About two-thirds of Americans plan to take one or more vacations each year.  The average spent on a four-day vacation is about $1000 for two people.  Forty percent of households plan to spend $1000-$3000 for their vacation.   At this planning level, a cruise can be wonderful experience – decent food, amusing entertainment, new acquaintances, great weather and quick impressions of other countries.  When managed by a savvy consumer, cruising can be a very low-cost, enjoyable vacation.

Cruise time at sea can be restful in the library or on deck chairs.  Most passengers take advantage of the swimming pools, fitness center, lounges, casino, dances, movies and the ship’s entertainment.  If you like board games or playing cards, plenty of new friends will join in.  There is endless variety of good food without additional charge.  On shore stops, there are plenty of sights to explore without charge and there are paid tours.

Cruises are offered as some outstanding deals – e.g. $50/ day for an “interior cabin” on a 28-day cruise from Norway to Miami on Norwegian Cruise Line.  Or $60/day for an interior cabin on a 4- day cruise in the Caribbean on Carnival.  Some trips are “once in a lifetime” – e.g. $230/day/person for a 20 day “ocean view cabin” from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 – a segment from Cunard’s 133-day world cruise.  Caribbean cruises usually run in the $80-$150/person/day range.

Passengers normally are responsible for transportation to and from the departure and arrival ports.  If you ask the cruise operator or travel agent to arrange airfares and hotels, you will likely pay more than if you arrange it yourself.  There are many points of departure in the US and Canada; Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Tampa, Miami, Cape Canaveral, Charleston SC, New York City, and others.  For short cruises such as those to the Caribbean, the start and end are generally the same port. For somewhat more exotic cruises, endpoints can be in different countries; e.g. 12 days for $1129 in an “ocean view cabin,” starting in Barcelona and ending in Venice.

Beyond the ground or air transportation and the cruise tickets, there are some charges you should expect, e.g. government taxes and tips of about $10/person/day.  There are charges that you can avoid or will want to minimize, e.g. shopping for souvenirs at the duty free stores, alcoholic drinks, casino wagers, ship’s photographer “photos,” and high-cost shore tours.  The highly discounted ticket prices advertised apparently cover just direct costs, so the cruise operator relies on ancillary charges to boost the revenue per passenger back to profitable levels.

Why are cruise fares so cheap?  The grounding of the Costa Concordia intimidated many would-be passengers, and cruise lines already had a volume problem; they ordered new capacity before 2008, but the recession reduced the passenger loads.  Cruise operators like Carnival have been discounting fares to soak up their excess “inventory” – resulting in some outstanding bargains for consumers.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida and following public policy issues from the consumer’s perspective.  He has enjoyed 3 Caribbean cruises.