Whether or not to buy a cruise drink package when you sail is one of the most common questions I get from cruisers. Sometimes passengers balk at the price tag, which can seem steep when you are making a bulk payment as opposed to paying for each drink individually. Others worry that they won't get good service from bartenders if they have a package (or conversely, be considered "partiers" by other people).
Here are some reasons you might want to consider buying a cruise drink package, as well as times when buying a package isn't a smart idea. However, always keep in mind that if you choose a free drink package, you still have to pay the gratuity, which can add up. So even though the package states Free Beverage Package, it really isn't free.
A Cruise Drink Package Is a Good Deal If…
You like knowing your bill ahead of time.
Sure, it can be painful when you pay a few hundred dollars for drinks before your cruise even starts. But once you've gone ahead and paid, you have the luxury of being able to order drinks at most bars and restaurants without having to worry about your final bill.
If you're still undecided before you board, keep in mind that you can usually buy a package during the first couple of days -- but it won't apply retroactively to those first few margaritas you downed during sail away.
You like sodas, specialty coffee drinks and bottled water.
People who are new to cruising often don't understand that almost all drinks besides basic tea, coffee and tap water carry a charge. That means that if your daughter has a Diet Coke habit or you enjoy fresh-squeezed orange juice in the mornings or a latte in the afternoons, you'll have to pay up. Cruise drink packages can cover all of the above, as well as nonalcoholic mocktails, if you don't go for booze. However, keep in mind that they give you a lot of ice in your soda. Ask for just a little ice when ordering soda.
Also, don't forget the bottled water. If you have a lot of shore excursions in a hot climate, such as the Caribbean or Eastern Mediterranean, you will want to bring some water with you on shore -- and when you're on a set tour, you might not have time to stop at a local convenience store to get your own. A package makes it easy to grab a bottle on your way off the ship, without worry.
You like convenience.
Sure, some cruise lines allow you to bring on your own soda or bottled water (although Carnival has banned bottled beverages -- any drinks carried on must be in cans). And almost every cruise line allows you to bring at least a bottle or two of wine onboard. But sometimes, it's just not logistically easy to do, especially if you're flying into a foreign country or don't have a rental car to get to a store. Having a drink package means you can skip the annoying runaround.
A Cruise Drink Package Might Not Be a Good Deal If...
You prefer a specific brand or type of drink.If you're someone who must have Patron in your margarita or won't drink house wines, then you might want to examine drink packages to see if they are a better deal. Many drink packages will cover cocktails or wine up a certain amount; if your drink is more expensive, you either have to pay full price or simply make up the difference.
Note: The cruise lines don't always make it easy to find out exactly what drinks onboard cost. Your best bet to see if your favorite cocktail makes the list is to check the cruise line's website or ask the question on the Cruise Critic forums for the line you're sailing.
A Cruise Drink Package Isn't As Good a Deal if…
You prefer a bottle of wine at dinner.
Most cruise line drink packages apply to wines by the glass. That's great if you're someone who likes to match wines with your appetizers and entrees, or like a different type of wine than your dining companions. But if you prefer to order a bottle of wine or want a larger selection, keep in mind that while some drink packages offer discounts on bottles, many do not. (Some cruise lines have drink packages that ONLY cover wine at dinner. This might be your best bet.)
Your cabin mate has different drinking patterns than you.
Some -- but not all -- lines require both adults in the cabin to purchase the same package. If you like to drink Scotch, but your wife is a teetotaler, you're better off buying drinks separately. Keep in mind that most bartenders and waiters will only serve you one drink at a time -- and will refuse to serve you if you are caught sneaking a glass to a companion.
Some alcohol is already included.
River cruises usually include beer and wine at meals in the fare, as do premium cruise lines such as Azamara; the latter also includes some types of cocktails. Unless you're someone who really needs brand-name alcohol, what you already have might likely suffice.
You just don't drink much.
There's no way to get around it. The absolute best way to determine if a drink package is best for you is to get out that calculator and tally up how much you would spend without the package. In general, if you think you're going to order five or so alcoholic drinks a day during your trip, a package is worth considering.
By Chris Gray Faust