After going on over 50 cruises, I booked the cheapest room available on the Symphony of the Seas.
I didn't buy any add-ons, relying instead on activities, food, and drinks included in the rate.
Opting out of upgrades didn't negatively impact my experience, and it kept me within budget.
If you've stepped aboard a large cruise ship, odds are you've been hit by hidden fees and surcharges.
Some all-inclusive packages don't account for alcoholic drinks, specialty dining experiences, and luxuries like priority boarding. With so many upgrade options, it's easy for your expenses to balloon out of control.
As an avid cruiser who's set sail more than 50 times and sprung for my fair share of upgrades, I've found that I can still have a great cruise experience without them.
I tested this theory during a recent voyage aboard Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas by cruising as cheaply as possible. I chose the least expensive room and passed on almost every single upgrade.
Here are the add-ons I skipped and the ones didn't miss.
My interior stateroom felt similar to the ship's more expensive accommodations — the only difference was that there was no window.
There were no more porthole rooms (my preferred accommodation) available when I was booking my family's cruise, so I opted to save money by staying in the least expensive option: an interior stateroom. Honestly, it was great.
The cabin felt very similar to the ship's more expensive staterooms, but it didn't have a view. The upside to having no windows was that the space was pitch-black at night, allowing us to sleep like babies.
Looking out at the ocean would've been nice, but my family and I were rarely in the room during daylight hours. Whenever I needed sunshine or wanted to gaze at waves, I could easily head to the deck.
I think choosing a less expensive room and passing on costly upgrades is a great way to save big on your vacation, especially if there's a sizable price difference between accommodation categories.
Front-of-the-line perks might make people feel like VIPs, but I had access to the same experiences without paying a dime.
I don't think The Key is the best use of cruisers' money.
Even though our ship was at capacity, my family had an easy time gaining access to shows and onboard activities without priority entry, and we also found embarkation and disembarkation to be seamless and speedy.
I could also purchase some of the perks — like high-speed internet — by themselves for less money if I really wanted them.
The Key provides some cruisers peace of mind by guaranteeing they won't miss out on the things that excite them, but I got to do everything I wanted without paying for the program.
There were so many complimentary activities that my family didn't even have much time to consider the à-la-carte experiences.
Some of the Symphony of the Seas' onboard attractions — such as cupcake-decorating classes, an escape room, and mixology seminars — cost extra and sell out quickly.
Our favorite activities were ice-skating, rock climbing, playing laser tag and miniature golf, riding the carousel, and zip-lining. We were so busy that we had little time left to think about adding on any expensive extras.
Drink packages can cost more than paying for beverages individually, especially if you're like me and only have a couple of cocktails each day.
I love a good cocktail when I'm on vacation, but unlimited drink packages can be pricey.
On the Symphony of the Seas, the option that includes alcoholic beverages cost about $100 a person each day if purchased on the ship.
Even on my booziest vacation days, I don't drink enough to break even, so I saved money on this trip by paying for à-la-carte beverages at the bar.
Packages vary by cruise line, but in my experience, they often lead to overconsumption, making them an add-on that's easy to skip.
The ship had plenty of places to eat that were included in the rate, so I didn't mind holding back from buying an expensive dining package.
One of the benefits of cruising on a big ship is that there are typically a lot of dining options, and most of them are included in your cruise rate. However, many cruise lines also offer premium dining experiences for an extra fee.
Royal Caribbean sells numerous dining packages aboard the Symphony of the Seas, including an unlimited specialty package that allows cruisers to enjoy fine-dining options each day they sail.
It was tempting to feast on choice steaks and Jamie Oliver's pasta dishes, but I knew I'd tire of having such heavy fare for every meal, especially when there were so many other onboard options.
Even without a dining plan, I had no trouble staying full and satisfied throughout my weeklong voyage.
That being said, I still believe in saving a little room in your budget for one or two premium dining experiences as a worthwhile treat. I'll definitely indulge in a one-off meal on future trips.
Cabanas on cruise lines' private islands seem like nice retreats, but they often come with hefty price tags.
One of the only cruise upgrades I haven't paid for is cabana access on cruise lines' private islands, and I probably never will. Sure, these areas look nice, but I've never had trouble finding beach chairs where I can lounge for free.
Also, I've been on more than a few cruises where inclement weather has cut my time on the islands short.
On my most recent trip, it rained intermittently throughout our day at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean's private island in the Bahamas. If I'd paid for a cabana, I probably wouldn't have gotten much use out of it.
Some cabanas cost more than $1,000 for a single day, and I don't see myself spending my hard-earned money on such an extravagance. However, it could be worth it for large parties that can split the cost.
Still, I'm happy enjoying my piña colada elsewhere on the island.
Ships empty out during port days, so if you've already been to the destination, it's a great time to enjoy the onboard amenities.
When I booked my family's trip on the Symphony of the Seas, I didn't purchase any shore excursions.
The first stop was St. Maarten, an island my family had already visited several times. We decided to stay on the ship, and it felt like we had the whole thing to ourselves.
We were able to capitalize on the emptiness and enjoy the pools, hot tub, waterslide, and lounge chairs away from crowds.
I did end up missing my land-based adventures, so I broke my "no upgrades" rule and booked a snorkeling excursion the following day in St. Thomas. I think shore excursions are worth the splurge in new destinations, and I've never felt guilty spending extra on them.
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