Cruise travelers who feel like they get onboard and immediately start emptying their pockets of nickels and dimes are not alone. Today’s mainstream mega-ships offer an ever-increasing number of eating, drinking and entertainment options that levy fees atop the base fare. Long gone are the days when a perilous bar bill was the only onboard financial concern. Surcharges and add-ons are here to stay.
But there are plenty of noteworthy experiences still included in the ticket price, including Vegas-style shows, thin crust pizza and simple pleasures like free toothpaste or shaving cream. Sure, (optional) surcharges are the new at-sea reality, but it’s still more than possible to find $0.00 on your final bill. Check out our list of the best “free” cruise offerings, and share your own favorites in the comments below.
1. Blue Man Group. Norwegian Epic is one of only a handful of venues in the world where you can watch the confused blue mutes of the Blue Man Group perform their out-of-this-world percussion-and-paint mime melee — and it’s surcharge free. So put on your poncho, and get ready to get splattered.
2. Cruising’s Best Pizza. Long prized by Cruise Critic readers for its best-at-sea slices, Carnival gave its cooked-to-order pizza a makeover on Carnival Breeze in 2012. And it got better. We’re not talking wood-fired-from-Naples good, but the palate-pleasing pies exhibit an impressive balance of (thin) crust, sauce and cheese — and they come fresh from the convection oven fee-free. It’s rolled out that pizza on numerous ships across the line.
3. Sunset Over the Ocean. It’s one of the most beautiful sights in nature, and it doesn’t cost a 15-cent piece extra. Grab a loved one’s hand (or your favorite cocktail), walk over to the ship’s railing, and take a deep breath. You’ve seen it before, sure, but watching the sunset over the ocean never fails to give you that, “I’m on vacation, and life is good” moment. Enjoy.
4. Ham & Cheese Croissant-wiches. When is a sandwich more than just sliced bread and filling? When it’s Royal Caribbean’s addictive ham and cheese mini-croissant, a flaky, cheese-y, three-bite morsel topped with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. The fee-free mini-wich has long been a staple in Royal Caribbean’s signature 24-hour Cafe Promenade. One word of warning: Post-cruise ‘wich withdrawal can be severe.
5. Big-Screen Wii Battles. If you’ve been honing your video-gaming skills, but never had an audience who could appreciate your expertise, you’re in luck. The entire Norwegian Cruise Line fleet is outfitted with Nintendo’s interactive gaming system, Wii. “Boxing,” “bowling” and other tournaments are offered on most sailings. We recommend you show off properly on the two-story screen in the atrium.
6. All-You-Can Eat Indian. To us, the lack of line for Carnival’s fee-free Tandoor dining option is hard to fathom. The aromatic grab-and-go counter, typically open for lunch, serves up Indian comfort food made by the line’s Indian cooks. Dig into grilled meats and fish, curries, daals and basmati rice alongside essential accouterments like mint chutney, raita and achar (pickle).
7. Dancing Lessons. Country line-dancing, waltz and tango, the electric slide — cruise ships are great places to try out a variety of dance genres without enrolling in Arthur Murray classes (which would levy a fee besides). It’s okay to have two left feet — until you try out your new steps during pre-dinner live music. The couples there have been burning up dance floors for decades. And on P&O Cruises there’s also the opportunity to learn some moves from the professional dancers of Strictly Come Dancing onboard selected sailings.
8. Milk and Cookies. You’re lounging poolside in the afternoon, and all of a sudden you get a craving for something sweet — but you’re perfectly comfortable and don’t want to move. What do you do? If you’re onboard a Princess cruise, you relax while the waitstaff bring over fresh, soft-baked cookies and ice-cold milk. And then you silently wish that you could afford to employ someone to do the same for you at home.
9. Free Cabin Toiletries. We can’t figure out why, but finding Carnival’s famous complimentary in-cabin toiletry baskets always inspires a stupid grin. Inclusions rotate, but on our last Carnival cruise, we sucked on cherry Ludens, and kept hair frizz-free with Pantene conditioner and teeth from turning brown with Arm & Hammer whitening toothpaste. It’s the little things.
10. Surfing at Sea. At-sea surf simulators first debuted onFreedom of the Seas, offering passengers a chance to surf and boogie-board, minus the ocean. It’s now on a number of ships throughout the Royal Caribbean fleet. Although it’s free to participate, you’ll have to sign a waiver, hold on to your bikini top and embrace the possibility of public humiliation by way of wipeout. Not the daredevil type? It’s also free to grab a seat on the nearby bleachers and enjoy the spills.
11. AquaSpa Cafe. With its AquaSpa Cafe concept, Celebrity Cruises is out to prove that healthy cruising is not an oxymoron. The bathrobed, post-gym or -spa treatment crowd flock to the fee-free venue, which proffers salads, sushi and other light-fare foods alongside a few a la carte items (grilled pork, poached salmon). The standard location, Celebrity’s lovely adults-only, glass-covered Solarium, provides just the right backdrop for the guilt-free offerings.
12. Poolside Milkshakes. Most ships do free soft-serve ice cream, but Oceania Cruises steps it up a notch with three flavors of milkshakes (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) made to order by the pool deck. The ambience is way nicer than a diner, but the treat is just as tasty.
13. Outdoor Movies. The flicks may not be first-run, but admission is free, and you can bring in treats from your cabin or the buffet without having to smuggle them under your jacket. Lido Deck movie screens are even more romantic than the real deal, with prime viewing from the pool by day and on snuggly loungers covered with warm blankets (and popcorn!) at night.
14. Climbing the Mast. Tall ship line Star Clippers lets you embrace your inner pirate by allowing passengers to climb one of the masts up to a crow’s nest lookout. As you sway gently, high above the ocean, you’ll get one-of-a-kind views — if your eyes aren’t shut tight in acrophobic terror. (Don’t worry though: the line doesn’t let anyone climb without a harness.)
15. People-watching. There is no better free entertainment than positioning a chair in a high-traffic zone on the pool deck, promenade or atrium and watching the antics of your shipmates. From fashion snafus to bizarre behavior and juicy conversations overheard, what you witness on a cruise ship can rival the best reality TV.
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17. Broadway Onboard. In the mood to see a Broadway show without paying Broadway ticket prices? You’re in luck. Check out “Hairspray” on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, “Chicago” on Allure of the Seas, “Saturday Night Fever” on Liberty of the Seas, “Rock of Ages” on Norwegian Breakaway or “Legally Blonde: the Musical” on Norwegian Getaway. You can also catch West End and TV stars such as illusionist Derren Brown and classical singing star Russell Watson. And the best thing about this entertainment? — it’s all gratis.
18. Bathrobes for All. Carnival takes a proletariat approach to cabins — there are no 1,000-square-foot suites with baby grand pianos on the Fun Ships. And everyone, from the inside cabin occupier to the passenger in the modest-sized suite, gets a bathrobe. Who is to decree that only cruisers with money should be able to spend their post-shower moments in comfort? Not Carnival. (Note: Holland America also provides robes to all.)
19. Coronary Burgers. If you’re craving a complimentary heart attack on a bun, give one (or several) of Guy Fieri’s burgers a try at Guy’s Burger Joint. This fee-free venue will be added to the pool decks of 14 Carnival ships through 2015, offering burgers on buttered buns with a choice of toppings like blue cheese crumbles, onion rings and chipotle mayonnaise.
20. Mini-Golf. For anyone who wants to avoid crowds and catch some sun without lazing by the pool, top-deck mini-golf is a great option — and it’s free. Offered on some Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Disney, Princess and MSC ships, to name a few, the courses generally aren’t a full 18 holes, but they can still be challenging, as your putting will be affected by the ship’s movement. For an even more competitive twist, join a mini-golf competition, usually offered once per sailing.
–by the Cruise Critic Staff
Technology and the shipboard library
The ship’s library has always been a small but special part of the cruise experience. But for how much longer?
The library at sea, like libraries everywhere, is under siege by changing technology. And whether ships need to set aside space for libraries in the future is very much being debated as new ships are designed.
Carnival cruise director and blogger extraordinaire John Heald said in a recent posting that the library on the recent transatlantic crossing of the Carnival Legend was full of books.
“One thing all those transatlantic crossings had in common was that the library, by the end of the first sea day, sat entirely empty,” Heald wrote. “Here on the Carnival Legend, the bookcases are full.
“Yep, the book is dead, long live the Kindle. Every deck I walk on, I see young and old reading their Kindles.”
Even on an ocean crossing with presumably few younger, tech-savvy passengers on the manifest, the library remains fully stocked, Heald said: “Wherever I am, I see older people and their parents absorbed in their Kindles.”
Perhaps that’s just Carnival. Maybe the magnificent libraries on the Cunard Line fleet have emptier shelves on their Atlantic trips. But on most ships where space is at a premium, the library is an endangered species.
At the next major drydock nothing prevents a ship’s library from being converted to some other use. Heald suggested perhaps a cigar bar (a suggestion likely made for for comic effect, but maybe not.)
The trend is on display on Carnival Sunshine, the ship Carnival renovated from stem to stern earlier this year. While the library wasn’t eliminated or converted to another use, it now shares space with a bar.
Carnival is in the process of designing the next ship to set sail under its red and blue banner, the Carnival Vista. With Kindles in the hands of passengers young and old, it may well be the first Carnival ship without a library.
In his post Heald referred to a bookstore in Miami that he said was possibly a Borders, which he liked to visit when he comes to Miami. “It would not surprise me that, when I return there in November, it’s become a Walgreens or worse, a gym,” he wrote.
If in fact it was a Borders, it closed two years ago, along with the rest of the chain’s stores. The Borders on South Dixie Highway in Miami reopened last week as a Trader Joe’s specialty market.
At least it’s not a gym.