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Understanding the Benefits & Catches of NCL's Free at Sea Program

Cruise line marketing teams are crafty folks, and pricing strategies sometimes make figuring out what you’re getting and for how much a bit confusing.  This is perhaps most true with Norwegian Cruise Lines, where they’re always in the midst of a sail that has limited time left, and they look to bundle a lot of extras with their fares.  Looking past the multitude of fine print and options can be tricky - but we’ll help make it clearer so you understand exactly what’s right for you.

NCL free at sea

What is NCL’s Free at Sea Offer?

Most of NCL’s sailings these days include NCL’s “Free at Sea” offer, bundling drinks, Wi-Fi, dining, and other amenities with the price of a cruise.  Specifically, this includes their premium beverage package, specialty dining credits, shore excursion credits, an internet package, and often, free air for a second guest.  Of course, there are details to hash out with each one of those things, which we’ll address.

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When is Free at Sea Offered?

This collection of items may be advertised as “free unlimited open bar, airfare, and more” or some other combination of perks - but the core offer is Free at Sea.  It’s also worth pointing out that NCL often makes it seem as if parts of this offer are about to go away - and maybe that will happen, but we find that while fares price vary, this offer is pretty consistent.  In other words, if you’re looking at an NCL cruise, Free at Sea is probably available to you.

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The Catch with NCL’s Free at Sea Program

Whether it’s to entice people to book or simply because you can’t fit every detail of an offer in the corner of an advertisement (probably a combination of both), the initial presentation of Free at Sea perks may look much more simple, and perhaps generous, than it is.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the program isn’t valuable - but it’s important to know what’s really included.  Let’s go over the details of each benefit.

Free Unlimited Open Bar

The Premium Beverage Package included with Free at Sea includes drinks up to $15, such as cocktails, beer, wine, and juices.  What’s not included, however, are specialty coffees or packaged water.  This isn’t bad, and while we appreciated the particularly high-end spirits available for an up-charge (or with the Premium Plus package), on our recent NCL Encore Alaska cruise, we found there was no shortage of quality options available with this package.

What many guests don’t expect with an included beverage package is cost, and while the core package cost of $109 per person/per day is included, the required gratuities are not.  This means that if you opt to take advantage of the included beverage package when you book, you’ll pay 20% of the value of the package.  So, the included package will actually set back two guests $305.20 on a seven night cruise.

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Free Specialty Dining

Specialty dining restaurants are a big deal on NCL, because some of their ships have a lot of them.  The Free Specialty Dining offer isn’t unlimited, but allows for a set number of specialty meals depending on the length of your cruise and cabin type.  On seven to 11 night cruises, the first two guests in a balcony stateroom will get two meals at a specialty restaurant.  While the true value depends on where you choose to dine, the assigned value in this case is $99, which means there will be a $39.60 gratuity charge added with this included offering.

Because this one can be a bit more complex, we’ll put the breakdown for different sailing lengths and stateroom types below (all assuming a stateroom with two guests).

  • Three- to six-night cruise, any cabin: one meal ($118 value, $23.60 gratuity)

  • Seven- to 11-night cruise, studio, inside or oceanview cabin: one meal ($118 value, $23.60 gratuity)

  • Seven- to 11-night cruise, balcony cabin or above: two meals ($198 value, $39.60 gratuity)

  • Twelve-night cruise or longer, studio, inside or oceanview cabin: two meals ($198 value, $39.60 gratuity)

  • Twelve-night cruise or longer, balcony cabin or above: three meals ($278 value, $55.60 gratuity)

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Free Wi-Fi

To start, it’s important to know that for any cruise line, Wi-Fi is always included in order for you to use the cruise line app, and sometimes other services.  What guests actually pay for is internet access while connected to that Wi-Fi network.  If you’re still confused, this is something we help explain in this article.

What is included with this part of the offer can also be a bit confusing, but similar to dining, guests do not get unlimited internet access included with Free at Sea.  What you actually get is a certain number of included minutes of internet access - but that goes very quickly.  The good news is that you can use this as credit to upgrade to other internet packages, such as the Unlimited or Unlimited Premium packages, which are normally priced at $29.99 and $39.99 per device per day, respectively.  For a recent seven night cruise, the included access offered us 150 minutes of access, or $130 credit for upgrade, allowing us to upgrade to the Unlimited Premium (which includes streaming) for $129.93.

laptop and a mimosa on a table on celebrity apex

Free Excursions

Shore excursions, on any line, can vary greatly in value, and what is included here won’t get you many excursions, but it will get you $50 off of one excursion, for one guest in each port of call.  So, if you want to go to the Baths at Virgin Gorda (and you really should), and NCL offers that tour for $150 per person, then the two of you can go for $250 total, and get another $50 off another tour in the next port.  

Where you’ll want to be careful here is making sure that it’s not cheaper to abandon the discount in favor of booking an excursion through a third party.  We discuss the pros and cons of this extensively in this article, and include it in our video discussing the multiple things you should consider when planning your time ashore.  This in mind, you might think that NCL’s private islands of Great Stirrup Cay and Harvest Cay might be the perfect places to use a $50 credit, and you’re not wrong - but you can’t use this credit on equipment rentals at these locations.

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Free Airfare

This isn't technically part of the Free at Sea offer, but it seems to be tacked on as an extra very frequently, so it's worth mentioning.  Few things are as enticing to travelers as free airfare, and what NCL offers here can be a significant value…or a non-starter.  If you book air through NCL’s air-to-sea program they’ll give you two air tickets for the price of one.  This can be a great deal, but there are two big things to consider.  First, air prices vary a ton, so you’ll need to price this out to see if you can get your air taken care of independently for less money.  Fortunately NCL makes this pretty easy, as when you or your travel advisor is pricing your cruise they display the price based on which origin airport you choose.  The second consideration is timing.  We always recommend you arrive to the embarkation city at least a day before you sail.  NCL allows guests to fly in up to two days early, but if you want to extend your trip by more than that, or if you want to pick your flights (airline, arrival time, etc) then this perk may not be of value to you.  

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Final Considerations for Free at Sea

The offer, for many guests, is a net positive - but as you can see there are things to know and consider so that you’re not caught off guard by the additional costs or restrictions.  If you don’t think you’ll use these perks, then you can definitely look to see what Sail Away rates might be available, which don’t build any of these things into your cruise cost - but in our experience the rates aren’t so drastically different that it makes sense even if the only perk you’ll use is the beverage package.

Still, you can part out the offer.  If you’re not going to drink at least the cost in gratuities, then opt out of the drinks - the same logic applies to specialty dining.  If you stick with limited internet, don’t forget to log out as soon as you’re done browsing.  In other words, do the math based on what you expect you’ll value and enjoy.  If you’re someone that thinks you’ll benefit from additional add-ons, such as Unlimited internet and the Premium Plus drink package, then look into NCL’s Free at Sea Plus program, which bundles these in, along with more shore excursion and specialty dining credits.  Just know that you can only choose this update before you sail.

The biggest thing that may help you save money and decode these offers?  Use a good travel agent.  They can help clear things up and sometimes get you additional incentives not available by booking directly, in addition to providing valuable service and letting you skip the call centers.  You can find out more about using a travel agent in this article.  However you book, and whatever you do, choose the right cruise for you, and have a great time.

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