Cruise in the ocean

It's sunrise. You're sitting on the outdoor deck of your cruise ship, sipping coffee and nibbling a croissant, watching the ship maneuver into its dock in turquoise waters. But, disembarking on the gorgeous island won't come cheap. 

By this we mean that the cruise line you're traveling with will hand over oodles of money to each port your ship visits, and often to various U.S. government agencies like Customs. That's where the government taxes and port charges that you pay with your base cruise fare come from (and, to some first-timers' surprise, that bump up the total cost of your vacation).

Even for veteran cruisers, the fine print for what these fees cover isn't easy to sort through. Holland America Line's explanation, for example, is pretty standard: “Taxes, fees, and port expenses may include any and all fees, charges, tolls, and taxes imposed on us by governmental or quasi-governmental authorities, as well as third party fees and charges arising from a vessel’s presence in a harbor or port.”

Cruise ship / font83/istock

In normal English, that legal-speak refers to costs such as:

  • Tolls
  • Ship inspections 
  • Local harbor pilots
  • Air, hotel, or VAT taxes incurred as part of a land excursion 
  • Immigration and naturalization costs
  • Internal Revenue Service charges
  • Baggage handling at embarkation and disembarkation ports
  • Security services

All of these obligations are calculated on a per ton or per vessel basis, and the cruise lines spread the expense across a ship's total number of passengers. While no cruise line will breakdown exactly how much of the fee is going toward what specific charge, the total costs for government fees and port charges are typically less than 20 percent of the base cruise fare -- though they can be as high as 50 percent in some cases.

Cruise ship / Debbie Ann Powell/istock

It's worth noting that if you're searching for trips online, in most cases, you'll see the taxes and port fees early in the booking or browsing process. Carnival Cruise Lines, for instance, always shows the fee next to the cruise fare on its site. In a few cases, the charges are revealed further along in the booking process; Norwegian Cruise Line only does so after you select a stateroom. Yet other times, mostly with upscale and luxury lines such as Oceania Cruises and Silversea Cruises, the fees will already be included in the quoted cruise fare.

There's no way to avoid paying government taxes and port charges. There's nothing to do but order another cup of coffee and enjoy the port view. You paid for it.

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