At-sea alcohol prices are anything but cheap, yet savvy cruisers know how to keep from drowning in their bar bill. We polled our editors and readers to compile these 15 great tips and tricks for scoring free or discounted pours on cruise ships.
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.
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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 75 days at sea, and you'll also get 25 percent off wine packages and mini-bar purchases. Those with 200 days under their belts will enjoy half off the aforementioned offerings, plus a complimentary wine tasting. Royal Caribbean ups the ante by hosting nightly happy hours featuring complimentary wine and Champagne as well as 25 percent off beer and cocktails for its Diamond, Diamond Plus and Pinnacle members. On some ships, loyalty members receive complimentary drink vouchers each night in lieu of the happy hour. 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 Cruise Critic reader 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-1s.
On a sailing aboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, a number of bars advertised hourlong 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 pricey concoctions. (Specialty cocktails average $12.) While not every cruise line offers BOGO beverages, most advertise happy hours and drinks of the day that can give your wallet a break-- especially if you take advantage more than once throughout your sailing. Always peruse the daily newsletter in your cabin 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 game 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" -- which allots you house drinks while gaming at the casino on cruises that span at least five days. 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. Even if you don't spend enough money to reach drink card status on whichever cruise line you're sailing, pit bosses will often buy a round of drinks on the house for players who have been hanging around a few hours.
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 reader 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 7Up 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, Holland America and Princess. Prices do vary by line, and so, too, will savings.
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."
Consider an all-you-can drink package.
A number of cruise lines such as Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean offer beverage packages that let cruisers pay one price for unlimited drinks (the type of which usually vary by package). For example, Royal Caribbean offers three alcoholic beverage packages (priced per person, per day) ranging from $42 for beer, wines by the glass, nonalcoholic cocktails, fountain soda and a 20 percent discount on wine bottles to $67 for the works, which includes the former but also tacks on bottled water and alcoholic frozen and premium cocktails. On the flip side, Carnival's Cheers! Program offers only one option. At $49.50 per person, per day, it includes up to 15 varied wines by the glass, beers and spirits each day, plus unlimited soda and nonalcoholic frozen cocktails. While many of our readers proclaim the merits of beverage packages, there's still some controversy. Some firmly believe that "all you can drink" 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 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 a pretty penny up front to sail on a luxury ship.
A river of beer and wine.
"Take a river cruise," suggests reader 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 any suite (excluding a mini-suite) on a Royal Caribbean ship, and you'll have access to the Concierge Club Lounge, found on Enchantment of the Seas and all Radiance- and Voyager-class ships. Inside, you'll find a self-service honor bar (with no fees).
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, Cruise Critic contributor, Updated by Gina Kramer, Associate Editor