Discovering there’s a large bill to pay is no way to finish your cruise. But whether you ordered fresh juice at the bar, joined a cooking class, signed up for a shore excursion or dined out at one of the ship’s stylish restaurants, those extras can really add up – which is why the all-inclusive cruise formula has become increasingly popular in the past few years.

“The great thing about all-inclusive is peace of mind,” says Derek Banks, managing director of river cruise company European Waterways. ‘From the moment you arrive with us, you know that nothing needs to cost you a penny, because transfers, excursions, fine dining and even an open bar are covered by the fare you’ve already paid.”

Go all-inclusive and naturally the fare will be higher. But if you book in advance, you’ll get a fixed price that isn’t affected by fluctuating exchange rates, and it’s always easier to budget for a holiday when you know that the only extra expenses will be presents for friends and family back home. Read on for our guide to the best all-inclusive cruise packages deals, the cruise lines which offer them and useful tips.

Earth & Ocean at The Patio on board Seabourn Ovation

What’s the Deal?
‘All-inclusive’ means different things to different cruise lines – so before signing up, it’s important to make sure that your chosen package meets your expectations.

“Many deals include accommodation, meals, entertainment, flights and transfers, and for some people that’s enough,” says Justin Stanton, sales and marketing director for Fred Olsen. “But as the British are renowned for looking for the best value for money, a package that includes all the above, plus beverages and more, could be the way to go.”

Which Cruise Lines offer Packages?
Some cruise lines – generally the high-end ones – are all-inclusive as standard, while others offer all-inclusive packages as upgrades on their basic fares.

In the former category, Regent Seven Seas is renowned for its all-inclusive formula, which includes flights, premium drinks, speciality dining, wi-fi, gratuities and unlimited shore excursions. Others operating on a similar basis – though without the flights – include Crystal, Seabourn, SeaDream Yacht Club and Silversea. At the more affordable end of the market, Celestyal and many Saga cruises are all-inclusive, and Marella Cruises has announced that it too will be all-inclusive from this summer.

Lines offering all-inclusive packages as add-ons to the basic fare include Fred Olsen, Azamara, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Celebrity, Princess and Cunard. Luxury river cruise companies, including European Waterways, Viking, Scenic, Tauck and APT, generally cover everything – from flights and shore excursions to meals and premium drinks – in their prices.

Package Restrictions
Upgrading to an all-inclusive drinks package definitely has its attractions – but again, as Justin points out, you need to read the small print. “It’s important to be clear about restrictions – what is and isn’t covered. Every company will have different packages, including different drinks, and some may even include time limits.”

Some deals offer unlimited drinks but from a limited list, often restricted to locally produced wines, beers and spirits, and excluding premium brands. If you want to order any drink that takes your fancy – cocktails, champagne, fine wines – without incurring extra charges, you’ll generally need to book with one of the six-star lines. But there are good deals at lower price-points too.

Barman making espresso martini

“We offer a value-for-money proposition on certain cruises where passengers pay one price that covers everything, so they can enjoy themselves without worrying about the bill at the end,” says Andy Magowan, Celestyal Cruises’ VP for Europe. “This provides guests with full-board accommodation and drinks packages for unlimited consumption, including premium brands.”

Is a drinks package worth the extra investment upfront? If you only drink a glass or two of wine with dinner, then probably not. But if you expect to enjoy five or six drinks a day (or you have expensive tastes), it could be well worth investigating what’s on offer. One factor to bear in mind, however, is that a drinks package must be purchased by all guests sharing a cabin.

Quality Counts
If you do decide to buy an all-inclusive package, don’t just check the number of inclusions – check the quality, too. “I would recommend that passengers ensure that the standard of what is offered as part of the all-inclusive package meets their needs,” says Graham Sadler, Regent Seven Seas’ European MD.

“For example, they should ask: How many shore excursions are complimentary at each port? How many of the restaurants on board can I dine in for free? Are champagne and other premium-brand drinks included? All these factors will help guests relax on board and maximise their holiday enjoyment.”

Fred Olsen Balmoral Ballindalloch Restaurant

Is it Worth it? 
Some would argue that all-inclusive cruising is the future. Most cruise lines agree that the secret to making an all-inclusive package worthwhile is to use everything that’s on offer. So, make sure you go to that Pilates class, take that ziplining excursion you’d never dare try at home, and when you go to the restaurant, don’t just stick to the same dishes, sample everything on the menu.

Whether or not to go all-inclusive really depends on what you want out of your trip: if you’re following a strict diet, if you don’t fancy joining too many shore excursions or you prefer an early bedtime to the charms of onboard nightlife, it could be a much better idea to take the traditional route and pay for any extras at the end of your trip.

But if you’re the kind of person who likes to try everything once – or if you just want to relax and know that all expenses are budgeted for – then an all-inclusive package could be your ticket to the best holiday ever.

Useful Tips
D0 check what your cruise line means by ‘all-inclusive’. Items ranging from room service and wi-fi to cocktails and spa facilities may still incur an extra charge.
Do remember that you probably won’t drink as much on port days, so factor that in when working out the value of your drinks package.
Don’t go fully all-inclusive if you don’t drink. Most cruise lines will allow you to add pre-paid bundles covering items such as laundry, speciality dining and tips.