Cruise lines offering more options for beverage packages

08/15/2014 12:00 AM

08/15/2014 8:27 AM

For vacationers, the biggest surprise aboard their first cruise probably has nothing to do with the feel of rolling seas. More likely, the surprise will be their bar tab.

The cost of alcohol, whether you buy by the drink or as part of the ship’s beverage packages, has become one of cruising’s more confusing, and more expensive, extras.

Partly, that’s because your normal routines at home tend to change with the partying lifestyle at sea, supported by an expanding array of well-hyped alcoholic concoctions.

Say once a week at home you go out for an evening of drinks, and maybe another day you sip a glass or two of wine with dinner. Multiply that times seven on a week’s cruise. Add the occasional morning bloody Mary, a beer at lunch, an afternoon piña colada, and you have a pretty good idea of the potential for consumption.

For an estimate of the size of the bill you might face on your last day of vacation, consider the cost of beverage packages (for soft drinks and/or beverages with alcohol) offered by the mainstream cruise lines.

For drinks with alcohol, Carnival charges $50 to $70 per person per day plus a 15 percent gratuity, depending on the length of the cruise. Royal Caribbean packages range up to $65 a day, including gratuities. Norwegian’s drink packages range from $44 to $59 a day, plus 15 percent gratuity (save $5 by purchasing the premium package online). No sharing drinks with others. Most ships require all persons 21 and older in the same cabin to buy the same alcohol package.

Are the packages worth the price?

That depends on how much you drink. One website estimated the cost of a drink package as roughly equal to a daily consumption of five martinis and three soft drinks, or eight beers and two soft drinks, or six beers and two glasses of wine.

You can assume the packages are money-makers for the ship, because they don’t sell money-losers. You probably will drink more than you thought you would — after all, no one has to drive anywhere — but you don’t want to be drinking more to get your money’s worth, rising early and partying late on port excursion days just to make your quota.

Norwegian recently added a wrinkle to the mainstream mix. On new bookings through Aug. 29 for 2015 cruises of three to 14 days, Norwegian is testing an all-inclusive package: Most alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, fees at a specialty restaurant each evening, some shore excursions, and Internet access (another hefty fee that may surprise new cruisers), plus 10 percent off the cruise rate. Cost of the package, which Norwegian says is worth as much as $2,400, will be based on the length of the cruise, such as seven nights for $899.

Keep in mind also that the cost of beverages will vary, depending on the level of cruise ship that you booked, from mainstream to premium to luxury.

Mainstream cruise lines — such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian — compete for bookings with basic budget prices; they count on big bar bills to pad onboard revenue, which is a key to profitability. The trend is clear, as each new cruise ship debuts with added opportunities for passengers to spend more money onboard. Premium lines — such as Holland America, Celebrity and Princess — also rely on bar bills for extra revenue.

Luxury ships, with rates as high as $1,000 a day, tend to build the cost of alcoholic beverages into the cruise rate, so their passengers may have no bar bill at all, unless they want to imbibe something special.

In the middle are the upper premium lines — such as Azamara, Windstar and Oceania — which have wrestled with whether to charge for alcohol or include it in the cruise rate.

Last year, Azamara, which had tested the idea of including beer and wine at meals, decided to go all in, with wines, beers and spirits throughout the day. Oceania, which offers one of cruising’s more inclusive products for meals at specialty restaurants, decided to continue to charge for alcohol, saying that passengers who do not drink do not want to pay for those who do.

At Windstar, on the inaugural of the newly renovated Star Pride, president Hans Birkholz took the question to a meeting of passengers, all of whom had sailed previously on Windstar ships.

Birkholz asked for a show of hands from passengers who would like to see wine and spirits offered without charge on Windstar ships. Quite a majority raised their hands. Then, he asked, “Would you want wine and spirits included if the ship increased the fare by $100?” Fewer hands were raised. “What about $200?” he asked. Fewer still.

Aye, that’s the rub.

Cruise lines often describe activities, entertainment or meals aboard ship as complimentary, which of course they are not. What they are is included in the cruise rate. Alcohol consumed aboard ship, without a charge, is not a gift from the cruise line. It is included in the fare. If the cruise line is going to include something new, the cruise rate will go up, as the line has no interest in its profits going down.

Windstar, for instance, is developing a new cruise rate scale so that the basic fare will include whatever the passenger wants. Birkholz calls it “luxury as you like it.” He could also call it “luxury as you are willing to pay for it.”

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