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Updated September 26, 2017
If you pay attention to those cruise line emails that flood your inbox and those bright brochures that line your mailbox, you've probably noticed an uptick in promotions touting "free perks" or your choice of added onboard amenities. Cruise lines -- such as Celebrity, Norwegian and Oceania -- are promising bonuses like a free drinks package for two, hundreds in onboard credit or even free third and fourth passengers (to a cabin) -- but is there a catch? When presented with the choice, which perk or perks are the best ones to choose? (Especially considering that once you make the choice, it applies to both you and the other person in your cabin.)
We took a look at a couple of the industry's current cruise perk promos and broke down the value by each offer category. We also provide our read on which perks offer the best deal. Armed with information on what these freebies are really worth, choosing between complimentary Corona and endless free Facebooking becomes less of a guess and more of a discussion (argument?) with your travel companion.
Perk 1: Beverage Package
If you imbibe, purchasing a drinks package on a cruise might seem like a relative no-brainer. Across the board, this is the perk we see offered by nearly every cruise line that offers a value-add promotion. The offer typically applies only to the first two people in a cabin (if they are 21 or older). So what's the actual value of free drinks for a weeklong cruise?
Less than you'd think. That's because you might end up paying for this perk before you receive it -- an unexpected stipulation for something advertised as free. The reason is an automatic 18-percent gratuity and service charge is attached to many cruise lines' individual beverages and beverage packages -- and while the package is free, the gratuities are not always.
The best-value free drink package perk we found is Norwegian's. Even with gratuities ($199.08 for two on a weeklong cruise), you'll save $906.92 per cabin off the cost of the line's Ultimate beverage package. Abstain from alcohol but dig the sweet stuff? Opt instead for a weeklong soda package (valued at $86.10 for two people).
Learn more about drink packages on cruise ships.
Perk 2: Internet Package
With cruisers looking to be more connected than ever before, free internet minutes or unlimited voyage-long internet access is the second most popular perk offered by cruise lines with this kind of promotion. Oceania Cruises includes it as its baseline free perk for the OLife Choice program -- free, unlimited internet for the duration of the sailing, which is typically $27.99 per day. Depending on how you use the web -- checking in with family via email or social media or spending long leisurely evenings uploading hi-res photos at sea -- a free internet perk package could serve you well or come up short. Our advice is look for unlimited plans.
The best internet perk we found is Celebrity's Go!Big offer, which includes an unlimited-use package valued at $140 per person for a weeklong cruise ($280 value for two people). Norwegian's Free at Sea program offers $125 worth of minutes per cabin -- that's just over four hours of internet use to be shared over the course of a week. The least impressive free Wi-Fi perk belongs to MSC Cruises; that line gives cruisers a package offering only email and social media access (a value of $33 per person for a weeklong cruise).
Read up on internet onboard cruises.
Perk 3: Onboard Credit
The perk with the most freedom, onboard credit means you have money to spend onboard just about anywhere you'd like. You can certainly use it to purchase a drinks package or a shore excursion, but you could also blow it all in the shops or on for-fee extras like arcade games. The magic number for this type of perk is usually $300 per cabin; if you're traveling with a friend (or a partner who doesn't want to share) that means $150 per person.
The true value? There are no caveats. Onboard credit won't charge you gratuities or a fee to use. It is, for lack of a better word, free money. Onboard credit is also the most popular perk you might find as a one-off value-add offer or a bonus for booking with a travel agent. Oceania staggers its onboard credit by length of voyage. For example, a 10-night sailing will get you $400 per cabin. Treating yourself to a back-to-back 28-night voyage? That's $1,000 in onboard credit.
Perk 4: Free Shore Excursions
Cruise lines offer shore excursions to help travelers explore each destination -- but the tours can be pricy (and booking several can quickly add up). Therefore, cruise lines might offer an onboard credit exclusively for booking shore tours or offer a set number of included tours as an enticement to book. Before you choose shore excursions as a perk, see how much an average excursion would cost your family and then subtract any credit. Still a deal?
Oceania's OLife Choice offers three full excursions for two on sailings shorter than nine days; that number increases to five excursions for sailings 14 days or longer. On the contrary, Norwegian's Free at Sea sometimes offers a shore-ex credit of $50 per cabin per port, not enough to cover the full cost of most excursions.
Get up to speed with our first timers' guide to shore excursions.
Perk 5: Prepaid Gratuities
Most cruise lines automatically add gratuities or a service charge to your onboard account; for a couple cruising, the added fees come to $180 or more for a weeklong cruise. It's not surprising that prepaid gratuities -- otherwise known as free tips -- are a common incentive across many cruise lines and even through travel agents. Celebrity's Go!Big promo equates to savings of $189 per couple for a standard cabin, $196 per cabin for an AquaClass or Concierge-class room and $238 for a suite on a weeklong cruise. If tipping makes you uncomfortable or you want a more all-inclusive feel to your cruise, the value in prepaid gratuities comes as peace of mind.
What do you need to know about cruise tipping? Read our Insider's Guide.
Perk 6: Free Specialty Dining
Who doesn't love a free meal? Norwegian's free specialty dining perk includes three meals for two people on sailings up to nine days. This is another perk where you can expect an 18-percent service charge, which is added to all dining charges onboard Norwegian's fleet. You'll pay $74.52 worth of gratuities, but you're still getting a value of $339.48 for three free meals for two on a weeklong sailing. (Passengers on cruises of more than 10 nights receive four meals each.) Looked at another way, each person is paying just $12.42 for each of the three dinners -- not free but a definite savings.
Learn more about specialty dining on cruise ships.
Perk 7: Room Upgrade
Getting a cruise room upgrade is not offered as a choice on too many value-add promotions with multiple options, but it's a common perk or incentive for many cruise lines and the focus of many cruise campaigns. Some lines will offer upgrades within the same cabin type (balcony cabin to higher-category balcony cabin), while others let you move from one class to another (outside to balcony).
Because cruise fares vary dramatically per sailing and sometimes categories can be close or far in price, the real value is not financial but what you're getting with the upgrade -- a better cabin.
Upgrade fan? Here are 5 ways to get a cruise ship cabin upgrade.
Perk 8: Free Cruise Fare for Third & Fourth Passengers
Maybe no perk could be better than free cruise fare -- except it's not entirely free.
Norwegian's Free at Sea promo is (at press time) offering "free" passage for additional passengers in a cabin (on select sailings) as one of its perk choices. From time to time, other cruise lines will offer free third and fourth passengers (or free kids sharing a cabin with two adults) as part of sale fares. The catch? You're still responsible for paying port taxes and fees for these "free" passengers, which can equate to about $200 each.
If you're trying to figure out the value of the free fares, it can also get tricky. Many times, third and fourth passengers don't pay the full cruise fare, so the actual value can be significantly less than you'd think, based on the full amount for the first two passengers. For example, we saw a round-trip sailing around the Hawaiian Islands on Pride of America selling for $1,449 -- that would be a two-person value of $2,898. However, the third and fourth passenger fares were just $449; valuing the promotion in the hundreds not thousands of dollars. (Gratuities were just $119 per person for third and fourth passengers.) Still, this is one of the nicest perks -- with real savings -- if you're bringing the kids along, or splitting a cabin four ways with friends.
The free alcoholic beverage package perk is, by dollar amount, the best value you can attain with one of the bonus amenities. However, if you don't drink the hard stuff, or drink very little, you might not be able to justify the cost of the gratuities and be better served with another perk.
Internet, while handy, is only useful if you use it to its fullest capacity (optimally getting an unlimited package), but compared with an onboard credit of $300, you could simply purchase the highest-level internet package and still have some money left over for a souvenir.
Shore excursions are only a cushy perk if full excursions are included, like with Oceania. A credit, like the one sometimes offered by Norwegian, could be measly in comparison to what excursions cost in your ports of call -- meaning that instead of a free tour in every port, you'll more likely just getting a discount.
Room upgrades are a shiny incentive, but only make sense if you are getting the upgraded room at a good price. Make sure to do a little homework and price out what the average cost of the upgraded cabin is on a typical sailing to see the dollar value of your savings. If you still aren't sure if you're getting a deal, the true value of your cabin upgrade might be best discussed with a travel agent who can really price out what makes sense for your needs and where the perk plays into that. At the end of the day, if you feel you are getting your cruise room at a fair price, by all means book it.
While the value of other deals might be higher in terms of dollars and cents, onboard credit has no strings attached. If you're looking for a pure freebie, with the flexibility to use it however you'd like, this is a surefire pick.
Choosing the right perk really comes down to what would make your onboard experience a better one. Even though specialty dining is a $340 value, if you don't care much for the alternative restaurants, it's a wasted choice. Likewise, if you prefer independent touring, don't choose a shore excursion perk; if you don't drink much, an alcohol package might be lost on you. The best method is to determine which amenities you would purchase anyway, and then choose the free perks that match your typical onboard spending.