7 Simple Reasons You’ll Want To Skip That Drinks Package

Posted on2 CommentsCategoriesBudget, CRUISE PLANNING, CRUISE TIPS

Trying to figure out whether that snazzy beverage package the cruise line offers will actually be a good deal for your family? It sounds enticing: Pay one flat rate for the privilege of consuming all of the drinks you can stomache. It’s certainly convenient! But will it offer you good value and save money? Read on to find out what you need to know to figure out if this is a good deal for your family. And, learn seven reasons why it actually may not be right for you.

Cruise Drinks Package | photo of 3 cruisers enjoying beverages

We have 3 sections to help your decision making:
    • The basics of a cruise drinks package.
    • The 7 reasons to skip a drinks package.
    • Some additional money-saving tips for beverages.

(An earlier version of this Post was first published on 6/19/2018.)


The Basics on Cruise Line Beverages

Before you can figure out whether a beverage package would be good deal for your family, you need to know what beverages you already paid for in your cruise price. 

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Beverages Included In Basic Cruise Fare

Generally, the basic drinks included in your cruise fare will include milk, some juices, hot chocolate, and regular coffee and tea (i.e, not specialty beverages like lattes, cappuccinos or chai). You will also find some self serve fountain-style drinks at the buffet. Basically non-carbonated drinks like juice or juice based drinks like punch (not sodas). And, of course, you should also be able to get regular non-bottled water. Everything else beyond these basics will incur an additional charge.

What’s Included in a Drinks Package?

Different cruise lines offer a variety of drinks packages that cover different combinations of alcoholic and/or non-alcoholic drinks. The specifics of what’s included in any given package will vary. But, you should generally be aware that not all alcoholic drinks receive the same treatment.  Nor do all non-alcoholic beverages.

The alcohol packages may draw distinctions based on beer and wine vs. hard liquor and cocktails. Or, they may place a cap on the dollar value of an individual drink covered by the package. Or, both.

Similarly, a drinks package for non-alcoholic beverages may draw distinctions based on type of beverage. E.g., bottled water (and/or brand of water), specialty coffees, fresh juices and soda, energy drinks, or mock-tails. A specific cruise line’s drinks package may include all of these items or only a small subset. So, if you have a preference for premium liquor and cocktails vs. beer and wine, or specialty coffees (e.g., lattes) and bottled water, you should determine whether your favorites are covered.

Rules For Drink Packages

Some basic rules generally apply for all cruise lines.

  • A drinks package is per person, not per family or stateroom. Only the person for whom the drinks package is purchased is allowed to consume beverages under the package. People will often try to dance around this rule with varying degrees of success. But don’t count on being able to do so, or you will likely be frustrated. And, your privileges may be revoked altogether. 
  • A drinks package applies only to beverages purchased on board the ship (and, depending on the cruise line, on a private island). 
  • A drinks package will typically exclude room service and in-room mini bars.

7 Reasons To Skip The Drinks Package

If one or more of the following seven reasons applies to you, you will likely spend less money overall if you skip the drinks package.

1. You Drink Few Beverages After Breakfast.

Most of the beverages that folks usually drink at breakfast will be free. The most notable exception would potentially be fresh squeezed juice. So, with that point in mind, you should assess how many drinks outside of breakfast you will likely consume each day. Use this broad rule of thumb: If you are unlikely to drink 5 or more additional beverages while on the ship, then you will probably not break even on a drinks package.  

Do The Math.

Cruise Drinks Packages | photo of family enjoying meal

Typically, cruise lines quote drinks packages as a “daily” charge. But, they only sell packages based on the entire length of your cruise. Not by the day. So, you pay a flat fee based on the total number of days of the cruise, regardless of how many sea days or port days are available. You can’t pick and choose which days you want to include or exclude from the package.

So, for instance, a package on a 7-day cruise that is touted at $50/day for unlimited beverages will cost $350 for one person. Generally, a drinks package that include various alcohol combinations will range from $55 to $79 per day, and a non-alcoholic drinks package will range from $18 to $25. In this context, a non-alcoholic package means something more than just soda and juice. Many cruise lines will also offer a soda package for less. More like $8-$10 per day. But this will typically not include bottled water.

Regardless of the package, the cruise line will also assess an additional surcharge for gratuities of 15-18%. So if you buy a drinks package advertised at $50 per day, you would be charged a lump sum of $350 + 18% (or $413) for each person who buys a package.

When deciding whether a package had value to you, assume the prices for individual drinks will be similar to what you would pay at a hotel resort. So, for instance, about $3 to $6 for non-alcoholic drinks and about $8-12 for alcohol. Keep in mind that the same daily rate applies whether it is a sea day or a port day.

Update for 2019:

Some cruise lines have increased prices for their beverage packages for 2019. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian provide two notable examples. Under Royal Caribbean’s new pricing scheme, prices for the deluxe beverage packages will range from $74 to $84 per day (including required gratuity).  So the total cost for two adults in a cabin who get deluxe packages will start at $1,040 for a 7 day cruise. Also, folks buying the soda package will now pay $12.99 per day (plus gratuity). As for Norwegian, the price of its Ultimate beverage package rises up to $99 a day plus a 20% gratuity. So the total cost for two adults in a cabin will be $1,660 for a 7 day cruise. But, Norwegian continues to offer an inexpensive soda package for about $6 per day.

You can find more information about 2019 pricing on the Travel Market Report website.

Will you drink five or more beverages after breakfast?

Let’s apply that rule of thumb. Let’s say after breakfast, you are likely only to have a beverage at lunch, another one or two at dinner, and perhaps one more at some other point during the day. Then, you would probably be better served paying a la carte. This is particularly true if you will be spending lots of time off the ship.  (See #3 below.)

Conversely, let’s say you know that in addition to beer at lunch and wine at dinner, you will likely consume several specialty coffees over the course of the day, have a cocktail or two by the pool, and indulge in a couple of drinks after hours in the casino. You will probably get full value out of a drinks package.

2. You Should Probably Skip The Drinks Package If You Are Primarily Interested In Non-Alcoholic Drinks.

Cruise Drinks Package - two kids drinking smoothiesIf you are only interested in a non-alcoholic drinks package, you are unlikely to get full value for your purchase. First, some cruise lines don’t even offer a separate non-alcoholic drinks package. In which case, you would be paying the same price for a package whether you are ordering smoothies and speciality coffees or ordering Mai Tais and scotch on the rocks. 

For cruise lines that offer non-alcoholic versions of a drink package, you need to pay close attention to what is actually included. Does it include items such as bottled water, smoothies, shakes or specialty coffees? And how about mock-tails (cocktails without actual alcohol)? Or, does it only include soda and other carbonated beverages?

For example, Carnival’s main drinks package (Cheers!) covers all different kinds of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. This includes smoothies, specialty coffees, sodas etc. But, the only non-alcoholic package available is the Bottomless Bubbles program which covers only sodas and juice. So if you will primarily be drinking smoothies and cappuccinos, then you will not save money buying this package.

Non-alcoholic drinks typically run about $3-5 each. Daily prices for most non-alcohol packages or soda packages run about $8-15 per day. So you, or the package holder, would need to drink 3-5 beverages each day to break even. This may be easy to do if the package covers all non-alcoholic beverages. Less easy if it only covers soda. (Note, Carnival actually offers a discounted price for kids on the Bottomless Bubbles program – $4.95 daily + 15% gratuity).

3. Skip It If You are Sailing a Port Heavy Itinerary.

Cruise Drinks Package - photo of in port waterfront cafeIf you are on a port heavy itinerary and plan to actually leave the ship,  you will not have access to your drinks package for large sections of each day. So, on a port heavy vacation where you plan to be out and about, you would need to calculate how many beverages you are likely to consume in late afternoon and into the evening. (Assuming that you drink typical breakfast beverages.)  Will you be drinking  more than 3-5 each and every day? If not, then you are literally leaving money at the table. Plus, you will have to pay out of pocket for any beverages you want while off the ship.

That said, if you do get a package that includes bottled water, you will at least have the option to carry the bottles of water with you when you leave the ship. Sometimes the cruise ship will even have a station set up as you exit the ship where you can pick up bottles on your way out. Those that don’t have a package can still pick up bottles too, but they will be charged to their ship board account.

What about private islands?

You should also be mindful of whether the cruise line you are sailing extends drinks package privileges to its private island. Not all cruise lines do. So, for instance, if you are sailing on Carnival, Holland America, or Princess, the drinks package applies only to the ship. But, if you are sailing Royal Caribbean or Celebrity, your drink privileges also apply to Labadee and Coco Cay. And, as for Norwegian Cruises, at last report, its Ultimate Beverage Package could be used on its private island in the Bahamas, Great Stirrup Cay. It could not, however, be used at the Belize private island of Harvest Caye.

4. Consider Skipping It, If All Adults Must Purchase Same Packages.

Many cruise lines now require that all adults in a stateroom purchase the same package, if any package is to be purchased. Presumably to cut down on folks trying to game the system. Thus, if one adult buys the full alcoholic package, any other adults traveling in the same cabin must also purchase one. So, unless both/all adults are going to consume more than 3-5 drinks each day, then on a per cabin price, you will not get full value for your money.

5. Skip The Drinks Package If You Primarily Drink Water.

Cruise Drinks Package - photo of woman drinking from bottled waterIf you are happy drinking tap water. You don’t need a drink package. If you prefer bottle water and that is mostly what you drink, some cruise lines offer a bottled water package. Basically, you can buy a certain number of large bottles for a set price. The bottles will be delivered to your cabin at the start of your cruise.

If a water package is not offered, you may be forced to buy a premium package to get the bottled water you want. That is unlikely to save money over a la cart pricing.

Also, you should check your cruise line policies on bringing your own water on board. If it is permitted, and you have time to stop at a store before embarkation, then stock up and bring your own water. (Bottles of water are heavy and subject to breaking – so not a great plan to try and fly with it.)

Check out the “money saving tips” section below for tips on making the most of free water and complimentary beverages.

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6. You primarily drink coffee based beverages.

Cruise Drinks Package - woman drinking coffeeBasic coffee and tea are free. But specialty coffees like lattes are a premium. And, they are usually not included in the basic non-alcoholic package price for cruise lines that have a separate package. If you have to upgrade from a basic package, you will have to drink quite a number of lattes and cappuccinos to come close to breaking even.

That said, some cruise lines offer some type of coffee card option. For a set price, you receive a card that entitles you to 10  or 15 coffees of your choice. For coffee lovers, this can be a great deal. Plus, when this option is offered as an actual card, it is not tied to a specific cruiser. So more than one person can enjoy specialty coffees using the same card. 

7. Skip The Package If You Can Be Satisfied With The BYOB  Allowance.

You may have the option to bring on board your own limited quantity of non-alcoholic and/or alcoholic beverages. This depends on which cruise line you sail. This could include limited amounts of sodas, beers, and bottles of wines. The types and amounts vary by cruise line, and some cruise lines will charge you a corkage fee for opening your wine at a restaurant. You should check with your specific cruise line for the most updated limits, but by way of example:

Sample Allowances
      • Carnival: For non-alcoholic beverages, guests can bring up to 12 cans or cartons (bottles are not permitted) at embarkation. This includes water as well as soda, juices, milk, etc. Guests can also bring on up to 12 cans or cartons of non-alcoholic beverages from ports of calls. Alcoholic beverages, however, will be placed in storage. Each guest can bring one 750 ml bottle of wine or champagne. No beer or hard liquor. The ship charges a $15 corkage fee for opening wine in a restaurant.
      • Royal Caribbean:  Two bottles (750 ml) of wine or champagne per stateroom. No other beverages permitted. A corkage fee of $15 applies to bottles opened in public areas. (UPDATE: Although Royal Caribbean has not yet updated the relevant page on its website, it is being reported at the Royal Caribbean Blog that the cruise line is updated its policy effective 9/1/2018 to allow passengers to carry on 12 bottles of water or non-alcoholic beverages in their hand luggage.)
      • Norwegian: Guests may bring bottles of wine or champagne only. No other beverages. All bottles are subject to a per bottle corkage fee regardless of where consumed – $15 for 750ml bottles and $30 for 1500ml Magnum.
      • Celebrity: Guests may bring up to two bottles per stateroom. Corkage fee of $25 per bottle applies if consumed outside of stateroom.
      • Holland America:  Guests may bring one bottle of wine or champagne. No corkage fee if consumed in stateroom. Additional bottles may be brought for an $18 corkage fee, regardless of where consumed.

These BYOB allowances for alcohol typically only apply at embarkation. The crew will confiscate any alcohol purchased while you are in port after sailing. They will store it until the end of your cruise. (Note that a harsher rule applies if you try to bring on or sneak on excess alcohol at embarkation. It will usually not be returned to you if found and confiscated.)

Cruise Drinks Package -Waitress holding a dish of sangria glasses

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Other Money-Saving Tips

Look For Narrower Beverage Deals. 

Something else to consider is whether the cruise line offers a smaller deal that will better accommodate your needs. For instance, a water package. You buy a certain number of bottles of water in advance. Or, a coffee card for a set number of specialty coffees. 

And, on the alcoholic side, some cruise lines also offer narrower packages for bottles of beer or wine. For instance, Celebrity offers a Taste of the Vineyard package where you can select three, five, or seven bottles of wine at various price points. Holland America offers a Cellar Masters package. You get five bottles of wine and other perks. Princess offers a beer package where you get five bottles of certain beers at a discounted price. (Princess also offers a similar discount package for canned sodas.)

Maximize The Free Beverages.

Another option to consider is bringing along a box or two of flavor enhancers for water. Non-bottled water is free. Flavor enhancers come in a wide variety of flavors. You can easily pick up some that appeal to you and/or your kids and then mix them with the complimentary water.  Either in the cup provided, or in your own water bottles brought from home. This can substantially expand your beverage options without substantially adding to your costs.

Also, make use of the in-room refrigerator. If there isn’t room for you to include your own stuff, see if you can get the cabin attendant to clear it out. If you are sailing with kids, this request is usually easier to get accommodated. Mention that you need to be able to store milk. (This works better if your kids actually drink milk.) Then when you are at the buffet pick up extra cartons at breakfast or other meals to take back to your room.

Likewise, if you have brought extra water bottles, you can fill them up with juice or punch from the self-serve area and store those for later as well.

Investigate Potential Options to Prorate.

Some cruise lines will allow you to purchase a beverage package in the middle of your cruise for a prorated price.  For instance, both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity offer this option. (Similarly, Princess permits refunds on packages until the third day of sailing.)

So, if you are unsure about whether a package is right for you, you could wait.  See how much you actually drink on the first day or two. Then purchase a package for the remainder of the cruise. But there is usually a cut-off past which you no longer have this option. Anywhere from 2 to 4 days prior to the end of the cruise. So depending on where the port days and sea days fall in your itinerary, this may or may not make much sense for you.

Watch For Pre-Boarding Sales on Drinks Package.

If a beverage package interests you, then definitely watch for discounted sales online. You should receive an email about such specials several weeks (or months) before sailing. Such discounts can be substantial – e.g., 30% – for some of the more expensive premium packages.

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Closing Thoughts:

No question that a drinks package can be extremely convenient. Pay once before you even board and then don’t worry about it again. But, if you are seeking price savings and value, you should pause to do some basic math. Follow this rule of thumb to help your assessment. If you are unlikely to drink more than 4 or 5 beverages after breakfast, you should probably skip it.

If, however, you are content with the idea that you may ultimately be paying for convenience, then no worries. Likewise, you may want the freedom to experiment with a variety of cocktails without feeling compelled to finish them. If so, bottoms up!


Need help planning a cruise vacation with kids? Download our free Quick Start Guide now!

Or, for more detailed guidance on planning an awesome family cruise, check out Elaine’s book, The Family Cruise Companion’s Guide to Cruising With Kids (available in print and digital at Amazon).








1 Must Have Cruise Accessory You’ll Absolutely Love

Posted onLeave a commentCategoriesCRUISE TIPS, Packing, Travel Hacks

If you are looking for one must have cruise accessory that you’ll absolutely love, pack a power strip. Seriously. Based on value for the money and value for the luggage space used, this one will almost certainly top the list every time. Find out why you absolutely should toss one into your suitcase. And, learn about a few factors to consider when deciding which one to pack or buy.

Cruising With Electronics

There are several items that you can pack that will greatly enhance your overall cruise experience and help maximize the space in your cruise ship room. But in terms of sheer value and all around usefulness, an outlet expander or power strip tops the list. Note that I am using the term “power strip” broadly to mean a must have cruise accessory that expands the power outlet options in your cruise cabin. This could be an actual power strip, or a travel outlet expander. Or, it could be a traditional extension cord (small) or a multi port usb charger.

No matter what’s the size of your travel party, if you have more than two things with plugs, you will very likely be short on outlets in your cabin. Many cruise cabins will have only one set of power outlets beyond what might be found in the bathroom. Think about how many personal items you typically cart around that require power. Then multiply that by the number of people who will be sharing your cabin.

Must Have Cruise Accessory: Photo of stack of personal electronics

By way of example, here is a list of items that we took on a recent cruise that required access to power at some point during the trip:
  • Individual smartphones for adults. Even if we don’t do much actual calling, smartphones have several other features that make them handy on a cruise. We now rely on smartphones to act as our basic camera. Plus now, so many cruise ships have great free apps that you can use to keep up with what’s going on aboard the ship, and for making reservations for dinners, shows, etc. And, you can also find free texting apps that make it possible for family members to stay in touch.
  • A traditional camera for the kid who doesn’t have a cell phone but likes to take pictures.
  • Multiple tablets.
  • A portable DVD player.
  • Electric hair tools like curling/flat iron (not a blow dryer – which the cruise line already provides)
  • Laptop computer
  • Kindle e-reader
  • Multiple portable power banks (so key items can stay charged during long sojourns away from the ship).

If you are traveling alone and/or planning to have a totally unplugged vacation, then limited access to power sources won’t bother you. But, that’s probably not the situation for most travelers.

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A Typical Cruise Cabin

Our most recent cruise underscores why some version of a power strip is a must have cruise accessory. We sailed on a Royal Caribbean ship that had been beautifully refurbished very recently. But, nevertheless access to power sources remained extremely limited. Each cabin  had only one electric outlet outside of the bathroom. Even if most families won’t necessarily be hauling around the amount of electronics we had, even a small fraction of that list would have quickly exhausted the supply of available outlets.

In addition to the limited availability of power outlets, the placement of that one lone outlet itself presented challenge. It was placed  on a wall underneath a wall mounted telephone and a few inches above a narrow counter that served as both a desk and a vanity. (See photos.) 

Why was this location particularly challenging? For one thing, any items that needed to be charged using that outlet would take up valuable counter space. And, the outlet wasn’t near a bed or any other comfortable lounging location. So, you essentially would have to sit at the small desk if you wanted to use a device and charge it at the same time. 

For this particular cruise, we had two connecting rooms. So we used an outlet expander or power strip for each room, and we had two different styles. Both of these did a great job and offered full value. But both also had pros and cons depending on your particular travel needs.

The Cordless Power Strip

Must Have Cruise Accessory | Photo of power strip in use in cruise cabinCordless power strips can be extremely compact making them easy to pack almost anywhere. In this case, a cordless power strip conserved counter space. But, the space saved by plugging directly into the wall was quickly filled by having to have all of the electronic items actually on the (narrow) counter.

Although it isn’t obvious from the photo, this particular strip also had two USB ports.

The particular brand of power strip pictured in the photo features surge protection. Many cruise lines have express policies banning the use of surge protectors because they have a risk of interfering with the ship’s electrical system. (I did not actually sleep in the cabin where this particular power strip was used so I didn’t focus on that issue at the time.) But, you can also find cordless power strips that do not have surge protection.


Power Strip With Cord

While a basic outlet expander can be quite functional, it was helpful to us to have one that also included a cord that moved away from the wall. 

The corded option that we used is pictured below. This particular power strip is my all-time favorite one for cruising. I’ve used it on the past 10 cruises or so. And, as you can see, it’s a real workhorse. It can charge six devices at once.

And, for this last cruise, the fact that it had a cord provided many extra benefits given our especially small quarters. Because it was not attached directly to the wall, it could be moved to free up valuable counter space for other uses. We could store it in a drawer and still keep charging (leaving the drawer slightly open for ventilation).  Or, we could also place the unit on the floor when we needed additional counter space. And, it could be stretched out completely if someone wanted to read and bed and still keep charging.

My particular model is a little on the larger side (with 6 usb ports and 2 a/c ports), and I believe it has been discontinued. But, there are several comparable and affordable versions available that are just as functional and can serve the same purpose.

Thus, while a basic outlet expander could be quite functional, it was helpful to have one that also included a meaningful cord. 

Different Cruise Line Policies

I recently ran across a blog post that was promoting a specific brand of power strip and suggesting that it was really the only type of power strip permitted on cruises. But such blanket assertions are a little misplaced.  Let me start by saying that I have no allegiance to any specific type or brand of power strip. Just get something that gets the job done (but, if you do make a purchase using in of the links on this page, that purchase might generate a commision at no cost to you. For full information, see disclosures)).

There is no blanket policy on power strips that’s applicable to all cruise lines. Here’s the basics of what you need to know.

Some cruise lines have no obvious policies limiting power strips.

Notably, several cruise lines don’t have any express policy one way or the other on power strips. Despite listing out other prohibited items, their customer information pages appear to be completely silent on the issues of power strips and outlet expanders. So, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line has posted an extremely detailed list of items that are prohibited on NCL’s ships. It even goes so far as to specifically identify Samsung Note 7 as a prohibited item. But, the list contains no mention of power strips or extension cords (with or without surge protection).

Likewise, Celebrity Cruises specifically encourages guests who are getting ready to cruise to “gather those electronic devices and chargers”  and cautions that “you’re going to need to keep your devices charged, so make sure to pack your chargers.” But, its website makes provides no instructions or precautions about how folks should plan to actually use those chargers. (Notably, the very next paragraph on the same page entitled “What Not To Bring” doesn’t say anything about power strips or extension cords.)

Some cruise lines expressly bar surge protectors.

Carnival’s policies permit “power strips, multi plug box outlets/adaptors and extension cords”  as long as they don’t have surge protection. And, Princess Cruises has a list of prohibited items that basically adopts the same policy. Its sister cruise line Holland America states a similar policy in its FAQ Booklet (Page 7 under “packing advice”).

Some cruise lines also bar extension cords.

Disney’s list of prohibited items includes “extension cords or surge protectors.” That said, some folks in various cruise fora have reported that they have encountered no problems using USB style hubs instead.

Finally, there’s Royal Caribbean. Its list of items prohibited on board includes “electrical extension cords” without specific reference to surge protectors. That said, I’ve never personally had a problem with bringing my power strip shown above (multi-port USB charger with 2 a/c outlets) even though it obviously has a cord attached. I’ve taken it on at least 6 Royal Caribbean cruises and openly used it without incident.

Key Features To Look For In This Must Have Cruise Accessory

  • No surge protection – Even though not all cruise lines have an obvious express written ban, the majority of cruise ships don’t allow surge protection features. So, a power strip or outlet expander that doesn’t have such a feature can be more widely used on multiple cruise ships.
  • Both traditional A/C ports and USB ports. Many, if not most, of your electronic devices today can be charged using a USB port instead of a pronged plug. Because USB plugs need considerably less space, you’re able to charge more items using one outlet.
  • Compact size. So you can minimize the amount of counter space needed for charges. And, a compact size power strip will be also easier to pack.

Closing Thoughts

A power strip can make your cruise experience significantly more comfortable. Be sure to add one to your packing list!

For more tips on preparing for your cruise and what to pack, download our free prep and pack checklist.  Get your free copy now!





How To Enjoy Your Half-Day In Colorful Key West Port

Posted onLeave a commentCategoriesPORTS & EXCURSIONS

Does your family cruise stop at the Key West port? Get some quick tips on how to make the most of your day and enjoy this colorful island.

Key West Port | Panoramic photo of downtown streets

We stopped at the Key West port as part of a recent back-to-back Havana cruise on Majesty of the Seas. At the time that we booked our cruise, I had no knowledge about Key West. I knew it was in Florida, That’s it. And, because the Key West port is a Florida port, I assumed that this would be a stop dominated by a beach excursion. But turns out that visiting the beach was not really the top family option!

Key West has many claims to fame. It’s the southernmost point geographically of the United States. And, it’s only 90 miles away from Cuba. Which  is less than the 160+ mile distance between Key West and Miami. And, several famous writers and poets have called Key West home including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and Shel Silverstein. (If you have kids who are Judy Blume fans, let them know that she lives on the island as well!)

Key West has also served as a vacation destination for several U.S. Presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Truman’s Little White House is now a popular museum and tourist attraction.

Finally, the Key West port is also known for its amazing sunsets. Unfortunately, that’s one treat we weren’t able to experience due to our ship’s late afternoon departure.

Key West Beaches

Coastline of Fort Zachary State Park in Key West Port

Based on our pre-trip research, the best beach option appeared to be the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.  Unlike several of the other beaches in the area, the beach at Fort Zachary remains in its natural state without the benefit of sand shipped in from the Caribbean. It’s a coral beach that’s rocky in texture, so some type of water shoes or flip flops are strongly recommended. The beach snorkeling there receives rave reviews. And, visitors also have the opportunity to tour the historic Civil War fort for which the park is named.

Ultimately, after weighing our options, we decided to explore the island and save our beach adventures for our stop at the Cozumel port.


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Touring The Key West Port

Key West Port | photo of direction signs on Mallory SquareOne of the best ways to enjoy your time in the Key West port is simply walking around. You can have a great time strolling around and popping in and out of shops and cafes. Notwithstanding the absence of a beach focus, the ambiance is very much laid back fun in the sun. The laid back nature of the island permeates the atmosphere like a special kind of humidity. You can almost touch it.

Some of the more popular excursions for the Key West port include two variations of a hop on/hop off bus tour. They were both roughly the same price and kids are free. But, there’s a big distinction between the routes. The Conch Train version stays in the downtown area while the Old Town Trolley version includes ½ dozen or so more stops around the island.

Figuring to get more bang for our buck, we signed up for the longer one as to see more of what there was to see. But, truthfully, much of the extra stops were just hotels or shopping centers.  It was nice to see the overall island, but there wasn’t any real hopping on or off at those extra stops. So, if you have time concerns, you won’t be missing much with the shorter versions. Also, since the Conch Train is an actual train on wheels, your kids may get an extra kick out of that.

Beware Wasting Time Getting Into Town

Our cruise ship docked at the Old Mole Pier, which is owned by the navy. The naval installation has restricted access.  So no pictures were allowed while you are on the pier. And, passengers must pass through a security checkpoint and show photo identification when returning to the pier.

It turned out to be quite the production getting from the ship to our excursion.

For the Key West port call, we decided to book our cruise excursions through the cruise line. The Old Town Trolley excursion included transportation from the ship to town where the hop on/off part started. At first, this sounds like a big benefit. Turns out, not so much. It literally took us two hours from the time we were told to meet in the ship auditorium until we actually started the tour.  Followed by another very long wait standing in the hot sun waiting for the shuttle. (We were never provided an explanation for the extremely long wait times.)

It turns out that a shuttle ride from the Old Mole Pier to town takes about 5 to 10 minutes. And, the shuttle rides into town are free. The Old Town Trolley and Conch Train vehicles are used as part of the shuttle service.

Both the Conch Train tours and the Old Trolley tours can be booked online easily, so we might have been better off doing this particular adventure as an independent excursion. We could have skipped the long wait in the auditorium and hopped on a free shuttle into town.

The Old Town Trolley

Once we got into town, the tour itself was great. The trolley passes by many of the main tourist attractions, so if you plan your time right, you can fit in several activities along with the trolley tour itself. Some of the key highlights:

  • The tour starts and ends in Mallory Square. In that same area you can also visit the Key West Aquarium, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and Truman’s Little White House.
  • The third stop is near Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a famous Ernest Hemingway watering hole.
  • The next stop (#4) takes you to the popular Duval Street (see below).
  • Stop No. 5 takes you to the Bahama Village where you can stop and visit the Ernest Hemingway House.
  • Stop No. 11 takes you to the Southernmost point.

We had a very low key and relaxing day on the trolley. Everyone could enjoy open air access in the trolley, and the drivers had interesting observations to make along the way. We hopped off for walking around, seeing key sites, lunch and souvenir shopping. 

Roosters in Key West Port

One distinctive feature found in the Key West Port are wild roaming roosters. There are also wild hens with baby chicks, but the colorful roosters are quite striking and hard to miss. Key West locals refer to these proud fowl as gypsy chickens.

Our trolley tour guide provided a brief explanation about the birds. The short version is that settlers brought chickens to raise as sustenance. And, when some folks migrated to the area from Cuba they also brought roosters for cockfighting. At some point, backyard chickens became obsolete, and cockfighting was outlawed. Owners essentially released both sets of birds to fend for themselves, and they have thrived quite well.

Duval Street

The famous Duval Street is essentially the area’s main strip filled with bars, shops, restaurants and many visitors. For those who like to shop, the shoppers in our travel party found some awesome deals at the Coach factory story. It is situated right down town on Duval Street. No need to leave the beaten path to find it. And, there were countless places to pick up traditional souvenirs as well.

Key West has lots of bars. As the tour drivers like to say, it has more bars than beaches. We were there during the middle of the day with kids, so that wasn’t really part of our itinerary. But it is possible to hit some of the more famous spots as part of the bus tour.

The Southernmost Point

The island of Key West is literally the southernmost point of the United States. And, there’s a special marker commemorating it (a very large cement buoy).  This is also one of the places you can hop off the trolley and explore. Lots of people like to stop there and take a picture. There was quite a crowd and a line of people waiting to do so. The wait to take an actual up close and personal picture with the marker is about 1-1 ½ hours. So, if you want to do that, you may want to go there first, and then continue with the rest of your day.

Getting Back To The Ship

Something else to be mindful of is the issue of crowds getting back to the ship. The trolleys used for the Trolley Tour are also used to shuttle people back to the Mole pier.  Late in the day, as more people were trying to head back to ship, there was a very large crowd waiting at the final trolley stop in Mallory Square. Not everyone could fit and most folks had to wait for next buses. By the time our bus pulled up, there were seats for 5 people. But there were about 45-50 people actually waiting.

Popular Activities For Key West Port That We Ended Up Not Doing:

Based on advance research, two kid-friendly attractions stood out: The Key West Aquarium and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum. Because of time constraints and the logistical delays referenced above, we weren’t able to fit either of those in. So we’ll have to save them for a future trip. But here are a couple first hand accounts which show why you should consider including these on your agenda.

Closing Thoughts:

We found the Key West port to be a delightful island to spend a relaxing sun-filled day. Although a handful of beach options exist, you will likely find more engaging entertainment roaming through town.

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