Cruise bargains don't include hidden costs

ANDREW LECKEY

January 29, 1993|By ANDREW LECKEY

ST. THOMAS, Virgin Islands -- Now, don't get me wrong. A cruise can make for a terrific vacation. After all, who's to argue with the beauty of a radiant Caribbean sunset as the warm sea breeze gently blows in your hair?

I've taken a few cruises myself, in part because I've found that, if you shop carefully for one, the total bill can often be less than a comparable vacation at a nice spot in the United States.

In difficult economic times, the "all-inclusive" cruise price that includes food and lodging has become a major selling point, helping the industry grow at a 10 percent annual clip. Cruises definitely aren't just for rich people anymore.

On each cruise I've taken, however, I've found that many average passengers who'd reached their budget limit in paying for the cruise in the first place hadn't figured on some of the additional costs encountered once they were on board.

These are all "optional" added costs, for items such as gratuities or special excursions or beverages not covered by the up-front fee. But most people wind up paying for many of them nonetheless.

For example, consider tipping, which isn't a part of that all-inclusive price. It's explained deep within the information brochure given to passengers, but, as the cruise nears its end, it becomes a more defined concept.

In the same manner as church donations back home, the advised tipping on a cruise is outlined, with recommended percentages and the proper envelopes provided for each service employee. In some cases, the hard-working staff members in question don't receive much other than their tips.

Here's a typical breakdown of minimum tips recommended by a cruise line for a seven-day cruise, with cash to be put in separate envelopes the final evening:

* Waiter, $3 per passenger per day, amounting to $21 for an individual or $42 for a couple for the week.

* Assistant waiter, $1.50 per passenger per day, amounting to $10.50 per individual or $21 per couple.

* Head waiter, $1 per passenger per day, amounting to $7 per person and $14 per couple.

* Stateroom steward, who cleans your room, $3 per passenger per day, amounting to $21 per individual and $42 per couple.

So, a couple would fill envelopes with a total of $119. That's just the minimum, and a great many folks will pay considerably more to endearing workers who have helped make their trips enjoyable.

Another budgeting consideration is that you'll have to pay for virtually all liquor you consume, whether at dinner, in a lounge or poolside. Booze isn't a part of your package deal.

Furthermore, you'll pay for any beverages received outside of your meals. And, on most cruise lines, a 15 percent gratuity will be added to your beverage bill automatically.

You typically pay for additional items such as gift shop purchases or beverages with a special cruise "credit card" that tallies up on your final bill. Keep track of what you spend, because, as with all credit, invisible dollars mount quickly. Many fellow cruise passengers have told me they've been astounded at how much of a tab they'd run up.

The cruise line will deposit you at each port on the itinerary, either at the dock or using tenders which get you to the dock. From there, you're generally on your own.

However, if you decide to opt for one of many special excursion packages arranged through the cruise line at each port, as many passengers do, you'll have to come up with more money.

This could range from an organized tour for $25 to $40 per person, to a submarine tour costing $70, or an America's Cup-style yacht race for $65. Remember, psychologically, you're thinking you may never be back again and you'd better enjoy it now. For a couple or family, the price tag can add up.

You'll likely want photos of your cruise, and you'll find cruise photographers everywhere. The price for a color photo is usually $6 to $10 on most cruises, and dozens of pictures of you will be taken, so spending $100 or more is possible.

It's difficult to beat the food, entertainment and camaraderie of a cruise. It can also be a true bargain. But it's important to know what to expect financially and to think through some of your spending in advance.

& Tribune Media Services

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