At-sea alcohol prices are anything but cheap, but savvy cruisers know how to keep from drowning in their bar bill. We polled our editors and readers to compile these 15 great tips and tricks for scoring free or discounted pours on cruise ships.
One quick caveat: With a few justified exceptions, the following tips do not include wine. Policies vary, but most mainstream lines allow passengers to bring vino onboard in some fashion, though you'll likely have to pay a corkage fee to drink it in a restaurant. Check out our full rundown of cruise line alcohol policies for more information.
Loyalty pays ... in booze. When it comes to gratis pours, cruise lines can be generous with their past passengers. Sail just once with Holland America and you can attend the complimentary Mariner Champagne Brunch. Amass 200 days at sea, and you'll get the Champagne brunch, a complimentary wine tasting, plus half off wine packages. Royal Caribbean ups the ante by hosting open-bar nightly cocktail events for its hardcore repeaters. Read more about cruise line past passenger programs to find out what liquid perks you're entitled to on a variety of lines.
Attend a party. Disney Cruise Line's captain's cocktail party, which is open to all passengers on formal night, provides complimentary drinks. In fact, for most lines, the master's formal introduction is made as servers dart about with booze-topped trays. Sometimes it's the goodbyes that are worth celebrating. Princess Cruises holds a similar farewell soiree on cruises of 14 nights or longer.
Make nice with the bartender. "My husband and I have always found that if we frequent the same bar staff during the majority of the cruise, and be sure to tip generously, we get excellent service, " writes Linda. "May not always be free, but the bar staff tend to be more generous." Linda also recommends asking your favorite barkeep where he or she is going to be when. Tim agrees. "They will treat you right with strong pours and drinks that never find their way to your tab, " he says.
Check out an art auction. At-sea art auctions and free cheap sparkling wine go together like surrealists and curly moustaches. Whether you bid, buy or pass, the drinks are free. (Should you bid, buy or pass? Learn more about cruise ship art auctions.)
Look for 2-for-1's. On a sailing aboard Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, a number of bars advertised hour-long BOGO specials. We stumbled onto such a happy hour at the crystal-and-drape-covered Champagne & Martini bar, and stumbled out after doubling up on the normally $8 to $10 concoctions. Peruse the daily newsletter for time and place.
Cocktail soup and drunken desserts? "On Princess they served a 'Pina Colada Soup' with some dinners, " says Art. "This 'soup' is remarkably cold and full of alcohol. For those who still haven't caught on, IT'S A FREAKIN' FREE PINA COLADA!" Deidra K. offered a similarly boozy tip. "On HAL's Zaandam, we were delighted to find the ice cream dessert bar at the buffet was doling out (you need to request it) large, overflowing tablespoons of delicious liqueurs on top of the vanilla ice cream - Wowza! They even offered coconut rum as well - Gratis!"
Sit down at the tables. As long as you're splashing chips (or inserting pennies) in Vegas or Atlantic City establishments, the beer tap remains open. Not so at sea. Comped beverages generally aren't part of the action - unless you're a player. Sign up for Norwegian Cruise Line's Casinos at Sea Players Club, make sure to have the pit boss swipe your card each time you play, and you could be on your way to getting free drinks. A representative for Norwegian's casino reservation center said players need to accrue 1, 500 seabucks to get the coveted "drink card." Without going into too much detail, that requires a bit of dedication (time and dollars). But there's an easier way: Harrah's Total Rewards card holders (membership is free) who book a cruise through Norwegian's Casinos at Sea can get the drink card. Just be sure to mention your TR status when booking.
Use a travel agent who loves you. There are few better ways of saying "thanks for your business" than finding the gift of vino in your cabin. "Our travel agent buys us a bottle of wine for every cruise we book through her, " writes Gloria.