One quick caveat: With a few justified exceptions, the following tips do not include wine. Policies vary, but most mainstream lines allow passengers to bring vino onboard in some fashion, though you'll likely have to pay a corkage fee to drink it in a restaurant. Check out our full rundown of cruise line alcohol policies for more information.
Loyalty pays ... in booze. When it comes to gratis pours, cruise lines can be generous with their past passengers. Sail just once with Holland America and you can attend the complimentary Mariner Champagne Brunch. Amass 200 days at sea, and you'll get the Champagne brunch, a complimentary wine tasting, plus half off wine packages. Royal Caribbean ups the ante by hosting open-bar nightly cocktail events for its hardcore repeaters. Read more about cruise line past passenger programs to find out what liquid perks you're entitled to on a variety of lines.
Attend a party. Disney Cruise Line's captain's cocktail party, which is open to all passengers on formal night, provides complimentary drinks. In fact, for most lines, the master's formal introduction is made as servers dart about with booze-topped trays. Sometimes it's the goodbyes that are worth celebrating. Princess Cruises holds a similar farewell soiree on cruises of 14 nights or longer.
Make nice with the bartender. "My husband and I have always found that if we frequent the same bar staff during the majority of the cruise, and be sure to tip generously, we get excellent service," writes Linda. "May not always be free, but the bar staff tend to be more generous." Linda also recommends asking your favorite barkeep where he or she is going to be when. Tim agrees. "They will treat you right with strong pours and drinks that never find their way to your tab," he says.
Check out an art auction. At-sea art auctions and free cheap sparkling wine go together like surrealists and curly moustaches. Whether you bid, buy or pass, the drinks are free. (Should you bid, buy or pass? Learn more about cruise ship art auctions.)
Look for 2-for-1's. On a sailing aboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, a number of bars advertised hour-long BOGO specials. We stumbled onto such a happy hour at the crystal-and-drape-covered Champagne & Martini bar, and stumbled out after doubling up on the normally $8 to $10 concoctions. Peruse the daily newsletter for time and place.
Cocktail soup and drunken desserts? "On Princess they served a 'Pina Colada Soup' with some dinners," says Art. "This 'soup' is remarkably cold and full of alcohol. For those who still haven't caught on, IT'S A FREAKIN' FREE PINA COLADA!" Deidra K. offered a similarly boozy tip. "On HAL's Zaandam, we were delighted to find the ice cream dessert bar at the buffet was doling out (you need to request it) large, overflowing tablespoons of delicious liqueurs on top of the vanilla ice cream -- Wowza! They even offered coconut rum as well -- Gratis!"
Sit down at the tables. As long as you're splashing chips (or inserting pennies) in Vegas or Atlantic City establishments, the beer tap remains open. Not so at sea. Comped beverages generally aren't part of the action -- unless you're a player. Sign up for Norwegian Cruise Line's Casinos at Sea Players Club, make sure to have the pit boss swipe your card each time you play, and you could be on your way to getting free drinks. A representative for Norwegian's casino reservation center said players need to accrue 1,500 seabucks to get the coveted "drink card." Without going into too much detail, that requires a bit of dedication (time and dollars). But there's an easier way: Harrah's Total Rewards card holders (membership is free) who book a cruise through Norwegian's Casinos at Sea can get the drink card. Just be sure to mention your TR status when booking.
Use a travel agent who loves you. There are few better ways of saying "thanks for your business" than finding the gift of vino in your cabin. "Our travel agent buys us a bottle of wine for every cruise we book through her," writes Gloria.
Opt for in-cabin bottle service. "Some of the lines offer bottles of liquor via room service," writes Scott. "So we often will order a bottle of vodka, and a six pack of Seven Up or Sprite, and mix our own vodka-seven cocktails. It actually can save a lot of money, and you can have a cocktail in your room instead of having to go find a bar and wait in line." Not all lines offer this bottle service option, but those that do include Oceania and Princess. Prices do vary by line, and so, too, will savings. Here's a look at Princess Cruises' liquor bottle price list.
Buy yourself the gift of liquor. "On Princess, we always buy ourselves a 'Bon Voyage' gift or two," writes Kim, referring to the pre-cruise order options, which can be delivered to your cabin. "Liquor is a particularly good deal. Extra bonus -- when the gift is set up in your room, it includes a nice set of glasses to use during the cruise. You are not supposed to take these drinks out of the cabin, but we have never been questioned when doing so." Here's an example of Princess' prices. Carnival's list is even better. "Saves tons of money rather than buying drinks at the bars," writes Samantha. Cruise Critic called the line's Bon Voyage department (800-522-7648), and a friendly lady told us the prices for liter bottles of Absolut ($60), Beefeater ($50), Jim Beam ($55) and Jamison ($60). You can certainly do much better at your local liquor store (as in half the price or better), but it's still a decent savings over the onboard prices.
Consider an all-you-can drink package. "Celebrity has sauce packages that are bottomless and worth it," writes Mike B. "If you drink, get one and save. Added benefit: You know how much you're going to spend. Also, I've found that waitstaff prefers cash tips. It's a pain to carry extra cabbage, but worth it." Many other readers proclaimed the merits of beverage packages, which are offered by Celebrity and Oceania, as well as a few Royal Caribbean ships. Still, they've been controversial. Some readers firmly believe that "all-you-can-drink" could contribute to creating a frat house vibe. Learn more about the packages here.
Upgrade to luxury. On upscale lines like Seabourn, all alcoholic beverages -- including French Champagne -- are included in the fare, plus there's a stocked bar in every suite. (Note: Ultra-premium wines typically cost extra.) Naturally, you'll be paying substantially more up front to sail on a luxury ship.
A river of beer and wine. "Take a river cruise," suggests Drew G.. "We are taking a Viking cruise in Europe, and were told we could bring anything we wanted onboard. Booze. Beer. Wine. They volunteered the information. Plus, wine and beer are complimentary at night." Indeed, most river cruise lines include wine and beer, often locally sourced, with your evening meal -- and most are liberal about passengers taking on local ales or vintages. River cruise fares are certainly more expensive than those found on a mainstream mega-ship line, but the inclusivity and hassle-free attitude is a welcome touch. Read more about this type of sailing on our River Cruises page.
Suite guests stay lubricated. Book a Grand Suite or up on a Royal Caribbean ship, and you'll have access to the Concierge Club Lounge, found on Enchantment of the Seas and all Radiance-, Voyager-, Freedom- and Oasis-class ships. There are nightly happy hours -- actually happy 3.5 hours -- during which servers dole out equal parts conversation and Chardonnay.
Liquid courage? While we can't condone alcohol smuggling -- mainstream mega-ships are nearly unanimous in their restrictive policies (save for the aforementioned wine) -- many of you offered various means of subterfuge. But be warned: "I just got off a Carnival cruise in MIA," says Heidi. "I normally hide my rum in an ice tea bottle, but this year I put vodka in my water bottles. The port security got smart and took the bottles out of the plastic wrap from the store and shook each one to check out the bubbles. They snagged the only four bottles I put vodka in and let me go with the rest of the water."
--by Dan Askin, Senior Editor