The economics of cruising economically

When I took my first cruise almost 20 years ago, you could find an inside cabin fare for a week in the Caribbean for about $500 a person. You can find the same fare, if not better, today.

With competition keeping cruise fares low, the cruise lines have learned how to get more from every passenger. Even so, cruising is a bargain, but there are ways to minimize your costs while having fun at sea.

Cabin selection

The best way to accrue big savings is to choose an inside cabin. You will spend very little time in your cabin, anyway. A balcony may sound delightful, but on sea days it is usually too windy to spend much time out there, and you will probably be off the ship on the port days. The trade-off is well worth it to me.

Shore Excursions

This is one of the biggest moneymakers these days for cruise lines. Weeks before you set sail, the cruise line will email you reminders sign up for popular excursions. And some tours do fully book even before the ship sails. Passengers like ship-sponsored shore excursions because they require little planning and assurance that even if the tour’s return is delayed, the ship will wait for you.

Many reputable tour companies offer private tours, sometimes for half the price of the ship’s tour. Sites such as and offer reviews of these companies. The most reputable realize that they will not have repeat business if they don’t deliver. When I cruised in Egypt, I signed up for a tour organized by fellow passengers on Cruise Critic that was operated by the same company that did the ship’s official shore excursion. I paid $260 for an overnight tour, compared with nearly $600 for the same tour through the ship.

In the Caribbean, you can explore most ports without taking a tour if you do a little planning and research in advance. This week in Cozumel we might just take a taxi to a private beach resort, or go downtown and mix window-shopping with bar hopping. And if you’ve already explored a port on a previous cruise, there is nothing wrong with staying aboard and enjoying all the ship has to offer while most passengers are ashore.

Spa and Gym

Massages and facials on board cruise ships can easily cost two to three times as much as back at home. The cruise lines also have developed package offers of adult-only retreat areas for a per-day or per-cruise charge. You can have acupuncture, get your teeth whitened, be “detoxed” or enjoy any number of treatments. In the gym, you can pay for a personal trainer or sign up for $12 spinning or yoga classes.

I like to treat myself to a pedicure at home just before the cruise. Then on embarkation day, I visit the spa where they frequently offer sample massages or other treatments. If you really want to indulge, wait for special offers later in the cruise, especially on days in port. I think 30 minutes in the hot tub is a great way to relax and it’s free.

It doesn’t cost anything to use the gym, and if you want to stay in shape it’s best to make a commitment to go once a day. Frequently there are free exercise classes (led by the cruise staff, not the gym staff) on deck in the mornings. And every cruise ship has a jogging track or promenade deck for brisk outdoor walking.


I don’t know a lot of ways to save money here, unless you just decide not to drink anything beyond the free coffee, tea and other drinks such as milk. But nothing says fun in the sun like a fruity cocktail. Just check the prices on the drink menus. I find a gin and tonic is usually much cheaper than the fancy drinks.

Most cruise lines have a policy on whether you can bring a bottle or two of wine aboard with you. Generally you are prohibited from bringing your own liquor. There are all sorts of tips online about how to sneak around these rules, but I just don’t find it generally worthwhile (or ethical). If you like gin and tonics, for example, you can order a bottle of gin through room service and mix your own in the cabin. There are events such as art auctions during the cruise with free champagne or other drinks. Sometimes there are two-for-one offers during happy hour. Check the daily schedule for these.

Cruise lines also offer a variety of drink cards, but these may not be a good deal. On this cruise, for example, you could buy a card for $343 ($49 per day) for unlimited drinks. That was more than my cruise fare. On of those days was embarkation day and three are shore days. So the math just doesn’t add up for me. A weeklong soda card was $36, which might be a good deal if you drink lots of soda. You would need more than 3 sodas a day to do better than the per-drink charge.

Remember to bring a water bottle with you on the cruise. The drinking water on the ship is fine, and that will save you from buying bottled water to drink onboard and in ports.


I have given up on even stopping for photos with the ship’s photographers. The 5×7 photos used to be about $5, but now it’s hard to purchase a photo for less than $20. Pack your camera or smartphone and take your own pictures.

The ship’s photographers also will offer you a sitting for professional photography, and they have great sample shots around the ship. If your family was considering having professional shots, it might be worthwhile. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little more to go ahead while everyone in the family is together on the ship. Just check the prices at home so you know whether it is a good deal or not once you are on the ship.

Internet and Cell Service

Ships today offer Internet and wifi service, as well as cell service at sea. The larger the package of Internet minutes you buy, the less the per-minute charge, which can range from about 40-cents to 75-cents a minute. You can usually get about 10 percent additional minutes at no charge by buying a package the first day. Remember that service is much slower than at home. Cell service can be about $4. I usually work a little while cruising, so the Internet is critical for me. But I compose emails and articles offline. And I try to consider the cruise a break from constant Facebook and email access.

You can find free wifi in most ports by researching online before you go. Or ask any crewmember – they usually can be seen heading off the ship in personal clothes carrying laptops. Just remember that, like wifi in any public place, the security may not be ideal. I would never do any online banking while on a cruise, for example.

Check your cell plan before you leave. Your carrier should have tips for international travel to ensure you don’t accidentally accrue charges for data roaming. If you are cruising in Alaska or Hawaii, you don’t have to worry. And texting is usually much cheaper internationally, so it can be a good way to stay in touch. I tell my family at home to rely on email unless it is really urgent.

Final thoughts

Apart from these tips, the amount of money you spend on a cruise is mostly determined by your attitude going in. If this is the trip of a lifetime, you probably don’t mind splurging.

But if you want to cruise more by spending less on each trip, you can still have a great time. Adopt the same attitude you have at home and consider the cost. Explore ports on your own. Avoid the casino (or budget just a little each day). Take an Internet break. Settle for water instead of soda once or twice a day. Enjoy soaking in the hot tub instead of indulging in a pricey massage. And remind yourself that you can save a lot toward another cruise with the money you don’t spend on this one.