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Cruise Ship Survival Guide: Save Time and Money

Cruises sound like the ultimate getaway for many of us — a time to rejuvenate while exploring exotic locales on the high seas. Travelers consider the countless activities, spectacular views, and unlimited food and beverage, but does that really reflect the reality of life on board? Unbeknownst to many of us, the cruise ship industry has a dark side that doesn't always live up to our expectations. Knowing what to watch out for is an excellent way to plan your dream trip without any unwanted surprises.

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01The rooms

Bed on Cruise Ship with Ocean View Balcony dbvirago / Getty Images

If you're picturing extravagant accommodations with ocean views, then you might want to manage your expectations. While luxurious suites with private balconies, captivating seascapes, and top-tier linens are available, they come with a premium price tag. Cruise ships hold thousands of passengers and staff, so the average room is modest, compact, and more likely to have paintings of the ocean than the real thing.

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02The pool

parents with children jumping into pool on cruise ship David Sacks / Getty Images

Cruise ships sell the experience with photos of massive yet surprisingly empty pool areas. In reality, however, everyone wants a day laying out by the pool, which means they're often overflowing with travelers. It's difficult to find space to sit, much less actually swim. Many onboard pools are too small to accommodate crowds, so they're loud, packed, and nearly impossible to score room in the water. Visit during off-peak hours to up your chances of squeezing in, or reserve a chair or cabana in advance.

 

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03The activities

Man in shorts and t-shirt water skiing marcduf / Getty Images

If there's an activity that you absolutely must try, always book ahead. The most intriguing activities come at a high cost, and many are booked almost instantly. If you don't book well in advance, you'll be left with the most bare-bones options, trading in that water skiing excursion for fruit carving with the 65+ crowd. Cruises are highly competitive in this area, so compare options and costs prior to booking.

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04The passengers

Senior happy couple taking selfie on cruise ship

Unless you book a specialty trip for a specific demographic, such as a Spring Break, party, or celebrity cruise, you'll be surrounded by older adults. The average cruise ship passenger is 65+, so the party scene might be much different than you imagined. Likewise, if you book an all-ages or family-friendly excursion, you could find yourself surrounded by little ones while you're trying to relax. Conduct thorough research, read reviews and select the cruise that suits the purpose of your unique vacation.

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05The dining

Couple having dinner on cruise ship David Sacks / Getty Images

Top-rated restaurants and celebrity chefs are great, and all, but the main dining room and buffet venue are all that's included in the ticket cost. Here, you'll find lines that resemble a high school cafeteria, with meals that have been lying out for too long and many items picked over. The included selection probably won't be as diverse as you think, so don't expect unlimited high-end options.

The basic assortment might leave something to be desired, but extra-fee dining venues can provide the luxurious experience you're craving within a price range of $15 to $100+ per person. Work food into your onboard budget, and you'll discover everything from exclusive private dining experiences to menus crafted by world-renowned chefs.

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06The weather

Luxury travel cruise woman leaving port watching city skyline of Vancouver under the rain with umbrella.

You're picturing pristine seas with calm winds, temperate weather, and smooth sailing. That's not always the reality, however, and bad weather can destroy an otherwise incredible vacay. If a storm arrives, you're either stuck in your room or in a crowded common area. Ships offer amazing deals during the off-season, but this might also coincide with the rainy season in the tropics, so make weather conditions a vital part of your research. The same applies when you're exploring off the ship; the world's best beaches aren't so wonderful when they're flooded or facing a hurricane!

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07Hidden costs: shore excursions

Family Children Beach Cruise Ship Relaxation Concept Rawpixel / Getty Images

You might dock at premier ports of call, but exploration time is often limited to just a few hours. Tourist beaches and attractions are swarming with guests from multiple cruise ships, so many will be overcrowded or already booked, and you have to factor in waiting and re-boarding time.

Cruise lines heavily inflate shore excursion costs, so you could be paying nearly double for that helicopter or hot air balloon tour. Instead of booking with your ship, tour independently and save major money. Visit the site's tourist board to find impressive offers that aren't available onboard; booking directly with a tour operator or third-party seller is an excellent way to score savings.

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08Hidden costs: drinks

A glass of white wine in a female hand at sunset on cruise vacation NAPA74 / Getty Images

Unlimited beverages sound like paradise, but be mindful of what's really included. Water, milk, coffee, tea, and juice are free, but alcoholic choices aren't unless it's directly specified, and you'll be paying restaurant rates with automatic gratuity. Not only that, but if you're craving soda, bottled water, certain juices, or specialty coffee, such as a morning cappuccino, costs can add up quickly.

Since so many options aren't included, all-you-can-drink beverage packages might be well worth the savings. Keep your consumption in mind, however; if you're just sipping a few sodas, it'll be cheaper to do so separately. If you're sipping margaritas from sunup to sundown, however, you'll save major moola. Seek out daily drink specials and happy hours, and skip the souvenir glasses.

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09Hidden costs: the spa

Man having back massage at the health spa EmirMemedovski / Getty Images

Spa services are a big draw on board, but they can also drain your wallet. Massages easily run up to $200 per hour, while additional treatments cost anywhere from $200 to $400. Keep in mind that tips aren't included here, and more luxurious medi-spa services can run all the way up to the thousands!

Rejuvenate without breaking the bank by selecting cruise-long packages, and try additional discounts during port days when the spa's less crowded. Specials are available throughout the cruise at particular hours, and booking multiple services together is another way to save.

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10Hidden costs: laundry

woman hanging clothes in shower PeopleImages / Getty Images

Laundry isn't free; prepare to pay $3 to $7 for washing and pressing a single item. Even the self-service laundrette charges around $6 per load, but you don't have to pay these steep costs. Pack enough so that you can survive the cruise without shelling out extra dollars, or bring a travel-sized detergent and wash individual pieces in your room, then hang them to dry in the shower.

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