Tired of being nickel and dimed to death on the bigger cruise lines? No one likes a shock when it’s time to pay the final bill. Choosing an all-inclusive river cruise takes that unknown stress out of your vacation.

Cruise vacations can be a luxurious and enjoyable vacation that is still cost effective. The biggest expense of any vacation is transportation, lodging, and meals. Any vacation, whether traveling by car, by plane, or by boat involves those top three expenses. When choosing a cruise vacation, all of those are already taken care of for you. The ship will take you from destination to destination, your room is paid for, and your meals are included. Not having to research and purchase hotels, train tickets, and tour guides in every city can save a lot of your time. Cruises take that stress out of the equation with all those details of the vacation taken care of.

What are some of the hidden costs of opting for a big cruise ship vacation vs. a small river or excursion cruise?

A cruise experience can be shocking if you are surprised by the exit bill. All the fun “extras” added on to an itinerary can result in a bigger than expected bill by the end of your vacation.This is why we love opting for a more inclusive small ship cruise where you won’t be nickel and dimed to death. River cruises take the stress out of your vacation by letting you just be on vacation. You don’t need to be worrying about costs while on board. You’ve got some serious vacationing to do!

Shore Excursions

mount st. helens in summer
Mt. St. Helens is a popular excursion when cruising the Columbia River

Most big cruise lines will sell you shore excursions – guided tours to help you explore the port city and will charge you a wide range of fees to hook you up with a local guide or tour company that could range from $30 for a walking tour to $300 for an all-day tour. Entry fees to gardens and museums may be extra. While you are free to explore the city on your own, the convenience and expert knowledge of the area of using a guide is usually too tempting to pass up. Shore excursions add quality to your vacation, but add a lot of expense too.

River cruise shore excursions are almost always free and included in your ticket price. This can add up to significant savings. In every port, shore excursions, zodiak rides, guided tours to museums and gardens, use of onboard equipment are all included. Some river cruise lines offer a choice – shore excursions included for free and optional premium excursions if you have a personal preference. Stopping in smaller ports offer river cruise lines the ability to develop relationships with local businesses. They schedule tours to historic sites and museums knowing you will have a good experience and have often arranged discounts for boat passengers.

Your Drink of Choice

Victory II cruise ship cocktail hour
Cocktail hour aboard The Victory II river cruise ship

On the big cruise lines, your bar tab can add up to big money. You are on vacation, and a 5 o’clock cocktail, evening glass of wine, or a morning bloody mary can add up quickly. At meals, water, iced tea, coffee, and juice are complimentary, but some cruise lines will charge you for soda, bottled water, and your morning latte. Just as when you are in a restaurant with overpriced sodas, the beverages are big money makers for the cruise lines.

On a river cruise, most alcohol is included including craft beers, fancy coffee drinks, wine, and a bar with a bartender willing to whip you up a cocktail. You will find river cruises offer free beverages all day long, so you can enjoy your morning espresso, a Perrier with lunch, and a wine with dinner without feeling guilty. Many river cruises also offer afternoon tea service gatherings and complimentary cocktail hours where you can get to know your fellow passengers.

On Board Activities

Lindblad cruise expert guides
An expert guide is there to help while on a Lindblad cruise

While many are free, some special activities on a big ship cruise incur extra fees such as attending a yoga class, wine tasting event, or art sip-n-paint. On a river boat cruise, every on-board activity is included in your ticket price. Onboard historians and naturalists will help put the region you are visiting into context and give you a fuller travel experience. Most ships have lined up special activities and some go along with a theme for the entire cruise. Culinary cruises offer free cooking demonstrations and classes and food tastings. Wine-themed cruises offer wine tasting classes and shore excursions to a local winery to match. Small ship excursion vacations with a focus on the environment and wildlife offer lockers full of equipment to use and expert guides to help you learn how to use them – including cameras so you can take home quality photos of your vacation, underwater listening microphones to hear the whale songs, stand up paddle boards to get out on the water. One excursion company even offers an on-board science lab complete with microscopes!

Alternative Dining

ama waterways elegant dining
Ama Waterways elegant dining

While all ships offer complimentary dining room meals with your ticket, many of the large cruise lines offer alternative dining opportunities including specialty Italian restaurants and celebrity chef restaurants. You will find that those are not included in your ticket and will charge you extra to dine there – just as you would pay going to a fancy restaurant and could cost you an extra $50-100 for a meal. There may be a surcharge for in-room service. On a river cruise, they also offer alternative dining – but it is all included. You can choose to dine in the main dining hall – and the quality of food is excellent – or choose to eat at a casual bistro or in your room instead. The price of dining is always included in the ticket price no matter where you choose to eat. River cruises also are smaller, which means they are able to accommodate special dietary requirements much more easily than big cruise lines.


American Cruise Lines room service
Service aboard American Cruise Lines

Gratuities are often a source of confusion and irritation – how much to tip, who to tip, when to tip…  On the large cruise lines, tipping policies vary by cruise line. Most recommend about $14-20 per person, per day to cover waiters and cabin stewards. Many bar tabs are automatically charged a 15-20% gratuity when it comes time to pay. On small ship river cruises, gratuities are also extra, but on American Cruise Lines, gratuities are already included. One less stress to worry about!

Upfront Taxes & Fees

The big cruise lines pay them. The small cruise lines pay them. Taxes are just a part of life. Don’t be surprised if there is an additional cost for port taxes and fees added on to your ticket price. Did you know that most all city ports charge extensive fees to the cruise line to allow the ship to dock there? Your costs for port taxes and fees will vary depending upon the itinerary. The big cruise lines with only one or two stops usually build those fees into their ticket prices. River cruises, with more stops at smaller towns, may build it into their ticket price or choose to mark it separately on your bill – but they will be up front about it so it doesn’t come as a surprise. As they say, nothing in life is free.

Additional Savings by River Cruising and Excursion Cruising

Some small ship river cruises are always looking for ways to further separate their services from the big cruise lines. Talk to a travel agent and you might find some cruise lines are offering free airfare to the departure port. American Queen Voyages offers all-suite cabins on certain ships, and even some loft cabins with a living area below and a bedroom upstairs. Hurtigruten lines offers an on-board science room where you can use their microscopes and other equipment for those that really want to study the area they are visiting. Most cruise lines offer a free hotel night stay prior to boarding – eliminating one more expense for travelers. Talking to a travel agent with experience and knowledge of the differences between the cruise lines can save you a lot of time and really help you find the right cruise for the right price with the right amenities. Knowing your costs up front can eliminate the nickel and diming stress of your vacation. Who needs stress while on vacation?

The American Melody