Hijacked on the high seas: How cruise lines soak you with charges

Cruise ships are big business. There's something about traveling on a giant tub that attracts us. The appeal is mostly in the fact that you simply don't have to turn on your brain if you don't want to. The food, the driving, the entertainment, the babysitting, the paperwork -- it's all taken care of by someone else. But that ease of mind has its price. Once you're lulled into vacation-mode complacency, the cruise lines are able to sneak in under the radar and open your wallet. They've got to pay for those big ships somehow.

"Cruise Inc.: Big Money on the High Seas," airing this week on CNBC, plumbs the various ways that cruise lines wrest your cash from you. The documentary is particularly apropos right now, when cruise fares are at near-miraculous lows and there has never been a more tempting time to take a cruise. But as CNBC reminds us, the expenses don't end once you pay your cruise fare, largely because it takes so much money to keep these traveling cities afloat.

There's a lot of staff to pay, and new ships, which come online every year, are billion-dollar propositions. Some of the methods for making back that money are obvious. Everyone knows that casinos, where spending is voluntary, are big profit centers. There's also the government-mandated "head tax" or "port charge" that individual ports charge you for the right to disembark, and that money builds the shiny passenger terminals you see (and the tourism ministers' mansions you don't). The major lines register their lines in foreign countries to avoid paying millions of taxes to the U.S., but you, as a passenger, must pony up.

It's also pretty clear that the on-board shopping is way overpriced. I'm not sure I'd want to wear a wedding ring that my fiancee bought on a cruise ship, but enough people must do it, because jewelry kiosks outnumber sundries sellers on board. You can't always find a decent paperback book, but there are whole rooms full of necklaces and gold. Budget Travel magazine recently found plenty of instances in which stuff sold in ship boutiques could be found cheaper in U.S. stores, so those "duty free" savings being advertised are often an illusion made possible, once again, because passengers' brains aren't on and they haven't done any price comparisons.

We also know that the cruise lines gouge you at the bar. CNBC took Norwegian Cruise Line's Pearl and discovered that the carrier needs every passenger to buy $7.25 a day in drinks just to hit targets. That's a big reason why most cruise lines no longer even offer free Cokes. Even when you do buy a drink, the alcohol measures are often so slim that you're more likely to lose your footing because of the waves and not because of your cocktail. You could try to sneak your own bottles on board, but cruise lines sometimes catch that. The only surefire way to save money on drinks is to be satisfied with the free water, coffee, tea, and juice. (There are minor loopholes. Disney Cruise Line, for example, offers free sodas on the pool deck.)

CNBC hints at some not-so-obvious ways the cruise lines coerce you into spending. One is the spa. Sure, many of us go because we want a treatment. But many more of us buy passes because we want the peace and quiet. On the Pearl, a week's pass cost $68. I have always despised the forced fun that most lines unleash on the pool deck ("Everybody limbo!" bellowed into microphones and endless re-playings of "Margaritaville"), but it never occurred to me that by making the suntan area frat-party loud, the cruise line can force more guests to buy spa time. Solution: Pack earplugs with your lotion.

Another way the lines have been sneaky about getting more cash is the specialty restaurant trend. Normally, all your food is included, but nowadays, nearly every ship has a couple of places where the food isn't free. The not-so-subtle message is that the food is better there, and therefore, to avoid getting the cheap grub they sling at you in the main dining room, you have to pay. I never quite grasped what sensible marketing person would build a sales model that depended on customers agreeing that your standard product was lacking or tiresome. But there it is.

Cunard has on-board restaurants overseen by celeb chef Todd English. Norwegian has Freestyle Dining, which enables you to pay to eat at specialty restaurants like sushi bars. Royal Caribbean has gone a step further, moving a few of the dishes at the specialty restaurants into the main dining room for $15 a pop, telling passengers they're so lucky to have the opportunity to taste the higher-class fare. (Fortunately, Royal Caribbean has also got outposts of Johnny Rockets, which are included in your ticket price and are always packed.)

There's also the ship's photographer, who sells your treasured memories for $20 and up. I have seen some Carnival passengers get duplicitous about evading charges for this service: They stealthily take photos of their photos in the gallery where they're posted for sale.

I think the single biggest rip-off on a cruise is the shore excursion. CNBC found that some 75% of passengers on the Pearl booked one. I've been telling people for years to do everything they can to avoid land activities organized by your ship. Unless you're infirm or elderly or truly petrified of striking out on your own, you can almost always see your destination without the stiff markup of the group tour. You just need to get a little bit of information (usually from the tourist bureau desk, sometimes from a guide book), walk into town from the pier, and hail a city bus, and you can see the place for a couple of bucks (as opposed to $80 to $120.) Almost every place touched by a cruise ship is used to seeing tourists; you'll be fine. The same activities are often available without the cruise line, which drastically marks up the original price. You just have to make sure that you get back from your independent activities on time, because if you book without the ship's help, you'll return to an empty dock if you're late.

There's also the question of authenticity. After a few days on a ship, many people are yearning to get away from the slow-moving crowds. Shore excursions shine when it comes to gimmicky, touristy stuff like zip-lining. The CNBC crew saw monkeys in Roatan. But you're not necessarily going to have a rich taste of the authentic side of your destination, and you're definitely not going to be alone. Shore excursions, because they're group tours, don't give you the time or the peace to soak up sensations. In some cramped cities, particularly in Europe, the arrival of a cruise ship means streets are impassable for hours, jammed with sheep-like crowds. In Dubrovnik, the locals head for the hills until they sail away again. In Key West, the locals secretly mock cruise passengers for rarely venturing more than four blocks from the dock. All of that's fine if you don't care about looking like a lemming. But if you define vacation value in terms of getting the most one-on-one time with your destination, excursions don't give that.

One thing touched upon by CNBC on is particular pet peeve of mine: on-board art auctions. I've written in the past about the ways that cruise lines have historically duped passengers into buying worthless tat.
In fact, the moments preceding art viewings may be one of the only times a cruise line will give away booze for free.

The cruise lines are now testing the waters for new fees, too. Royal Caribbean, to take an example, is now charging passengers $4 for room service in the small hours of the day. There are only seven seas, but a million new ways to separate you from your money.

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