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Cruise ships offer more specialty dining – at a price

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    Luxury line Celebrity Cruises has teamed up with Bravo's "Top Chef" to present special themed cruises. (Celebrity Cruises)

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    On the Norwegian Breakaway, dining at Ocean Blue, a high-end seafood restaurant from celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, comes with a $49-a-head upcharge. (Norwegian)

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    On Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, launching in November, foodies can nosh on Jamie Olver's "famous plank" piled high with cured meats, pickles, and cheeses. (Royal Caribbean)

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    On the Norwegian Breakaway, sampling at Shanghai's Noodle Bar incurs an extra charge, with a la carte pricing. (Norwegian)

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    On Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, bestselling cookbook author Devin Alexander dreams up dishes that are big on flavor and low in calories. (Royal Caribbean)

Think you got a great deal on that cruise? Maybe so, but it’s likely you’ll pay a lot more when you get onboard -- especially if you’re a food lover.

“Cruising is not all-inclusive anymore, and everybody needs to get over that,” said Anita Dunham-Potter, editor-in-chief of ExpertCruiser.com. “Unless you’re on a luxury line, you’re going to be paying extra because there are so many more choices available.”

Fares on mainstream cruise lines generally include accommodations and meals, as well as most entertainment and daytime activities. But once you cross the gangway, let the nickel and diming begin. Does your kid want a soda? That will cost extra. Thinking of signing up for a spinning class? Expect a fee.

Foodies should prepare to loosen their purse strings along with their belts, as cruise ships offer an ever-expanding array of exciting culinary experiences that come with an upcharge.

A notable example is the Norwegian Breakaway, which launched last spring with 28 different dining options. Along with the traditional buffet fare, three main dining rooms and other complimentary eateries, the Breakaway also offers nine specialty-dining venues. Passengers pay cover charges ranging from $15 per adult to dine at La Cucina, a family-style Italian trattoria, to $49 per adult to experience Ocean Blue, a fine-dining seafood restaurant from celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian.

 “It certainly flies in the face of the idea that your cruise fare is all-inclusive,” said Sherri Eisenberg, editor-in-chief of the online cruise magazine Bon Voyage. “But at the same time, you can get tuna crudo that is just beautiful and other carefully prepared dishes that feel like an elegant meal you might have in New York City.”

Norwegian’s partnership with Zakarian is just one of many recent collaborations between cruise lines and celebrity chefs. For its much-anticipated Quantum of the Seas launching next November, Royal Caribbean is teaming up with British chef and media darling Jamie Oliver, James Beard Award-winner Michael Schwartz and bestselling cookbook author and chef Devin Alexander. Meanwhile, fans of Bravo's "Top Chef" series can to sail alongside former contestants onboard Celebrity Cruises’ "Top Chef at Sea" excursions. 

For culinary adventurers, restaurants are just the tip of the iceberg. “Food and wine pairing dinners, chef demonstrations, cooking classes and shore side dining excursions are another part of the elevated culinary-at-sea experience – which is now the norm, and no longer the exception, for ships large and small,” said Christine Duffy, President and CEO of the Cruise Lines Industry Association, the industry’s largest trade association.

With more choices come more ways to spend money, so it’s crucial to do your research and decide which experiences are most appealing, Dunham-Potter says. She had budgeted extra for dining on a weeklong cruise on the Breakaway last summer and was happy to indulge her teenage daughters at Shanghai’s Noodle Bar, where pricing is à la carte. “My kids just loved those noodles, which cost $7 each time,” she said. At the end of the cruise, Dunham-Potter’s noodle-bar bill was $57.

It all adds up. “People who aren’t keeping track of what they are spending on dining every day can be surprised to get a bill that is close to what they paid for the cruise fare,” said Linda Garrison, who writes at About.com Cruises. “I think people can lose their minds a bit because they get into the ‘I’m on vacation’ reward mode.”

Still, some folks are able to resist the siren call of specialty dining. “I’ve met a lot of people who are perfectly happy eating in the dining room every night and are not at all interested in trying out the French or Asian restaurant,” said Eisenberg.

“These ships serve a lot of different types of travelers, and I like that there are so many choices. Each cruiser will spend their money differently on the ship, and you just have to know what your preferences are.”

Eisenberg advises cruisers to be realistic in their expectations. “If you’re spending $399 for a weeklong cruise in the Caribbean, it’s just not intelligent to assume that that price is going to include everything,” she said.

“Unfortunately, cruises are still marketed as all-inclusive vacations,” said Dunham-Potter. “But if you want a nicer experience, you do need to budget for that. If you love steak and your ship is has a great steakhouse, then you’re going to want to allot a set amount of money for that.”

“And the bottom line is that you can still go on a cruise where you eat and sleep without paying anything above your fare, except for the tip for your crew,” said Garrison. “If you’re disciplined, you can come close to an all-inclusive vacation, but you’re going to have to resist an awful lot of temptation.”

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.