(10 a.m. EDT) -- Alternative dining aficionados open wide: Celebrity Cruises has introduced a new specialty dining package program. Now available fleetwide (except the Galapagos-based Celebrity Xpedition), passengers can choose among two individual (food only) and three couples (food and wine) packages.
Individual packages, intended for those who don't drink wine or prefer to drink by-the-glass, offer a three- and five-dinner option.
There are three Couples Wine and Dine packages. The Savor includes three dinners at specialty restaurants, each served with a bottle of wine. The Gourmand allows for five dinners, but only three of those include bottles of wine. The Bacchus is all out, as its name implies -- five dinners and five bottles of wine.
The packages are available for purchase onboard; gratuities are not included in the price and are provided at the passenger's discretion.
But will they actually save you money?
Because number and type of restaurants vary by ship, prices and packages also vary, but as an example, the individual three-dinner deal on Celebrity Eclipse, which includes one dinner in Tuscan Grille (Italian), one in Qsine (hard to describe in a word, but zany comfort food) and one in Murano (French-Continental), is $89 per person. This works out to almost $30 per dinner. Regularly priced dinners at Tuscan Grille ($30), Qsine ($35) and Murano ($35), would total $100. On Celebrity Constellation, which has fewer alternative restaurants than Eclipse, passengers eat twice in Ocean Liners (similar to Murano cuisine-wise) and once in Tuscan Grille. The savings would be the same.
The five-dinner package is $129 per person, around $26 per meal, but note that it includes only one dinner in Murano, the French-Continental venue, and two each at Tuscan Grille and Qsine. Passengers individually would pay $165. On Celebrity Constellation, the five-dinner package would consist of three meals in Ocean Liners and two at Tuscan Grille for $129 ($165 is full price).
The couples wine-and-dine packages represent a greater savings. On Eclipse, Savor is $279 per couple and Gourmand is $349. It is the Bacchus, however, that provides the biggest savings, up to 26 percent or $144 per couple, according to Celebrity. The package price for Celebrity Eclipse is $399 and $389 on Constellation. The wine list includes more than 20 choices, with selections such as Chateau Grand Bireau's Cabernet Sauvignon, a Freemark Abbey Chardonnay and a Sancerre from Michel Redde. With Bacchus, each bottle of wine costs about $28, when compared to the individual food-only packages. Based on a quick scan of onshore wine prices, Celebrity's per-bottle price is slightly more than retail, although less than average ship pricing.
So what happens if the dinners or bottles of wine in a package aren't used by the end of the cruise? Celebrity told us they haven't yet encountered that situation.
While the packages do offer decent savings off the standard surcharges, dedicated cruisers know that specialty restaurants occasionally offer early bird discounts or cut rates when they aren't fully booked, particularly on the first night or formal nights. At times, the discount can equal as much as 20 percent off your bill, including the service charge and wine purchases.
Considering Eclipse's three-dinner food-only deal offers only up to 22 percent savings and the three-dinner Savor arrangement gives only up to 15 percent savings, it might be just as cheap to take your chances. Plus, it'll give you the flexibility to choose where and how often you dine. But for the cruiser who prefers the intimacy and higher level of cuisine of alternative venues, the more expensive wine-and-dine packages are certainly worth considering.
We're curious: How often do you eat in alternative restaurants during a cruise? Sound off in the comments section below.
--by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor