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 14 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.
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 Society Brunch, complete with sparkling wine. Amass 75 days at sea, and you'll also get 25 percent off mini-bar purchases and drinks at Explorations Cafe. Those with 200-plus 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 for its Diamond, Diamond Plus and Pinnacle members on select ships with Diamond Lounges. On other ships, these highest-tier 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.
Disney Cruise Line's captain's cocktail party, which is open to all passengers on formal night, provides complimentary drinks. Princess Cruises and Oceania Cruises have similar welcome parties with free cocktails or Champagne.
"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.
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.)
Happy hours with discounted or two-for-one drinks and drinks of the day can give your wallet a break, especially if you save your cocktail purchases for these hours. Oceania has nightly happy hours with two-for-one specials at 5 p.m. and again at 10:30 p.m. in select bars. Princess and Holland America also tend to have BOGO specials at certain times. Always peruse the daily newsletter in your cabin for time and place, and note the fine print, such as drink exclusions or a requirement to purchase two of the same drink.
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 the Casinos at Sea Players Club -- offered by Norwegian Cruise Line and its sister brands, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania Cruises -- 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. Once you've accrued 5,000 points on Norwegian, and 35,000 on the other lines, you'll receive complimentary house drinks when playing in the casino.
Same with Carnival; join its Players Club, and you'll receive a complimentary Drinks on Us card after earning 1,000 points on sailings less than five nights and 1,500 points on those longer than five nights, in slot play or a comparable level of table play. Passengers who play a certain amount on one cruise might even get the free drink card as soon as they board the next cruise. Even if you don't reach a certain status in your cruise line's players club, know that pit bosses have the discretion to hand out perks and might buy a round of drinks for players who have been playing in the casino for a few hours or who show up regularly
There are few better ways of saying, "Thanks for your business" than with the gift of vino. "Our travel agent buys us a bottle of wine for every cruise we book through her," writes reader Gloria. Be loyal to your travel agent, and you might find complimentary wine or Champagne waiting in your cabin on embarkation day.
"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 7 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, Holland America and Princess. Prices do vary by line, and so, too, will savings. (Bring your own cans of soda to save more.)
"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. You are not supposed to take these drinks out of the cabin, but we have never been questioned when doing so." Lines that allow you to gift yourself alcohol include Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Oceania. As with the previous advice, you'll need to do some math to determine whether the liquor purchases will save you money compared with ordering drinks a la carte.
Most cruise lines offer beverage packages that let cruisers pay one price for unlimited (or near to unlimited) drinks (the type of which usually vary by package). Some lines, such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have only one option, while others, like Celebrity, have multiple options, including different types of beverages and price points. Cruise lines typically charge $45 to $65 per person, per day (with some even closer to or more than $100 per person, per day), so depending on how much you drink, a package could be a good deal or waste of money. Prefer not to pay? Look for cruise line promotions that include a complimentary beverage package in your up-front cruise fare. Learn more about the packages here.
On upscale lines like Seabourn and Silversea, 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.) However, you'll be paying a pretty penny to book passage on one of these small, luxury ships.
"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 some offer these drinks at lunch, as well. Most are also 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.
Book any suite (excluding a junior 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). Similarly, passengers staying in Celebrity Cruises' top suites -- Penthouses, Royal Suites, Reflection Suites, Iconic Suites and Edge Villas -- receive Premium Beverage packages as well as stocked mini-bars free of charge. The line's suite lounges, including Michael's Club and the Retreat Lounge, serve some complimentary drinks; the latter also offers an afternoon tea service with Champagne.
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: Cruise lines have gotten savvy to smuggling tricks and have tightened rules for bringing any beverages onboard. Carnival, for example, no longer allows passengers to bring onboard nonalcoholic beverages in bottles (often used to hide clear booze like vodka), requiring water, soda, juice and tea to be brought onboard in unopened cans. Norwegian prohibits passengers from bringing onboard any drinks, other than a limited amount of wine (which is then charged a corkage fee).