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 during the evening meal.
All this can add up to a substantial 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.
Most of the plans include beer, certain wines and cocktails in the range of $40 to $50 per day. And with the big cruise deals of the past few years disappearing as the economy improves, it's good to find a way to save money. Depending on how much one imbibes, a drink package might work for you.
Carnival began testing a drinks program on certain ships in August. Norwegian is testing one on three ships. Royal Caribbean is testing a similar program on two ships that sail out of Fort Lauderdale.
Oceania, which includes sodas, bottled water and specialty coffee in its fare, 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 CruiseCritic.com website. "They're all falling in line."
"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 her line's program has been well received and that NCL should decide soon whether to make it permanent.
Of course, the value of such plans depends on how much the guest consumes.
As one passenger, Frederik Dolk of Ljusdal, Sweden, commented on a CruiseCritic.com 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, Cruise Critic poster "misha1," praised the packages. "We tried the premium alcohol package on our last cruise for the first time. The convenience was great!''
The amount that guests consume is not the only reason they may choose an all-inclusive plan, as "misha1" wrote. Many guests simply don't like having to sign a receipt every time they order a beverage.
That kind of convenience also applies to a soft drinks package plan for kids who drink a lot of sodas or juices each day. Or for parents, for that matter.
Because of the possibility of abuse, cruise lines have several controls in place.
First, drinks are provided only for guests who bought the package. Some lines require that if a passenger purchases a drink package, all adults in that stateroom also must do so.
To forestall a kid with a soft-drink package doling out "free" drinks to his buddies, Royal Caribbean's machines 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 "procedures in place to monitor guests' alcohol consumption, and bartenders … will discontinue serving guests who appear to be intoxicated."
Before purchasing any kind of all-inclusive plan, guests should determine if their consumption will justify its cost. 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.
Jay Clarke, the former longtime travel editor of the Miami Herald, is a freelance writer based in Coral Gables.