Perception: Cruises Are All-Inclusive
That hyphenated word means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And it's true when you’re looking at the price and thinking about all the dreams and desires you have on this trip, it's easy to say, “Wow, it's only $300 a day!” or “Kids are free!"
But always do the math and always read the fine print! I promise you’re missing the additional costs they don’t get to until the page when you’ve already typed in your credit card number.
Reality: They're MOSTLY All-Inclusive
Cruising can be a great deal as long as you’re figuring in all your costs—including those extras like gambling money, alcoholic beverages, shopping money, extravagant restaurant meals, and excursions.
Everything you do on a cruise has a value, but only a few of them are included in all-inclusive packages: sailing, accommodations, nonalcoholic beverages, normal dining, port taxes, regular tax, and kids camp. As you read along, you’ll see why you need more than that.
Perception: It's a Big, Fun Ship
Cruise lines have rolled out some massive ships, capable of carrying 3,500 to 5,000 passengers. And they’re packed with fun. After all, you’ve seen the commercials and website videos and breathtaking vistas to prove it.
Cruise ships are floating resorts—they encompass your accommodations, all your dining, all your activities, and all of your transportation. And that ‘all-in-one’ vacation mentality sounds AMAZING. You don’t have to deal with traffic or deciding where to eat because it's all right there.
Reality: It's a Big, Fun Ship Packed with People
As a floating resort, the ship is packed in every nook and cranny with everything that everyone will need. All food: already on board. All staff: also already on board. The part you don’t see in the brochures, the commercials, the videos, or Instagrams: the massive crowds on cruises.
Unless you’re cruising in the offseason (and that time is usually packed with retirees who cruise), you’re going to be shoulder to shoulder with a lot of people during your trip.
Perception: Boarding the Ship is a Big, Fun Affair
You’re arriving at the cruise terminal with 2 suitcases and 2 carry-ons full of amazing cruise wear, from casual to formal. You’ve packed extra products to deal with your hair and have carefully selected your boarding ensemble.
There will be porters to quickly whisk your luggage away—telling you that they will deliver this to your stateroom. They even stop my party to take our picture!
Reality: Boarding a Ship is as Unpleasant as Boarding an Airplane
There will be crowds of people, all negotiating with porters to get “that one last thing” from their overpacked suitcases. Much like an airport terminal, you must clear security, and you will snake around in lines similar to Disney. It's cramped and crowded. Your cruise wear begins to look disheveled, and before you know it, picture time.
That’s so they have a physical record of who you are on the boat, and they’ll try to sell back to you a million times. You follow the line onto the steepest ramp you’ve ever seen, and you may even glimpse your boat. At the top, you’re sent off to find your room or even go stand on deck. There is no welcome beverage waiting; there’s a mandatory muster drill.
Perception: Ship Cabins Are All Five Stars
You’ve scoured the internet and seen pictures of the accommodations, and they look amazing for a cruise ship! You’ve even read the small print—so much storage under the bed, a closet, drawers, bathroom storage, etc is all included.
A balcony beckons you to watch the world cruise by while you enjoy complimentary room service. And don’t forget the cute little towel animals! All are Instagram moments! You begin packing 2 weeks early.
Reality: You Get the Cabin You Pay For
Unless you’re a seasoned cruise passenger, you will find no complimentary cabin upgrades here. Your stateroom (such a bougie word) will be down a narrow hall where you turn sideways to allow others to pass.
You swipe the card and realize the bed looks closer than you thought. That’s because they shot the pics from across the hall. Your closet is kitchen cabinet size, and here are drawers—two very shallow ones, that is. Every single inch of the space is modular and carefully planned. There is bathroom storage, but it’s a toothbrush hook on the wall.
Perception: There Are Swanky Casinos on Cruise Ships
The brochure and website detail the amazing casino onboard where you can try your hand at games of skill. Even the beginning gambler in your group will have fun. It looks HUGE—like it could hold at least 1/3 of the passengers on board.
You put on your nightlife clothes and decide to hit the casino before dinner, hoping for a lucky slot machine and a pre-dinner cocktail.
Reality: The Casinos Are Nothing to Write Home About
The casino is in a room that’s roughly 10’ x 20’, but the double door opening is deceiving. There are a lot of machines, noise, neon, and mirrors—all to make it appear as a bustling casino environment.
First of all, your room key will be tied to a credit card you left on file, so gambler beware. There are also ATMs adjacent, so you can pull out money from a different source. Roughly 1/3 of the folks are trying to get in, and the drinks aren’t free.
Perception: Your Meals are All-You-Can-Eat and Delicious
Between the buffets and other "free" restaurants onboard, you definitely won’t go hungry. In fact, if you have a late dinner seating, you may find yourself seeking a fourth meal in late afternoon. The dining room experience is as fancy as you want it to be.
You’ll be seated with a group of people for all your dinners. You’ll also enjoy a great meal that is carefully choreographed. There’s something to eat for everyone—vegans, gluten-free, and even the lactose intolerant.
Reality: Cruise Buffets Are Usually Packed to the Gills
If you’re on a ship carrying 3,500 people, they usually want to eat at the same time as you do. And with rumbling bellies and unruly children, you usually get the worst of humanity at the buffet. The cruises strive to provide an amazing food experience and the buffets are beautiful. But there will be someone in front of you who’s super picky and holding up everyone else.
Be kind to your dining companions, because you’ll be dining the rest of the week with them if you chose seated dinners. Want to go to one of the name-brand restaurants? No problem—it just costs extra!
Perception: You Get Free, Fruity Cocktails on a Cruise
You’re fantasizing about sipping the day away while sitting in a little deck chair watching the world go by with a fruity rum concoction. And in all honesty, some drinks are free on a cruise.
But those are usually all non-alcoholic: tea, lemonade, water, and coffee. The ship will have a cup to sell you for $10 for sodas. The alcoholic drinks can be fantastic, but be prepared to pay extra for them!
Reality: The Alcoholic Drinks Are Ridiculously Overpriced
Sodas and alcohol are going to cost you extra money. And no, you can’t sneak it on the ship because they check. That’s why they take your bags at the beginning of the trip—to scan them looking for weapons and illegal alcohol, which they confiscate.
You can buy large containers of spirits on the boat duty free, and they’ll hold them until the end of the cruise. Focus on the drink of the day for your best bet—it will be some type of rum fruity thing and be the best deal at $8-$10 each. Well drinks or name brands will run you $12-$15 each, so pay attention!
Perception: You're Headed for a Tropical Paradise
The main reason you cruise is to see fantastic destinations at a low price. Experience the Caribbean or Mediterranean and see lots of countries while maintaining a residence aboard the ship. There’s so much to do and see out there, and you want to be smack dab in the middle of it.
And there absolutely are fantastic ports that ships go to—just make sure you’re sailing on the right and most safe ports for you and your family.
Reality: Some Ports Are Better Than Others
While traveling by ship, you will encounter some amazing places...and some shady ones too. There will be at least one stop on your cruise that is less fun or less appealing than the others.
While all of these places look to tourism as a way to survive, some are downright unsafe off the boat without a group. But there is an upside—while everyone leaves the boat for port, you can have the ship practically to yourself.
Perception: There's Tons of Award-Winning Entertainment On Board
There are some great acts on the high seas—mostly undiscovered talent or folks that had a hard time making it stateside. But there’s a limit and demand for these shows. So, book early, otherwise, you’ll find yourself without a seat in the theatre.
The nightlife seems buzzy and exciting—just make sure your wallet is stored away safely in your room and that you’re paying attention to your date.
Reality: The Entertainment is Good But the Shows Are Packed
Regardless of the venue—whether it’s the theatre, the movies, the nightclubs, or the deck parties—count on a BIG crowd, which may be more than you’re looking for. Those intimate nights alone, dancing under the stars just don’t exist.
But what does exist are crowded, slippery dance floors where you’re knees to elbows, and a pickpocket or two, preying on your wallet. Wear sensible shoes and watch your alcohol intake—the ship at night can be treacherous.
Perception: There's Lots of Cool Stuff to Do on Excursions
Got your eye on parasailing or swimming with dolphins? Those are two of the most popular things to do in port, along with shopping. Excursions are a great way to experience new things without taking a full-blown vacation to the actual destination.
Make sure you have the proper paperwork, and if your excursion is to drive a vehicle, make sure you have your car insurance. Otherwise, expect to make a major deposit.
Reality: The Excursions Are Often As Crowded as the Cruise
Like everything else on the cruise, excursions will be crowded. There’s only a certain amount of room/transportation for them, and, chances are, everyone on your cruise wants to do the same cool thing. Excursions cost money—even the simplest ones like sightseeing. The more exclusive the excursion, the more it costs.
There's also one other downside to excursions: they book up before you leave for your trip. So, if you really want to swim with dolphins, pony up the cash and reserve it when you book.
Perception: Duty-Free Shopping is a Game Changer
It's easy to get swayed by the merchandise on board—after all, they’re a tourist attraction, just like the countries you’ll visit. And there will be GREAT deals on alcohol and cigarettes, even if there are limits.
The ship has a convenience store as well, but you’ll pay dearly for some ibuprofen or a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Plan wisely!
Reality: Most of the Merch is Cheaply Made
Don’t be fooled by the wares of the onboard mall unless you find something you absolutely can’t live without. Then wait until the last day when prices are discounted 50% to get it.
The cruise merch is cheaply made, and do you really want a "fun" cruise shirt? You already paid to get the soda cup—leave well enough alone!
Perception: You'll Spend All Day by the Pool
Reality: Like Everywhere Else, the Pools Are Packed
The pool deck will be the most crowded place on the ship, and for good reason—it's what everyone envisions themselves doing. Finding a chair when they’re sandwiched around a 10’ by 15’ pool that is 3 feet deep and then trying to hold onto an additional chair for your spouse is impossible.
That hot tub that looks so inviting? Its roughly 5 feet in diameter, so you’re likely touching knees with the other burly men in the tub.
Perception: You'll Be Waited on Hand and Foot
This is the key component of any cruise—the level of service. And it doesn’t matter whether you have an indoor-facing cabin or an expansive 600 sq ft stateroom: everyone gets fantastic service.
It’s the hallmark of a great vacation, and you’re a captive audience on a cruise. You’ll receive room refreshing several times a day along with turndown service and those cute little towel animals.
Reality: There Are Often Way More Guests Than Staff
There’s roughly 1 crew member per 2.5 guests. That means that there’s an additional 1,800 people on the ship in addition to the guests. And they all live below you in the bottom of the ship, stacked 2 to 3 per room.
In the space that you live for 2 people for a week, these folks do for six months and work their butts off to send money back home to friends and family. Only officers receive private cabins.
Perception: Tips Are Included in Your Cruise Package
Reality: Packages Typically Don't Cover Tips for Staff
If you don’t budget tips at the beginning, you’ll be slapped with a minimum at the end of your trip. And while $13 per day seems reasonable, you may want to leave a little extra for your cabin steward and your waitstaff, as well as bartenders that kept you extraordinarily happy during your time.
This is their livelihood, and they’re supporting families based on this.
Perception: Disembarking is Quick and Easy
Reality: Disembarking is Slow and Boring
The disembarkation process is ridiculous for anyone traveling by ship. First, you’ll have to settle up the night before your departure—it's time to face all those charges to your room. If you have a flight or plans that require you to leave early, book that a couple of days ahead in order to get off the ship first.
Then, it’s a cattle call to a dining room or other public area where you wait, because you have to be out of your cabin before 9 so it can be turned. Also, it’s a good idea to carry your bags yourself and avoid any theft as you’ll have to leave them out the night before.