How to Enjoy a Cruise Vacation on a Budget

An ocean cruise can be an economical way to travel the world.
(c)Mark D. Kahler
01 of 08

Overpriced Shore Excursions

Sunloungers on deck of cruise ship
Cultura Travel/Rosanna U/The Image Bank/Getty Images

This could be the largest single profit center for cruise lines today. They will arrange shore excursions for you, but the price is often far greater than what you can arrange by simply stepping off the ship at the port and making a few inquiries.

If you're someone who doesn't want to carry cash or negotiate with drivers or tour operations, perhaps paying the cruise line to do it for you is acceptable. But some of the markups are ridiculous.

Read more about how overpriced shore excursions could put a dent in your cruise budget.

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02 of 08

Beware of Ship Photographers

Ship photography can run up cruise expenses.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

When you step off the ship in a new port, chances are good that there will be a cruise line photography team at the entrance to capture this momentous occasion. Same for the captain's welcome-aboard reception and even the safety drill.

Soon you will discover there is a "photo gallery" aboard ship that features you and the other passengers. Instinctively, you will find your picture. Just out of curiosity perhaps, you'll spend several minutes searching the hundreds of pictures.

Wait until you see what these pictures cost.

If there is one that reflects a special moment, buy it. But those who decide every moment the photographer shows up is a special moment will wind up spending a bundle.

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03 of 08

Beware of Art or Fashion Shows

Art shows and fashion shows can run up cruise expenses.
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Many of the larger cruise lines will stage an art show or perhaps even a fashion show on board. You will be led to believe this is a real opportunity to view and buy top-quality merchandise.

The problem with these sessions is that most of the people who are considering purchases have no idea what the art or the fashions cost in a store. They know little about how to spot a quality piece of work. They are lulled into the idea that they are now rubbing elbows with the high rollers at sea.

No doubt, bargains do present themselves at these events. No iron-clad rule applies to each situation. But before you become convinced that you need to become a patron of these shows, be sure you know what you're buying.

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04 of 08

Expensive Alcohol

Alcohol is expensive on a cruise ship.
(c)Mark D. Kahler

The bar is closed in this picture, but you can bet it won't be too long before alcohol is served somewhere aboard a cruise ship.

Most travelers know that the cost of alcohol and even carbonated soft drinks is not included in the base price of most cruises. There are a few all-inclusive cruises where this is not the case, but they are the rare exceptions.

Policies vary widely by cruise line, but many companies are offering some version of a pre-paid card for purchasing beverages not included in the base price. These cards are popular but also quite expensive. On some lines, a beverage card can cost $60-$80/person. It's good for soft drinks and some alcoholic selections. Sometimes it's possible to buy cards for a fraction of that price that are good for three or four drinks.

Cruise lines will allow you to bring a bottle of your own wine aboard and have it served at dinner, but you'll pay a "corkage fee" of $10 or more for the privilege. To get around this, some people smuggle spirits aboard. Those who are caught have the bottles confiscated and returned at the end of the trip.

Bottom line: If you want to drink anything but water, tea, or coffee aboard ship, you're going to pay for it--sometimes dearly. Find out if your cruise line will allow you to stock your cabin with a supply of soft drinks you bring from a nearby store at embarkation.

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05 of 08

Avoid the Casino

Casino charges can run up the cost of a cruise vacation.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say up front that I am not a gambler. I have never seen much entertainment value watching my money slip away.

That might seem negative, but it's a fact that the house wins most of the time. That is certainly true on a cruise ship, where they will ring bells and make announcements about someone who won in their casino. On some lines, those announcements are daily.

But for every lucky winner, there are plenty walking away empty-handed. Casinos usually open once the ship is out of port and in international waters. That means those days at sea with no ports-of-call are busy times -- and you can bet plenty of your fellow passengers are losing money.

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06 of 08

Avoid Premium Dining

Meals are included in most cruise fares. It's one of the features that can make cruising an effective way to visit expensive cities. You'll skip the pricey food ashore and eat on the ship.

But a number of lines are now trying to talk passengers into visiting a premium dining room, where food quality is higher but you pay a supplement for the privilege of partaking.

On special occasions such as a birthday or anniversary, this is a nice option. But beware: it's very easy to slip into a pattern of eating the premium food every night. Is your budget set up to absorb those big charges after you return home?

Check into the premium dining options as you book the cruise and set a budget for your meals.

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07 of 08

Resist Tipping Pressures

Tipping is important on a cruise ship. Many of the people who ensure your cabin is clean or your meal is served properly derive much of their incomes from tips. That's the way the pay structure is set up in the industry.

If you receive great service, you should tip accordingly.

But don't allow yourself to be pressured into a pre-determined tip. This is a popular policy on cruise lines. They'll tell you that you need to pay a fixed amount on your on-board charge card for tips. There is an opportunity to adjust the amount as you see fit, but the cruise line knows most people won't think about that in the rush to debark the ship and catch their flights home.

Some budget travelers like to start the tip payments at $0 and then add money as service merits. Tip a fair amount, but don't be pressured into tipping for mediocre service.

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08 of 08

Save Shopping for the Last Day

Most cruise ships have at least one store that is open at selected times during the trip, offering duty-free items. Their offerings range from sundry items (which tend to be expensive) to clothing and swimming attire.

Don't assume all of it is overpriced, but at the same time, it is wise to shop for items you want in the ports-of-call. You can't know what might be available on the first day of the trip.

Another reason to wait until the last day to patronize the ship's store is that sales are sometimes offered at this point in the itinerary. I found some good prices on the final day of one trip -- prices that weren't available on sailing day.