Much of the fun of taking a cruise has been that everything's included in your fare. You can swim, pig out on the buffet, dance, splurge on lobster, and get somewhere interesting all for the same price, which on the major lines pans out to be between $100 and $200 a day. Here we have a cruise line deciding that your $150 doesn't include steak. So much for feeling like you can indulge.
If serving steak is such trouble, you have to wonder why Royal Caribbean doesn't just raise the price up the cruise by $10 or so. (Or better yet, ease up on the mountains of uneaten food at the afternoon buffets.) Then everyone can have their steak and eat it, too. The cruise line collects money from people who would never order a cruise line steak, and customers will come away with the illusion of value rather than with the bitter taste of nickeling-and-diming in their mouths.
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The trend toward paying more for "better" food is nothing new to the majors, although this is a new foray into the main dining room. The only free drinks choices on most cruises nowadays are water or horrible juices from boxed concentrates. Anything fancier is charged, although Disney Cruise Line grants free soda only on the pool deck.
Most of the big cruise lines also offer reservations-only, added-fee (at least $25 per meal) restaurants to serve as alternatives to the hubbub of the main dining room that everyone automatically eats in. From a marketing standpoint, I have always been a little suspicious of this concept in general.
The addition of an exclusive dining room implies that the main dining room's food isn't acceptable and is something you'll want to escape. In essence, it acknowledges that the fare that you paid for with your ticket isn't all it could be, a nuance that seems to have escaped the Princesses and the Royal Caribbeans of the world. To its credit, Cunard has two added dining rooms (on the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Victoria) that are curated by celeb chef Todd English, so you do feel like your added expense is buying something special that can't be done for the masses.
These added fees are also bad for your wallet. When you pay another $25 for that dinner at the niche kitchen, the money you laid out for the main dinner you're skipping goes straight to the coffers; you are paying twice for the same meal. And vacations are supposed to be no-stress, aren't they?
Between the added food charges and the already notoriously outrageous fees for shore excursions that could be done for much less independently, it's getting to where customers now have to school themselves in ways to protect themselves from the major cruise lines' price tricks. One recent vacationer bemoaned the new flurry of opportunistic charges, such as paying $20 if you misplace your towel on the pool deck. That's no fun.
Then again, the major lines may get more savage at this game. Facing piles of debt payments after years of crazed shipbuilding, managers may only be able to seek resolution by turning their vessels into seagoing motels that are propelled by extra fees. Already, a slowdown is in the cards; for the first time in years, Princess doesn't have a new ship currently under construction, and Carnival is taking it easy, too.
During a recession, entertainment is a great industry to be in, but don't count on lots of people booking ships when the perception is that they don't buy as much as they used to. And woe to the vacation seller whose product is seen as more stressful than it needs to be.
Update: A Royal Caribbean press rep wrote to tell us that only its New York Strip Steak will be charged at $14.95, a fee that is currently being tested on two of its biggest ships. Black Angus beef remains available as part of the standard fare. If the charge is rolled out fleet-wide, it will serve as a way for passengers to access food from the exclusive, added-fee restaurants without having to leave the main dining room. That still makes it an optional extra fee, and it still makes you wonder what's so wrong with the main menu that passengers would want an out, but the nuance is duly noted.