Seven Ways to Save on a Family Cruise

By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

Cruise lines like to describe their pricing as "all-inclusive," but they don't mention the $4 lattes, $10 yoga classes, and $6-an-hour babysitting fees you'll encounter onboard. Unless you've chosen a very high-end cruise line, think of the quoted rate as a base price and expect your final spend to be substantially higher. The family travel site suggests these seven strategies to keep your vacation budget afloat.

  1. Go indie with excursions. It's frighteningly easy to spend thousands of dollars in the ports of call. Your brochure will talk glowingly of scuba and snorkeling, dolphin swims, and kid-friendly sightseeing. Then comes the letdown: A family of four could easily spend over $400 in each port if they join the ship-sponsored outings.

    The easiest way to lower your off-ship costs? Go outside the ship's program. Consider purchasing your excursions from an independent tour operator, who will likely offer similar, but lower-priced, excursions in your ports of call. For example, ShoreTrips offers a huge array of options from 400 local tour operators on 22 Caribbean islands, and Port Promotions offers off-ship excursions in Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe.

    If your destination is all about sand and surf, you can go cheaper still. In lively ports, it's easy to hoof it off the ship and explore on your own for free. A cheap, family-pleasing option may be to catch a cab to the nearest beach.

  2. Be beverage savvy. Here's an eye-popper for many first-time cruisers: The drinks aren't free. Expect to pay not only for alcoholic beverages, but probably also for premium coffee, bottled water, and soda. Even if you don't drink alcohol, it's alarmingly easy for a family to land a triple-digit beverage tab. One way around it: Cruise with Disney Cruise Line, whose ships offer free, unlimited fountain sodas. Most other cruise lines sell an all-you-can-drink fountain soda card that's good for the duration of the cruise, usually for about $10 per kid and $35 per adult for a 7-day cruise. These pay-up-front cards can make a lot of sense when you're cruising in the Caribbean or other tropical locales, when you can foresee drinking many beverages a day.

  3. BYO Cooler. Put these items on your packing list: One crushable, insulated cooler; a sports bottle for each member of the family; one-gallon Ziploc storage bags. While cruise lines won't let you bring alcohol on board, many will allow you to bring your own soft drinks and bottled water. In ports of call, most cruisers end up noshing on overpriced, indifferent tourist fare. A better plan: Pack a picnic lunch from the ship. Score a couple of sandwiches from room service, grab some fruit at the breakfast buffet, fill up your sports bottles at the beverage station, and ta-da!-you've got a free lunch to go.

  4. Think about childcare. Holding off taking a cruise until your kids are old enough to play in the kids' clubs makes sense on many levels. For starters, it will save money on childcare. Your child can attend the kids' clubs for free. Hiring an in-cabin sitter, or dropping your little one in the nursery or nighttime group babysitting room will cost $5 to $10 per hour for the first child.

  5. Mix-n-match activities. Every cruise line offers a range of free entertainment, games, and activities. But some of the more interesting activities come with a price tag-perhaps $10 to attend a yoga class or $40 for a cooking class. Build your daily itineraries by mixing free with fee.

  6. Curb indulgences. Those frozen smoothies and Haagen-Dazs really add up. Set a daily allowance for non-inclusive treats, and stick to it. Obviously, tee-shirts, toys, family portraits, and other gift-shop items cost extra.

  7. Budget ahead for tips. First, the good news: You don't tip the captain, purser, or other officers, who are salaried professionals. The bad news? You tip pretty much everyone else on the ship. Increasingly, cruise lines do the math and-bless 'em-automatically add the gratuity charge to your account. Typically, the going rate is $10 per passenger, per day of the cruise.

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a web site that helps families plan vacations with trip ideas, hotel reviews, travel advice, and vacation deals.