Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Free at Sea” deal is one of the most appealing cruise line offers out there. After all, everyone likes getting something for free.
But is it a good deal? It is worth buying? And what details should you know when you book?
While cruise passengers have gotten used to shelling out plenty of cash for extras on the ship after they board, not everyone likes being nickeled-and-dimed.
That’s why this offer aims to provide many of the extras you’d normally buy on a trip, all included in your cruise fare at a price that’s normally less than if you booked them all separately. That gives you a more all-inclusive atmosphere on the ship, instead of worrying about more spending once on the ship.
With Free at Sea, you book a cruise and get any number of “free” perks included with your cruise. While what’s offered to passengers does change slightly from time to time, the traditional deal offers a lineup of perks for you to select from:
- Free open bar
- Free specialty dining
- Free shore excursions
- Free wi-fi
- Free third/fourth guests
So with the deal you can pay one price and then get drinks for the duration of your trip, wi-fi, shore excursions, and more.
Norwegian has been offering some version of the sale for some time now. And anecdotally, it’s one of the most appealing offers out there. Who doesn’t want to get free drinks or free specialty dining tacked onto their cruise? In fact, it promises to take away so many of the extra charges that creep into the cost of a cruise these days.
But while the sale sounds mouth-watering, there are definitely some things you will want to know before you purchase your fare in order to get the best deal… and avoid any surprises.
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The Number of Perks May Depend On Your Cabin Type (But Often Includes All Perks For Every Cabin)
First things first, while you can get all the perks included with your cruise, the number of freebies you can select may depend on the type of cabin that you purchase. Often no matter which cabin type you book, all the perks are included. Other times, it may be that the higher grade of cabin you choose, the more picks you receive. The offer can change occasionally.
If you book at a time when not everything is included, then if you pick a studio or inside cabin, you might only be offered one or two free perks. Oceanview, balcony, and mini-suites will usually get to pick more offers offers, while suites, and The Haven cabins normally get to select all the perks.
But it seems limiting the perks based on cabin type is becoming less common. For example, as of this writing all cabins — regardless of if they are inside rooms or top-of-the-line suites — are able to get all the perks included in their fare.
Sometimes More Perks Are Offered
In addition to changing the number of perks included with the room you book, NCL also adjusts the actual perks themselves at times. Typically, this means adding a perk or two occasionally to sweeten the offer.
What you’ll find is the five base “freebies” don’t change. They include:
- Free open bar
- Free specialty dining
- Free shore excursions
- Free wi-fi
- Free third/fourth guests
But occasionally the cruise line adds in other deals. Most recently we’ve seen seen free airfare for second guests (for those flying to the port) and free cruise credit to put toward booking another trip while onboard the ship.
The Free at Sea Offer Runs Consistently
With the ability to get all the perks included with your cruise, it can be tempting to want to jump at the deal so that you don’t miss out. In fact, normally you’ll see a timer on the Norwegian website counting down until the sale ends.
In this case, you don’t seem to have much to worry about. The offer has run in some form or another (there are small tweaks here and there) for years. And while we don’t check every day, we can’t think of a time in recent history that it hasn’t been offered.
So yes, the sale may change slightly, but some form is seemingly always offered. Don’t think you have to rush to buy or risk missing out. If the time isn’t quite right to book, you’ll most likely see something similar when you are ready.
Rooms Without Perks Are Less Expensive (If You Can Find Them)
One of the things you might not realize is that you can purchase cabins on the ship without the perks offered. Why would you want to do that? Sailing without the perks is actually cheaper than buying the same cabin as part of the sale.
Take a balcony cabin we found for 7-day Alaskan cruise, for instance. The price per person for a balcony cabin that included the Free at Sea offer was $2,369 per person.
Norwegian also offers a “Sail Away” balcony, which is a room that’s not part of the promotion, and the cruise line picks your room. In return, you get a cheaper rate. In this case, it was $2,319 per person.
So the Free at Sea deal was actually $50 more per person — or $100 extra for a couple sailing together.
Remember that for that price difference you get all the perks and get to choose your actual cabin on the ship. As well, if you plan to buy things like drink packages ($109 per person, per day), you still come out way ahead despite the higher price. Still, it is a higher price to pay for the same type of room.
If the perks aren’t something you’ll use, then it may not be worth it for you to book the offer. But for most people, it likely will be worth the extra cost.
One thing to note is that it seems the fares without the offer often say they are sold out on NCL’s website. It may be difficult for you to find a fare without the offer.
You May HAVE to Buy the Free at Sea Offer
In years past, there was a rather large difference between the cruise fares with the Free at Sea offer and those sail away balconies (on the order of hundreds of dollars). Then that difference seemed to get smaller and smaller to where booking with the offer was a no-brainer. Now, it can be seemingly tough to find a cruise without the offer included.
During our most recent price checks, we looked at several cruises departing in the weeks ahead all the way to more than a year out. On none of them were we able to find a sail away room available. While the option was shown for all cruises, the website labeled them all sold old — even for cruises leaving more than a year from now. Meanwhile, there were still options available with the Free at Sea perks included.
In other words, if you wanted a fare without the offer, it may be tough to find.
You Still Have to Pay Gratuity… Even on Free Things
One of the biggest draws to the Norwegian sale is that you can get free open bar on your trip. With the price of alcohol on a cruise being high (think $10-14 for a cocktail or about $6-8 for a beer), having free bar privileges can be a huge money saver. Meanwhile, Norwegian charges $109 for an unlimited drink package. On a 7-day trip, that’s hundreds of dollars you’re saving by having it included.
But with the free drink package (as well as other things like specialty restaurants), you are still on the hook for gratuities. With Norwegian, that’s an automatic 20% on the value of the package, or $21.80 per person, per day. For two people, that’s $43.60 each day.
So on a 7-day cruise, a couple will end up paying more than $300 in gratuities for your “free” drinks.
It’s similar with the specialty dining package. There, you will see gratuities on the free meals with the offer, which are paid when booking.
You can opt out of the free drink package and specialty dining to avoid paying the gratuities. (See more on that below.)
You Don’t Have to Select a Perk If You Don’t Want It
With the extra gratuity cost of some perks like free drinks and specialty dining, there can actually be a disadvantage to having it included on your cruise if you don’t use these offers. That’s ok. When you book, you don’t have to take advantage of every single perk that’s offered.
When making your reservation, you have the choice to opt out of those packages that require a gratuity charge such as the drink package and specialty dining. That way if you don’t think you’ll get your money’s worth, you don’t have to pay the gratuity charge.
Understand the Terms & Conditions Before Booking (Lots of Fine Print)
In general the perks from Norwegian are straightforward, but there are some terms you should know about.
Gratuities: We’ve mentioned that gratuities are still charged even on free perks. But if you take advantage of the third and fourth guests in a cabin sail free perk, they will still be charged a daily service charge of $20 per person on the ship like any other passenger.
Specialty Dining: While other things to know include that the free specialty dining perk is only for a some meals (two per person in total for a 7-day cruise if booking a balcony cabin, for example but only one per person in a studio, inside, or oceanview) and gratuities are also charged on the value of the package.
Wi-Fi: The free wi-fi offer is for only 75 minutes on cruises less than seven days or 150 minutes for trips of 7-11 days. It is not unlimited.
Shore Excursions: While the shore excursions are labeled as “free” in fact, it is actually a $50 credit for the first guest, per excursion. If your excursion is more, then you’ll need to pay the difference. And NCL says the “offer is application to first guest on the cruise reservation” — not multiple guests in the cabin.
“Free At Sea Plus” Offer Could Be Better For You
Maybe you’ve made the choice to book Free at Sea instead of a basic cabin without the perks. There’s one more choice to consider, and that is Free at Sea versus Free at Sea Plus.
Norwegian has created an upgrade with the following perks included:
- Premium Plus Beverage Package (includes all top-shelf spirits)
- Two additional specialty dining meals
- $50 shore excursion credit per tour for both first and second passenger
- Unlimited wi-fi for first and second passenger
Compared to the regular Free at Sea deal, this includes a higher-tier drink package, more specialty dining meals, an additional $50 credit per shore excursion, and unlimited wi-fi instead of a bundle of minutes.
The price runs $49 per person, per day ($29 pp for kids and $42 pp if traveling solo).
Given the list prices of these services, you do come out ahead with this package if you used the features. For instance, the Premium Plus Beverage Package is $29 more per day while unlimited wi-fi runs $30-40 per day. That alone is more than the $49 per day that you’ll spend. Add on a couple of uses of the $50 shore excursion credit and the additional meals, and you’re well in the black.
But these are also extras that you may not need. For instance, many passengers would be just fine with the basic drink package. Some may not need unlimited wi-fi. Others may take only an excursion or two during the trip, meaning the discount isn’t as big a deal.
Before you book, you’ll want to do the math to figure if the daily cost ($98 a day for a couple traveling) is worth the upgrade.
Check Prices on Airfare Offers
One of the perks that can be popular for people living a distance from the port is free airfare. Often, it is free for the second guest on the cruise, although the offer specifics can vary.
As you might expect, there are some caveats when it comes to free flights. Most notably, airfare charges will vary depending on where you’re flying from. You’ll be able to select your departure city, and then it will tell you the price of airfare for the guest that does have to pay.
In that case, it’s worth a quick search of flight-search websites like Kayak to see what the airfare rate will be. In a recent search, we found flights on our own for several hundred dollars cheaper than what we were quoted on the NCL website. However, when you consider the free airfare for the second guest, the Free at Sea offer was better overall.
Good Deal? Likely, but Do the Math Before You Buy
For many people, selecting the Free at Sea offer is a no-brainer (or may be required if a sail away fare isn’t available), and they will end up saving a considerable amount of money.
But if you aren’t a big drinker or plan to drive to the port instead of fly, or don’t care about shore excursions, it could be that buying the cheaper cabin is worth it for you. After all, you’ll have to pay gratuities on the drink package, still have to pay for some flights, and pay gratuities on specialty restaurant dining.
So if you won’t use the perks that are offered, be sure to consider if the deal is worth paying the higher price. If not, then you might be better off sailing without them. Even so, there’s a reason the offer is popular — for many people it’s a smart move.
More on Sailing NCL:
- Worth It? Complete Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Drink Package Guide
- 25+ Fun Must-Do Things on a Norwegian Cruise
- 20+ Norwegian Cruise Tips, Tricks, and Things to Know