Higher fees, less service: Why the value of cruising isn’t what it used to be

Anyone who has vacationed on the high seas knows that cruises provide excellent value, with fares covering food, accommodations, entertainment, and transportation between ports — often at a lower price point than what you’d find if you were to plan a similar land-based trip. That’s still true, but as cruise lines struggle to increase profits and pay off pandemic-related debts in the face of rising operating costs, they’ve had to come up with ways to cut expenses or increase prices. Some are subtle; others are more blatant. Regardless, these cost-cutting and money-making moves affect what you’ll receive for the price you pay to sail.

Where will you see devaluations on your next cruise? These are some of the ways cruise lines could have you paying more while receiving less.

Sky-high gratuities

One way cruise lines have routinely raised the overall price of voyages for years is by increasing onboard gratuities. Because tips are automatically charged to each passenger’s onboard account on a daily basis, they’ve become more of a service charge or resort fee than a little extra something paid to crew members as a reward for a job well done. (Yes, you can remove prepaid gratuities, but I don’t recommend it. Just be sure to budget for them as part of the cost of your trip.)

Cruise lines keep mum on where your auto-gratuity dollars actually go. If the money goes to crew members, as it should, it allows cruise lines to pay the crew less because the tips supplement their income. If it doesn’t, it’s more revenue for the cruise line. Either way, higher gratuities cost you more and benefit the cruise lines financially.

Norwegian Cruise Line now charges the highest auto-gratuity amount in the industry — $20 per person, per day (including children), or $25 per person, per day, for passengers staying in suites. That’s up from $16 per person, per day, after the previous increase and up from $12 per person, per day, in 2008. If you’re a family of four not staying in a suite, that’s an extra $80 per day or $560 for a weeklong sailing. Ouch.

Gratuity increases tend to ebb and flow. When one line implements them, it makes it easier for other lines to follow suit. In that vein, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises also raised the daily amounts passengers are charged to $18 per person. For Celebrity, it was the second time within a year that the line saw tip amounts increase.

Food adjustments

Another approach cruise lines have taken to save costs is being more mindful when provisioning. Lines have food ordering down to a science, but some have realized more can be done to cut down on waste and, therefore, cost. (And who doesn’t love an environmental initiative that also helps the bottom line?)

Royal Caribbean, for example, orders ingredients that can be used multiple ways and makes sure food preparation leftovers aren’t wasted if they can be added to another dish (like using vegetable pieces to make soup). However, as a result, it has also pared down its menus to feature several dishes that use the same or similar ingredients, which can mean less variety for passengers.

Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Line has decreased its portion sizes ever so slightly. “It should be invisible to you,” said Richard Pruitt, Carnival’s vice president of environmental operations, in a 2021 interview. “It shouldn’t feel like ‘oh, they’re being stingy with my food.’ But they’ve made adjustments; they’ve made improvements in [galley food] prep.”

Sure, you could always order an extra dish in the main dining room, but at extra-fee venues, you’ll be getting less food for the same (or a higher) price.

Increased alternative restaurant fees

We’ve already established that cruises offer excellent value, and their alternative eateries — the ones you pay extra for — are no exception. From steakhouses to sushi bars, there’s a specialty restaurant for just about every palate, and the prices are often less expensive than what you’d pay at home for a comparable meal.

With food costs ballooning, cruise lines have recently begun to raise their cover charges and a la carte pricing for added-fee restaurants. The price increases are not surprising — land-based restaurant prices have also skyrocketed — but they’re still hard on passengers’ wallets.

Royal Caribbean recently increased prices for items like barbecue and pub grub. At the line’s Playmakers sports bar, appetizers increased in price anywhere from $2 to $5 each, entrees rose from $9 to $11.99 apiece, and chicken wings went up from $4 to $6, depending on the number ordered, as reported by Royal Caribbean Blog.

Carnival also raised the cover charges at its Asian and Italian restaurants (each increasing from $18 to $24 per person), as well as at its teppanyaki grill (from $38 to $42 per person) and steakhouse (from $48 to $49 per person).

Once-a-day cabin cleaning

One of the aspects of cruising that sets it apart from a hotel stay is twice-a-day room cleaning, which has been standard for decades. However, over the past couple of years, the three most popular cruise lines — Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean — have cut back to once a day for all standard cabins.

As far back as 2016, Carnival began asking passengers to select whether they’d prefer morning or evening room cleaning, with room stewards encouraging cruisers to select one or the other. That set the stage for other lines to roll back their offerings, too, and for Carnival to solidify once-a-day service.

Again, this is a case of cost-cutting that doubles as a green initiative. By cleaning half as many times, cruise lines conserve water but also save money on cleaning supplies and labor costs.

In fact, when Norwegian implemented its policy in early 2023, it eliminated the junior stateroom steward and stateroom steward positions it previously had and replaced them with a single role: stateroom attendant. Anyone who was previously employed at the stateroom steward level was demoted and received less pay on their next contract, while junior stewards received a bump under the new title.

The idea is that, because room cleaning is now limited to once a day, the work can be staggered, so fewer stewards are needed. Although fewer stewards doesn’t mean your room won’t be cleaned thoroughly, it does mean your room won’t be cleaned thoroughly as often as it might have been before the change.

Less personalized butler service

One of the many perks of booking a suite on a cruise is a higher level of service that often includes a butler.

Celebrity Cruises recently made a change to the butler service it offers. Instead of assigning a single butler to its suites, the line now utilizes a team approach that sends any butler who’s available if you need something. That means you might not have the same butler twice, which prevents you from getting to know them and them from familiarizing themselves with your preferences. Celebrity told The Points Guy in an email that the change was made to improve the passenger experience. “If one butler had two guests requesting service at the same time, the butler could struggle to meet guest expectations,” a representative from Celebrity told TPG.

Still, to us it seems like a devaluation of the perk because you’ll be getting less personal service than you might have under the old system.

Set-price port taxes and fees

As part of the taxes and fees tacked onto cruise fares, cruise ship passengers pay fees to each port of call they visit. But at times, weather, emergencies, mechanical issues, shoreside unrest, and other unforeseen events can force cruise ships to alter their itineraries.

Per the terms of each line’s contract of carriage, the cruise line doesn’t owe cruisers anything for most missed ports or other itinerary changes (other than a refund of money paid for shore excursions booked through the cruise line). Regardless, it has always been a standard practice for lines to issue refunds of port taxes and fees for skipped ports and other itinerary changes.

However, some cruise lines have started implementing set-price port taxes and fees that are not refunded when ports are missed. This means that even if you don’t visit a port, you’ll still pay the same amount in taxes and fees.

While this may seem unfair, cruise lines argue that the fees cover the operational costs associated with visiting a port, regardless of whether the ship actually docks there. It’s a way for cruise lines to recoup some of the costs they incur for each passenger, regardless of the itinerary changes.

In conclusion, while cruises still offer great value compared to land-based vacations, it’s important to be aware of the cost-cutting measures and price increases that cruise lines have implemented. From higher gratuities to less personalized service, these changes may impact the overall experience and value for money. However, with careful planning and budgeting, it’s still possible to have a memorable cruise vacation without breaking the bank.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *