Cruise lines operate in international waters and can make their own rules about drinking, smoking, gambling, and more.
Cruise ships leaving from the United States technically don’t need to follow U.S. laws. That’s because nearly every ship sailing from American ports has been flagged to a foreign country.
In theory, once a Royal Caribbean Group (RCL) – Get Free Report or Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) – Get Free Report ship hits international waters, the cruise lines could allow passengers to do pretty much anything. Neither company, however, has opted for gladiator fights or toddler shot drinking contests.
Both cruise lines have generally followed American law which includes only allowing people ages 21-and-over to drink and not allowing marijuana smoking onboard. The drinking rules, which do vary on sailings originating in South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand that don’t stop in a U.S. port, are something both Royal Caribbean and Carnival clearly state in their policy documents:
Royal Caribbean: The minimum age to consume alcohol on Royal Caribbean International ships on sailings originating in North America or the Caribbean is twenty-one (21).Carnival: Guests must be 21 years of age or older to be served alcohol on board. Proper I.D with birth date is required.
In one area, however, both Carnival and Royal Caribbean break with U.S. policy when it comes to age restrictions.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival Follow U.S. Federal Law
In a broad sense, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival follow U.S. federal laws. That’s why marijuana can’t be consumed onboard even though it’s legal in some states. It’s also why (but maybe not the only reason) why the cruise lines use 21, not 18, as their legal drinking age.
In 1984, the U.S. adopted a National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which uniformly made the drinking age 21 by federal mandate. Previously, states had the right to set their own drinking ages, and some opted for 18 while others used 18 for beer, but not hard liquor.
Before the federal act was passed, some cruise lines allowed passengers over 18, but under 21 to drink as long as they had parental permission. That, as you might imagine, could change the tenor of cruises should groups of people who are underage on land but legal on the ship decide that it was party time.
The federal adoption of 21 as a national drinking age allowed the cruise lines to make that change (and likely save some headaches.)
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Royal Caribbean and Carnival Open Their Casinos to 18-Year-Olds
While cruise lines would probably gladly trade the added revenue from 18, 19, and 20-year-olds buying drinking to not have to deal with the problems that creates, the same isn’t true in their casinos. A drunk teen might impact other passengers in a negative way while an 18, 19, or 20-year-old losing money in the casino won’t cause the same problems.
Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival allow anyone age 18 and up to play table games or slot machines in their casinos. That’s true despite 21 being the legal age for casino gambling in most of the U.S.
This has happened because the U.S. does not have a federal gambling law and exactly what you can gamble on at age 18 versus 21 varies on a state-by-state basis. Most states allow people to buy lottery tickets and bet at race tracks at 18. Some also let people play casino-style bingo for cash prizes at 18.
Most states require you to be 21 to gamble in a casino, but in some states including Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, and Washington, 18 is the legal age for casinos. And, in a few other states, most casinos use 21, but there are certain exceptions (casinos on Native American land and day cruises) where 18 is the age.
That lack of clear federal direction makes it easy for Carnival and Royal Caribbean to make the legal gambling age in their onboard casinos.