With transport and food as part of the deal, any cruise is brilliant value compared with other forms of holiday. But all those little extras – drinks, tips, speciality dining, even your morning latte – can seriously add up, meaning you face an unwelcome bill at the end.

To avoid this, an increasing number of lines are offering all-inclusive cruises. These are a great idea, and it feels good to know that once you’ve paid upfront, you can give the debit card a rest.

Unfortunately though, there is no standard all-inclusive cruise package: some cruise lines mean it literally, while others still charge for certain services, so choosing one is never simple. Here are our top ten tips to help you find the right package – and to make the most of it when you do.

All-inclusive cruises

1. Book early…

Buy all-inclusive cruise packages well in advance and you could save even more. Not only will you get a fixed price that isn’t affected by fluctuating exchange rates, you’ll also benefit from any early-bird offers – which can include upgraded drinks packages, onboard credit or even gratuities where these are otherwise chargeable. Some lines, such as Royal Caribbean, may also offer the chance to buy one cruise package and get a second package for your travelling companion
at half the price. Deal!

2. …or late

If you’re flexible about when you travel, keep an eye out for last-minute deals. Most lines reduce prices just before departure to sell any remaining space, and some – including P&O, Fred Olsen and Princess – have dedicated ‘late deals’ sections on their websites. You may not get your first choice of cabin, but if you don’t mind a room without a view, you could grab an all-inclusive package for half the brochure price.

3. Read the small print

‘All-inclusive’ may not mean what you think. With some cruise companies – usually the six-star lines – literally everything is included as part of your fare.
On others, you may still have to pay for extras such as room service, wi-fi, premium drinks, speciality dining and gratuities. Some lines also include complimentary shore excursions while others don’t. All this can make a huge difference to the cost of your cruise, so check very carefully before you buy.

4. Do it all

Cruise experts agree that the secret of making an all-inclusive package worthwhile is to take advantage of everything that’s on offer. So sample something new in the restaurant, join that shore excursion you’ve always wondered about, and try some new activity that you wouldn’t dream of doing back home. After all, you’ve paid for it – so be adventurous.

All-inclusive cruises
Many on shore excursions are included in all-inclusive cruise

5. Check the menu

On most cruise ships, you can expect to enjoy three meals a day and various snacks and nibbles in between. All-inclusive cruise packages should offer more, including drinks with meals, but check exactly what you’re entitled to. Do you get drinks at other times, and if so do you pay extra for premium brands and cocktails? Are the ship’s speciality restaurants included or do you pay for those on top? Food and drink is one of the highlights of any cruise, so research your options carefully to avoid disappointment.

6. Tailor your trip

A cruise is the trip of a lifetime and there’s no ‘one size fits all’. Luckily, certain cruise lines, including Silversea and Cunard, offer an exciting range of personalised all-inclusive options, while river cruise company APT has a Freedom of Choice feature that allows passengers to tailor their holiday to suit their specific interests. So if you fancy flying in from a different airport, want to organise a pre-cruise stay or would like to join a shore excursion that’s not mentioned in the brochure, it may be worth considering an all-inclusive cruise with one of these companies.

7. Go on… treat yourself

It can be tempting to choose an all-inclusive cruise based on the price alone, but in many cases paying 10 or 20 per cent extra to include items such as shore excursions, wi-fi or gratuities can add 30 or 40 per cent to the value of your package. An all-inclusive deal is rather like a licence to indulge – so if you really want
to take advantage of all those extra facilities, fun activities and foodie treats, you may find that it’s worth your while to pay a slightly higher fare.

All-inclusive cruises
Love to go online? Make sure you get unlimited WiFi

8. Compare packages

You may be thinking that the word ‘luxury’ implies sky-high prices. But you’d be mistaken, according to a recent price-comparison study by Regent Seven Seas,
one of the world’s most high-end lines. Regent argues that if you add up everything that’s included in a luxury package – from excursions to gratuities and
air fares – there is very little difference between this and a more basic all-inclusive package where you still have to pay for all those extras.

9. Upgrade for perks

If sailing six-star is not an option, you can easily add value to your all-inclusive package by booking a better class of cabin on a mainstream line. Many companies
now offer a ‘ship within a ship’ experience for guests who pay more for accommodation, and these come with some very tasty perks. If you book a suite with Norwegian or Celebrity, for example, you’re likely to find it entitles you to upgraded drinks, speciality dining packages, prepaid gratuities and even free credit to spend on board. In other words, you may actually save money by paying more for your cabin.

10. Make a list (and check it twice)

As we’ve seen, some all-inclusive packages are more inclusive than others. But this isn’t a sneaky trick by the cruise lines, it’s a recognition that different cruisers want different things. You shouldn’t have to pay for extras you simply don’t want or need, so don’t assume that totally all-inclusive is always best. Instead, make a list of everything that you really want to do during your trip – and then find the package that fits the bill exactly.

All-inclusive cruises
Dining at the Chef’s Table could be an all-inclusive treat

Who does it?

Renowned for its comprehensive packages, luxury line Regent Seven Seas includes flights, premium drinks, speciality dining, WiFi, gratuities and unlimited shore excursions in its upfront fares.

Other lines that operate all-inclusive cruises include Crystal, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea, SeaDream Yacht Club, Saga, Celebrity, Viking, MSC, NCL, Fred Olsen, Celestyal and Azamara. Marella, which went all-inclusive this year, has a handy all-inclusive cruise calculator on its website that tells you exactly how much (or little) you are saving.

Prefer river cruising? All-inclusive is the norm with the luxury lines, and the likes of Uniworld, European Waterways, Scenic, CroisiEurope, Crystal, Saga, Viking, Pandaw, Tauck, Avalon and APT generally cover everything – from flights and shore excursions to meals and premium drinks – in their prices.