Whether you're new to cruising or readying to book a repeat voyage, you're probably contemplating whether or not to tack on an onboard beverage package. Most cruise lines—at least those that aren't all-inclusive—offer prepaid add-on drink packages. There are all-alcohol or wine-only packages, soda options, and even alternatives for unlimited specialty coffees.
The benefits of drink packages can be twofold: a discount on your overall bar bill, as well as the convenience of not signing a check for every soda or glass of wine ordered. As an added bonus, the unlimited nature of the arrangement may encourage your palate to explore new flavors—after all, sampling new drinks is all the more feasible when you're not worrying that your money will go to waste if you don't like it.
How to Determine If a Beverage Package is Right for You
These unlimited drink packages can be a terrific value—under certain circumstances. However, many cruise lines mandate that if one person in your stateroom buys a beverage package, everyone in the stateroom has to buy one. If a couple with similar drinking habits is sharing a cabin, this may be fine, but the calculation is murkier for families or a couple with one alcohol drinker and one teetotaler.
Know what you're getting in the drink package. Most soda packages are valid only for fountain soda. If you prefer canned tonic, you should stick to paying à la carte prices for your drinks.
The itinerary will also play a major part in your decision-making. If you're spending several days at sea, you may get more value out of a drink package than if you are out and about in port all day.
Let's take a look at what the major cruise lines are offering in terms of packages:
The "Cheers! Beverage Program" has been rolled out on just about all of Carnival's ships, following a successful trial period.
Best Bet: The Cheers! Beverage Program offers wine, beer, spirits (valued $10 or less), sodas, and non-alcoholic frozen cocktails throughout the cruise for $29.95 per person, per day ($42.95 for European voyages), plus a 15-percent gratuity.
Wine lovers will especially benefit from Celebrity's package offerings.
Best Bet: Celebrity's "Premium Package" runs $54 per person, per day, and includes fountain and canned soft drinks (for Coca-Cola products), premium bottled water, specialty coffees and teas, frozen drinks and smoothies, Red Bull Energy Drink, and Vitamin Water, plus beer, cocktails, and wines by the glass (up to $13 per glass). Package holders are also entitled to a 20-percent discount on wines bottles.
The Catch: Note that packages cost less if you order them before boarding. For example, the three-bottle "Taste of the Vineyards" premium wine package costs $129 before embarkation, or $149 if purchased onboard.
Best Bet: The "Allegrissimo Premium" package is designed for those who want a truly all-inclusive experience onboard. For $57 per day for adults, you can consume wine by the glass, draft and bottled beer, soft drinks, mineral water, hot drinks, and all bar drinks like champagne cocktails, single malt whisky, superior brandies, and other premium spirits, minibar drinks and mineral water in your cabin, plus all selections from the Gelateria menu, Pastry Shop, and room service menu. The non-alcoholic children's package is $28.50 per day.
The Catch: Everyone sharing a stateroom, or traveling together and wishing to dine at the same table, must order a drink package.
Norwegian Cruise Line
For travelers in search of a more inclusive cruise experience, Norwegian Cruise Line also offers an unlimited beverage package.
Package Options: Soda; Wine and Beer; All-Inclusive
Best Bet: The "Ultimate Beverage Package" is $49 per person, per day (plus 15 percent gratuity), and includes a large selection of beer, spirits, cocktails, and wines by the glass.
The Catch: If one person in a stateroom purchases a package, everyone in that stateroom (as well as anyone in an adjoining cabin under the same payment method) must also buy a beverage package.
Package Options: Soda; Water; Juice; Cocktails; Wine; All-Inclusive
Best Bet: Pull out all the stops for $65 per person, per day, with the "Ultimate Package," which includes premium coffee and tea; bottled, sparkling, and still water; fresh-squeezed orange juice; non-alcoholic cocktails; and fountain soda; plus cocktails (up to a $10 value); frozen drinks; beer; premium wine by the glass (up to a $12 value); fountain soda (Coke products); and a 20 percent discount on bottles of wine.
The Catch: All-inclusive drink packages are only available on cruises lasting four or more days.
Sometimes a cruise line's beverage packages are more about convenience than all-inclusivity. For example, Holland America sells beverage cards instead of unlimited drink packages.
Package Options: Soda; Espresso; Wine; Beer; Cocktails
Best Bet: Beverage cards are available in the following denominations: $50, $100, and $250. The card is valid for purchase of soda, espresso, non-alcoholic beverages, wine, beer, and spirits. There is also a $50 non-alcoholic beverage card, and a $25 soda card that is worth $50 toward fountain soda drinks.
The Catch: If you don't spend all of the money on your card, it will not be refunded to you at the end of the cruise.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line