Your Ultimate Cruise Guide

The Great Liquor Debate

Editor's note: Content was up to date at time of publication.

Whether you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, indulge in the occasional all-night bender or never touch the stuff, cruise line alcohol policies have been the subject of controversy for as long as we can remember. Are onboard prices fair? Should the minimum drinking age be set at 21 or 18? Should a parent or guardian decide whether their 18-year-old can have wine with dinner? What about offering guests an all-you-can-drink package as an add-on fare? Should cruise lines stop you from bringing your own booze?

In a recent poll we asked an extensive series of questions -- these and beyond -- and boy did you ever answer! In fact, this particular poll netted not only the highest number of responses ever for a Members Speak Out (deck chairs and tipping were two others that aroused passion, but nothing like alcohol), but also an unparalleled depth of answers.

We'll admit that we had a strong hunch that the great cruise line liquor debate would be a divisive issue, stirring up long felt but never publicly expressed emotions about cruise line alcohol policies. But we certainly did not expect what resulted: A remarkable 8,045 members responded in our poll, easily doubling our previous record (2006's tipping poll generated 3,631 responses). Whether it was members griping about the exorbitant onboard drink pricing (one member mentioned a $1,200 tab just for his/her weeklong cruise), revealing their effective techniques for sneaking spirits past beady-eyed security (including a few that we can't even print in this space), or pleading with lines not to turn their next cruise into a floating frat party by offering all-you-can-drink passes, members came out in droves to voice their opinions and concerns.

And finally, after utilizing more man-hours than we'd like to admit pouring over the extensive information (accompanied at points by a snifter of Jameson, our favorite Irish sipping whiskey), we present to you, the results of our alcohol policy poll.

Before we get into the specific poll results, a little recap of current rules and regulations seems useful:

Drinking Age: This can be basically broken up into three categories. There are lines that have a single rule: If you'd like to imbibe, you must be 21 -- no exceptions. These include Holland America, Regent Seven Seas and Carnival. Then there are lines that differentiate based on itinerary. For lines like Crystal and Royal Caribbean, drinking age is 18 from any vessel sailing a South American or European itinerary. In the case of RCI and NCL, a parent or guardian must sign a waver for the 18-to-20 set to be able to drink when sailing to these destinations. Finally, on certain lines, Oceania in particular, drinking age is set at 18 regardless of destination.

Hard Liquor: Industry-wide, mainstream lines -- Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Celebrity, NCL, and Princess, among others -- forbid guests from bringing hard liquor onto their ships to consume during the course of a cruise. If noticed (typically when you put your carry-on bag through the security screener at the gangway) they'll confiscate the bottle though you will get it back at cruise end.

The smaller luxury lines, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Oceania and Crystal to name several, allow their guests to bring liquor onboard. In some cases, unless you're devoted to an obscure brand, it actually makes no sense whatsoever to do so -- Regent, Silversea, SeaDream and Seabourn are all-inclusive.

Wine: In a distinct departure from hard liquor policies, passengers are allowed to tote a bottle of wine or two (with one current exception: Royal Caribbean restricts all alcohol from being brought on its ships). If you do decide to bring your own wine or Champagne, every line subjects passengers who consume said beverage in the dining room to a corkage fee, ranging from $10 (Seabourn) to $25 (Celebrity). If you sip it in the privacy of your stateroom, there's no fee.

For a more complete line-by-line breakdown of onboard rules, peruse our At Your Service: Cruise Line Alcohol Policies.

And now, the results of the poll (technical note -- because not every member responded to every question, totals for each question range from 6,000 - 8,000 responses)....

Our Readers Choose the Best Drinks

To inspire a feeling a well-being, we asked our pollers to fondly recount their favorite drinks they've had while cruising, and what lines offered those drinks. Responses were across the board, which of course points to the fact that tastes are different. So here's just a smattering of results, some more specific than others:

Best Cocktail Served Onboard:
Royal Caribbean's Mango Tango
Royal Caribbean's Mojito (Bolero's on Mariner of the Seas)
Carnival's Chocolate Martini
Princess' Nutty Irishman (Caribbean Princess)
Princess' 24-Karat Gold Margarita ("served at Crooners martini bar on Caribbean Princess and mixed by Darren, from South Africa")
Princess' Oreo Speedwagon
Celebrity's Singapore Sling (Celebrity Infinity)
Celebrity's Caribbean Sunset Martini
Holland America's signature "muddled" drinks ("The ones involving cucumber are always great.")
Holland America's Strawberry Mojito ("Rotterdam in the Casino Bar ... thanks, Jerry!")
Crystal Cruises' Cosmos
"Anything fruity and foo-foo... it's a cruise after all."
Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Princess' "Miami Vice"
"I'm partial to something called a Crocker Ricky. It's made with cranberry juice, vodka and a splash of Rose's lime juice. It was made for us on the Pacific Princess."
Princess' Ocean Breeze ("I had to argue with the bartender on Grand Princess about how this should be made!")

Best Beer
Royal Caribbean's Royal Belgian Ale
"Princess serves Dos Equis."
"I have never gotten 'good' beer aboard a cruise ship."
"QM2 had a good selection on draft, including Guinness and Boddington's Ale."
"Harp and Stella Artois on the Disney Wonder and Disney Magic."
Holland America and Grolsch (Westerdam)
Coors Light. All ships.
NCL's Ayinger Doppelbock (Norwegian Dawn)
"Love to see more microbrews onboard!"

What You Think about Liquor Policies

We asked, "In general, cruise lines do not allow you to bring liquor onboard. What do you think of this rule?" A quite strong 60 percent of respondents decided that this is something that simply needs to change. The remainder was divided between feeling that the rules were slightly annoying (18.6 percent) or understandable (20.2 percent). Hardliners were a small contingent (3.4 percent) who felt that policy forbidding guests from bringing alcohol on cruises was "necessary to reduce binge drinking."

Have You Broken the Rules?

We asked, "Have you flouted the rules in regards to alcohol policies, i.e. through an act of cunning managed to bring aboard a bottle of spirits to enjoy in your stateroom?" Over 5,000 voters (66.3 percent) said that, yes, they have managed to get alcohol past security to enjoy (or abuse?) in their cabins. The remaining 33.7 percent either haven't attempted "an act of cunning" or have been caught every time they tried.

What's the Best Method?

Here comes the good stuff: First the numbers. The majority of members (nearly 60 percent) said that wrapping carefully and packing in checked luggage was their method of choice; 15.5 percent said the innocuous water bottle approach was the best method, while 19.3 percent said that they simply put it through the security scanners when they board and see what happens. But it was in the "other" category that some more interesting methods surfaced.

"Bought seven bottles on St. Thomas ... had six packed in a box and one in a regular bag. When reboarding, 'gladly' handed over the box (for safekeeping!) and just walked by carrying the bag ... smooth!"

"I have been told that some people have visited wineries on their trip and the wineries have special labels (like 'Apple Juice') for their cruising visitors -- innovative."

"We have bought the mini (airline) bottles and then put them in our socks, travel kit, etc. It is a little more expensive to buy this way but we can get quite a variety of different liquor onboard with this method."

"Look mature, responsible and old (easy for some of us)."

"Fake colostomy bag?"

"Have a travel canteen (soft bladder type 64-oz., non-metal) that I pack in my luggage."

"My wife hides a one liter bottle in her pants -- wears an outside shirt to cover it up. She has even smuggled in a 750-ml bottle between her breasts -- she has managed to get bottles of vodka onboard from every port in the world and on every cruise line. She has never been caught. She is the best there is."

"Boxed wine seems to work in checked luggage."

"Bring it in a flask (plastic is the key though, to avoid the metal detectors)."

"Send bon voyage gifts to yourself."

Some took this question as a means to make a statement about the policies in general....

"Don't hide it; just bring it aboard. Be prepared to chuck it if there are objections. Next time then, choose another cruise company. We only have to put up with this BS if we let ourselves."

"Cruise Seabourn or Silversea and you do not have to concern yourself with the 'problem'!"

"I think that by making a big deal about it like this you are only encouraging the cruise lines to crack down on the smuggling! If you can take a bottle in your luggage and they look the other way even if it's not permissible, then we should be happy and leave well enough alone! Please stop talking about it!"

"As a stockholder, I strongly support sales by the cruise line -- nice profit margins! Let wine stewards and bartenders work -- I'm happy to see them make their 15 percent. We think the wine packages onboard and drinks of the day are great."

The Question of the Corkage Fee

Should there -- or shouldn't there -- be a corkage fee? Over 50 percent felt it's fair, when bringing your own wine to dinner, to pay a corkage fee.

And for the 120 voters (1.5 percent) who chose, "What's a corkage fee?" a corkage fee is an additional surcharge, from $10 to $25, that you must pay if you'd like to drink your own wine onboard during dinner, instead of a selection from the restaurant's wine list.

And as far as price for corkage, that vast majority of voters, 77.9 percent (5,486 members), felt that $5 was a fair surcharge for drinking your own red or white.

Who Wants All-You-Can-Drink Packages?

...and how much more, per day, would you be willing to pay for such an option? Some 50 percent said that they'd like to see some sort of all-you-can-drink packages offered by the lines; the high number surprised us! Just 30 percent were opposed, and 17.7 percent decided that simply saying "No" to the question wasn't strong enough to voice their real thoughts on the issue. Those 1,367 representing17.7 percent of the members instead selected "A resounding NO!"

When asked how much they would pay for such a package, responses varied. Fifteen percent felt $10 was fair, 35 percent said $20 was more like it and a meager 3.8 percent (who we believe are the most discriminating drinkers afloat (or perhaps merely the thirstiest) voted that they were willing to pay an extra $100 per day. A big chunk -- 37 percent -- opted out as they didn't want to pay a cent more for their cruise, alcohol package or no. But once again, it was in the "Other" category that some of the more interesting comments emerged:

"I'd pay upwards of $50 a day. When you go into the disco at night you can easily burn $100."

"I believe if I selected this option, I would drink until I felt I used up the charge ... and I am not sure I want to do that."

"If you have the 'all you can drink' packages it will encourage a lot more drunk behavior on ships which I do not like! I want the drinking age to be 21 and strongly enforced. All the accidents and safety issues almost always deal with someone who is drunk."

"$40. That's just a Bloody Mary at breakfast, two 'drinks of the day,' a cocktail before dinner and wine with dinner. And I could easily do that."

"The trouble with all you can drink or bring your own is: we were on a couple of cruises that had many college kids drinking. They were drunk most of the time and extremely loud all hours of the day and night. Some throwing up overboard while we were trying to enjoy the pool area. Running and yelling in the halls at night while we're trying to sleep, etc. It felt like I was in a frat house. Too many bad memories from those cruises to ever want to see all you can drink packages. And, it's not just the kids either."

"'All you can drink' sounds too sloppy, Carnival/Sandals, or Animal House-esque to me."

"It will 'hurt' the quality of drinks. We see this happen at many of the all-inclusive land vacations we have taken."

"If that was an option I would have to choose another vacation. I think that would be abused and the result be drunken fools all over the place."

"There may be no need for a package if the cruise lines would be a bit more generous with the free booze."

"I am not in favor of this at all. I have been on the short two-day cruises on a new ship -- usually preview sailings for travel agents and industry insiders. On these cruises the drinks are free. It is appalling that people have no control when the drinks are included. The bars were filled from morning to night -- drunk people everywhere."

"Can you imagine how drunk some people would get? I took 20 seniors on a cruise 25 years ago and the drinks were free on Captain's night. They darn near killed themselves drinking."

"HAL has a 'Signature Cocktail Card' that you can purchase for 5 or 10 cocktails -- it gives a little discount and works great!"

Note: Several members made the distinction between an all-you-can-drink wine and beer plan and a plan for liquor. Members would have liked us to be more specific in our poll questions making a distinction between the types of alcohol, depending on tastes. Some even took it upon themselves to tell us how much they would pay for different plans, beer and wine vs. liquor, premium vs. well drinks etc.

"Depends on quality/brands offered. If it's rot-gut like at Mexico's all-inclusive resorts, then maybe $10 - 20/day. If it's premium liquor, then maybe $25 - 30/day. Should be for beer/wine/hard liquor by the drink only, either at the bar/pool, or at meals. Bottles for in-room consumption should be available at wholesale prices, same for bottles of wine at dinner."

"Use a graduated system. First bottle of wine: $20, second, $30, third $40. First (well) drink: $5, second $6, etc. Beer: the same system. I suspect the amount of alcohol purchased will increase during the first few days, but consumption will be spread out over the days of the cruise. Those willing to forget the cost will increase alcohol revenues."

The Cost of Duty-Free Liquor

"Is duty-free liquor cheaper onboard or on shore?" This is a no-brainer -- and we could've predicted the outcome. Which was? Booze is definitely cheaper on shore! 76 percent voted in the affirmative.

What's the Best Way to Get a Deal on Drinks?

Just over 48 percent decided that the drink of the day was the surest bet, 25.6 percent were convinced that it was the bucket of beer and 14 percent felt that the wine packages offered the best value. And once again, we present the "Other (please specify)" category:

"Have someone else buy it for you!"

"There is no deal on drinks."

"On a recent Carnival cruise there were free drinks at embarkation, Captain's party, past guest party, art auction, vacation club presentation, etc. Look for the freebies."

"Drink all you can in port. You can usually find the local brew at a good price."

"Hand the bartender you neighbor's [key] card. Really ... go to the same bartender and add additional tip to sales slip."

"After the third time my husband tipped the same bartender $2 for a round of drinks my drinks were suddenly free. Needless to say we became regulars at that particular bar."

"Do not need a deal. We order what we want. With the $$$$ we spend for a cruise, we do not nickel and dime about the price of alcohol."

"Stick with one or two bartenders, and give them a few extra bucks now and then. Then you get better pours. This may not work on the lines that use a 'measured pour' gadget like Princess."

"Smuggle your own bottle onboard at port of embarkation, and nurse it. Eleven bucks a shot PLUS tip is fleecing! (If you fall overboard, it's called 'thinning the herd'!)"

"Besides the drink of the day, Royal Caribbean's Crown & Anchor booklet includes a 2-for-1 bar coupon. Since my boyfriend and I both get a booklet, we only pay for two drinks and get two free over the course of the cruise.

Pricing Practices: Fair?

Here, too, responses were pretty one-sided. A whopping 75 percent of the voters felt that drink prices were generally too expensive and only 22 percent felt that they were about where they should be; 189 voters (2.4 percent) decided that cruise line alcohol prices are very reasonable. Perhaps their mouse slipped on this one.

What Should be the Minimum Age for Purchasing Alcohol?

Age 21 got the biggest boost of support with 75 percent weighing in on the affirmative; 20 percent felt that 18 was sufficient. Interestingly, nine percent ticked off the "should be a matter of parental consent" box; we were surprised it was that high.

--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor

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