While a cruise vacation can be the ultimate way to relax and unwind, it is also important to be mindful of unnecessary costs and expenses. When budgeting for a cruise, most people focus almost exclusively on upfront costs and onboard spending; however, taxes and port fees can quickly dig into your vacation budget.
Many of these fees must be paid to board the ship, but they do not actually go to the cruise line itself. This is because they are fees paid to local authorities whenever a cruise ship docks in a port.
Today, we will explain everything you need to know about port fees. Not only will this help you understand these various fees and taxes, it will help you minimize costs and create a more accurate budget for your trip.
What Are Port Fees and Taxes on a Cruise?
Port fees, or port charges, are fees and taxes that are levied on cruise ship passengers when they visit ports of call during a cruise voyage.
While some cruise lines will include these fees and taxes in the upfront cost of your fare, the money they collect does not go to the cruise line itself. This is because the port fees and taxes collected cover various costs associated with maintaining and operating a port.
Whether you pay these fees on board the ship or during the booking process, it does not change where the money goes.
Let’s Look at Some Quick Examples
For a seven-night Disney Cruise on the Disney Wonder with glacier viewing and stops at Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, Alaska, the total taxes, fees, and port expenses are $441.38.
A seven-night trip on the same ship to the Mexican Riviera that stops at Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, and Ensenada, Mexico, has total taxes, fees, and port expenses of $328.22. Although it’s the same ship and the cruises are the same length, the Alaskan cruise fees are $113.16 more.
Now, let’s take a look at Royal Caribbean. For a six-night Pacific Coast cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, with stops at Victoria, BC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, total taxes, fees, and port expenses are $274.19.
For a six-night cruise on the same ship in Australia that leaves Sydney and sails to Melbourne and Hobart, Tasmania, has taxes, fees, and port expenses of $158.76. Again, same ship, same duration, but the California cruise costs $115.43 more.
These totals aren’t broken down or itemized on the cruise lines’ websites, so it’s hard to say exactly why the cost discrepancies are what they are, but this is a good illustration of how much the price or a cruise can vary depending on where the ship is sailing and how many ports of call are on the itinerary.
Why Do Ports Charge Fees and Taxes?
While it may just seem like an unnecessary cash grab, ports, and local governments charge port fees and taxes for a variety of valid reasons:
Maintaining Port Infrastructure
The primary justification for port fees is balancing the costs of maintaining and enhancing port facilities and equipment. Large-scale ports are expensive to operate, as are the passenger terminals and security checkpoints disembarking passengers. To reduce the financial strain on local governments, passengers pay a relatively small fee to help keep the port running safely and efficiently.
Environmental Initiatives and Security Measures
To protect the surrounding marine environment, many ports charge fees that help support environmental initiatives. One of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting any port of call is taking in the local area’s natural beauty. By contributing to sustainability measures that help preserve and protect the local ecosystem, you ensure that future travelers get to enjoy the same experience.
Some of the funds generated by port fees also help support security measures, which help keep passengers and port workers safe. This money can also help cover costs associated with operating customs and immigration services at cruise ports. This makes the process more efficient and helps reduce the economic strain on the local community.
Economic Contribution Initiatives
While they represent a small proportion of the funds paid in port fees, revenue can be generated to help support the local economy. Rather than view this money as a charitable donation, consider it a small tax paid to sustain local economies and communities.
In many cases, large-scale ports that can support modern cruise ships disrupt local fishing activities, so generating funds that help bring economic relief to these communities can be hugely beneficial.
Types of Port Fees and Taxes You Can Expect to Pay
In addition to port fees, you may also notice other charges in the breakdown of your cruise package:
Port Fees/Port Charges
Port fees vary from one port to another. They are delivered as a blanket fee that covers all costs associated with using port facilities but can include everything from the pilot fee, which covers the costs of bringing a local harbor pilot onboard to help guide the ship into the port, to head tax, which offsets the cost that the port incurs from cruise passengers using the local infrastructure.
Everything from maintaining docking equipment to staffing passenger services is partially funded with these fees. Since each port and country is unique, these fees can vary and change over time.
Government Taxes and Local Tourist Fees
National governments and local authorities can also tax individuals visiting the region. Typically, these fees are small, but they help cover everything from customs and immigration expenses to environmental initiatives.
For example, the CDC charges fees for vessel sanitation inspections. These fees vary according to the size of the vessel. Cruise ships between 60,001 and 120,000 gross tons pay $11,960 per inspection.
Those over 140,000 gross tons pay $23,920. Like port fees, these taxes may be collected by your cruise line, but the funds are given to local authorities on your behalf.
What Factors Impact the Cost of Port Fees and Taxes?
While individual passengers pay the port fees, either upfront when booking or while onboard the ship, some factors will determine how much those fees will cost.
In addition to being based on a passenger headcount, port authorities will also assess the physical size of the cruise ship. Naturally, larger vessels are more demanding on the port’s resources and available space, so it only makes sense that they are charged more.
The duration of stay also plays a significant role in determining the port fees a cruise ship’s passengers will be charged. Essentially, these fees are assessed in relation to the use of a port terminal. The port fee will be more significant if the terminal is used for a lengthy duration.
As we mentioned, the country where the port is located is another factor, as certain governments roll environmental fees and local taxes into the port fees that they charge visiting cruise ships.
When you are visiting can also play a role, as port fees will be higher when the port is in its busier season. Higher port traffic means there is more demand to use the port terminals. This almost always translates to higher port fees.
With all this said, there is no way to influence or negotiate these fees as an individual passenger, so the most important thing to do is simply look into the fees by contacting the cruise line directly before traveling.
If the port fees were not included upfront when you booked your cruise, you can expect to pay roughly 10% to 20% of the base cruise fare in fees and taxes.
Again, this is just an average, so it can certainly vary depending on the type of cruise you have booked and other factors.
Strategies You Can Use to Minimize Port Fees and Other Expenses
While there is no getting around the fact that you will have to pay port fees and taxes if you book a cruise vacation, there are ways to minimize these expenses if you are on a tight budget.
Research Your Options
One of the most effective ways to minimize port fees and taxes is to research cruises that avoid high-cost ports of call.
Even though you will most likely have to pay taxes and fees to your embarkation port, you have control over the cruise itinerary you book.
Naturally, booking a cruise vacation with fewer ports of call will help minimize the amount you have to pay in port fees. Cruises that visit fewer ports and countries tend to be more affordable, as they can plot more straightforward routes. You can also favor destinations with lower port fees and taxes, like many Caribbean nations.
While it is a less significant factor, the embarkation point of your cruise will also impact the amount you pay in port fees. More expensive countries, like the United States, will charge more than cruises leaving nations with less expensive ports.
You will also want to book reputable and well-established cruise lines that you can trust. These cruise lines tend to be more upfront about fees and taxes rather than disguising them until after you have booked.
If you book your cruise vacation through a third-party booking service, check that they include port fees and taxes in the quoted price. If you are unsure, contact them and double-check. The last thing you want is to be surprised by various fees when you show up for your vacation.
Book Your Cruise Vacation Early
While it may surprise you to learn, you can help lower the port fees you will pay by booking your cruise in advance. The cruise line can negotiate more favorable terms with the ports it will visit.
That said, it is also possible to score a last-minute deal on a cruise, which will help balance out what you pay in port fees and taxes for booking late.
There is also something to be said about booking during the off-season. Not only can booking during the off-season reduce the cost you pay for your cruise, but some ports will even charge lower fees for ships that use their port facilities during the less busy seasons. Conversely, many will also charge higher fees during the busier peak seasons.
Consider All-Inclusive Cruise Packages
Booking an all-inclusive cruise package is often possible, depending on the cruise line you are traveling with. While this usually refers to food, drinks, and activities on board the ship, some packages will bundle certain port fees and taxes into the upfront cost of your cruise. If port fees are more expensive than the cruise line anticipated, they will cover your share of the added cost.
Read Also: Are Cruises All Inclusive? – What to Expect
This is also a way to have a more predictable picture of what your cruise vacation will cost, which can be very useful for those with a set budget.
Avoid Shore Excursions
While each port of call will differ, some will charge cruise passengers extra fees if they leave the immediate port area. These can be environmental fees and taxes.
By avoiding certain shore excursions, you can keep costs low and potentially avoid some of the fees and taxes you would have to pay to local authorities.
Look Into Loyalty Programs, Travel Insurance Packages, and Credit Card Rewards
While you will still have to pay the relevant port fees and taxes, some cruise lines have loyalty programs that can help you maximize savings in other regards. Some will waive other fees, so the financial impact of paying port fees and local taxes will be minimized.
Joining loyalty programs will also give you exclusive access to sales and priority booking to secure a more affordable package.
Certain travel insurance packages can also cover unforeseen expenses, like non-refundable fees and taxes you did not anticipate. The same is true of certain credit cards, which can cover various fees for cardholders.
Can I receive a refund for port fees and taxes if my cruise missed a scheduled port of call?
If the cruise ship you are traveling fails to visit a scheduled port of call due to unforeseen circumstances, cruise lines will refund passengers the port fees and taxes that would have been paid to those local authorities.
Certain cruise lines are known to be slow in refunding these fees, so it is worth paying attention to if your cruise misses a port of call due to weather or other safety concerns.
Can I pay port fees and taxes directly to the port rather than through the cruise line?
No. While port fees and taxes are paid by individual passengers and assessed according to a head count of those on board, they are not negotiated between passengers and the port authorities. Cruise lines are responsible for negotiating with local authorities and collecting the appropriate funds.
This helps to streamline the entire process. Since there is no possible way to negotiate the fees you will be charged, there is also no benefit to paying them individually rather than allowing the cruise line to do so on your behalf.
Do all passengers pay the exact same port fees and taxes, or is there variation?
Yes, all cruise ship passengers will pay the same port fees and taxes. There is no difference in fees, regardless of the cabin type you are staying in or the age of the passenger. This also means children and senior passengers are charged the same fees as adults.
With that said, certain cruise lines will charge certain passengers less if they belong to a loyalty program or have booked a specific package. In this case, the fee paid on your behalf to local authorities will not vary; it is just that the cruise line will be paying it for you as part of a specific program.
Port fees and local taxes may seem like an uninteresting topic, but they are essential to understand if you are a budget-conscious traveler. It is also important to remember that these fees and taxes are not there to take advantage of cruise passengers.
They help sustain the port system and marine environment, making cruise vacations enjoyable. Use the above-mentioned strategies to reduce costs and stay informed about potential fee changes. While cruise vacations may seem expensive, it is possible to stretch your cruise budget and still enjoy an amazing experience.