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2019-09-20 15:22:19

Christopher Elliott Special to USA TODAY

Published 7:30 AM EDT Sep 20, 2019

If travel fees leave you feeling high and dry, just try heading out to sea.

But be wary as cruise fees are keeping up with even the most expensive land-based vacations. 

Cruise lines are getting a little crazy with the charges, says Tanner Callais, founder of the cruise site Cruzely.com.

The extras include automatic tips, delivery fees, room service charges and other service fees. All told, they can add 20% to 40% to the cost of a vacation, which travelers should definitely keep in mind as they look at the sticker price of what appears to be an all-inclusive cruise. 

No such thing as a free drink

One of the most absurd cruise fees Callais has seen is the one Norwegian Cruise Lines added to a Free at Sea drinks package.

If you select the free drink package, you still have to pay the 20% gratuity charge on it, he says. With the drink package being around $100, it's about $20 per day for the free drinks. Two people in a cabin on a weeklong cruise will pay $280 for their free drinks.

Cruise passengers probably shouldn't be surprised by the fee on free drinks. After all, Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, recently said the company was pushing price higher everywhere we can.  

But calling something  free when it isn't? That's an old trick.

So what cruise fees should you look for?

Automatic tips

Most of the major non-luxury cruise lines automatically add anywhere between $11.50 and $16 a day as a tip. The cruise lines say these tips are a convenience for passengers because they no longer have to worry about tipping every server or bartender. But it's also a convenience to the cruise line, which not only collects more money but also determines where the money goes.

Unfortunately, your cruise fare doesn't usually include the automatic tips. So you have to watch for it on your final bill. If you'd rather tip less — or more — take it up with the cruise line before you disembark. 

Nicole Ratner, who writes the Cruising with the Family blog, says automatic tips are the most controversial cruise charges. I also think they can get outrageous, she adds. Ratner usually removes the automatic charges and then tips with cash.

Room service charges

These cruise fees are out of control, says Rhonda Weaver, a travel agent from Kent, Washington. She's found $8 room service fees on both Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Also, many times there will be an 18% gratuity, which is way too high in my opinion, she says.

On a recent cruise, she saw it on a can of soda. The workaround?  I just go to the grill or buffet and put my things on a plate and take them back to my room, she says.

Other service fees

Georgiana Shaw, a retired attorney from Melbourne, Florida, says the 18% gratuity is everywhere. The guy pulls it out of a cooler, pops the tab, and I'm charged 18% for that so-called service, she says.

Her workaround:  At the end of the cruise, I ask that they be removed, she says. If they are mandatory, they should be added into the price of the cruise. Otherwise, allow the passenger to tip as they wish.

Fighting these cruise fees is pretty easy. You can ask the cruise line to delete the optional tips at the end of your cruise. You can walk to lunch instead of ordering room service. Even the 18% gratuity on a can of soda is negotiable.

But should you have to? I mean, aren't we entitled to a cruise that doesn't nickel-and-dime us, and that allows us the option of adding gratuities? And why not clearly disclose all the extras instead of claiming that a cruise is all-inclusive — as many cruise lines still do — and that certain items are free ?

Oh, I know. It's just a cruise. And it's not as if the company is forcing you to pay extra for luggage or for a seat reservation, as airlines do. 

But these fees are a slippery slope. Unlike airlines, which are often the only practical way to reach a destination, cruises are optional. But push your passengers too hard, and they might stay on land. 

Need a fall fix? Try leaf peeping by boat from these 10 great places

Ways around the cruise fees

Book with a cruise line without fees: For example, Riviera River Cruises includes all the essentials, from excursions and guided tours to all meals and port charges in the itinerary. We don’t automatically include gratuities or drinks but leave them up to guests, says Marilyn Conroy, Riviera River Cruises’ vice president of sales and marketing.

Buy a cruise from an online agency that quotes full rates: Priceline.com's cruise section has fares that include prepaid gratuities, beverage credits and money to spend onboard. We have deals that are specifically designed to lessen the cost of taking a cruise, says Denise Bialek, director of Priceline Cruises. 

Just say no :  It’s important to remember that extra fees on cruises are always optional, says Jenni Fielding, who publishes the United Kingdom-based Cruise Mummy blog. If you say yes to everything that is offered, you can easily rack up a huge bill at the end of your cruise. So if you’re on a budget, it’s important to be mindful of this to ensure that you won’t have to pay too much when you depart.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.


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