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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
If 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.
If 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.
6. You primarily drink coffee based beverages.
Basic 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:
- 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.)
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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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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).