Colleen McDaniel remembers being on her first cruise more than 20 years ago when someone offered her a drink of the day.
"I was like, great," she remembered, and didn't think about it when they asked for her room card. Only later did McDaniel, now editor in chief of the cruise news and review site Cruise Critic, realize that she had been charged for the drink — an early introduction to the way expenses can pile up after the cruise fare is paid.
Cruise executives love to tout the value of a cruise: Pay one price and your lodging, food, entertainment and visits to multiple ports are included. As gas prices soared last summer, taking a cruise cost less than buying fuel on long road trips. But there are a host of added fees — some optional and some mandatory — that can come as a big surprise to new cruise travelers, especially on big-ship lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian.
And as costs on land have risen over the past year, so have many fees on cruise ships. Several cruise lines in recent months have announced they are raising automatic gratuities, hiking prices for Wi-Fi or charging more for room service delivery.
Travel adviser Ted Blank, who is affiliated with Travel Leaders, said he prepares clients with a couple of main messages. The first is touting the value of a cruise compared to a land vacation.
"And then I say, 'But it's important to understand that cruising isn't an all-inclusive vacation, unless you get to really the luxury level of cruising,'" he said. "Many things are included in the price, but you need to kind of plan for and budget for additional costs that you'll incur in the course of the vacation."
Some of the charges are unavoidable, but most are discretionary add-ons. And they can elevate your costs by hundreds of dollars.
Tanner Callais, founder and editor of the online cruise information resource Cruzely, said that for a theoretical cruise fare of $300, travelers should know that prices are shown with the expectation that two people will be in a cabin, each paying that amount. That price will also be for the lowest-priced inside cabin, with balcony rooms commanding higher prices. Then port fees and taxes might cost between $100 and $200 more, and there are still tips to add before moving into optional territory.
Some beverages are included in the price of a cruise: Think regular coffee and tea, lemonade, juice and water. But on most non-luxury lines, sodas, fancy coffee drinks and alcoholic beverages all cost extra.
For those who don't want to shell out each time they order a Coke, beer or cocktail, cruise lines sell drink packages. Some lines have packages that cover bottled water or Starbucks coffee, while almost all offer soda or alcohol-and-soda deals. Carnival's booze-included package starts at $59.95 a day and must be purchased by all adults in a room; Norwegian Cruise Line's alcoholic drinks deal starts at $109 a day with the same rule.
McDaniel said drink packages are one of the most common add-ons that cruise lines offer as a booking incentive, so travelers can often avoid paying that price if they find the right deal.
It's possible to go on a ship and not pay extra for meals — but cruise lines have added a significant number of alternative dining options to tempt passengers to part with their money.
Danny Genung, CEO of the travel agency Harr Travel, said he and his wife rarely spent any extra money on their first 100 cruises and his father would never pay extra to dine on a ship. But he acknowledges, "There's amazing specialty restaurants on board. There's plenty of places to upgrade."
Cruise lines typically offer steakhouses, sushi spots, teppanyaki restaurants, seafood options and more for extra charges. Many also offer dining packages for passengers who know they'll want to sample several. Main dining rooms and buffets, and often pool bars, pizzerias and other casual fare, are included in the cost of the cruise.
Several lines have also added delivery fees or per-item charges for room service in recent years.
Exploring on shore
A cruise is not just about the ship, of course — but going out and about on port visits can cost extra.
Travelers can book cruise-sponsored excursions or third-party outings, or just strike out on their own. Excursions can be relatively basic (a $50 trolley tour in Cozumel) or quite costly (dog sledding in Juneau for $650 a person).
"In the Caribbean, one of the cheapest things you can do is just head to the beach," said Callais, which might not cost more than transportation.
McDaniel said many activities on board are free: using the gym, hanging out in the pool, playing miniature golf. But many also come with a fee, including some escape rooms, laser tag, go-kart rides or arcades.
Additionally, many exercise classes, which are often limited in number, will also cost extra.
Surfing the web
Want to show off your dance party skills on Instagram? It'll cost you. Want to stream your favorite show on your phone during a cruise? That will cost even more. Onboard Wi-Fi has improved over the years, but it's still a hefty expense.
On Carnival, for example, prices have risen from a range of $10.20 to $17 per person per day, depending on the usage, to $12.75 to $22 per person per day.
Taxes and port fees
This one is unavoidable.
"That is part of the cruise fare," Genung said. "Nobody's not paying that."
The cost varies depending on location, but for a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean that costs $533 per person, for example, port fees and taxes add another nearly $141 per person.
Cruise lines add an automatic daily gratuity to passengers' bills, though travelers can opt to pay those in advance for budgeting purposes. Tips can be adjusted on board.
Many operators have recently increased their daily service fees; Norwegian, for example, now adds a charge of $20-$25 per person per day, depending on the category of room, up from $16-$20 a day.
Carnival is raising the daily per-person charge to $16-$18 a day on April 1, up from $14.50-$16.50.
Callais said gratuities are also automatically added to drinks, the bill at specialty restaurants or spa services.
Genung said he tells clients to expect those gratuities to be part of a trip.
"Everybody in the hospitality industry works hard," he said. "Nobody works harder than those working at a hotel or resort or cruise ship."