Cruise lines adding more options, but at a cost

Senses Spa & Salon on board the Disney Dream. (Orlando Sentinel File)

When clients ask Miami travel agent Ralph Santisteban what's included in the price of a cruise, he answers: "Before I tell you what is included, let me tell you what's not included, because that list is much smaller."

But as cruise lines diversify their offerings to attract guests, stay competitive and boost revenues, that list is getting longer.

Cruises are a great value for frugal travelers, the sales pitch goes, because you pay the fare up front and everything else — room, food, activities — is included.

Unless you want to watch a murder mystery show over lunch, that is. Or hit the spa or casino. Or drink alcohol, soda or a Starbucks cappuccino. From private-label beer to 24-hour pizza delivery to an increasing number of extra-charge restaurants, cruise lines are adding more choices than ever to attract customers.

And those options frequently come at an additional cost.

"Lines say they're trying to create new experiences for people," said Dan Askin, news editor of online cruise magazine Cruise Critic. "They need to charge appropriately to get back their money."

While many lines long have charged a nominal fee for dining outside in upscale specialty restaurants, the range of options is expanding as operators seek to draw more guests — and revenues — in a tight economy.

Mainstream cruise operators such as Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line say they would rather keep fares low and let customers decide where they'd like to splurge rather than include alcohol and fancy meals in the main ticket price.

And there are a host of new opportunities for splurging. The Disney Dream, Disney Cruise Line's newest ship, includes a $75-a-person gourmet restaurant (alcohol not included) called Remy.

And Celebrity Silhouette, which debuted this summer, offers new $149-a-sea-day cabanas in the Lawn Club area that previously held only grass, as well as an interactive grill. The price for that new restaurant has already increased from $30 to $40.

"What really is driving a lot of the things we do on board is our customers say they want variety and they want choice," said Lisa Bauer, senior vice president of hotel operations for Royal Caribbean International.

That cruise line's newest ship is the 5,400-passenger Allure of the Seas, which features 26 dining options. Of those, 12 come at an additional charge.

"By really letting the guest decide where they want to spend their money and by the fact that we offer the breadth of the opportunity that we do, I think that's the right mix," Bauer said.

An early pricing experiment quickly failed after Royal Caribbean introduced extra fees with its groundbreaking ice skating and rock climbing activities on Voyager of the Seas in 1999. The amenities stuck around; the charges were gone by the next year. Other extra-fee options on Allure range from a

Starbucks to cupcake shop to Chef's Table, a fine dining-and-drinking experience for $95 a person — an increase in recent months from $75.

"These things are kind of getting up there," said Miami cruise expert Stewart Chiron, CEO of cruiseguy.com — though because the price includes wine pairings, he still considers it to be a good value.

And while cruisers aren't required to visit any restaurant that costs extra dough, Chiron said," it allows passengers to have the vacation customized to their wants."

Bauer and other cruise executives are quick to note that the for-fee items can easily be replaced by free options.

That was convenient for 31-year-old Andrew Cano and his parents, who sailed on Allure of the Seas for its debut voyage from Port Everglades last year.