I’ve sailed Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, and MSC over the past 3 years and it’s actually easy to know when to buy an alcoholic beverage package.
For many people, a cruise goes hand in hand with enjoying some adult beverages. Not everyone drinks on a cruise, but an awful lot of people head for a bar as soon as they get on board while others have fun trying all sorts of different drinks.
Taking a cruise offers many passengers a chance to relax, recharge, and maybe indulge in food and drink in ways they might not on land. The challenge is that while Royal Caribbean RCL, Carnival Cruise Line CCL, Norwegian Cruise Line NCLH, and MSC all have lots of food options included in your basic fare, drinks costs extra.
On the 28 cruises I’ve taken over the past 3 years, no matter what cruise line I’m sailing on, I’ve seen passengers shocked that alcoholic drinks aren’t included and even more who don’t realize that specialty coffee, soda, bottled water, and even juice cost extra. It’s also not that rare to see people shocked when they make their first trip to the bar and realize that a beer costs around $6-8 while wine costs a little more, and mixed drinks cost $12-14.
But, whether you figure it out on the ship or before you sail, passengers, at some point, need to make a decision to go a la carte or to buy a drink package.
Image source: Daniel Kline/TheStreet
Make Your Beverage Package Before You Leave
Once you get on the ship, you’ve generally lost your best chance to save money on a beverage package. That’s true for Carnival, which charges $59.95, per person, per day plus an 18% service charge if you pay for it before you sail. Once you get on the ship, that price rises to $64.95 per person, per day plus an 18% service charge if you book onboard.
Norwegian and MSC do things a little differently. You won’t pay more if you book onboard, but you should look for cruise fares that include drink packages when you book your sailings. In many cases, these higher base fare offers work out to a lower price than buying a drink package after booking the cheapest fare.
The challenge — and it’s a moving target — is that many drinks included packages come with the most basic package offer. With Norwegian, that’s still a pretty impressive package. On MSC, the entry-level drinks package includes a very limited selection of beer, wine, and well cocktails.
Royal Caribbean actually makes things hardest on passengers because it does not have set drink package pricing. The price for your cruise changes regularly, There are often holiday sales, but with prices that can vary from $60 per person, per day to over $100 per person, per day, that can be frustrating.
The good news is that if you book a Royal Caribbean drink package and the price goes down, you can cancel and rebook. But, in nearly all cases, the price before your cruise will be cheaper than waiting until you are onboard.
Drink packages cannot be shared, and in a road sense, all four cruise lines require that all adults 21 and over staying in the same room buy a package if one is going to. In many cases, if an adult in your room does not drink, the cruise line will make an exception if you call, allowing the non-drinker to buy a non-alcoholic beverage package (but results can vary).
Is a Cruise Ship Drink Package Worth It?
Drink packages seem expensive. Prices vary quite a bit, but if you assume $75 per person, per day (plus an 18% gratuity), which is roughly the middle of where they price out, the actual math is pretty simple. It’s also worth remembering that drinks packages also include soda, specialty coffee, milkshakes, and bottled water as well as alcohol.
So, if you just factor in alcohol, $75 worth of drinks in a day is roughly (prices vary by cruise line on individual drinks):
Cocktails/Mixed Drinks ($14): 5.3 per day.Wine ($10): 7.5 per dayBeer ($8): 9.375
Those numbers don’t seem all that daunting, especially when you consider that all of these cruise lines accept the drink package on their private island. The numbers come down, however, when you factor in other beverages:
Water: $3Soda: $4Fresh juice: $8Specialty coffee: $6Milkshake: $8
If you assume, $20 in non-alcoholic beverage charges each day then the value proposition comes down quite a bit. Drinking an added $55 in adult beverages each day looks like this:
Cocktails/Mixed Drinks ($14): 3.9 per day.Wine ($10): 5.5 per dayBeer ($8): 6.875
If you’re going to come anywhere close to those numbers each day (and the actual numbers are actually lower for Carnival and MSC) then it usually makes sense to buy the alcoholic beverage package. Not having to do the math or worry about what you’re spending each day has its own value removing the variable comes with a certain peace of mind).