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Two people watch the sun set over the Inside Passage (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Two people watch the sun set over the Inside Passage (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Sober Cruises: Tips for Avoiding Alcohol on your Next Cruise

Two people watch the sun set over the Inside Passage (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Two people watch the sun set over the Inside Passage (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Senior SEO Editor
Kyle Valenta

Last updated
May 9, 2024

Read time
8 min read

If you’re someone who is sober for any reason, the idea of taking a cruise might seem odd. After all, the cruising stereotype goes something like this: Embark. Drink. Pool. Drink. Beach. Drink. Sundown. Drink. Nightclub. Drink.

Times have changed, though. This isn’t to say that cruising has entirely become a teetotaler's dream – you’ll still find lines that very much cater to the hard-partying crowd. But innovations in onboard cruise features, global wellness trends and the more mainstream ways we think about harm reduction have all made sober cruising far easier and more enjoyable than it was in decades past.

Depending on where you are in your recovery journey, or your reasons for maintaining a permanent or temporary alcohol-free lifestyle, there are some things you’ll want to consider before you book your cruise. For starters, planning and research are going to be your friend in helping you find the right cruise for you.

What follows is by no means meant as gospel. Everyone’s sobriety or alcohol abstinence journey is different and undertaken for personal reasons. Check in with yourself before you decide to take a cruise, much like you would when planning any trip.

To help take some of the worry out of it, read on for tips and strategies for staying sober on the high seas.

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Do Advanced Research if You’re Sober and Want to Go on a Cruise

Staying sober can be challenging on cruises to the Caribbean, where alcohol features heavily (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Staying sober can be challenging on cruises to the Caribbean, where alcohol features heavily (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Researching cruises may sound like a no-brainer when planning your trip, but for travelers who don’t drink it’s maybe the most important part of booking a cruise.

For starters, research your destination. If you’re taking a cruise in the Caribbean that’s heavy on beach clubs and private islands, the vibe can be more cocktail-heavy and – in some cases – wild. However, if the cruise visits multiple different island nations, you’ll likely have the opportunity to take some cool shore excursions that aren’t tied to tying on a few drinks.

Additionally, you’d do well to steer clear of smaller sailing ships (literally ships with sails), as they often have an alcohol-heavy vibe on land and at sea.

Ditto for certain river cruises: alcohol tends to play a starring role for river cruises along Portugal’s Douro river and France’s Bordeaux region, but is less of a feature on routes like the Danube and Rhine, where European history instead takes center stage.

Digging a bit deeper will further help you pick the right cruise for your sober lifestyle. Check out forums and comments from previous cruisers about mocktails, activities, and the overall atmosphere on the cruises you’re considering.

Cruise Critic has member-provided forums that provide an onboard snapshot of just how lit the atmosphere is onboard (or not). Tripadvisor and other sites also offer dedicated cruise forums and article comments that can help.

Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More

A couple admires the surf on Bimini's Radio Beach (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
A couple admires the surf on Bimini's Radio Beach (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Cruising in general requires more planning than more freewheeling forms of travel. In fact, the built-in structure of cruises can help a sober traveler by fostering structure.

Evidence has accumulated for decades around the correlation between boredom (or unplanned time) and substance abuse, including alcohol. As research has developed, connections between sensation seeking, dopamine and alcoholism continue to shed further light on the relationship of lacks of daily structure (or boredom) and the likelihood to drink or use substances. Cognitive behavioral therapy and occupational therapy treatment for alcoholism almost always includes tools to plan and give structure to daily life.

Consider sober cruise planning to be your license to get nerdy. Those old stereotypes about travelers with spreadsheets? Maybe that's you. Take time to learn about all of the spaces and venues on your ship – which are centered almost exclusively on alcohol and which aren’t. Check out which shore excursions you want to take; what fitness classes are appealing to you; what kind of enrichment talks or games or activities you’d like to do; what shows and entertainment you’d like to see; where you want to eat and so on.

You aren’t just trying to get a sense of what you might do. Write it down. Make a schedule. Book your excursions. All of this will help take the worry and mystery out of the onboard experience.

Get a Rush and Check Off a Bucket-List Item on a Less Boozy Expedition Cruise

Seabourn Venture in Brown Bluff Antarctica
Seabourn Venture in Brown Bluff Antarctica (Photo: Seabourn)

An expedition cruise is a boredom crusher for any traveler, and a great option for those abstaining from alcohol. Cruise Critic’s Assistant SEO Editor, Marilyn Borth, put it this way about one day in the Galapagos Islands on her first expedition cruise: “If you're wondering if this was an exhausting day: yes. But so very worth it.”

Given what’s known about having too much free (or undefined) time for people in recovery or choosing to abstain from alcohol for other reasons, the busy itineraries on expedition cruises provide a framework for staying active and will likely provide a dopamine kick. In addition, expedition cruises themselves tend to be less alcohol centered, as booze doesn’t typically factor into the experience until late at night – and may be banned outright for some activities.

“You're too busy on an expedition cruise to have time to drink, although many expedition cruises do include alcoholic drinks in the fare.” says Cruise Critic Executive Editor Chris Gray Faust, who has taken nine expedition cruises (and has done a polar plunge into Arctic waters). “Days can start early – think: Zodiac calls at dawn – and you don't want to miss a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife or nature viewing because you have a hangover.”

Lean on Your Support Network or Regular Sober-Affirming Tactics

Not everything about cruising revolves around alcohol (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Not everything about cruising revolves around alcohol (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Most cruises these days have strong enough internet that staying in touch with land is easy. If you’re sober and attend a 12-step program, see if your group offers online options to join your regular meetings, or if another group offers remote attendance.

Additionally, many cruise lines host a 12-step group on their cruises for those recovering from both alcohol and drug addition. That includes Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival, but also luxury lines and smaller big-ship lines. Check your daily planner for timing and location.

If you’re not a 12-stepper, there are still independent ways to reaffirm your sobriety. Perhaps you use CBT techniques to handle cravings and perceptions – download those and bring them with you.

Some people also rely on medications, including Antabuse (disulfram), which forbids you from consuming alcohol, and Naltrexone, which can help with cravings. You absolutely must speak to your doctor, psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist if you decide that you’d like to try these medicines, as there can be serious side effects when used incorrectly.

Find a Cruise Line with Robust, Engaging Entertainment

A lecture takes place in the planetarium on Queen Mary 2. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)
A lecture takes place in the planetarium on Queen Mary 2. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Depending on your interests, you’ll be able to find a cruise that engages you while offering opportunities to steer clear of alcohol. A wide breadth of cruises offer everything from in-depth history lessons to nature talks to eye-popping interactive shows.

If you’re going on a mainstream cruise line like Royal Caribbean, opt for a newer ship. There are numerous popular entertainment options (not to mention way more high-octane water slides and other outdoor activities) than smaller ships in the line. However, it’s the adrenaline-pumping water shows on some Oasis-class ships and new Icon-class ships that are the star of the show, though.

The evening timing is perfect for side-stepping the alcohol buzz that increases as the evening goes on. If you’re on Wonder of the Seas, there’s a candy shop right next to the venue, in case sugar is your go-to alcohol craving killer.

Virgin Voyages has truly pioneered new entertainment formats for the entire industry. You can expect more intimate performance spaces; more immersive shows; entertainment sourced from NYC’s underground theater and the Edinburgh Fringe; racy comedy acts and more. There are numerous truly dazzling, belly-laughing events happening on any given night. You’ll also find cool events during the day, including group games, drag shows and coffee education sessions.

For a calmer and more upscale cruise, Cunard Line offers wonderful enrichment programming. This can include classes and lectures on everything from historic events, wildlife, architecture, politics, art, technology and more from some of the most interesting people we've heard at sea (options change from cruise to cruise).

Book a Sober Charter Cruise or Wellness Cruises

Virgin Voyages offers special wellness-themed cruises (Photo: Virgin Voyages)
Virgin Voyages offers special wellness-themed cruises (Photo: Virgin Voyages)

There aren’t too many full-ship sober sailings, and some that exist don’t restrict alcohol for those who drink (mainly partners or family of alcohol-abstaining people). However, a few companies do offer sober charter cruises in which the entire ship is geared toward those who are sailing sober.

Check out offerings from Sober Celebrations (their cruises are called Gratitude Cruises) and Sober Vacations International. The latter offers cruises with large groups of alcohol-free travelers on lines like Celebrity, as well as large groups of sober cruisers on the Danube, Nile and other rivers with AmaWaterways.

If it’s too hard to find a sober charter cruise that matches your interests or schedule, wellness cruises can provide a less alcohol-centric experience, while offering many of the healthy activities people adopt when they don’t drink. Virgin Voyages’ Elevate Voyages are holistic mind-and-body sailings that include events like ecstatic dance, yoga and talks that run the gamut of wellness.

Leverage Your Booking Perks for Non-Alcoholic Extras

Flightseeing in Denali with Denali Air
Flightseeing in Denali with Denali Air (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

If you found a deal that includes a nice amount of onboard credit, your alcohol-free lifestyle lets you take that money a little further. Cruisers often use onboard credit to purchase or offset costs of drink packages.

And while many lines offer non-alcoholic drink packages that include upgraded mocktails, they’re likely only valuable if you’re going to go wild on craft non-alcoholic spirits at all hours of the day.

Instead, try booking what are always expensive treatments and massages at the spa. You can also use your onboard credit to purchase a shore excursion, or use it toward a big bucket-list shore excursion like helicopter rides over Alaska or flightseeing tours of the Nazca Lines -- or even an elaborate Cabana on one of the cruise line's private islands.

For more information, check out our breakdown of how to get and use onboard credit.

Build Your Schedule to Avoid Alcohol-Heavy Times of Day (or Night)

A little downtime on the balcony is never a bad thing (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)
A little downtime on the balcony is never a bad thing (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

As has already been noted, cruises are highly scheduled and structured ways to travel. And you can use that to help minimize or take a break from a cruise that might be a little more alcohol-heavy than you’d like.

Head to the gym or fitness areas about an hour before sundown or so and you’ll likely find the place almost completely empty (bonus: many gyms have fantastic sea views).

This also coincides with traditional happy hour timing, which isn’t really a thing on cruises. Even so, this traditional timing can still correlate to more cocktails in hand and busier bars and public spaces than other times during the day.

Many cruise lines now offer flexible dining times in most or all of their dining rooms and specialty restaurants. Try scheduling your dining slot for a bit later. Not only will it be less crowded and busy (meaning your service will probably be better), but you’ll again be avoiding the times when people tend to head to the booze-centered spots on ship.

Lines like Virgin, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines and others all offer early-evening entertainment, so your later meal time doesn’t have to cut into your fun time.

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