It just might be the year's hottest trend: Mainstream cruise lines are testing out and implementing all-inclusive drinks package. Found somewhere between the ubiquitous soda packages and the included-in-your-fare booze of luxury lines, these programs let cruisers pay one base price that covers most of their nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks onboard. But will high prices and annoying fine print persuade travelers to go it a la carte, or will the freedom to sample brightly colored cocktails and wines of unknown provenance be too appealing to ignore?
See below for a line-by-line guide to available packages, followed by some Cruise Critic member reactions to the new and not-so-new programs.
Package Details: Although Azamara Club Cruises includes select standard spirits, beers and a changing daily selection of red and white wines by the glass in their cruise fares, the line introduced five for-fee all-inclusive beverage package options in 2013 (beginning March 27 for Journey and May 15 for Quest). Options include the Premium Water Package ($7.95 pp/day), Beer Package (26 brands, $11.95 pp/day), and the Premium Liquor Package (90 brands, $12.95 pp/day), Top Shelf Liquor Package (120 brands, $15.95 pp/day) and Ultimate Liquor Package (140 brands, $18.95 pp/day). Beer and liquor packages also include 25 percent savings on premium wines by the glass. The packages feature more choices and more premium brands than the complimentary offerings.
Fine Print: Packages may be pre-purchased (through Royal Caribbean or your travel agent) or bought onboard throughout the cruise. Charges begin the day you purchase the package. Packages are not refundable once purchased and cannot be downgraded to a lower-tier package. You may order drinks through room service as part of your package.
Package Details: The Cheers! program (formerly the "My Awesome Bar Program") has been rolled out to 13 Carnival Cruise Lines ships and its private island, Half Moon Cay. The pre-cruise cost for the program is $42.95, per person, per day, and allows purchasers to select from a variety of wine, beer, spirits, sodas and nonalcoholic frozen cocktails up to a 15-drink maximum per day (for alcoholic beverages -- you can order unlimited nonalcoholic drinks). All included beverages, such as wines by the glass, beers and individual cocktails, must cost less than $10. The program also includes a 25 percent discount on bottled water, bottles of wine and Champagne, and wines by the glass and cocktails that cost more than $10.
Fine Print: If one adult in a cabin purchases the package, all adults over 21 years old in that cabin must purchase it as well. Participants can order only one drink at a time. Specialty coffee is not part of the program. A 15 percent gratuity is added to the cost of the package.
Package Details:Celebrity Cruises was a frontrunner when it comes to packages; it first introduced its alcohol packages in 2009. The line has gone package crazy with classic and premium nonalcoholic packages, as well as packages for wine, soda, bottled water and even in-room bar set-ups. Of its two main all-inclusive drinks packages, the Classic Package, starting from $44 per person, per night, includes soda, fresh squeezed and bottled juices, premium coffees and teas, nonpremium bottled water, all beers (priced up to $5 each), and spirits, cocktails, frozen drinks and wines by the glass up to $8 per serving.
The Premium Package, priced from $54 per person, per night, includes soda, premium bottled water (Evian, Perrier and San Pellegrino), specialty coffees and teas, nonalcoholic frozen drinks and smoothies, Red Bull, specialty Vitamin Waters, all beers, and spirits, cocktails and wine by the glass up to $12 per serving.
Fine Print: A 15 percent service charge is added package prices. Packages must be bought for the entire sailing and refunds are not allowed; however, packages can be purchased onboard up until three nights are left in the cruise, at prorated prices. Packages do not include drinks purchased from the minibar, room service or Enomatic wine dispensing machines.
Package Details:Costa Cruises' All-Inclusive Beverages package includes a selection of alcoholic beverages (including beer and wine), soft drinks by the glass and coffee. The cost is 19.50 euros per person, per day, plus service charges, and is available to adults 18+. A youth version of the package (see fine print) costs 11 euros per day, plus service charges, and includes soft drinks by the glass. It must be booked in combination with an adult package.
Fine Print: Mini-bar products and premium brands are excluded from the package. All passengers, even kids (ages 4 and up), traveling together with the same booking number or who choose to dine together, must purchase the package.
Ships: Select departures in the Red Sea, Mediterranean and Caribbean. See MSC's Web site for specific ships.
Package Details: Multiple beverage packages are on offer, allowing cruisers access to unlimited wines, cocktails, sodas and other beverages. MSC Cruises' package options are:
Allegrissimo Premium Adult (all-inclusive 24 hours): This includes unlimited wine (from the "by the glass" menu), draught and bottled beer, soft drinks, mineral water and all drinks from the bars and mini-bar (except on MSC Melody). Also offered are all items from the Gelateria menu, Chocolate Bar and Pastry Shop, plus mineral water in the cabins. It's priced at $57 per person, per day. The kid version, at $28.50 per day, features all the non-alcoholic options mentioned above, as well as energizer drinks, fruit juices, virgin cocktails, hot drinks, smoothies and milkshakes. It also includes nonalcoholic drinks and snacks from the mini-bar (except on MSC Melody).
Allegrissimo Adult (unlimited 24 hours): This will get you unlimited wine by the glass (choice of two whites, one rose, two reds, two sparkling wines), draught beer, soft drinks, mineral water and a wide selection of drinks and cocktails from the bar, as well as takeaway ice cream in a cone or cup. The kid version features all the nonalcoholic options mentioned above, as well as fruit juices, hot drinks, virgin cocktails, smoothies and milkshakes. The adult package is priced at $31 per day; the kid package costs $16.50 per person, per day.
Cheers! Adult (unlimited mealtime): Unlimited wine (choice of two whites, two reds and one rose), draught beer, soft drinks and mineral water in the main dining rooms only during lunch and dinner. (Alternative restaurants do not apply.) The kid version features all the nonalcoholic options mentioned above. The adult package is priced at $22.50 per day; the kid package costs $12.50 per person, per day.
Fine Print: All packages must be booked up to three days before departure, through travel agents or on the MSC Cruises Web site. Packages must be purchased for the entire cruise. Not only must all adults in a cabin or traveling party purchase beverage packages if one does, but minors (from ages 3-21) also are required to purchase the children's version of the package. A 15 percent gratuity is included in package prices.
Package Details: An NCL spokesperson confirmed the line is testing an alcohol-inclusive drink package on select ships for $49 per person, per day. Several ships are testing it at different times, and details are not final. Cruise Critic members are reporting that a 15 percent gratuity is added to the total package price. Their reports indicate that the “Ultimate Beverage Package” includes all house, call and premium beverages at bars, lounges and restaurants, and on the line's private island; wine by the glass up to $10; bottled beer priced under $5.50 and draft up to 16 oz., fountain soda and juices.
Fine Print: Only one drink is allowed per passenger per order. All passengers sharing a cabin or using the same payment method (i.e., kids you stuck in the inside cabin across the hall) must purchase the beverage package. For kids two and up, that means buying the soda package instead. The package does not include room service, super and ultra premium brands, wine or liquor by bottle, minibar purchases, freshly squeezed juice, canned soda or energy drinks, specialty coffee or bottled water.
Package Details:Oceania Cruises offers two all-inclusive beverage package options. The first, at a charge of $34.95 per person, per day, includes house wine and beer with dinner and lunch. (Interestingly, it's available when ordering room service, but it does not cover minibar drinks.) The second package is pricier -- $54.95 per person, per day -- and includes beer and premium house wine (from a selection of red and white vintages that change daily), all beverages on the bar menu (except Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac) and room service beverages (but not minibar selections). Oceania already includes in cruise fares items like soft drinks, bottled water and specialty coffees.
Fine Print: Package prices include gratuities and can be prebooked online or through a reservations representative. They can also be purchased onboard at any time during the cruise (with prices prorated for days remaining). You can upgrade from Package A to B during the voyage, but you can't downgrade. Refunds aren't allowed.
Package Details:Royal Caribbean has two alcohol-inclusive beverage packages on offer. The Classic Beverage Package costs $45 per passenger, per day, and features beer (priced $6.25 or less), house wines by the glass, all nonalcoholic cocktails, soda and juices. The Premium Beverage Package, at $55 per person, per day, includes all of the above plus all beers (no price limit), frozen drinks and cocktails made with premium brand alcohol. Bottled water and minibar items are not included in either package. Prices are inclusive of service charges.
Fine Print: The drinks packages are available on all seven-night or longer sailings (sorry, Majesty of the Seas) and can only be purchased on the first day of the cruise. If one adult in a cabin purchases the package, all adults over 21 years old in that cabin must purchase the package as well. Package users may only order one item at a time for individual consumption. There is no daily limit on how many items a person may order.
Cruise Critic readers – not surprisingly – have had a wide range of reactions to these drink packages. Proponents are all about the value proposition these packages offer, especially for people who buy a lot of beverages onboard. Says Docalbe, "I try to cruise once a year and bar tab is always over $1,500. $50 is ok with me ($450).... Not that I'm a lush....” And disan posted a comment on Cruise Critic's Lido Deck blog, pointing out that “the main thing is it just makes the experience a little more mindless and isn't that what a cruise is all about? More fun and less to think about. Nice job, Carnival."
Opponents either don't see the value or worry about the consequences of unlimited booze. Judi Stein O'Brien posted this Facebook comment: "I can't see how that's worth it...we must be cheap drunks! This past cruise we drank and partied pretty hard, rented a tux, paid for a specialty restaurant for 2, various small souvenirs, internet, etc., and our total bill for 2 people for 7 days was less than what this package would cost us." Others take a more extreme view, like Fred Couch, who says on Facebook, "Some people will drink themselves silly just to get their money's worth. Just a terrible idea."
Blog reader Paula Winchester rebuts that argument. "Those of you saying it would cause too many drunks? Really? Those people are already drinking on the ship with or without the package. It would also cut down on a lot of the attempts to smuggle booze on board. (Not me but other people – lol!)"
Yet doctorbill wonders how an all-inclusive package will impact the servers. "Bartenders are generally required to cut off a patron who is inebriated. Such patrons often resent this. They will resent this even more if they've already paid for the drinks and feel that the cruise line is trying to rip them off," he posts.
Still others are on the fence, acknowledging that whether the packages are a good deal have much to do with your ordering habits and the cruise itself. Kathy says on our blog, "I do like the idea…and yes on days at sea a great idea…but on port days…could be a waste. I would definitely do this if it could be done on a day by day basis." Member chillyw concurs, "There's just no way I'm going to drink 8-9 drinks EVERY DAY." (Unfortunately for them, a daily package isn't on offer. Yet.)
And several readers have had some enlightening comments about how to get the most out of the packages.
"Not only did we get our money's worth and more, there were other perks that we didn't anticipate," posts boyerd about Celebrity's package. "Aside from no slips to sign etc, often around the pool when a frozen drink started melting the staff would ask if they could just make a new one. We tried many different types of drinks esp. martinis that we might not have bought otherwise. If we tried a new drink and didn't like it, it was replaced with another drink of our choice without question…. We told our asst waiter the first night about the specialty coffee and we had it served with our dessert every night...no hassles. It really added to the vacation atmosphere that we enjoy!"
Cadburysmom had a strategic plan for her Celebrity drinks package. "I waited until halfway through my Eclipse Baltic cruise to get the package," she reveals. "More sea days towards the end and the Solstice class ships offer a much more interesting variety to taste with the Martini and Molecular bars as well as the coffee/tea bar."
Diqua74 also has a useful tip about Norwegian's trial program. "I ordered a drink that wasn't in the package. The bartender made it for me anyway and just charged it as something else. I guess it pays to tip on top of the automatic 15%."
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, with reporting by Dori Saltzman, News Editor