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Cruising: Keeping a lid on bar tabs

It’s easy to work up a thirst on a cruise. Some guests quench that feeling with soda, fruit juice, a latte or tea. Others may order a glass of wine or a beer with lunch, a cocktail or two before dinner and share a bottle of wine with their companion during the evening meal.

All this can add up to a substantial sum on your cruise tab. More cruise lines, however, are putting in place package plans for both soft and alcoholic drinks that provide convenience as well as shave guests’ total costs.

Just this year, four cruise lines have started offering drinks packages or are testing them on a limited scale. Most of the plans include beer, certain wines and cocktails in the range of $40 to $50 per day. Carnival began testing an all-inclusive drinks program on certain ships in August. Norwegian is testing one on three of its ships. Royal Caribbean last year placed a drinks program on three of its ships that sail in Europe and this year is testing a similar program on its Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, which sail out of Fort Lauderdale.

Oceania, which already includes sodas, bottled water and specialty coffee, launched an alcoholic drinks program this year, and Celebrity, which launched its first drinks package in 2009, bumped it up in 2010 to include all alcoholic beverages.

Why the rush this year to add drinks packages to the cruise menu? “The cruise lines wouldn’t do this if it weren’t profitable,” said Colleen McDaniel of the website. ‘They’re all falling in line.”

So far, passenger reaction to the new packages has been favorable.

“The packages have been very popular and well received,” said Scott Steenrod, Celebrity’s vice president of food and beverage operations.

Norwegian’s AnneMarie Matthews also said that that line’s program has been well received and said Norwegian should decide soon whether to make it permanent.

Of course, the value of such plans depends on how much the guest consumes. A package would not be economical for someone who has perhaps a single cocktail before dinner. In such cases, guests are better off paying for each drink as they go.

As one passenger, Frederik Dolk of Ljusdal, Sweden, commented on a message board: “If a drink costs $8, I have to drink at least six drinks each day just to break even. On an average sea day I might have two or three. On a port day, even fewer. On top of that my wife has to buy a package and she drinks even less than me. These packages are a no go for me.”

On the other hand, another Cruise Critic posting, from “misha1,” praised the packages. “We tried the premium alcohol package on our last cruise for the first time. The convenience was great! Many times we were not charged the overage [over the package allowance]. Overall, we were very pleased.’’

The amount that guests consume is not the only reason they may choose an all-inclusive plan, as “misha1,” who cited its convenience, indicated. Many guests simply don’t like having to sign a chit every time they order a soft drink or cocktail.

“It speaks to the general lifestyle people want,” said Celebrity’s Steenrod. “They like paying one price.”

That kind of convenience applies not only to alcoholic drinks but also to sodas. Parents may find it easier to purchase a soft drinks package plan for kids who drink a lot of sodas or juices each day. Or for themselves, for that matter.

One consideration in offering all-inclusive programs is the possibility of abuse, so the cruise lines have several controls in place.

First, drinks are provided only for guests who bought the package. Some lines, Carnival among them, require that if a passenger purchases a drinks package, all adults in that stateroom also must do so. That prevents unpaid sharing.

Certain restrictions also apply to soda packages. To forestall a kid with a soft-drink package doling out “free” drinks to his buddies, for instance, Royal Caribbean’s new Coca Cola machines (which offer more than 100 flavors of soft drinks) require a special mug with an embedded chip to operate. Each mug, for which the guest pays $4.50 per day, has a “time out” period so they can’t be refilled repeatedly in a short period.

More importantly, alcoholic drink packages are not all-you-can-drink, as some people perceive.

Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman, said that the line “has a number of procedures in place to monitor guests’ alcohol consumption, and bartenders … will discontinue serving guests who appear to be intoxicated.”

Steenrod said the same is true on Celebrity. The crew is trained to cut people off when they’ve had too much, whether they’re paying by the drink or have bought a package.

Before purchasing any kind of all-inclusive plan, guests should determine if their consumption will justify its cost or whether it simply would be better to pay as they go. Costs of individual drinks are posted on bar menus and sometimes on cruise line web sites.

Drink costs vary with each line. Carnival, for example, charges $3.75-$6.75 for beer, $5.50-$8.75 for mixed drinks and $5.75-$11.25 for a glass of wine. A soda purchased individually costs $1.95. A 15 percent gratuity is added to these costs.