Ugh, More Travel Fees: Not Wanting to Be Left Out, Cruises Pile on New Charges Too

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In the travel business, the nickel-and-dime model rules. Fees are now tacked on to nearly every aspect of flying with a domestic airline, and hotels are on pace to collect record-high fees in 2012. Fees aren’t exactly new to the cruise industry, but as with its travel brethren, cruise fees are getting pricier and are popping up in new and unexpected places. Though at this point, new travel fees should be expected just about everywhere.

One of the latest fees, being charged by Carnival Cruise Lines, is for early boarding. For several years, Southwest Airlines has charged $10 per passenger for Early Bird Check-in: Pay $10 and you’ll get to be among the first group of fliers to pick out a seat (Southwest doesn’t have reserved seating). Recently, Carnival introduced a pilot program of charging $50 per stateroom for early boarding privileges.

As the Los Angeles Times noted, such fees should “sound familiar”:

Travel industry watchers liken the test run to the advent of airline fees, which appeared quietly and eventually grew into a multibillion-dollar cash cow.

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The truth is that cruise lines have been tacking on fees for years. On most ships, passengers must cough up more money if they want to partake in special on-shore excursions when at port, and alcohol and soda cost extra too. It wasn’t that long ago that cruise passengers could expect to eat at any on-ship restaurant without paying extra. Nowadays, however, it’s standard for ships to offer buffet meals with the price of a cabin, but it’ll cost extra if the traveler wants to make a reservation and dine in any of the ship’s “nice” restaurants.

Most cruise lines don’t make money if they don’t upsell passengers on restaurants, specialty coffees, excursions, and other amenities that aren’t covered with the basic price. Gambling and booze are traditionally among the biggest money makers for cruise lines. A range of upgraded packages is entering the mix as well. Royal Caribbean recently introduced the “Barbie Premium Experience,” in which kids (and perhaps a few adults) sleep in a Barbie-themed stateroom, walk the runway in a Barbie-themed fashion show, and go to a tea party overflowing with Barbie dolls and Barbie décor. The upgrade runs $349 per person above and beyond the normal price of a cruise, and will be offered on Royal Caribbean ships starting in January.

While cruises are marketed as great values, in which you can pay one fee and put away your wallet, the vast majority of passengers wind up paying a significant amount extra just for basics like liquid refreshments. High per-drink prices ($2 for a fountain soda) push many customers to opt for all-you-can-drink packages—unlimited soda for $6.50 per day, or unlimited beer, wine, and low-shelf cocktails for $50 per day, as examples.

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That’s without including tip. Speaking of which, CruiseCritic spells out the overall gratuity policies on all the major cruise lines: It’s fairly standard practice for ships to automatically add on $11 or $12 per day per guest onto passenger bills, and some tack on 15% extra onto bar bills as well.

Ed Perkins, a contributor to another travel site, SmarterTravel, recently highlighted some of the other “hidden fees” that few cruise passengers think much about before boarding. In the era of nearly ubiquitous free Wi-Fi, cruise ship Internet fees are remarkably high: perhaps $100 for 250 minutes. Some cruise lines have oddball fees, like $40 to store golf clubs. Also, while dinner at a cruise’s specialty restaurants used to cost maybe $10 or $20 extra, nowadays the premium for a ship’s “premium” restaurant is more likely to be $30, or even $45.

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Generally speaking, most travel fees are optional. You could fly without luggage, thereby avoiding baggage fees. On a cruise, you could skip port excursions and drink nothing but tap water and mass-brewed coffee. But at some point, the need to constantly inquire about fees and strategize ways to avoid them doesn’t sound like much of a vacation. It sounds like work—what you’re supposed to be getting away from by taking a vacation.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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