All-inclusive cruises offer the perfect formula for a budget-friendly getaway with meals, lodging and entertainment bundled into one price. So, what's the catch? The truth is, with cruise lines continually launching innovative add-ons (think: private deck-side cabanas and wine-tasting seminars), it's easy to rack up an exorbitant bill when you thought you were scoring a great deal. Add in extra fees that aren't typically covered in all-inclusive rates, like laundry, fitness classes and premium beverages, and it's easy to see why it's essential to anticipate not-so-obvious expenses and strategize accordingly.
While slashing extra costs is important, some experiences on board and ashore are worth the splurge. But choosing when and where to pay extra -- without going overboard -- is no simple task. Don't worry: U.S. News can steer you in the right direction. Here are nine savvy tricks and tactics to help you make the most of your cruise budget without compromising on fun.
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Keep your bar tab in check
It may seem like a no-brainer, but unless you're climbing aboard a high-end ship, such as those managed by Crystal, Silversea or Regent Seven Seas (where all drinks are included in your cruise rate), you'll want to keep track of all refreshments, including wine, spirits and soft drinks. Many budget-oriented cruise lines, including Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, won't cover alcoholic beverages in their cruise rates. However, you can offset your bar tab and get a better value by opting to buy a beverage package. Many cruise lines offer a variety of package options (from soft drink packages to unlimited alcohol packages) that can be paid in advance to help maximize your total savings over the course of your trip. Another tip: If you're thinking about packing your own vino, keep in mind most cruise lines apply a corkage fee (typically $10 per bottle) for consuming wine in the main dining room. If you haven't capped off a bottle at dinner, you can request to have it corked and finish it the following evening. You can also save by opting to sip your wine in your cabin rather than a public area (just remember to pack your own bottle opener). Also be sure to take advantage of free drinks served at any captain parties or any special events during your voyage.
Snap your own photos
When you look back on your vacation a few months down the road, you'll likely want to reminisce by looking through your photos. Though you could fork over a hefty sum (around $12 to $20) for a picture taken by a professional photographer on board, you could easily carry your own camera and save yourself the extra cost. Plus, you'll capture the views and vantage points most important to you while at sea and ashore. Just remember to pack all necessary supplies: Batteries and memory cards will cost a pretty penny on board the ship. Should you plan to snap photos on your phone, remember to pack a charger since data roaming can quickly drain your battery.
Plan your own shore excursion
Rather than booking a shore excursion through your cruise line (which can cost you between roughly $50 and $500, depending on the cruise line, excursion type, duration and destination), consider arranging your own forays ashore or booking with an independent operator. To get the best rates and find the most reliable tour companies, consult the official tourism websites for the ports on your itinerary. (Many tourism sites are available on the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory.) You could also snag a discounted rate through a travel agent or through a trusted company like Viator. This site -- which also doubles as an app -- enables you to match tours based on itinerary and ensure your desired excursion is available on the day you're in port. When scheduling your shore excursion, make sure you leave yourself ample time to get back on the ship before it departs for its next port of call. It will cost much more to reach your next port if the boat sets sail without you.
But before you book a tour with an outside operator, check what's included in your cruise rate. Some luxury cruise lines, such as Regent Seven Seas, cover shore excursions in their cruise prices, meaning you won't have to pay extra for choice tours like wine-tasting in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and snorkeling in Bora Bora. Also, keep in mind some experiences, such as traipsing through a wildlife refuge in India or glacier-trekking in Alaska will cost you more but are also well worth the splurge. Remember, there are plenty more ways to trim down your spending back on the ship.
Do your own laundry
If you're embarking on a longer voyage, you'll likely need to wash your clothes. But instead of paying for pricey laundry and dry-cleaning services, see if your ship has a self-service launderette. A typical load will run you about $3, while having individual garments washed (like underwear) could cost you up to $2 per item. Of course, the easiest way to slash this cost is to hold off cleaning your dirty clothes until you get home.
Dial back your extra calls and data charges
We all like to stay in touch while traveling overseas. And with social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, tempting us to switch on roaming data, it's easy to sink our budget with a few slides on our smartphones. Before you set sail, check with your phone service provider to see if international roaming is covered or if you'll need to purchase an international data plan. That way, you won't have to worry about setting your pocketbook ablaze for emailing, texting and tagging Facebook photos on your cruise. If your carrier does not offer a prepaid data package (phone company plans vary), you can turn off data and still stay connected. Be sure to take advantage of handy resources like Skype, which allows you to make free calls overseas (just remember to download it before you set sail). WhatsApp, allows you to text and receive SMS texts and messages for no additional fee (as long as you're using Wi-Fi), offering a hassle-free solution to stretch your budget further.
Hit the ship spa during days at port
Yes, at-sea spa treatments will cost a pretty penny; however, if you plan to stick around the ship during docked days, chances are you'll find better deals than you would during days at sea. Major cruise lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean offer slashed rates during port days. Be sure to inquire about "port day" discounts. And if you're planning to pamper yourself with more than a few spa treatments, consider springing for a spa package, which will allow you to save more in the long run.
Consider the cost of babysitting services
Believe it or not, hiring an in-cabin babysitter can create a major dent in your budget. Though some family-focused cruise lines like Disney help curb costs by offering free youth-oriented programming during the day, others charge high rates for satisfying youngsters' at-sea needs. If you're traveling with your family, consider which cruise lines are best suited to your clan -- and your budget. Royal Caribbean offers ample entertainment for teens and toddlers alike, with free kid-friendly offerings, like the Dreamworks Experience. Meanwhile, Celebrity boasts plenty of free educational programs, crafts and youth-driven activities divided by age group.
Satisfy your appetite at the buffet
While standard meals are typically accounted for in your cruise rate, extra indulgences like cappuccinos and cookies at gourmet shops will rack up a steep tab. Instead of venturing to specialty shops for a caffeine boost or an extra scoop of ice cream, save by stocking up on sweets at the buffet or in the main dining room. And before you search for a table in an upscale alternative dining venue, weigh the cost. Do some research ahead of time and find out whether dining in the alternative restaurants is included in your general cruise rate, or whether specialty dining incurs extra fees. Some cruise lines charge a flat per-person fee, while others impose a-la-carte prices.
Reconsider rolling the dice in the casino
Whether you're a high roller looking to tempt Lady Luck or you're contemplating a spur-of-the-moment bet, keep track of how much money you're willing to risk before stepping foot in the casino. With cruises rolling out glitzy casinos that offer a diverse selection of games -- such as craps, roulette and baccarat -- there are plenty of opportunities to sink your budget. Instead of playing your hand at the casino, save extra dough for other travel-related costs and niceties, like souvenirs, culinary experiences or wildlife-watching tours during days at port.
-- Liz Weiss