Becoming a “cruiser” is almost like learning a new language. The cruise culture has some very specific nuances and secrets, and once you learn the ins and outs, it will open your eyes to what you have available to you.
On the average mass market cruise line, things operate relatively the same, but every line has its own individual specialties, especially when it comes to drinking. There are beloved bartenders that regular cruisers know by name, there are secret menus and drinks that you can only get on some ships and there’s a range of spirits, beers and wines that will only be stocked on certain ships or cruise lines. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to give you a nice general overview of tips and tricks for how to drink on a cruise ship.
Drink Packages. Every cruise line offers them and some (Norwegian and Celebrity almost always) include them as booking perks. If you plan on drinking more than about 4-5 drinks per day, the package will likely be worth it. The drink package gives you two things that I think are important to the vacation experience: it allows you to budget for your trip easier as you don’t have to be worried about the potentially massive bar bill at the end of your trip and it gives you the freedom and ability to have an all inclusive experience. If you feel like another beer by the pool, you can just order it. Curious about that cocktail? Just get it and if it’s not for you, just ask for something different. If you have a drink package, you will have a different level of relaxation and ease about your drinking. It’s worth it, especially if you like things like sparkling water, specialty coffees and soda, which are normally not included free of charge on the mass-market cruise lines.
Ask your travel agent or search online for lists of what is and isn’t included in the packages. Some cruise lines have different tiers of packages, so it’s good to know if your poison of choice is included in the basic package or if you need to upgrade to the premium. As well, check to see if you just pay the difference if you want something outside the package or if you’re on the hook for the full amount.
Know the Rules for Embarkation. You’ll be allowed to take some liquor on with you, but what and how much will change depending on the cruise line. Do your homework, ask your travel agent and be sure. Otherwise you’ll get sent to the naughty room to have to claim your goods and they’ll confiscate it until the end of the trip. Most cruise lines allow 2 bottles of wine or sparkling wine per cabin and some do allow liquor or beer. You can enjoy that in the stateroom, or pour a glass and walk freely with it, but if you want to bring the bottle to the dining room they will charge you a corkage fee.
On the Ship
Sailaway Drinks. In my humble opinion, the sailaway drink might just be the most important one of your cruise. It sets the tone for your trip and gets you excited about the time you’ll be spending onboard. For me, my sailaway drink is always the Aperol Spritz, and there’s a few reasons for that. First off, it’s a delightful light afternoon beverage (and it’s going to be about 1-3pm at this point, so this is prime “spritz time”) and pretty much every bar on the ship will be able to make it and second, it’s a great conversation starter – people always want to know what it is.
My tradition is to head to the pool bar because I want to start soaking up the sun right away, I get an Aperol Spritz and hang out at the bar and meet people that are also very excited to be on vacation and therefore super friendly. It’s the perfect way to start your trip and enjoy cruise life before you have to head to muster drill.
Choose the Right Bar. Certain bars will specialize in particular drinks, so be in the right place for what you’re looking for. Don’t show up at the cocktail bar looking for a Piña Colada or the pool bar looking for the perfect Old Fashioned. This is usually pretty clear, the bar menu will show what the specialty cocktails are for that bar and it’s pretty easy to get a feel for it based on the vibe and décor.
Some bars will stock specific things, so just ask. If you’ve seen your favourite rum on the bar list when you did your pre-cruise research, ask which bar or bars carry it. Especially when it comes to the higher end spirits as they won’t all be available everywhere.
Bonus tip: some bars will have a secret stash of Clamato for the Canadians onboard. If you’re a Caesar fan, be sure to ask where you can get your fix.
Wine & Sommeliers. There are a lot of experts onboard. Use them. If wine is your thing, the selections are different in each restaurant and there will be sommeliers on hand to help guide you, this is another great opportunity with the drink package. If you’re curious about a grape varietal you’ve never tried before, give it a go. Or if your drink package covers beverages up to $15 and you want that glass of fancy champagne that is $25 per glass, take advantage and just pay the $10 additional fee.
Tipping. If you buy a drink, either with a package or by the glass, a gratuity of 18-20% will be included. You may be given a slip to sign with a line for additional gratuity, but your tip was already included, however, as with any bar an additional tip will go a long way with cruise staff. If you like a bartender, ask for their schedule. Most move in between bars, and it’s good to know where they are so you can look for them and they’ll remember you as well.
Bringing Liquor Back Onboard. Again, the rules will vary depending on the ship and the itinerary, but generally if you buy a bottle of something in port it’s not allowed for you to bring back to your cabin. But you can bring it back to the ship and check it in. It will be returned to you on the last night of the cruise so that you can pack it in your luggage and bring it home. So if you’re cruising the Caribbean and find the most amazing bottle of rum, buy it!
As well, there’s the official rules and then there’s the reality. I’ve bought liquor and beer in port many times and I’ve had to check it in about 25% of the time. Most often they just wave you through security and let you bring it to your room anyways. Europe tends to be more liberal with this. In Germany I went on a brewery tour and bought 6 large bottles of beer, prepared to check them in and they waved me through with a “where’s the party?” joke.
Make Someone’s Day. Cruise staff are heavily incentivized by reviews and kudos from guests, so if you loved someone onboard, take the time to leave a kind word for them in the post cruise survey. I usually keep a running list of names of staff in my phone’s notepad and include the name and which bar/restaurant they were at so that I don’t leave anyone out. These staff work so hard and do a terrific job, this is a small step that you can take that means a lot to them. As well, if it’s your jam, leave a review on Cruise Critic. It’s like the Trip Advisor of cruising and an excellent resource for knowledge, so give back with your 2 cents.
So there you go! You’ll find that cruising and drinking make for wonderful bedfellows…. I mean, if you have a few too many, your hotel room is literally floating along beside you. What could be better? And if you’re really rough the next day, room service is free on most cruise lines, so put on that do not disturb sign and relax. Happy sailing!