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jul 27 2011

Some cruise lines take the "all" out of "all-inclusive"

Rita's Cantina (Courtesy RCI)

The days of all-inclusive cruises including the cost of all of your meals seems to be vanishing.

For a few years now, cruise ships have been offering "premium" dining at a higher price. ("Want a steak dinner? Splash out for a night at a higher price.") But in 2011, a mania for up-charging for meals may be kicking into gear.

Case in point: Royal Caribbean International (RCI) has bumped up its fees for a couple of its so-called "premium" restaurants: Rita's Cantina and the Seafood Shack on Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas.

Passengers used to pay $8 for meals at Rita's Cantina, for instance. They'll now pay a fee of $3 to dine at the restaurant and then pay a price for each item ordered a la carte, too. The 15 percent gratuity isn't included either. (A tip of the hat to Cruise Critic for breaking this story.)

The first absurdity here, I think, is that cruise company RCI considers Rita's Cantina and Seafood Shack to be "premium restaurants."

Rita's Cantina and Seafood Shack serve the type of food that ought to be included in the "all-inclusive" price in the first place. The menu at Rita's Cantina includes such glamorous items as chicken tacos ($2) and taco salad ($3), while Seafood Shack goes all fancy with a basket of grilled jumbo shrimp ($7). Cruise Critic says that these changes amount to a price hike, noting that a meal with guacamole, a quesadilla and grilled chicken that cost $8 in the winter now costs $11.25.

But, of course, that's because there's now ultra-premium restaurants, like Chops Grille. I'll agree that Chops Grille, with its selection of prime rib and lobster dishes, counts as a premium restaurant. I also agree that it's nice to have the option of splashing out on a fancy meal during a cruise. I'm willing to pay an extra cost for the meal, which is now $30 per person (a fee hiked by $5 this year).

Yet the danger here is that all cruise lines will begin to serve sub-standard food in their main dining rooms. After all, by making the dining hall experience less attractive, a company can make more money by upselling customers on fee-based meals elsewhere on-board.

I don't mean to pick on RCL, which offers an outstanding cruise experience overall. That corporation just happens to have been the latest one to do this.

Another example from this summer:

Norwegian Cruise Lines has put into place a $4 fee for late night room service. Room service used to be free. Royal Caribbean instituted this fee about two years ago.

In another twist, if you order a pizza to your room on Norwegian, you'll pay $5 at any time of day.

Is it just me? Or do you, as a traveler, mind these meal-related charges, too? Do premium restaurants and per-person charges allow cruise lines to broaden the range of food experiences on their ships? Or are they nickel-and-diming passengers? Let us know by posting a comment. Thanks!

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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