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The Real Cost of “Free”: What Does the NCL Free Drink Package Include?

Find out why an NCL free drink package really isn’t free, and why you may want to skip this promotional NCL beverage package altogether.


NCL Drink Package | photo of woman staring excitedly at group of draft bears and a shot glass

Norwegian Cruise Line often runs some version of a “Free at Sea” promotion where you have the option to choose a free beverage package as a perk when booking a cruise on one of its ships. Since a cruise drinks package can often be expensive, this may seem like a great deal. But, you should hit pause on that and take a closer look.

For some passengers, this so-called “free” promotional perk could actually increase the overall cost of your cruise rather than save you any money. 

KEY POINTS ON NCL FREE DRINK PACKAGE

  • The “Free” package has a 20% gratuity fee, approximately $150, based on your sailing.
  • It’s only worth it if you will have 2+ alcoholic drinks onboard every day; otherwise, consider skipping.
  • Package excludes items like canned sodas, fresh juices, specialty coffees, bottled & sparkling water – extra charges apply.

If you consistently drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day, then you will get a lot of value from the (almost) free NCL free drink package perk. But if you know that you or another adult in your party will drink less than two, read on for help figuring out whether this is right for you.

A Quick Overview of the Norwegian Free At Sea Promotional Offers

NCL Beverage Package | Photo of NCL Bliss in Tortola, BVI
E. Warren| NCL Bliss in Tortola, BVI

Norwegian Cruises typically runs some version of a “Free At Sea” promotion that will specify a menu of perk options from which guests can choose at the time they book their reservation.

Generally, this menu includes five categories of perks: a free unlimited beverage package for two passengers; a free internet plan for one person; shore excursion credits for the entire cabin; a specialty restaurant dining package for two people; and friends and family sail free (certain sailings). At times, a promotion may also include free prepaid gratuities or some airfare travel credit.

NCL Free Drink Package | photo of October 2023 NCL promotional offer
Free At Sea Promotional Offer from October 2023

Depending on what promotion is running at the time and/or what category of cabin you book, you will be entitled to select one or more of these perks. Usually, bookings in concierge, suite, or Haven staterooms will receive all five.

But there are some key things you should know about this offer before selecting an NCL drink package as one of your promotional perks. 


A Closer Look at the Free At Sea Beverage Package 

This is how the Norwegian drink package option works.

The drink package promotion applies to the first two guests in the cabin. Guests who are 21 or over will receive a Premium Beverage Package. Guests under 21 will automatically receive a Soda Package.

The Premium Beverage Package (previously called the Ultimate Beverage Package) includes most types of alcoholic beverages that cost $15 or less. That includes a range of wine, beer, and cocktails. It also includes all fountain sodas and juices.

Package privileges apply at every venue throughout the ship (except room service) and also apply on Great Stirrup Cay (one of Norwegian’s private islands). Package privileges do not apply on the Harvest Caye private island.

The Soda Package includes all fountain drinks. The Soda Package also applies throughout the ship and on Great Stirrup Cay.

What does NCL free drink package include | photo of guests at The 'local
Casual bar overlooking the atrium on Norwegian Encore.

News Flash: The “Free” NCL Drink Package Really Isn’t Free

The first thing you need to know about an NCL drink package is that you won’t actually be getting anything for free. On a typical 7-day cruise in 2023, it comes with an actual price tag of $152.60 per person.

Like many cruise lines, Norwegian assesses automatic gratuities for all beverages. This auto charge applies to individual drinks purchased on the ship, and to any beverage packages purchased in advance. This is not optional.

Currently, NCL has a 20% gratuity rate. So, when anyone purchases a Norwegian drink package, an additional 20% will be added to the bill in a lump sum.

And, as for the “free” version of the NCL drink package, that offer does not include the cost of those gratuities. You are responsible for paying the automatic 20% gratuity that’s assessed against all beverage packages, even if you’re selecting it as one of your promotional perks. This entire amount is due upfront before you board the cruise. It’s rolled into the total price of your cruise when you book your reservation.

So, this is how the math works out using 2023 pricing. Norwegian assesses a gratuity charge of $21.80 per person per day for its basic Premium Beverage Package. So, for a 7-day cruise, you will be assessed a charge of $152.60 for each adult beverage package. If your second passenger is under 21 and only receiving a Soda Package, then you’ll be charged $11.13 for that package.

NCL Beverage Package | photo of hands holding cocktails

Is The $153 “Free” NCL Drink Package Still A Good Deal?

Even though a drink package that comes with a required $153 fee really isn’t free, you could still think that’s relatively cheap for unlimited beverages, and, thus a good deal. If you are drinking alcohol every day on the ship, then you could easily consume more than $22 in beverages per day. But, if you aren’t drinking alcohol every day, then the value proposition is much more questionable.

Adult alcoholic beverages generally incur charges in the $10 to $12 range. And, the Premium Beverage Package imposes a max cap of $15 per drink. So, on average, your first two alcoholic drinks would be $20 to $24. Any drinks consumed after that each day would essentially be free. (Note that some drinks are always free regardless of if you have a drink package; for instance, coffee and punch at the buffet.) 

So, what if you’re not going to drink more than two alcoholic drinks on the ship every day? Couldn’t that person just get some type of soda package? While there is indeed a version of an NCL drink package for purchase that’s an Adult Soda Package, that’s not an option under the Free at Sea promotion. For folks over 21, your only option is the Premium Beverage Package, which comes with a $153 fee.

NCL Drink Package | Photo of cruise ship bar

 

How You Can Lose Money On A Free NCL Drink Package

When I booked our first cruise on Norwegian (check out our Norwegian Bliss review), I was told that I could only select the Premium Beverage Package as a drink package under the program. On this cruise, I planned to sail solo with my two kids. So I would receive the Premium Beverage Package and one of my kids would receive a soda package. The total assessed gratuity charge would be $136 (pre-2023 prices). Although annoying, it still seemed like we could make good value out of the packages even with the required fee.  But, that turned out not to be the case.

Limitations on Beverage Selection

First, many of the non-alcoholic drinks that we would typically drink were simply not covered under the package. NCL only offers a selection of basic Pepsi products. This does not include any Dr. Pepper products. So, the available fountain drinks consisted of Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Sierra Mist, Mt. Dew, and Ginger Ale.

These favorite items were not covered:

  • Bottles or cans of any non-alcoholic beverage. Notably, this restriction does not apply to alcoholic beverages — so, you could get bottles or cans of beer, but not sodas or water.
  • Sparkling water. When requesting sparkling water, I was offered tonic water or club soda. These have bubbles, but they’re not sparkling water.
  • Specialty coffee drinks. All lattes and cappuccinos incurred a charge. 
  • No fresh squeezed juices.
  • No energy drinks.

Limitations On Convenience

And, the inability to get anything in a bottle or can limits the overall utility of the package for us. You can’t easily bring drinks back to your cabin. You can’t easily store them in the fridge. And, it’s not convenient to walk around the ship carrying an open cup. The only way we could get canned soda was to order them through room service, which would not be covered by the NCL drink package and would incur a fee.

So, as a result of these various limitations, we ended up paying additional fees for the beverages that we actually wanted that weren’t covered by our NCL beverage package. We probably consumed far less of our preferred beverages than we otherwise would have, but we did not abandon them completely.

(Note: Norwegian does offer a drink package that includes all of the preferred drinks noted above. The Premium Plus Beverage Package can be purchased for $138 per day and includes premium branded alcohol, as well as bottles of still and sparkling water, energy drinks, and specialty coffee.) 


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Sad Fact: We Got Little Value From The Promotional NCL Drink Package

So, by the end of the week, we ended up with quite a few beverage charges on our account. And, as for my use of the actual “free” package – I didn’t get much for what I was charged pre-cruise for gratuities. Over the course of the week, I probably had less than 10 beverages that were actually covered by the NCL drink package. So that works out to about $12.50 per drink for what were non-alcoholic beverages. 

Knowing What I Know Now About The NCL Beverage Package

In retrospect, one possible way to address that would be to bring our own sealed cups or thermoses.  Under Norwegian rules, you’re allowed to get two drinks at one time on a drink package. (Many cruise lines only allow you to get one drink at a time, so this is liberal.)

Presumably, you could ask for fountain drinks without ice and pour them into your own closed container. This would at least address the issue of having convenient access to beverages.

Another option would be to decline the “free” package altogether (or make a different choice if there were other options available) and pay for the package that makes sense. (Note: That’s what we did on a subsequent NCL cruise.) If you pay outright for the Adult Soda Package, you would pay less than the “free” premium package. 


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So When Does The Free At Sea Promotional NCL Drink Package Make Sense?

Selecting the promotional NCL drink package could still end up being a net positive value in many circumstances. Adult alcoholic beverages generally ran in the $10 to $12 range. If you have any beverages beyond two alcoholic beverages each day, you will come out ahead. You would start to save money with pretty much any third drink. This would be true whether the third drink was alcoholic or not.

NCL Drink Package | Photo of couple walking on cruise ship deck at sunset with drinks

The same math works out if the two guests receiving the promotional drink package are regular drinkers and a light drinker or non-drinker. That would be a total of  $43.60 per day for both people. That’s the equivalent of about 4 alcoholic drinks per day for the couple, depending on price. It would seem easy for two people to drink 4 adult beverages between the two of them.

Does a Paid Premium Beverage Package Make Sense?

If you aren’t getting an NCL beverage package for free, then it probably makes no sense for most people to pay full price for the Premium Beverage Package.

Starting in 2023, NCL charges $109 per day for its Premium Beverage Package, plus gratuities of $21.80. That’s a total of $130.80 per day. The maximum beverage price covered by the package is $15. So, eight max-priced drinks would be $120, which is still less than the daily price of the premium package.  You would only start to see a price break once you consumed your 9th max-price drink of the day. And that would have to be 9 drinks actually consumed on the ship itself. Drink packages don’t apply when you’re running around port or on shore excursions.

And again, that’s if you are drinking the more expensive drinks and cocktails. Typical drinks are much less than that. As a comparison, on some cruises, the featured cocktail of the day is $10.95. So you would have to drink 12 or more of that price-level drink daily to start seeing any savings.

Bottom Line On The NCL Premium Beverage Package

If you have the option to get a complimentary Premium Beverage Package and you drink more than two alcoholic beverages each day, then you’ll have a good deal. But, if you have to pay full price for a Premium Beverage Package, then you’ll only be getting a good deal from a monetary perspective if you drink 9 or more alcoholic beverages each day.

Elaine Warren

Founder & Crew Chief

Elaine founded this website after publishing the book The Family Cruise Companion’s Guide to Cruising With Kids. She has sailed on 40 cruises (and counting). She loves helping families navigate their way to an adventure-filled, fun, and memorable vacation.


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Last update on 2024-06-14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API