Are Cruises an Affordable Family Vacation Option?

Disney cruise ship at dock

If you forgo the expensive add-ons, a cruise can be an affordable way to take a fun family vacation. Photo: Christopher

As a writer who focuses on family travel, I explore a wide range of vacation options year-round. And although I never took a cruise until last year, the idea of cruising has always been on the edge of my radar.

I used to be a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the value cruises offer. I’ve heard countless stories of people who ended their cruise with a monster bill they didn’t know about, or spent more than they planned. As a budget traveler, the idea of unexpected expenses sounds awful.

But were those stories really representative of the cruise experience? To find out for myself, I planned a surprise cruise for my husband’s 35th birthday. We took the kids and had a great time, but I also took note of the many ways people can save (and spend) if they choose. Here’s what I discovered as I answered the question, “Are cruises affordable for families like mine?”

How Much Do Cruises Cost?

Cruises are a lot like anything else in the fact that you can spend as little or as much as you like. Since our vacation budget is limited, I almost always prefer spending as little as possible. We chose to go with Carnival Cruise Lines for that reason; simply put, they had the lowest prices.

Since it was a “trial cruise” in my eyes, I chose the shortest one I could find — a three-day cruise leaving from Port Canaveral, Fla., and visiting Nassau. The total cost: $214 per person plus taxes, fees, tips, and port expenses.

Other cruises we looked at were in the $200 to $900 range per person, with most of the more expensive options being for cruises that lasted seven days or longer.  All of the prices seemed rather steep to me, but then again, I’m cheap. The thing is, you can’t really put these costs into perspective until you factor in what is included in your fare.

What Do Cruises Include?

Although the standard amenities vary depending on the cruise line, all of them include three meals a day. Since I typically budget $100 per day for my family of four to eat on vacation, that perk alone made a huge difference in the value.

But food isn’t the only perk included in your fare. Some type of entertainment is almost always included as part of the total package, whether that means Broadway-style shows, parties for teens, or dance classes for families. Even better, most cruise lines also offer a Kid’s Club that you can use when you’re ready for a much-needed break. In addition, some cruise lines offer on-board activities such as bingo, yoga, shopping, mini golf, or water parks. And of course, no cruise ship would be complete without an on-board casino.

What Isn’t Included on Cruises?

With all of those perks included in your cruise fare, you might think you can show up with some pocket change and skate by. Not so fast. Although cruises include a lot, they don’t include everything. To avoid sticker shock, make sure to set aside funds for these expenses:

  • Alcohol
  • Photos
  • Spa services
  • Internet access
  • Premium dining

In addition to these on-board expenses, you’ll want to set aside a budget for things you might do off the ship. For example, excursions are a popular (and expensive) option for many cruisers, since you can book them on board and let someone else do all the planning. And even if you don’t take an excursion, you’ll need money for souvenirs, drinks, and snacks while you’re at port.

The Bottom Line

Are cruises an affordable travel option for families? After my experience last year, I can honestly say yes.

For us, the key was avoiding the expensive add-ons and enjoying the free perks that were included in our fare. For example, we did have a few beers, but we chose not to splurge on too many pricey drinks. And for fun, we swam in the on-deck pool, played in the on-site waterpark, and explored the ship. We even did a free hip-hop dance class!

Once on shore, we shunned the pricey excursions and walked 10 minutes to a public beach. We swam, had some cheap beach food from a shack nearby, and relaxed. The total cost: around $20.

And that might just be the best part about cruising; you don’t have to pay for all the fancy extras if you don’t want. Instead, you can enjoy the included perks and focus on spending time with your family. No matter what, the memories you’ll make will be priceless.

Have you been on a cruise? Do you see cruising as an affordable option for families?

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