get extremely angry that they’re paying thousands of dollars extra for something that they thought was included.”
While Gray Faust believes all-inclusive cruises are a better option for people who would rather pay all at once and not face additional costs on board, they aren’t necessarily the best choice or value for everyone.
“You can still have a fantastic cruise without paying for a lot of extras,” she said. “Food, entertainment, and more — zip-lining, rock climbing, shows — are still included in the base fare.”
Breaking down the charges also gives passengers more flexibility, said Adolfo Perez, senior vice president of global trade sales and marketing at Carnival.
“With a Carnival cruise, we’re able to provide consumers with a variety of choices and not have them pay for options that they don’t want,” he said. “For instance, some guests would rather dine in the main dining room versus dining in specialty restaurants or opt not to purchase alcohol, so there is certainly a savings since they don’t have to purchase additional items if they don’t want to.”
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Photo credit: Cocktail chef Matthew Biancaniello, host of the travel show Good Spirits, has a toasts with guests on board a Carnival Corp. ship. Carnival Corp.