Congratulations on booking your first cruise!! (or seriously considering one) Now that you know how to get on the ship (Read Part 1 if you haven't) lets move into the world of cruise dining, drink packages and on board credit.
DINING, INCLUDED vs. SPECIALTY
Most all cruise lines include certain restaurants and eateries in the base price, these are considered “free.” These might include main dining rooms, a buffet, a burger and/or pizza joint and some sort of a quick snacks location. Most cruise lines also offer ‘specialty dining’ restaurants that come with an up-charge. Sometimes that will be a set charge for the entire meal and sometimes it is a la carte, just like eating in a land based restaurant. Generally the up-charge restaurants give you a more unique and better dining experience than the included dining. These restaurants can be great for a special occasion or just to have a different experience than the included dining.
Notable exceptions are Virgin Voyages and some of the higher end cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas which includes all dining in the base price of the cruise. See our Scarlet Lady food tour (link below) to see the food offerings included with Virgin Voyages.
DINING, FIXED vs. ANYTIME.
Most cruise lines have the option of either "fixed" or "anytime" dining. It might be called different things, but essentially it is a choice between the two.
Fixed dining usually happens in two different seatings. Early is generally sometime around 5:30 pm and Late is generally around 8:30 pm. The advantages are that you get the same table and same waitstaff every night. You will be guaranteed that table each night. The waitstaff will also make a point to get to know you and what you like so often they will start to bring out your ‘usual drinks’ before you even ask for them. It is also helpful if you have severe food allergies as you don't have to keep explaining your issues.
Anytime dining is what it sounds like, you show up anytime. You may not get the same table and waitstaff, but you don't have to plan ahead. If you go at peak times (usually between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm), you may have to wait for a table. If you want to, you can usually make a reservation for a certain time either pre-cruise or a day or two in advance once on the cruise.
I prefer the flexibility of anytime dining, particularly on port days when you may want to make changes to your routine based on how your day went.
Disney Cruise Line only features fixed dining with each dinner in a different restaurant with your same waitstaff following along.
With few exceptions, no alcohol or soft drinks (including soda) is included in the base price of the cruise. The included beverages are water, non-bottled iced tea and hot tea (can vary in quality), some coffee (usually in the buffet), and often lemonade and punch as well as orange juice for breakfast only.
Beverage packages (both alcoholic and non) are generally available for purchase and oftentimes these will include speciality coffees (lattes, cappuccinos, etc). In recent years, cruise lines have been running deals that can include a beverage package as a ‘perk’ which we tend to take when available.
When considering paying for a beverage package, it’s important to understand exactly what is and is not included in the package price. For a majority of people, paying by the drink is a cheaper option.
First thing to understand about beverage packages, they are per person. You cannot share a beverage package between two people. If you are caught doing that, the cruise line will generally apply a beverage package to the other person immediately.
The exception to this rule is Virgin Voyages which has a pre-paid Bar Tab. You CAN use this Bar Tab to buy any drinks from cocktails to beer to coffee to wine for anyone you choose in addition to yourself.
Many cruise lines require that if one passenger in a cabin selects a drink package, all passengers in the same cabin must have the same drink package. Also understand that any third party speciality shop, like Starbucks, will not be included in the ship drink package. And the You will have to pay out of pocket for any drinks from these locations.
The easiest way to find the most up-to-date drink package information is to simply Search “(Cruise Line) Drink Package Price”. Then go to the actual cruise line’s website to find the ‘fine print.’ Below is Royal Caribbean’s Deluxe Beverage Package as of today when I’m writing this article.
You can see the types of drinks that are available for this drink package along the top. The costs as of today are $63 - $89 per day, per person. The variation is price is due to different sailing lengths, itineraries and ship size. All of these factor into the price you are charged.
Then you see the fine print down below. That first sentence says the package includes any drink up to $12. Any drink more than $12, you will have to either pay full price or pay the difference for that drink. (rules vary per cruise line).
As a VERY general rule of thumb, as of today, drink fees are averaging:
$2.50 - $5.00 per drink for speciality coffees and hot tea.
$3.00 - $4.25 for soda and soft drinks
$8.00 - $14.00 per drink for most wines
$7.00 - $14.00 per drink for most cocktails
$6.00 - $12.00 per bottle of most beers
$9.00 - $14.00 per glass of most liquors (scotch, bourbon, whiskey, etc)
As with any location, there are also much higher priced options for drinks.
From my last cruise I know that the coffees I ordered on-board were $4.50 each and my drinks averaged $11. The regular coffee in the buffet was quite good so I only had to purchase speciality coffees.
My typical day was: 2 or 3 speciality coffees and 4 cocktails.
3 coffees x $4.50 = $13.50/day
4 cocktails x $11 = $44/day
Total = $57.50/day
For my 7 drinks per day, even $63/day was more than I was spending. At $89/day I’d be paying the cruise line over $30/day for drinks I’m not going to purchase.
You can do the math on the types of drinks you might purchase each day to see how the price stacks out for you. Don’t forget to include soft drinks in your calculations to see if that makes the price worthwhile.
Disney Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages include soft drinks as part of their cruise fare.
ON BOARD CREDIT
Many cruise lines have offers that include “additional on-board credit.” This is essentially cash to spend however you see fit on the cruise. You can book dinners, pay for drinks, book excursions and so on with the on-board credit. Generally OBC starts out at $25 and can go as high as $400+ depending the cabin level and the cruise line offer at the time. Generally, on board credit offered by the cruise line is non-refundable (use it or lose it), whereas on board credit offered by your travel agent is usually refundable.
What To Know For Your First Cruise, main category
Your First Cruise Part 1: Getting On The Ship
First Cruise Guide: Tips for Booking Your First Cruise
First Cruise Guide: Excursions, Dining & Drink Packages
First Cruise Guide: Selecting Your Cruise Ship Cabin
Cruise Critic: (membership is free, sign up to participate in the cruise boards)