Fee or Free: What’s Included in Your Cruise Fare?

Amenities included/not included in a cruiser's fare

One of the major selling points of cruises is that “everything is included.” And one of the biggest reality checks for first-time cruisers is learning that “everything” is subject to exclusions, surcharges and package upsells.

The general guideline is: the more expensive and exclusive the cruise ship, the more elements will be included in the fare. Mainstream cruise line fares, on the other hand, usually include the basics: cabin, meals in the main dining rooms, entertainment, coffee, tea and basic ground transfers at departure ports. However, every line has slightly different rules, so don’t be shy to ask about specifics that are important to you.

Learn how to discern what’s free vs. what has a fee on the ship before you board, and plan accordingly to avoid surprises.

Luxury Inclusive ($$$$)

Cruise Lines: Crystal Cruises, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, SeaDream Yacht Club, Silversea

Cruise lines in the luxury-inclusive category are adjusting their inclusions as they increase their specialty offerings; the very high up-front fare covers basically every expense on a ship. Regent Seven Seas and French Polynesia specialists Paul Gauguin go so far as to include airfare.

Room service and specialty-dining venues generally carry no extra fee in this category; neither do beverages, including some wines and premium liquors (within limitations). Gratuities for the crew are also included, but you should check whether specialized staff, such as butlers or local guides, expect a little something extra.

Entertainment is included, but it tends to be more enrichment-focused than theatrical. Some level of excursion activity is also included, though with these, there is ALWAYS something extra to upgrade to for a fee: helicopter tours, individual after-hours tours of famous landmarks, SCUBA dives.

One small and unexpected extra is Wi-Fi/Internet access. Regent includes Wi-Fi, while Silversea includes one hour of free Wi-Fi for guests in entry-level staterooms and unlimited for higher tiers. Crystal includes a limited amount of Wi-Fi to Crystal Society guests. Even when it’s included, there may be a daily limit. Definitely check, because data overage charges can be extreme.

Also note that since ultra-luxury lines do not typically cater to families with small children, usually the children’s programs they offer are highly specialized and carry a fee. Crystal is the exception that aims to be THE luxury line catering to the family market. Not only is its Junior Activities program included, but kids cruise free with full-fare parents.

Luxury ($$$)

Cruise Lines: Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Ponant, Viking Ocean  

Many luxury lines have high price points, offer a high caliber of entertainment, culinary options and excursions, but they aren’t offering every extra under the inclusive umbrella. As a result, each luxury line offers its own combination of inclusions you weren’t necessarily anticipating — as well as surprise surcharges where you might have expected inclusions.

Azamara Club Cruises, for example, includes gratuities in the fare but does not include Wi-Fi. Viking Ocean includes Wi-Fi and excursions, but not gratuity.

As a general rule, luxury lines cover all food, with the possible exception of gourmet specialty restaurants. There are even some exceptions as to what dining is included based on what room category you’re in. For instance, suite guests on Azamara can eat in specialty restaurants for no charge, but main cabin guests pay a fee.

Some luxury lines include select beverages in the fare. Viking Ocean includes alcoholic beverages only during meals; Oceania has a surcharge for all alcoholic beverages; but Ponant and Azamara cover basic wine, beer and standard spirits in fares. Oceania makes up for its minimal beverage-inclusion policy by including airfare.

On-ship entertainment and enrichment programs are almost always included in the luxury category, but luxury lines do not typically cater to children and programming for them is minimal. Ponant is somewhat of an exception to this: It allows children between 8 and 11 years of age to sail free in the parents’ cabin. Oceania — known for its country-club style of no casual attire and no children — now offers a version of a youth program for a small fee.

In regards to tipping, except for Azamara (it’s included in the cruise fare), all the luxury lines listed in this category expect passengers to tip at the end of their cruise. Viking and Oceania strongly — and vocally — encourage it and suggest what amount per day to leave but it is not included in your cruise fare or added to your end bill.

Expedition ($$$)

Cruise Lines: International Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Ponant, Quark Expeditions, Silversea Expeditions, Un-Cruise Adventures

Expedition cruises operate under slightly different policies when it comes to excursions, because there are no official ports in many of their remote stops. Just getting to land (or to the ice) is an adventure, and that part of the shore activity is usually included. Lindblad goes well beyond others in this category and includes all excursions, plus certain meals and hotels on land. International Expeditions includes all excursions and specialty activities. Silversea includes some excursions, but not all.

The guiding principle of land-based activity for expedition cruising is that passengers book these trips to get access to otherwise-inaccessible places. The cruise lines do their best to facilitate this as part of the basic experience.

As far as the onboard extras, lines run the gamut in their inclusions. Un-Cruise includes all meals and beverages; premium liquor, wine and beer are included on some Un-Cruise ships, but not fleet-wide. Ponant has a limited “open bar” that includes only basic spirits and house wine. Lindblad and Quark do not include any alcoholic beverages in fares. Meals on expeditions are generally included with no restrictions, since most expedition ships don’t have specialty restaurants. Ships are typically outfitted with Wi-Fi and offer it for a fee, but because the expeditions travel to remote regions like the Arctic, there’s always an understood caveat that Internet will not be available for much of the journey.

Gratuities are not included on Ponant, Lindblad or Un-Cruise. They’re optional on Quark and discouraged on Silversea.

Expedition ships are usually not large enough to offer separate youth areas. Also, the remote destinations and difficulty of tendering to them mean most lines won’t accept children under 8 years of age. Kids who do cruise are expected to join their parents for activities, so surcharges for youth programming are not really an issue.

Ponant extends their kids-sail-free policy to some excursions. However, children under 8 have to be approved for the excursion sailings, and those under 3 are not allowed.

River Cruises ($$$)

Cruise Lines: Ama Waterways, Avalon Waterways, Scenic, Tauck, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises

Because they’re smaller and more intimate, river cruises offer more inclusions but usually fewer facilities and amenities. Specialty restaurants are a non-issue because the ships are too small to have multiple restaurants. Sometimes dinner will be an excursion to a castle or a monastery but will still be included in the fare as the “main” group dinner of the night.

Usually at least wine and beer with meals is included; some lines offer basic spirits as well. Room service is not always available, even for a surcharge. Or, it might be available as a special one-off favor. Entertainment onboard is minimal, but everyone’s always invited and it’s included. Most lines don’t have organized youth programs. All lines include some shore excursions and offer additional excursion options with a surcharge. Scenic, Tauck and Uniworld include gratuities. Ama Waterways, Avalon, American Cruise Lines and Viking do not.

Almost every river cruise line offers free Wi-Fi (Uniworld is the only one that caveats it as “only on select ships”). That being said, it can be extremely spotty, much worse than you’d expect while sailing on major waterways. Guests often opt to just login to the complimentary Wi-Fi offered at just about every restaurant and bar in any port stop.

Premium ($$)

Cruise Lines: Celebrity Cruises, Cunard Line, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Star Clippers, Princess Cruises, Windstar Cruises

Today’s premium ship offerings fall on two opposite sides of the spectrum. There are the grand ocean liners, and then there are the sailing yachts. Their experiences are totally different; however, their inclusion policies have many commonalities. Most meals are included, but specialty dining can carry a surcharge and alcoholic beverages are definitely not included. Excursions and gratuities are not included. Wi-Fi is not included, but Holland America and Cunard may soon offer deep discounts due to parent company Carnival’s social media package Wi-Fi offering. And for the most part, shipboard entertainment is included.

Neither Windstar nor Star Clippers has an organized youth program. All the big ships do. In fact, Disney’s is arguably the best in the world. Of course, not everything is included in Disney’s wondrous array of youth areas and activities, but the general facilities are. Nursery spaces for infants up to 36 months are open until 11 p.m., but they have an hourly charge. On the flip side, Holland America and Cunard are ramping up their complimentary youth programs to bring in a younger demographic of cruiser. Night nurseries and supervised youth programs are complimentary until 11 p.m. with Cunard.  Celebrity is right in the middle for youth appeal. While it’s no Disney, it’s got some very appealing elements to the included youth program, which is mostly geared around gaming and video production.

Contemporary ($)

Cruise Lines: Carnival Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International

If you’re sailing on a mass-market line, the only elements included in your fare are meals in main dining rooms and snack bars, the most basic beverages, shipboard entertainment and your cabin. Even soda has a charge. The good news is you’ll find that most mass-market cruise lines offer deals where you can add a few perks (onboard credits, specialty dining and beverage packages are just a few) for free or at a discounted rate.

Now, here’s the GREAT news. Because these cruise lines cater so heavily to families with young children, every one of them offers a complimentary youth program. And these programs are the best (along with Disney) in terms of facilities, brand partnerships, creative programming and extended hours of supervised group care.

Mass-market lines have also begun to offer discounted packages. Carnival now offers “social media” basic Wi-Fi for five dollars a day. Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer a variety of drink packages for soda, alcohol and specialty coffee. Norwegian rolled out an all-inclusive program aboard Norwegian Sky that’s the next iteration of its “Ultimate Beverage Package;” it includes some specialty restaurants and featured entertainment that has a surcharge on other ships. Some cruisers complain that not everything is included in the Ultimate Beverage Package — not gratuities, and not even all the alternative restaurants; but bottomless booze certainly is.

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