Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Counting the cost of a cruise

Having just returned from my first real cruise and my wife’s first cruise ever, I have a new appreciation and more complete understanding of the all-in cost of such an adventure.

Our cruise was a seven night Alaska sailing aboard Princess Cruises’ Ruby Princess, which we took because it was one of the items on our bucket list and because two friends were getting married on board and invited us to attend the wedding. The wedding was just the excuse we needed to make the decision and go.

Princess Cruises Ruby Princess
The Ruby Princess at Seattle's Pier 91
While I had taken one repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C., it was a familiarization, or “fam,” cruise for travel agents and travel reporters. As a result, virtually everything was complimentary.

Also, because the ship did not call on any ports with no shore excursions to be taken or paid for, I have come to refer to that initial experience as more “a boat ride” than a cruise. Before attending a media event aboard the Ruby Princess in May, my wife had not even set foot on a cruise ship.

Our journey was a true cruise experience with all the attendant decisions and expenses. While the examples I will cite are from our cruise line, they are by no means unique to Princess Cruises. Most of these options, choices and charges are quite common, though not universal, across the cruise industry today.

The fare is often just the starting point

We have all seen the “teaser” ads that say, “Cruise to Alaska for just $599 per person, double occupancy,” and the disclaimer that “Taxes, fees and port charges” are additional. Of course that low rate is for the ship’s least-expensive accommodation, usually an inside cabin without a view, and often either toward the beginning or end of the season. Outside cabins, verandah suites, larger accommodations and more preferential sailings will come at higher fares.

In addition to higher fares for a better stateroom than an inside cabin and more prime-time sailings, there are numerous options and additional charges that will be added to the fare.

Getting to the ship

Passengers who do not happen to live in the city from which the cruise departs will have to get to their departure port. That will involve some sort of common-carrier transportation, which will more than likely be an airplane flight, followed by a transfer from the airport to the port, and a transfer from the port to the airport upon your return.

Our cruise departed from Pier 91 on the Seattle waterfront. Because we live in the Seattle area, getting to our ship required only a car ride. Other passengers who flew in to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and then had to transfer from the airport to the ship had to choose from other options.

Norwegian Cruise Lines' Norwegian Pearl
Norwegian Pearl departs Seattle with us
While it is fairly common for passengers to fly in to one’s departure city the day the cruise departs, doing so carries the risk of encountering flight delays that could cause you to quite literally miss the boat.

To reduce or eliminate that possibility, passengers may want to fly in the day before departure, spend the night in their departure city, then make their way to their cruise ship the next day. All of that, of course, comes at a cost that will vary depending on the airline, length of flight, and the type of hotel the traveler prefers.

In addition to the air fare from home to the departure city, there are transfers from the airport to the pier. Our cruise line offers transfers for $24 per person in each direction, or a round trip of $96 for a couple. Passengers might also add a few dollars to tip the person handling their bags.

Other options are available, including taxi cabs, Uber, Lyft, shuttle buses and car services. According to the web site TaxiFareFinder.com, a cab from SEA to Pier 91 would cost about $56 including a 15 percent tip for the driver, which we found to be fairly accurate. Car service from the airport to the pier cost around $90 including a 20 percent gratuity for the driver. Double those amounts for the cost of a round trip.

Each option has its pros and cons. Some “pros” of the cruise line transfer are that they know where they’re going, they know the schedule and they are in touch with counterparts on the ship. Independent transportation does not offer that benefit but it offers more personalized service, the ability to leave when you are ready instead of cooling your heels waiting for others, and perhaps a bit more luxury, often at very little additional cost.

Cruise insurance

To mitigate against the possibility of a flight delay and other mishaps, most cruise lines recommend that passengers purchase cruise insurance.

No matter what type you want to name, insurance is simply “risk transference;” the purchaser pays a fee - the premium - to transfer the risk from themselves to the insurer. In the case of cruise insurance, paying the premium may protect the passenger against losing a significant portion of their fare if they have to cancel the trip. If their connecting flight is delayed and their ship sails without them, the travel insurance may help them catch up with the ship. It could help pay for replacement necessities if their luggage is “misdirected,” or cover their costs if they become so ill they have to be evacuated from the ship midway through the cruise.

Our cruise line offered its basic protection package for $190.30 per passenger. Because we live in our departure city, airline delays were not a factor for us, nor was the possibility of baggage delays. We are generally healthy without any chronic problems that could rear their ugly heads, and we were not at all tentative about our desire to take this cruise. But unexpected things can happen, so it was an option to be seriously considered.

However, passengers should carefully review the things that would be covered – and, as importantly, things that would not – before purchasing any policy. Further, many credit cards include travel protection benefits as one of their “value-adds,” and a quick phone call to the issuer of the airline affinity card I would be using to pay for the cruise confirmed that my card has protection that at least equaled and possibly exceeded what the cruise line was offering. For us, therefore, the cruise line’s protection package was not necessary but it is well worth considering if you do not have protection available through another source.

Beverage packages

In what Cruise Critic says “Just might be the year’s hottest trend,” beverage packages have become quite popular in the cruise industry.

Wine at the Crown Grill aboard the Ruby Princess
Wine at the Crown Grill
At the time we booked our cruise, the cruise line was offering a special promotion that included an “All-inclusive beverage package” and, because we’d chosen a mini-suite, one specialty dining for two. The all-inclusive package includes, “[A]ny drink up to $10 including cocktails, wine, beer, bottled water, sodas, specialty coffees & more [and a] 40% discount on bottles of wine (below $100 retail),” according to the cruise line’s website. If purchased without the promotional package, that beverage package would have cost $56.35 per person per day ($49 plus a 15-percent gratuity), or nearly $800 additional for our trip.

The value proposition of an all-inclusive beverage package has many facets. One is not having to keep mental track of how much you have spent; it’s all included. Another could be a monetary savings depending on what and how much a guest consumes. Remember, it covers both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages; everything from one’s morning latte to the bottled water they take to the gym to their nightcap.

Of course, guests can always pay by the drink or select smaller beverage packages that more closely meet their personal habits and needs.

Guests can also bring their own wine if they choose. Guests are allowed to bring one bottle per adult without charge. After that, there is a $15 per bottle “corkage fee” which, in a restaurant, is intended to cover the cost of a waitperson opening the wine and for the use of the wine glasses. While wine brought aboard can be brought to the dining venues to enjoy with meals, in this setting I view the “corkage fee” as a tariff for the privilege of bringing your own wine. Guests who bring wine to enjoy in their stateroom will open the bottles themselves and likely use glasses that would be replaced daily by housekeeping no matter what their use, so no additional expense is incurred.

However, even with the service charge, it can make economic sense for guests who choose not to buy a beverage package. Our favorite “every day” Sauvignon Blanc retails for about $11 a bottle. Deducting a volume discount of 10 percent for six or more bottles and adding corkage fees for the bottles that would exceed our allowance, our total cost would be a about $25 per bottle. Purchased on-board at retail, similar wines retail for around $30 for those guests without a beverage package.

Specialty dining

Specialty dining is truly optional. Our ship had a main dining room that caters to those who prefer “traditional” cruise dining: a set time each day at the same table and the same servers. It also had two “any-time” dining restaurants where passengers can dine whenever they choose during the restaurants’ opening hours, as well as a half-dozen casual dining outlets offering pizza, burgers and dogs, café and bistro fare, and wine bars, all included.

Salad course at the Crown Grill aboard the Ruby Princess
Salad at the Crown Grill
Our ship offered four such specialty dining venues: a restaurant created in conjunction with a celebrity chef; a premium steak, seafood and chop house; a crab shack and a gastropub.

Dinner at Curtis Stone’s SHARE carries a cover charge of $39 per person and includes one item from each of five courses: appetizer, main dish, side dish, a cheese course and dessert. Beverages are additional but can be covered by the beverage package as long as the beverage costs remain within established limits. For guests with a beverage package, dinner at SHARE will add another $78 to the cost.

Dinner at the Crown Grill steak and chop house and The Crab Shack are $29 per person, or about $58 per couple. Beverages are additional if not covered by a beverage package. Dinner at The Salty Dog gastropub is $19 per person, or another $38 per couple.

Another option is breakfast or dinner catered to our stateroom. Different than simple room service, which has a fairly limited menu but is included in the cruise fare, the catered dinner is a four-course meal that includes champagne and is served in courses at a table set up on our veranda if weather permits, or inside the stateroom if we prefer. That option carries an additional cost of $100.

Cruise lines will occasionally offer specials, and we were able to take advantage of one that included the all-inclusive beverage package and one specialty dining for two at one of the four venues.

Shore excursions

The biggest surprises to me as a new cruise patron was both the number of shore excursions available and their cost.

Our cruise called on Ketchikan, Endicott Arm Fjord, Juneau and Skagway, Alaska and Victoria, British Columbia. We could have simply alighted from the ship and followed our noses (which is what we did in Juneau and Skagway), we could have chosen from a dizzying array of options on board or engaged one of the independent tour operators waiting as guests disembark.

Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska's red-light district during the Gold Rush
Creek Street, Ketchikan's former red light district
In Ketchikan, our first stop, there were 33 tour options offered by our cruise line ranging from $35.95 per person for a local walking tour to $369.95 per person for a six-hour halibut fishing tour.

The only option at Endicott Arm was to explore the fjord in a 130-passenger vessel, which will allow a much closer view of the fjord and glaciers than for those who remain on the cruise ship. That excursion was $229.95 per person.

Options at the other ports of call were equally overwhelming, with 46 tours to choose from in Juneau (price range: $33 to $1,999.95 per person), 16 in Skagway ($39.95 to $299.95 per person) and 13 in Victoria ($29.95 to $169.95 per person).

In each port, there were also independent tour operators at the docks.

Staying connected

For those among us who have become addicted to staying connected, Internet access is available on board ship, but that connectivity comes at a cost. Internet access aboard our ship ranged from 79 cents per minute on an individual basis to packages ranging from 72.95 for 120 minutes to $202.95 for 680 minutes.

Our ship used only satellite signals to provide internet access and the cruise line is quite clear about advising passengers that it is definitely not high-speed internet access.

For those who are truly “old school” or have a situation that requires a conversation with someone on land, ship-to-shore phone packages are available. A 10-minute package sells for $49.50, which is considerably less than the $8 per minute charge on my previous cruise several years ago.

Gratuities

Many cruise lines will add “suggested” or “recommended” gratuities for their passengers’ convenience. For our cruise and cabin category, the line added $13.95 per person per day, or approximately an additional $200. 

Horizon Terrace pool and bar on the Ruby Princess Lido Deck
Horizon Terrace pool and bar on the Lido deck
Those gratuities are shared among the staff including wait staff, stateroom stewards, buffet stewards, and housekeeping staff. Bartenders, providers of spa services, dining room wine accounts, casino dealers and youth staff do not share in the automatic gratuities, though bartenders are covered by the 15 percent gratuity when guests have the beverage package.

Doing some quick math, I estimated that the front-of-house people who shared the pooled tips would each earn about $750 for eight days' work, and cruise ship personnel put in long days -- often 13 hours, we were told. Based on my experience, I thought tips of less than $100 per day were inadequate, so I brought additional cash with which to tip our servers and stateroom attendant. That gesture was clearly appreciated.

Daily gratuities are discretionary and can be adjusted, but any requests to modify the automatic gratuities must be made prior to disembarking the ship at the end of the cruise.

Miscellaneous

Photographs. Guests will have photographs taken by a professional upon boarding. Purchasing that photo package would cost $40 according to the Princess web site, though on-board materials touted a deluxe package for $199.

Flowers. Can be delivered to your stateroom or sent as a gift. $39 to $59.

Culinary delights. From fresh vegetable platters to canapés, cheese and cracker platters, chilled shrimp on ice, to a balcony breakfast for two, $6 to $45. The Exclusive Princess Cruises Cookbook is $28.

Celebrations. My wife and I both celebrated our birthdays during our cruise and, during one call to the cruise line prior to our departure, the representative asked if I would like to reserve a celebration package. There are several, including those for kids and teens, ranging from $29.99 to $299.99.

Romance. We attended the wedding of two friends during our cruise. The line offers several special occasion packages ranging from three roses and a box of chocolates to a renewal of vows to a “Grand Occasion” package for prices ranging from $43.99 to $539.99.

Peace and quiet. Our ship offered a space located on the Sports Deck called “The Sanctuary,” an adults-only area where passengers can escape for a bit of quiet time away from families with children, get a massage (at an additional cost), sit and read, or just relax. Admission is $10 per person per half-day, though we found the verandah off our mini-suite or the Adagio bar to be wonderful retreats when things got too crazy.

Adding it all up

Mini-suites on our ship were $2,019 per person, based on double occupancy. Taxes, fees and port charges are $219, so the fare itself was $2,238 per passenger.

With that as a baseline, let us calculate what the cruise will actually cost for two people who do not live in their departure city:

Mini-suite D402 aboard the Ruby Princess
Our mini-suite stateroom
Mini-suite stateroom - $4,038

Taxes, fees and port expenses - $438

Airport transfers - $96

Cruise insurance - $380.60

All-inclusive beverage package for two - $788.90 ($56.35 per person for seven days)

Internet connectivity - $72.95 (120 minutes that can be shared)

Shore excursions - $375 (assuming an excursion at half the ports of call)

Gratuities - $195.30

TOTAL: $6,385.75

Put another way, that $2,238 cruise ticket could wind up costing $3,192. For us, that is an additional 43 percent above the fare and taxes. Importantly, most costs for passengers in smaller, less expensive cabins will be the same as for those in larger cabins with the exception of gratuities, which are $1 per person per day higher for passengers in suites or mini-suites than those in interior, ocean view or balcony staterooms. Finally, air fare will be in addition to that figure and varies depending upon point of departure, airline and class of travel.

While many cruise lines offer similar services and levy similar charges, not all do.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises, a luxury line that features smaller ships with fewer than 1,000 passengers, offers “The all-inclusive Regent experience.” Gratuities, unlimited shore excursions, dining at its specialty restaurants, unlimited beverages including fine wines and premium spirits, free air fare and other amenities are included.

Seabourn Cruise Lines, a luxury line owned by the same parent company as Princess Cruises, also includes many amenities for which others levy separate charges. Its webpage says “[V]irtually everything is included, from the luxury of our all-suite accommodations to the complimentary fine wines and spirits served on board.” Seabourn has a no-tipping policy; its website says simply, “Tipping is neither required nor expected.” Seabourn does charge for Internet access and shore excursions.

Silversea Cruises, yet another luxury line, offers a fare that includes room service, some champagne, wines and spirits and gratuities, items its web site notes, “Can really add up.” Silversea’s fares, however, do not include transfers, shore excursions or dining at two of its specialty venues.

Norwegian Cruise Lines charges separately for shore excursions, Wi-Fi, beverages and specialty dining, though a recent special offered guests the option of choosing two of those four items at an inclusive price for sailings of five days or longer. With regard to gratuities, its policy states that, “There is no required or recommended tipping on our ships for service that is generally rendered to all guests. While you should not feel obligated to offer a gratuity, all of our staff are encouraged to ‘go the extra mile,’ so they are permitted to accept cash gratuities for exceptional or outstanding service if you care to offer them.”

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises calculates gratuities into its fares for its four upmarket small cruise ships, a spokesperson for the line told TheTravelPro in an email. Accordingly, its policy reads, “Tips are not mandatory on board. Acknowledgement of particularly good service is at the discretion of each guest.” The line’s staterooms include mini-fridges stocked with soft drinks and beer, and spirits in higher category cabins.

Royal Caribbean adds gratuities to guests’ folios automatically in the amount of $13.50 per person per day for standard staterooms and $16.50 per day for Suite guests. Separate charges apply for shore excursions.

Viking Ocean Cruises, the newest entry into the ocean cruise space, offers what it calls Viking Inclusive Cruising. Under that pricing plan, every cruise fare includes a veranda stateroom, shore excursions in each port of call, all onboard meals, all port charges and government taxes in addition to many other complimentary amenities including beer and wine with lunch and dinner service, premium dining reservations, Wi-Fi, self-service laundry, access to the Thermal Suite in the onboard spa and 24-hour room service.

Further, while Viking literature notes that “Gratuities on board and on land are not included in your full fare,” Viking’s stated policy leaves tipping entirely at the guests’ discretion. “It is customary to give cruise gratuities, subject to your satisfaction of services rendered,” the policy reads and, although it suggests daily amounts based on the location of the cruise, it does not bill the guests directly.

What price convenience?

While convenient, all-inclusive fares can come at a cost. For example, a seven-day Alaska cruise in a Deluxe Veranda suite aboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which is comparable in size to our mini-suite, is listed at $6,199 per person or $12,398 for a couple – nearly double the example of costs illustrated above.

Make your decision based on your travel preferences, your taste and your budget. Then weigh anchor and go.

Bon voyage!

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
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