A while back, I wrote a series of posts about cruising the Baltic Sea and the capitals of Scandinavia. It was a good way to see that pricey part of the world, I reasoned: with a cruise, most of your expenses are pre-paid so you’re not going broke paying Scandinavian prices for meals and hotels.
It’s an argument that makes a lot of sense, but is it really true? I decided to find out, by actually pricing a typical Baltic cruise and then the same trip done by air, paying for hotels and meals along the way. The results may surprise you.
I chose the same cruise I took in 2012, a 10-day Baltic cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line leaving from Copenhagen, Denmark. This cruise is on a different ship, the Norwegian Star, but it goes to the same ports: Warnemunde, Germany (for Berlin); Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia for two nights; Helsinki, Finland; Stockholm, Sweden; and back to Copenhagen. I used CruCon‘s booking engine for the pricing.
The cruise sets sail on June 26, 2015. And booking six months early, I found a price of $2,122 US each for two people sharing a mid-ship ocean-view cabin with a porthole window. That’s a pretty average price, though you can certainly do better if you book when the cruises are on sale.
Of course, the cruise fare isn’t all you end up paying. To come up with a total cost, I added the $12-a-day gratuity fee that Norwegian charges, plus $380 for other on-board expenses: that’s an extra $500. Some may find that on-board bill low, but it’s a matter of lifestyle. I figured on a couple of drinks per day, some specialty coffees, and maybe a course or two. You can spend twice that amount, but you can also get by with less.
There are also excursions to consider, but since you’d be paying to see the same sights if you travelled on your own, I decided to call that even. The big problem in this case was that Berlin is a long way from the port of Warnemunde, and quite a pricey excursion, but I considered that an unusual expense and left it out of the calculation. You could, after all, stay in Warnemunde and neighbouring Rostock for the day, as I did.
All told, I arrived at a total cruising cost of $2,622 US per person for the 10 days.
Now, for the do-it-yourself trip. To see all those cities in the same amount of time involved a lot of air flights and a lot of hotels. I used Expedia to find both the air fares and hotel prices.
The first surprise was that the air fares were surprising modest. That’s partly because these were all fairly short, one-way flights; however, traditionally these cost almost as much as round-trippers. The real cause may be the wave of budget airlines that has sprung up in Europe in recent years.
Choosing the cheapest available flight on the same dates as the cruise, I got a total of $815 US. However, in reality it’s pretty unlikely you’d take the cheapest flight on every leg, since the lowest airfares are usually for flights at odd hours. A more realistic price is $1,000, so that’s the figure I went with. (The list of fares is at the end of this post.)
(One note: Since the Warnemunde stop was intended as a visit to Berlin, I used Berlin as the flight destination. This saved a considerable sum, since the cheapest flight to Warnemunde was over $1,000.)
As for hotels, I used Expedia’s figure for an average three-star hotel room in each city, adding a rough 10 percent for the taxes and fees it tacks on. The prices varied considerably, from a surprisingly cheap $65 in St. Petersburg to $149 in Copenhagen. The total came to a reasonable $541 US per person, $595 after taxes.
Since staying in a hotel is not without its costs, I added $10 a day for tips and other incidentals. That produced a total cost of $695 per person for hotels.
You could argue that the accommodations on a cruise ship are better than a three-star hotel. Considering the small size of cruise ship cabins, however, I figured they’re about even.
Then there’s meals. Food is expensive in some Scandinavian cities (in Copenhagen, a hamburger can cost $20). So I budgeted $10 for breakfast, $15 for lunch and $35 per person for dinner — a total of $60 — each day. Over 10 days, that comes to $600. You could easily spend much more than that if you ate in upscale restaurants and added a few bottles of wine.
Then there’s entertainment. On a cruise ship, your basic fare includes almost constant entertainment, from stage shows to lounge singers to free movies and bingo tournaments. To make the two sides comparable, I added $30 a day per person, for an extra $300. (If you spend any time in the bar on your trip, you can spend this pretty easily.)
How does it compare? When you add it all up, the grand total for your self-directed trip comes to $2,595 per person — actually $27 less than the $2,622 bill for the 10-day cruise.
That’s a bit of a shocker: even in an expensive place like Scandinavia, you can do a complicated, multi-leg trip for less than the cost of a cruise to the same places.
The major reason seems to be the price I got for the cruise. I used a typical price at the time of writing, but you can get the same cruise for much less during the “wave season” from January to March, when the cruise lines start discounting. In fact, even travelling solo, which carries a big premium, I got an inside cabin on the same cruise in 2012 for about $1,200. That’s less than half the cost of the land trip, even with the hefty solo supplement.
And of course, you could do the cruise for less by taking a cabin in a lower category: a typical inside cabin at time of writing had a base fare of $1,531. You could spend more, too: a mid-range balcony cabin went for $3,051, or you could splurge on a suite. The same goes for your choice of hotels, however.
The bottom line seems to be that cruising and travelling independently cost just about the same, at least in northern Europe — if you’re paying full price for both. However, cruise lines put on great sales throughout the year, so if you’re a savvy shopper and nab a sell-off price, a cruise can cost significantly less.
But there’s more to the story. While you probably wouldn’t travel to all those cities in 10 days the way this cruise does, doing a trip like this would involve a lot of effort: getting yourself to and from multiple airports, spending a lot of hours on planes and in airport lounges, finding decent hotels, constantly packing and unpacking.
With a cruise, there’s no need for all that. Once you get to your port of departure and climb aboard, you unpack once. From then on, the ship takes you everywhere you’re going. You wake up most mornings in a new place, spend the day discovering it, and return in the evening to eat whatever you fancy in one of the ship’s many restaurants.
Everything is laid on for you, and most of it is free. As noted, it’s not all free, and an experienced cruiser knows to add all the extra costs to the budget before setting out. But even then, there’s some price certainty. You know approximately how much the trip is going to cost — no panic when you find out restaurant meals cost twice what you anticipated in your destination. And that can take some of the stress out of travelling in a high-cost region.
So take your pick: the rich experience of travelling independently or the convenience of seeing the world in a floating hotel that does the travelling for you. And do your homework: if you find a good cruise at a good price, you can get great value.
I don’t know that this exercise produced a definitive answer on the cost of cruising versus ordinary travel, but hopefully it offers a real comparison you can use when planning your own travels. Below you’ll find tables showing the representative prices I found for the air flights and hotels.
Airfares (cheapest available)
June 26 Copenhagen to Berlin: $79.59
June 28 Berlin to Tallinn: $265.91
June 30 Tallinn to Petersburg: $152.03
July 2 St. Petersburg to Helsinki: $197 .02
July 3 Helsinki to Stockholm: $86 .93
July 5 Stockholm to Copenhagen: $103.45
Total airfares $814.93
Hotels (3 star average)
June 26 Copenhagen: $149
June 27-28 Berlin: $134 X 2 nights = $268
June 29 Tallinn: $117
June 30-July 1 St. Petersburg: $65 X 2 nights = 130
July 2 Helsinki: $125
July 3-4 Stockholm: $147 X 2 = 294
Total hotels $1,083 — divided by 2 = $541 per person, plus 10% tax = $595