The Insider: Everything that can go wrong on a cruise — and how to avoid it

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a new Insider series on cruising. Here’s the first part on whether you should cruise and part two, on where to buy a cruise. As always, please send me any suggestions on topics or content I may have overlooked.

So much can go wrong on a cruise, I hardly know where to begin.

Maybe here: Informed consumers don’t get ripped off. They know what they’re buying, where to book it, and they’re aware of all the pitfalls that await.

The more you know about cruising, the less you have to worry about having a negative experience.

Help, I’ve booked the wrong cruise!
I’ve already spent a lot of time in this series discussing the value of a travel agent. Many of my cruise-related cases involve buyer’s remorse, which is to say, a traveler was booked on the wrong ship, in the wrong cabin, or on the wrong sailing. Wrong sailing? Oh, yes. It usually involves a family with young kids being stuck on a theme cruise where folks let it all hang out. (Curiously, I never hear from swingin’ singles who are upset that there were children on the cruise, but I digress.)

Do your homework, kids, and this won’t happen to you. And what if it does? Well, if you discover the problem beforehand, call your agent or cruise line and ask to move your sailing date. I have yet to come across someone who asked to be moved for that reason, and was declined. Missing the cruise is another matter — one I’ll deal with in detail later. If you find that you’re on the wrong cruise after you board, it’s really probably too late. A young couple that’s looking forward to a restful week at sea that accidentally booked a Disney cruise — not much that can be done about that. You’re partying with Mickey!

Is my cruise fare a scam?
Here’s a cruise fare on a Caribbean sailing for the Carnival Imagination.

Total 2 Travelers: $738.00 *
Gov’t Fees/Taxes: $147.50
Total: $885.50

Let me mention a few things. The $738 is not important to you, but it is to your travel agent. That’s the number on which your agent’s commission is based. I don’t think any cruise line should quote the $738 quite as prominently because no one ever pays it. (But at least the “total” isn’t displayed in microscopic print or revealed after you make a purchasing decision, as it used to be on airline websites before regulators intervened.)

The government taxes and fees, on the other hand, are relevant. Those fees are refundable if you cancel your cruise, even if the fare is nonrefundable. Also, it’s a rat’s nest of port fees, taxes and other government charges. Of course, the real charge you should pay attention to is the “total” — that’s what the cruise will cost. Probably.

Beware of other “opt-in” charges later in the booking. Those can include optional insurance, automatic tipping and shore excursions. If you think you’ll have it easier with an agent, don’t be so sure. I’ve heard of unscrupulous agents telling their clients that insurance is required on a cruise (it isn’t) and employing other hard-sell tactics (“Oh, it’ll be a wasted cruise if you don’t go snorkeling on the reef!”) to make more money from a booking.

Point is, that $885 is just the beginning. It isn’t unusual for the final bill to double, and even triple, once you’ve added all the extras. I’m not kidding.

Where did all of these fees come from?
Even the best cruise lines often broadside their guests with fees. Just yesterday, I heard from someone who inadvertently signed up for automatic tipping. He was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the cruise line to refund the generous tips that had automatically been deducted from his credit card.

Cruising used to be billed as an “all-inclusive” experience. It isn’t anymore. Cruise lines make a significant portion of their revenues from ancillary fees, of which there are many. Starting with the “welcome” drink served on the lido deck (it’s not always free) to a special request at dinner (I’m not making this up — a fee for the end piece of a roast) your cruise line is trying to monetize your vacation in ways you probably can’t imagine.

How do I avoid fees?
There’s only one way to make sure you don’t get scammed by these fees. Learn the word “no” and use it often. Want a picture of you and your beautiful family? No. Care for a soda? No. Lunch in one of our specialty restaurants? No, no, no. It isn’t that these items aren’t fun to have while you’re on a cruise, but that in many cases, they’re ridiculously overpriced. Try getting wireless Internet access or making a ship-to-shore phone call if you don’t believe me. Also, it helps to know another phrase: “How much?”

Note: If you want to see how much the cruise lines’ ancillary revenue pursuit can hurt, wake up early on the last day of the cruise and head downstairs to the front desk. The friendly faces that greeted you when you arrived are gone, replaced by stone-faced dudes with heavy Scandinavian accents, maintaing their cool while one passenger after another tries — and usually fails — to argue their way out of a surcharge.

By the way one of the worst “gotchas” is your magnetic room key. By default, it doubles as a charge card on many ships. Make sure you de-authorize it before handing it to your kids — especially teen-agers — otherwise they will make your vacation much more expensive. One reader contacted me recently, trying to get my help in removing a $400 charge her grandchildren had run up at the ship’s arcade. Kids!

I lost money at the tables!
Those slot machines are nice to look at while you’re in port, but once you’re in international waters and the velvet rope to the gambling area falls, they’re a money trap. Stay away.

I’ll have even more scenarios in the next part of this series.

(Photo: ykanazawa1999/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    “He was trying, unsuccessfully, to get the cruise line to refund the
    generous tips that had automatically been deducted from his credit card.”

    Every single cruise line gives you a copy of your bill the day before disembarkation and you can take care of any questions then; there is no excuse for trying to get refund on auto-tip after you get home.  (The reason they won’t refund is probably because the money has already been paid out to the staff who earned it.)

    And the tips are not that generous… $10-ish per day per passenger is the norm for auto-tip.  For table service for three meals + twice-daily housekeeping, $10 doesn’t seem out of line to me.  Not stingy, but not exactly extravagant either.

  • LFH0

    A cruise can be a good value and virtually all-inclusive for people who have self-control. I can find some cruises where the base price, per person, is $35 per night, inclusive of transportation, room, board, and entertainment; on many mass-market lines the top non-peak inside guarantee stateroom will not exceed $100 per person per night (taxes and fees do add a bit, but absent an unusual itinerary not an extraordinary amount). A hotel room alone at these prices would be good, and after adding in the transportation, meals, and entertainment, these prices become very good values.

    But one has to say “no” many times. No, I don’t want a fancy stateroom (I am on vacation to go someplace, not to spend time in my room). No, I don’t want a ship-sponsored shore excursion (the independent operators are less expensive and more attentive). No, I don’t want to spend $35 per person at a steakhouse on a vessel (I paid for food in my fare; I can pay to go out to a steakhouse when I’m back home). No, I don’t want to buy over-priced drinks (the coffee, tea, juice is fine). No, I don’t want a photograph print (I can get better results at the photography studio back home). No, I don’t want to buy “art” (especially given the scam that at-sea art auctions are).

    I cruise because I gave up flying over ten years ago (commercial aviation is no longer a civil or dignified means of transportation). Cruising on a sea-going vessel is a nice alternative to going by train or bus (my last business trip from the east coast to California was westbound by Amtrak, eastbound by Celebrity Cruises). I pick my cruises by a combination of itinerary and schedule, with an eye on price. Keeping one’s senses alert allows one to be able to do so with pleasure.

  • Murray Lundberg

    “The $738 is not important to you, but it is to your travel agent. That’s the number on which your agent’s commission is based.”

    No, it’s not. On a fare like that with Carnival, about $200 is an NCF (Non-Commissionable Fare). So the commission is paid on about $538 of the client’s $885 cruise fare. Only on Carnival would anyone complain about tipping the staff! Gratuities are far from being excessive given the service you get – about $10 per person per day but you don’t mind paying a $15 tip for 2 hours at a nice restaurant?

  • TonyA_says

    I can see it coming. The Dept of Transportation and the Dept of Trade will be convinced by “consumer advocates” to make new rules so the cruise lines advertise just like the airlines – TOTAL PRICE ONLY! Ha ha ha.

  • bc

    Why do you laugh at this? A consumer should be able to easily compare prices for cruises and make an informed choice and not be knee deep into a booking before seeing the entire cost of their vacation

    Of course your way would have one benefit, it would make TAs more useful since it’s their job to present the options to their customers. 

    I’m all for getting rid of superfluous levels of complexity in a market that have no purpose other than to confuse consumers. 

  • bodega3

    Someone needs to take a chill pill.  It was a joke.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Cruising, just like any other form of travel, requires research. Even for experienced travelers, your first-ever cruise will always be a learning experience. I think after the first one, you’ll better know what questions to ask and what factors really matter to you. The more picky you are, the more you should rely on a travel agent, though. I rarely cruise, but on a RTW trip a few months ago, I snagged a Rome to Ft. Lauderdale cruise for about $63/day (as a single traveler!) and spent a very relaxing Caribbean cruise with my family. There are lots of plusses to a cruise but also many more options that need to be considered than a land-based vaca. Do your research and then enjoy!

    Here’s my 2 cents on how to maximize your cruise:

  • Charles B

    Tips: as were previously mentioned, are usually suggested at about $10/per person/per day. Every ship I’ve been on has offered this as an opt-in, or as a clear opt-out (a letter on the last day telling you this will be added to your account unless you request a change.) This is an industry-wide practice and should be anticipated in advance.

    Drinks: coffee, tea, tap water, maybe fruit juice are usually freely available. Soft drinks are usually not. Expect to see $1-$2 per 12oz can, plus an automatic 15% tip added.  Alcohol is similarly overpriced and includes the 15% tip.

    Meal requests: I haven’t seen a fee for special requests yet, but I don’t doubt some lines have started them. I also avoid specialty restaurants. No one ever complains about not having enough food on a ship. (Enough *good* food is another question, but I’ll leave that to your tastes.)

    Photos: They take lots. They stop you almost every time you get on or off the ship. I have yet to be forced to buy any of them. Skip the photo gallery and you won’t be tempted. Personally, we get dressed up for formal nights and make a run of all the various settings. If we like the results, we have formal portraits we wouldn’t otherwise have made the time to get. If not, no cost to us.

    Casino: The house always wins in the end. No different on a ship. May well be worse odds than regulated casinos. Bingo is another common gambling practice on the ship, and will be pushed heavily. (Even on the Disney ships, which have no casinos.)

    Spas: Expect 50% markup over land prices, and a HARD SELL on extra products when they are done. Tips will also be encouraged. I like a good massage. My last cruise massage was not one of them for these reasons.

    Shore excursions: The big differences between the ship excursions and private companies: 1) Price, the ship ALWAYS has a markup. 2) Peace-of-mind, if something goes wrong, the ship will wait for you if you are on their excursions. They will not extend that courtesy to private operators. Number 2 there is usually worth the price to my budget, but situations can drive the decision.

    Rooms: The indoor cabin is going to take you to the same places as the balcony suite. My last cruise was an Alaskan Inside Passage, and the private balcony was absolutely worth the cost for all the whale and wildlife watching we did from it. My next is a Caribbean trip which is mostly out at sea, so an inside room will do just fine at 60% the cost.

    Obviously I like cruising. I find it gives me a great time for my money. Knowing what to expect is always a good thing.

  • DotWonder

    i take tons of photos on the cruise but i don’t buy most of them 

  • Lindabator

    Actually, the $798 is NOT what an agent makes commission on, as the NCF (non-commissionable fares) are taken out of that, and then the commission is payed on the base fare.

  • Lindabator

    Thank you!  If you can’t afford to properly tip your staff, STAY HOME!

  • Lindabator

    Actually, I’ve had clients on Holland, Celebrity and even Oceania, who have complained about tipping.  My Carnival clients never have seemed to have a problem with it.  My answer to that is, if you cannot afford to properly tip your staff, STAY HOME!

  • Paul Shearman

    Excellent and thorough post on how to avoid raising the cost of a cruise.

  • Paul Shearman

    I’m new here so please excuse me if I say something out of place but it seems to me that your post is full of Yellow Journalism and cries SCAM where none really exist – perhaps to create fear and sell a book?

    I’d love to hear your reply.

  • Lindabator

    You are new – or you’d know Chris not only does a good job – but has had these issues arise with previous posters on this site – so his answer was a general overview of basic info. 

  • Joe Farrell

     The tips are more like $15 a day PER PERSON for cabin steward, wine guy, head waiter, dining room waiter – which is anywhere from $170-200 a week. Are you REALLY getting that level of service? 

    You spend $1000 for a cabin for a week – and you end up with a 20% surcharge? Huh?  Really.

    Most of you know that I am not a fan of cruising because of utter lack of customer service focus of the cruise lines or the contracts themselves.  They want your money and as much of it as possible.  They routinely steer you to shore providers who kick then back your money and they disclose it – they set up their operations so that you get steerage class food full of junk and carbs for free but it you want to eat healthy you need to spend more in their ‘specialty’ restaurants.  They put on surcharges for this and that – in fact they have fuel surcharge for crude in excess of $70 / bbl – was it ever that low during the depths of the recession?  Of course not, its just another way to advertise one price and charge another. . . .

    How would you feel if a hotel told you you could not bring in out side food and drink and needed to use their overpriced sourcing as the only place to to get food and drink? Why can’t you bring your own bottle of your favorite liquor onboard?  Why can’t you buy duty free and drink it on board? 

  • Joe Farrell

     They ain’t ‘my’ staff – they are employees of the cruiseline and should be compensated fairly by the cruiseline.  Tipping should be VOLUNTARY based upon the level of service you receive. 

    Do you tip your hotel room staff $10 a day every day you are at a hotel?  I do, but not $10 a day.

    Do you tip the waiter, busboy [ass’t waiter] matre’d, greeter, and chef when you eat at a restaurant?  You have no idea how tips are allocated at the restaurants you eat at. . .

    If I NEVER set foot in the main dining room at night, why should I tip them?  Is their compensation not properly that of the cruise line? 

  • Joe Farrell

     paid . . payed is not a word.

  • sirwired

     To use Princess as an example; it’s $10.50/day/pp.  $21 a day for two people is indeed not that steep for the service you are getting.  As I said in my previous post, it’s not any more than you’d be paying in tips for the same services on land.  Three nice sit-down meals + housekeeping… $21 a day for two people seems pretty normal to me.


    Guess what you moron, I tip when I want and who I want, no go get me my sammich!


    Definition of tip: “Give (someone) a sum of money as a way of rewarding them for their services” If it’s mandatory then include it in the fare, that would be at least 100$ more. 

  • SimoneNY

    I agree, if you can’t afford to tip, stay home. Stop complaining about the system, and that the crulselines should pay workers properly, and like at home, restaurants should pay workers properly. But they don’t, so don’t take it out on the servers. BTW, in Australia, where tipping is not expected, food prices are much higher, with appetizers often costing $19. and main courses at $40. – that same level of resto in NYC would go to about $11. and $24.
    So stop griping – the staff depends upon your tips, and not tipping them isn’t going to give the cruiseline incentive to pay them higher wages. We include the tips – whether automatic or not – into our cruise budget. And we often end up adding more for some staff.
    We all spend our money differently. I refuse to take part in the “specialty restaurants” as I believe that if people didn’t support them they’d go away. I remember many years ago one cruiseline brought in a big star entertainer and charged money for the show thinking that pax would pay a premium. After a few weeks of losing money, they cruiseline got the message. They went back to shows included in the cruise fare. If people didn’t eat in the pricey resto’s, they wouldn’t keep opening more of them on every ship.
    Lindabater – On my first (and last) Holland America cruise I noticed a lot of people absent from the last night at dinner. People told me that these were the cheapskates that didn’t want to look their waiter in the eye as they didn’t tip them. That’s nasty. I never noticed people complaining or not tipping on my 3 Oceania cruises. I’ve never been on Carnival, so can’t comment there.

  • SimoneNY

    Selfish Cheapskate!

  • jsiess

    if the staff are inattentive and the accommodations steerage, you’re sailing on the wrong line. try oceania for upscale cruising at prices just above the mass merchants. if it’s river cruises you want, try amawaterways. we had excellent staterooms, food, and service on both.