Anyone I know who has ever indulged in a spa treatment on a cruise can tell stories of pushy therapists trying to sell them overpriced creams and potions.
I still remember, with irritation, one particularly persistent masseuse who not only tried to force me into $160 worth of products, but suggested that I increase her tip on top of the 18 percent “service charge” that was automatically added to my bill.
Her strength only succeeded in triggering my stubborn streak, which meant she got nowhere, but the relaxing massage I had arranged to mark my birthday at sea was wasted as I left feeling more stressed (and angry) than when I arrived. .
Cruise ship spas are by their very nature luscious sanctuaries where pampered guests float in a sybaritic cocoon of indulgent therapies.
But nothing jolts you back to reality harder than being presented with the bill that includes an automatic service charge, which on US cruise lines can be as high as 20 percent, and there’s even a box for an additional discretionary tip to increase this further .
With some spa treatments easily topping $150, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that the gratuity, plus some products (if you fall for the sales pitch), can take the final bill north of $200.
Made in America
The vexed issue of cruise ship gratuities has long dogged the industry, especially as the amounts are higher on US lines where bills for drinks, as well as spa treatments, carry an automatic service charge.
This is in addition to the daily headline charge which now averages around $14 per person, rising to around $19pp or more for suite guests. On the likes of Oceania Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) it is higher, while Cunard Line, MSC Cruises and the boutique line Star Clippers charge less.
With children on most ships also having to pay, it can add a whopping £330 to the bill for a family of four on a week’s sailing.
Gratuities on UK-facing lines tend to be significantly lower, with the likes of Ambassador Cruise Line and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines charging £6pp per day and £5pppd respectively.
However, exclusive brands such as Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea include tips in the total price, as does Viking. It’s a policy that has been adopted by a growing number of other companies, notably P&O Cruises, Azamara and Tui-owned Marella Cruises.
The increase in the “crew appreciation” fee
A recent trend that neatly sidesteps misgivings about this practice, which has never been comfortable with a British public less accustomed to American tipping culture, is the rise of value-added deals from lines such as Princess Cruises and NCL.
For around £40 pppd, guests can tack on packages that include selected drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities or, as some lines call them, “crew appreciation” fees.
“About 90 percent of my customers choose these packages,” said Hampshire-based travel agent Sarah Bolton, a cruise specialist who works for Travel Advisors.
“People want to know what they are paying up front and prefer an all-inclusive package so they are clear about what is covered. Then that leaves only other extras like spa treatments, excursions and specialty dining, which are optional.”
The cost of Wi-Fi and drinks, especially on US lines where higher prices (cocktails at $12 or more) are exacerbated by the poor dollar/sterling exchange rate, can add up quickly on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Specialty dining, where prices can comfortably reach $50pp or more, is another area that can take off, especially for family groups, although some mainstream lines offer meal packages that can be more cost-effective before purchase.
It is also worth remembering that even in the free eateries there are often dishes on the menus that also require a supplement.
Another area where prices can increase is excursions, although cruise lines have tried to increase the range of shore excursions in recent years, offering more exclusive events and some cheaper options.
Alternatively, guests can explore on their own or pick up port side tours from local operators, which in some cases can be cheaper.
Unexpected extras at sea
Call it pinching or, in American parlance, nickel and diming, but there are several less obvious ways that cruise lines try to increase their customers’ spending on board.
It starts as soon as you step on the ship and are greeted by waiters gliding across the deck with trays full of mouth-watering sailaway cocktails. They may look tempting, but they come at a price.
Exclusive deck areas, such as The Sanctuary on Princess, The Retreat on P&O Cruises and the Vibe Beach Club on NCL, all serve a mix of rare exclusivities with soft sunbeds, waiter service and treats for a fee that can vary from a few. dollars to over $100 and even more if you book a cabana.
It’s a similar story for spa-thermal suites with day passes on sale for around $50 (sometimes half-day passes are offered as well), while those wanting more access can get a pass for the entire cruise.
Fees have also started to creep in for some onboard attractions, with NCL charging $15 to race around the go-kart track and $9.95 to battle in its al-fresco laser tag arena, while Royal Caribbean International (RCI) charges for the skydiving. simulator and North Star viewing pod. There’s no getting out of the extra charge on the Escape Room attractions on some ships either.
Families cruising to RCI’s private island resort, Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas, may also be caught out by fees for the water park, which boasts the tallest water slide in North America, as it costs $99.99 per person.
Despite so many ways to separate cruise passengers from their money, it’s still worth noting that many are discretionary, so they can easily be avoided.
“I still think cruising is one of the most valuable vacations out there,” Bolton said.
“I had a customer who wanted to bring her family in the school holidays, who had been offered over £5,000 for a two-bedroom self-catering apartment with a flight. I found them a 12-night cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands in a balcony cabin with full board and gratuity included – and it cost £3,457. This shows that cruises can still have great value.”