Stepping on a cruise ship can sometimes feel like walking into a Caribbean straw market, with vendors hawking their wares left and right. Book your extra-fee restaurant here; pony up a few more dollars for dinner theater there. Don't forget to snap up a spa special before they're gone.
With so many cruise ship dining venues and activities carrying surcharges these days, it's easy to forget there's still a lot of things to do that don't cost a single cent.
So say yes to adrenaline-fueled activities like surfing, skydiving, ropes course climbing and culinary indulgences including great pizza, poolside milkshakes and meals created by celebrity chefs -- and you'll still ring up a total onboard expense of $0.00.
Who wouldn't want to drink for free throughout his or her cruise? While several luxury lines offer alcohol-inclusive fares, until now no mainstream cruise line has done so. But that all changes in 2016, when Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky will begin including most drinks -- up to $11 -- in its basic cruise prices. Passengers on the ship's three- to four-night Bahamas cruises will be able to imbibe a variety of beers, wines and premium spirits on the house. Unlimited soda and juice are free for passengers ages 3 to 20.
2. Surf the Internet.
Staying in touch with friends and family while on a cruise has never been inexpensive. Internet has traditionally cost a pretty penny, but that's changing. As more cruisers demand Internet, companies have responded with faster, cheaper access to the Web. A select few are even going so far as to serve up the Internet for free. Crystal, a luxury line, provides 60 to 90 minutes of free Internet to all passengers, depending on cabin category. Among mainstream lines, Royal Caribbean will become the first to offer free access in May 2016 onboard its short Majesty of the Seas cruises to the Bahamas.
3. Dine at a Celebrity Chef-Affiliated Restaurant.
Several cruise lines have partnered with celebrity chefs to offer extra-special dining experiences that would be nearly impossible (or very expensive) to have on land. But those experiences usually come with an extra price tag. Not so on Carnival, Crystal, Oceania and Royal Caribbean. On Carnival, you can fill up on juicy burgers at Guy's Burgers, the brainchild of Food Network chef Guy Fieri. Crystal offers each of its passengers one free dinner at Nobu, the acclaimed eatery from famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa. On Oceania's Marina and Riviera, cruisers can dine at Jacques, the creation of French chef Jacques Pepin. And on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas, cruisers get delicious but healthy cuisine at Devinly Decadence, care of NBC's Biggest Loser chef Devin Alexander.
4. Sip a Milkshake Poolside.
Most cruise ships offer free soft-serve ice cream but tack on a surcharge for milkshakes (if they're even available). But milkshake-lovers on Oceania ships don't have to worry about spending a few extra dollars to indulge their dairy desires. Poolside crew members will whip up milkshakes (vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) on the spot for instant satisfaction.
5. Take in a Broadway Show.
Snagging tix to a hot Broadway play is never going to be affordable unless you're doing so at sea. On the wide-open waters of the ocean you can see "Cats," "Mamma Mia!" and "Saturday Night Fever" on select Royal Caribbean ships or "Rock of Ages," "Legally Blonde: the Musical" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" on select Norwegian Cruise Line ships -- for nothing more than the cost of your already-paid cruise ticket.
6. Have a Slice of Pizza.
Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean loyalists disagree as to who's got the best slice of pizza at sea. Carnival cruisers argue the thin crust pies from Pizza Pirate are the best, while Royal Caribbean fans argue for the cheesy yumminess that is Sorrento's. Princess cruisers say Alfredo's Pizzeria has the best hand-thrown slices, bar none. What all can agree on is the price: free for one and all.
7. Surf and Skydive.
Get your adrenaline pumping without putting a dent in your wallet on Royal Caribbean with free surfing and skydiving. Nine ships in the line's fleet have FlowRider surf simulators; two of these also offer iFly by RipCord vertical skydiving. With the FlowRider, you can give surfing or boogie boarding a try for free, as many times as you like, but you'll only get one complimentary go on iFly by RipCord.
8. Scale a Ropes Course.
It's not just those with acrophobia who might find their knees knocking while making their way through these high-in-the-air obstacle courses. You'll find Carnival's 16-piece SkyCourse on Breeze, Magic, Sunshine and Vista, while Norwegian's 40-element ropes course (which includes the "plank," a narrow band of metal that extends eight feet over the side of the ship) is on Breakaway, Getaway and Escape. If you find yourself stuck halfway through, just remember the $0 price tag means you can stop without losing anything (except, perhaps, a little pride).
9. Putt-Putt to Your Heart's Content.
A favorite activity for families and couples, you'll find top-deck mini-golf courses on all of Carnival's cruise ships, most of Royal Caribbean's vessels, three Norwegian Cruise Line ships and two Disney cruise ships. Most courses are just nine holes, but you can play them again and again without paying a penny -- perfect for when you're trying to cultivate your hole-in-one swing or need a rematch against your opponent. For an even more competitive twist, join a mini-golf competition if one is offered.
10. Snuggle up in a Bathrobe.
Carnival takes a proletarian approach to its cruises -- there are no 1,000-square-foot suites with wraparound balconies on the Fun Ships, nor do suite passengers get much more than extra space. And everyone gets a bathrobe. So snuggle up on the couch in your cabin while watching TV in a soft cotton robe, or throw the robe on for the walk up to the spa. (Just please don't wear it to the buffet for breakfast.)
11. Catch a Flick Outdoors.
The movies might not be first-run, but admission is free, and you can bring in treats from your cabin or the buffet without having to smuggle them under your jacket. Outdoor Lido Deck movie screens, which can be found on virtually all cruise lines these days, are even more romantic than the real deal, with prime viewing from the pool by day and on snuggly loungers covered with warm blankets at night, popcorn included.
12. Watch the Sun Set Over the Ocean.
It's one of the most beautiful sights in nature, and it doesn't cost a dime. Grab a loved one's hand (or your favorite cocktail), walk over to the ship's railing, and take a deep breath. You've seen it before, sure, but watching the sunset over the ocean never fails to give you that, "I'm on vacation, and life is good" moment. Enjoy.
--By Dori Saltzman, Editor