Last updated: 06:00 PM ET, Tue July 12 2016

Weighing Cruise Inclusions Against A La Carte Extras

Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Carnival Cruise Line | Jason Leppert | July 12, 2016

Weighing Cruise Inclusions Against A La Carte Extras

 Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean International 

Is it absolutely necessary to pay more onboard for extras like specialty (read extra cost) dining and entertainment to get the most of a cruise? The question is a valid one for sure.

In fact, a friend of my wife’s just returned home from a Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Reflection without paying for anything beyond the base sailing, save for shore excursions that is, and had mixed feelings about the experience. He personally felt that you shouldn’t have to pay more to get a full cruise experience but that the Reflection in particular was much identified and occupied by its specialty restaurants, which may have led to missing out on what makes that particular ship unique.

Cruises are often misunderstood to be entirely inclusive across the board. In reality, there are two extreme choices, with variations in between all-inclusive luxury cruising and what Douglas Ward, author of the “Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships” annual guide book, would call all-exclusive standard cruising – at least as he describes Norwegian Cruise Line, known for its vast array of specialty restaurants.

 READ MORE: 8 Cruise Lines For Dining With Celebrity Chefs 

For luxury, guests enjoy most everything complimentarily, resulting in a much higher fare initially but greater freedom and satisfaction once onboard. On the other end of the spectrum, standard cruising can entice with a much lower bottom line price but with lots of optional add-ons available aboard the ship.

Even a bare-bones cruise still includes most meals, at least in the main dining room and buffet, and entertainment – altogether making the travel form an exceptional value with these alone. There once was a time when that was the full cruise experience, long before the introduction of specialty dining and even specialty entertainment. It’s also worth noting in the equation that soft drinks and alcoholic beverages beyond basic water and juices also usually incur surcharges.

The question is whether or not the main dining room and production shows are enough to satisfy when specialty options beckon cruisers to make reservations. As for my wife’s friend, he did enjoy the meals and service found in the main dining room, and entertainment, which remains mostly included on ships, is also still a hallmark of a quality cruise experience, particularly on the newest ships where it is even more of a spectacle. But it is also true that specialty dining and entertainment, such as Carnival LIVE concerts on Carnival Cruise Line, do offer far more options and a superior overall experience.

 READ MORE: TravelPulse On Board: Carnival LIVE 

The key is to plan ahead when choosing your cruise line and ship based on what you value most. If you want an inexpensive getaway and are content with classic cruising essentials, you will be rewarded accordingly, but if you want to try everything (there are lots of choices these days) it’s best to budget for the a la carte extras ahead of time or choose an all-inclusive cruise line.

For many, choosing a line somewhere in between the extremes might offer the best of both worlds. For instance, upscale lines like Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises serve meals in their main dining rooms that are comparable to specialty restaurants on other lines to begin with. Viking takes it a step further by not even charging for its specialty restaurants, which puts its per diem price breakdown closer in line to premium lines like Holland America Line, presenting a greater value proposition that affords travelers more for their hard-earned dollar.


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