Maybe you’ve been thinking about taking a cruise. You’ve heard about cut-rate bargains lurking on the Web, and when you see a $299-per-person last-minute special for a weeklong Alaska cruise from Seattle, you leap at it like a hungry orca.
At that price, with all food and entertainment included, it seems you can hardly afford not to go.
That was pretty much how it went for John and Nancy D’Amour, of East Wenatchee, in early May when the retirees found $299 tickets for a May 11 sailing on Princess Cruises for Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan. (A recent check of the lowest price for the same cruise from Seattle at the same time next year: $949.)
It’s been a tough couple years for the cruise industry, with a fatal shipwreck in Italy and disastrous breakdowns in the Gulf of Mexico,
so price-cutting has been necessary to help fill ships.
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Why does it make sense for cruise lines to slash fares? Because they make money off you once you’re aboard. A lot of money.
So how much will that bargain-basement cruise really cost you?
Put it under the microscope
First consider a fictional couple, Sid and Sally Spendabit, with fairly typical vacation-spending habits. We’ll tote up their imaginary cruise price tag using actual costs, including actual excursions, from the same May 11-18 Princess cruise that the D’Amours took (and which I rode along on — and blogged about — as well). The ship was the Star Princess.
Keep in mind that on this cruise, as is typical on other lines, most food was included in the ticket price, while passengers paid extra for shore excursions, alcohol, espresso drinks and even soda pop.
Day 1, departure day:
• It’s a sunny day as the ship departs Elliott Bay, and Sid and Sally, in celebratory mood, each grab a couple of Mucho Mango cocktails offered by wandering servers on the upper deck. 4 x $7.95 = $31.80 + 15 percent (mandatory gratuity automatically added to this and all beverage costs quoted hereafter) = $36.57.
• They had an early start to the day, so they purchase a Princess Coffee Card, good for 15 espresso drinks throughout the cruise. $33.35.
• While they wait for their 8 p.m. dinner seating, they each take 20 spins on 25-cent slot machines in the casino. $10 minus $1.50 in winnings = $8.50.
• With their prepaid dinner in the Amalfi Dining Room, they each have a glass of wine: $9.15 x 2 = $18.30.
Day 1 total = $96.72
Day 2, at sea, up the west coast of Vancouver Island:
• Two mai tais around the indoor pool = $18.29.
• Bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc wine with dinner = $36.80.
• Formal-dress-night photo by ship’s photographer, 8-by-10 custom-framed = $49.99.
Day 2 total = $105.08
Day 3, Juneau shore call:
• Lunch of two halibut burgers and two Alaskan Brewing Co. Summer Ales (Sid loves his craft brews) on shore at The Hangar Pub & Grill = $45.88 (restaurant food’s not cheap in the 49th State).
• Princess shore excursion: Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest outing, 2 x $199 = $398.
Day 3 total = $443.88
Day 4, Skagway shore call:
• Princess shore excursion: Dog Sledding (“woo-hoo,” Sally says) and Glacier Flightseeing (“How often do you get a chance to do that,” Sid asks), 2 x $549 = $1,098.
• Lunch of two pulled-pork sandwiches and two Spruce Tip ales (“with a tangy hint of Alaskan forest,” Sid says) on shore at Skagway Brewing Co. = $46.
• Moosehead fur hat at a souvenir shop (Sally can’t resist) = $15.
• Glass of wine each with dinner = $18.29.
Day 4 total = $1,177.29
Day 5, Glacier Bay:
• Two Alaskan coffees (with a couple tasty liqueurs mixed in) to warm up on deck during glacier viewing = $18.29.
• Onboard dinner at premium restaurant, Sabatini’s, requiring extra $25-per-person “cover charge” = $50.
• Bottle of wine with dinner = $36.80.
• 20 minutes of Internet use to email Sally’s sister in Duluth from ship’s Internet Cafe at 79 cents per minute + $3.95 account setup = $19.75.
Day 5 total = $124.84
Day 6, Ketchikan shore call:
• Princess shore excursion: Rainforest Wildlife Sanctuary Walk and Crab Feast (Sally loves her cracked crab), 2 x $159 = $318.
• Two cocktails at onboard-dance party in Skywalkers Nightclub (where Sid throws out his back) = $18.29.
Day 6 total = $336.29
Day 7, Victoria, B.C., shore call:
• Room-service breakfast; extra $2 tip because Sally thinks the nice server deserves it.
• Two cappuccinos, because the coffee card ran dry this morning: $5.75.
• Princess excursion: Victoria by Horse-drawn Trolley (sedate entertainment while Sid’s back recovers), 2 x $49 = $98.
• Extra $20 tip to the room stewardess (on top of the automatic gratuity charged by the cruise line) because she makes such cute animals from the fluffy washcloths, Sally insists.
Day 7 total = $125.75
When Sid and Sally stop by the Passenger Services Desk to settle up the bill before docking in Seattle, here’s the damage:
• Automatic gratuity fee for shipboard servers and staff, $11.50 per day per passenger = $161.
• Total after-ticket cruise cost, including all of the above = $2,570.85.
Oh, and did we count the government taxes and fees, added to the ticket price, of $165 per ticket?
In other words, just keep in mind that $299 each isn’t quite the bottom line when you hear about a supersaver-cruise fare.
Or do it on the cheap
But remember the D’Amours — the real couple from East Wenatchee who booked the $299 cruise?
It doesn’t have to be so pricey, as they proved last month.
“We’re frugal,” John D’Amour said.
Their primary strategy for savings was to avoid booking any shore excursions through Princess.
“It’s cheaper just to go do it yourself,” he said. “There’s always somebody on shore who’s going to give you something cheaper.”
And just making a first stop at the local visitor center puts you ahead of the game, he advised. “Those visitor-center people will tell you all you want to know and how to get deals.”
Rather than spend a lot on helicopter tours or other fancy excursions, the D’Amours explored each town’s museums and historical sites on their own.
“Nancy and I were just delighted to be there in Juneau and Skagway and Ketchikan, and take in the culture and the heritage and the people, that’s what it’s about for us. We didn’t need to do any excursions.”
Taking public transit or local shuttles usually costs only a few bucks, such as the $5 all-day pass for the bus in Skagway, John noted. And eating on the ship — where food was already paid for — rather than pricey dining ashore helped keep costs down, too.
Their cruise bill:
• $299 each for the base tickets, plus fees and taxes.
On top of that:
• $30 for round-trip shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.
• $10 for museum admission in Juneau.
• $20 for lunch on shore in Juneau.
• $10 for all-day bus passes in Skagway.
• $10 admission to Totem Heritage Center, Ketchikan.
• $18 for a signed book from Iditarod sledder Libby Riddles, who gave a talk on the ship.
• $10 for limoncello drinks on Italian night in ship’s restaurant.
• $10 for a necklace for Nancy.
• $10 for a bottle of good duty-free vodka to take home for John.
• $161 for automatic gratuities.
Total after-ticket cruise cost on the no-frills plan: $289.
“And we had a great time,” John D’Amour said.
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