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Cruise Fares Demystified

The cruise lines and many other sellers of travel want to suck you in and to do so often use “smoke and mirrors” to bait the hook. You, on the other hand, want to know what you are going to have to pay for the cruise when all is said and done.

Most ads for cruises have the small word “From” in front of the pricing. Don’t ever put your faith in that pricing. It is the sucker bait on the hook. In this article I will show you how to understand the smoke and mirror terminology and ask the right questions to get the real pricing, add on costs and hidden costs.


Cruise pricing is made up of several components. These are Base fare, Taxes and Port Fees, Trip Insurance, and Gratuities.

The Base Fare is what the cruise line charges for the cruise. This is the amount of the total cost that goes to the Cruise Line. It is also broken into two elements: Commissionable Fare and Non-commissionable Fare. The Commissionable Fare is that portion of the Base Fare on which the cruise line pays commission to any travel agents.

The Base Fare is not fixed – it is a moving target and can, and does, go up or down depending on the cruise lines’ occupancy level and perceived rate of sale. Base Fares can vary from week to week. There is no hard and fast rule as to when you can find the best Base Fares. In general, however, The best Base Fares can usually be found at the beginning and end of a season and, in some cases, in the last week or two prior to a sailing if the ship is not full.

Taxes and Port Charges are those costs that the cruise line incurs for the use of port facilities and obligations to the government. These are generally fixed for the same itinerary, sailing after sailing.

Trip Insurance is the optional insurance that the cruise line would provide to cover the client for the cost of the cruise should something go wrong and for illness during the trip. Trip insurance is always advisable, but is optional. The insurance offered by the cruise lines is usually more expensive and provides more limited coverage that insurance available independently – usually through your travel agent.

Gratuities are monies collected by the cruise line to provide tips for your cabin stewards and dining room wait staff. They vary from cruise line to cruise line, but usually range from $10.00 to $13.00 per passenger per day. These can usually be pre-paid along with the cruise fare. But, you may also ask to pay them on board. Some cruise lines, however, when offering “anytime dining” collect the gratuities obligatorily, as your dining room wait staff will not be the same for the entire cruise.

Deposit and Final Payment

Cruise lines, quite naturally, want to be assured that you are a serious client. When your travel agent makes your booking, the cruise line will hold the cabin and price for a period of time. By the end of that period you must pay the deposit or the reservation is vopided. Different cruise lines and different lengths of cruises will have different amounts required for the deposit. The deposit is usually due within 24, 48 or up to 72 hours from making the reservation.

The Final Payment is for the balance of the fare and is usually due 60, 75 or 90 days prior to the sail date. Shorter cruises (usually less than 7 nights) usually have the final payment 60 days prior to sailing, while the longer cruises have the greater lead times for the final payments.


From time to time, cruise lines will have promotions. These take many forms and I will describe some of them here.

One of the most common is reduced deposit. This must work well for the cruise lines because they keep using it. All it does is shift part of the fare to the final payment, but it is the same amount out of pocket.

Another common promotion is to offer “free” one or more category upgrades. To the outsider, this sounds like a good deal. You need to ask exactly what is entailed in the upgrade. Ships have different types of cabins and within those types, there are different categories. For example, the basic cabin types are Interior, Ocean View, Balcony and Suites. Within these type cabins are various categories. By giving you an upgrade, usually they are moving you to a better category within the same type cabin. Unless the upgrade specifically says “pay for an inside and get an ocean view”, or similar, the upgrade is almost always in the same type cabin.

Don’t get me wrong. There are occasionally promotions that represent a cost savings. There are occasional offers of On Board Credits (OBCs). An OBC is an amount of money that is applied to your account for your expenses on board. This can be for Specialty restaurants, spa treatments or just bar consumption. Usually the offer will state something like “receive up to $300 OBC”. To get the top OBC, you would need to book into a suite. If you reserve in an Interior or Ocean view type cabin, the OBC will be significantly less. Some of the Luxury lines will offer free air fare or two for one fares – especially when they are having trouble filling a sailing.

Cabin types

This discussion would not be complete without a breakdown on cabins and how they affect pricing. As indicated above, there are Interior, Ocean View and Balcony cabins as well as suites. Interior cabins are the least expensive and are on the inside portions of the ship. They have no windows or portholes. The next type cabin up in the hierarchy are Ocean View cabins. These cabins have either a port hole or window. It is not unusual for the higher category of Inside cabins to cost as much or more than the lower category Ocean Views, and so on with the different cabin types.

Within cabin types, better is usually higher up on the ship and more towards mid-ships. Also, for the more experienced clients, cabins can be better or worse depending on their proximity to noise (the theater and clubs, the kitchen and the jogging track). Some clients want to be close to the elevators while others complain about the noise in the elevator lobbies.

The next step up from Ocean View cabins are the Balcony cabins. These cabins have sliding glass doors that lead out to a private balcony.

In both the Ocean View and Balcony cabins, you should ask if they are obstructed or unobstructed cabins. In Ocean view cabins that are obstructed, the view out of the window can be partially or fully obstructed by a life boat. In balcony cabins, obstructed means that you are over a life boat and cannot look down directly to the water.

At the top of the cabin types are the suites. These are the luxurious to ultra-luxurious accommodations and usually also come with special amenities.

There is another type of cabin fare. This is the “Guaranteed” fare. It is usually significantly less expensive that the lowest fare in that type cabin. A guaranteed fare does not assign you a specific cabin, but rather guarantees that you will have at least that type cabin or better, but allows you no choice as to where in the ship. If location is important to you, this is not a good alternative. On the other hand, if you want to stretch your budget to a higher cabin type, this can be a way to do so at a lower cost.

Celebrating Birthdays / Anniversaries

When making a reservation, the cruise lines will usually ask if anyone of the passengers has a special occasion (birthdays, anniversaries etc.) or special needs. While it is necessary for the cruise line to know about special needs, and it is a nice touch for the cruise line to surprise a guest with a cake, there may be an expense associated with this latter. If you are going to announce a special occasion, check with your waiter to make sure you understand beforehand if there is a cost associated with the celebration.

Other Expenses

Thus far, I have covered the cruise line imposed expenses. However, no matter how careful you are, there are many other optional expenses that are hard to avoid and should be taken into account when computing your estimated total cruise expense. The only drinks that are included in the fare are the beverages in the buffet (coffee, juice, water and tea) and the same in the dining room. Anything you want to drink in between meals will cost you. You can bring on bottled water and soft drinks when you board, but cannot bring on alcoholic beverages. At an average of $7.00 – $9.00 per drink, this can be a significant expense over the duration of the cruise. If you want to have a spa treatment, play in the casino or go to a specialty restaurant, these will all cost you extra. Shore excursions are also extra. There are ways to save in all of these, but that is the subject for another chapter.


The cruise industry uses a lot of misleading prices and promotions. You should make sure of the real price. The best way to do this is with a travel professional. They know how to read through all the hype and present you with the real information.

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