Are cruise drink packages worth the price? Everything you need to know

Are cruise drink packages worth the price? The short answer is that it depends.

It depends on how expensive a cruise line’s alcohol package is on any given ship as compared to the cost of drinks purchased individually. Both things vary greatly from line to line.

It also depends on how much you drink in any given day and what sort of drinks you typically order.

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In addition, it depends on whether you’ll have access to any free drinks on a ship before paying up for a drink package. On many river cruise ships, for instance, wine and beer with lunch and dinner are included in base fares. You only pay extra for other alcoholic drinks served at meals or outside of meal times.

At some lines, the question isn’t even relevant, as they include all or most alcoholic drinks in their base fares. At some other lines, drinks normally cost extra but often are thrown in for free as part of booking promotions.

Thinking about buying a cruise drink package or just wondering how much you should budget for drinks when cruising? Here, we talk about everything you need to know about whether purchasing an alcoholic drink package when cruising is right for you.

What is a cruise drink package?

One of the big allures of a cruise for many vacationers is that quite a lot is included in the fare, including a room, most meals and a wide range of entertainment. Alas, at many lines, drinks are not part of the package — and they can be quite pricey. For heavier drinkers, it’s easy to run up an enormous bar tab when ordering drinks by the glass.

Enter the drink package, a flat-fee, all-you-can-drink offering that many lines have added over the years. For a fixed per-day rate, a drink package lets you order as many alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks as you want every day.

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The price of such packages varies widely from line to line, from around $60 a day at cruise giant Carnival Cruise Line (if booked in advance) to $138 a day at Norwegian Cruise Line. For more on what’s included in such packages and a line-by-line breakdown of what they cost, see TPG’s ultimate guide to cruise line drink packages.

The benefits of a cruise line drink package

It can pay off to buy a drink package if you are someone who normally orders a lot of individual drinks on a cruise ship, particularly pricier drinks such as premium cocktails and wines by the glass. It’s not uncommon for premium cocktails to cost as much as $15 or more on some lines, and wines by the glass also can approach $15 or more on some lines, too.

The first thing you should do when considering a drink package is carefully think through how many drinks (and what type) you normally order while on vacation.

As noted above, cruise drink packages on ships often are quite pricey, and they only make sense if you’re a big spender on drinks — a really big spender. Carnival, for instance, charges $59.95 per person, per day for its Cheers! drink package if booked in advance ($64.95 if booked on board). Royal Caribbean drink packages sometimes cost as much as $89 per day. One Norwegian drink package is $138 a day. These packages only make sense if you routinely spend more than those amounts on drinks on a per-day basis.

Well-known mixologist Rob Floyd helped Princess Cruises redesign its cocktail menu in 2018. PRINCESS CRUISES

If you’re a beer drinker, the packages generally are not a good deal. It’s better just to pay for beer as you go. On Carnival ships, for instance, many beers cost $7 to $7.95. You’d have to order more than seven to eight beers a day at that price for Carnival’s Cheers! package to start paying off.

The packages make better sense for wine drinkers, as the cost of wine by the glass on cruise ships often is high. Wines by the glass on Carnival ships range from around $10 to $15. At the higher end of that spectrum, you’d have to order five glasses a day for the package to start paying off.

Related: The best drinks to order with a cruise ship beverage package

In addition to alcoholic drinks, passengers purchasing a cruise drink package typically can order an unlimited number of nonalcoholic beverages, such as specialty coffees and sodas that normally come with an extra charge. So the packages can be a good value to vacationers who are fond of ordering a high number of lattes, Cokes and other nonalcoholic beverages during the day in addition to alcoholic drinks.

To use the Carnival example again, someone who orders two or three lattes in the morning, several sodas during the day and three or four glasses of premium wine in the evening would come out ahead by buying a drink package.

For some cruisers, drink packages also prove to be a valuable budgeting tool. You typically can buy a drink package in advance and know exactly what you’re going to spend for drinks for your entire cruise before you even step on board. Having a drink package also makes bar-hopping on ships easy, as you don’t have to worry about paying for drinks as you go.

The drawbacks of a cruise drink package

The big drawback of buying a drink package when you cruise is that you may not get the value out of it that you think.

One thing to keep in mind is that lines generally sell drink packages by the cruise, not by the day. That means that you can’t just buy a package for the specific days when you want to bar-hop on a ship. If you’re on a seven-day cruise, you’ll have to pay the steep per-day rates for all seven days — even for days when you don’t plan to drink heavily.

Even if you think you’ll use a drink package every day, remember that you might be spending a significant amount of time off your ship during port days on your cruise. On days when you’re off the ship much of the time, you won’t be ordering nearly as many drinks on board as on a sea day. Some cruise lines don’t even allow you to use your drink packages on their private islands.

The packages make the most sense for passengers who consistently order a large number of drinks from day to day — even on port days.

Related: Can I bring alcohol on a cruise ship? A line-by-line guide

On many ships, you’ll also need to factor in the drinking habits of your traveling companion. Several lines including Carnival, Holland America and MSC Cruises have a rule that if one adult in a cabin orders a drink package, all adults in the cabin must order the package. This is to prevent two people in a cabin from sharing a single drink package.

In such cases, it often doesn’t make sense to buy a cruise drink package unless everyone in your cabin is a significant drinker. If one of you drinks and the other does not, you’ll save more money by buying drinks by the glass.

Two lines that notably don’t have such a rule are Princess Cruises and Windstar Cruises.

Another downside of many cruise drink packages is that they often have unexpected exclusions and price caps. Even the priciest drink packages might not include your favorite brand of whiskey or vodka, for instance. And many drink packages only apply to drinks on menus that cost under, say, $15. Note that in some cases, lines offer more than one drink package, with a pricier tier that gives you access to a broader range of brands and a higher per-drink cost limit.

If you’re someone who is picky about wines, meanwhile, you may find that the wines included in drink packages don’t quite meet your expectations. Generally, cruise drink packages only can be used for the wines by the glass that are available at bars and restaurants on ships, not the wider array of bottled wine in cruise ship cellars. That said, signing up for a drink package will get you a discount when buying wines by the bottle on some lines.

Related: These are the best cruise ship bars

How to get a free cruise drink package

The decision about whether or not to get a cruise ship drink package changes when you can get a package for free. Some big-ship lines will throw in drink packages for no extra cost as a perk during limited-time or ongoing booking promotions.

The line perhaps best known for throwing in free cruise drink packages as a booking perk is Norwegian Cruise Line. Norwegian seemingly always is running some variation of its “Free at Sea” promotion that brings a free drink package, specialty dining, excursions and other perks. Depending on the cabin category you book, you typically can get one or more of the freebies thrown in.

Other lines that historically have run promotions with free drink packages include Princess Cruises and Holland America, although both lines now are touting new all-inclusive fares that include drink packages and other perks.

Related: The best cruise booking perks – and which ones are actually free

Just note that the free cruise drink packages that lines sometimes offer with booking promotions aren’t always their top-tier drink packages. Celebrity Cruises, for instance, includes a drink package with one of its fare classes called All Included fares. But it’s not Celebrity’s top-tier Premium Drink Package. The included package only covers drinks up to $9 and does not include premium brands of liquor and beer. For an expanded list of covered brands and drinks up to $15, you’d need to pay to upgrade your package.

Another drawback of the free cruise drink packages that lines sometimes offer with booking promotions is that they’re not really free. Cruise lines typically charge customers who get a free drink package a gratuity fee for receiving the package in the amount of 15% to 20% of whatever the package normally costs. That can result in your “free” drink package actually costing you more than $100 a week.

Bottom line

Buying a drink package on a cruise ship instead of paying for drinks individually can be a good way to save when cruising. But they aren’t for everyone. Drink packages generally make sense only for cruisers who typically order large numbers of drinks every day or particularly expensive drinks such as premium cocktails. For cruisers who only have one or two or three drinks a day, or order low-cost drinks such as beers, a cruise drink package generally doesn’t make sense.

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