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Royal Caribbean just announced "all you can drink" packages, including beer, wine and liquor for three of its ships. Although the three test ships sail from the United Kingdom rather than the United States, everyone seems to think this is a trial balloon likely to be extended. And it raises the issue of these and similar packages, generally, in the ongoing evolution of cruise pricing.

Royal Caribbean's offer includes packages at three levels:

*The Basic package, at $29 per person per day, includes all beers and house wines.

*The Classic package, at $39 per person per day, includes all beer, house wines and regular brand liquors.

*The Premium package includes all beer, wines priced at up to $10 per glass and premium liquor.

*All three packages include 25 percent discounts on wine by the bottle and liquors priced beyond the package's coverage.

Royal Caribbean is the first mass-market line to offer such packages to individual travelers. A few other lines offer comparable drink packages, but only to large groups. As far as I can tell, the only other cruise line selling individual drink packages is upscale Celebrity Cruises. In addition, a few upscale lines include basic beer and wine by the glass within the regular no-extra-charge menu. Also, some cruise lines sell "discount" cards that entitle you to a percent-off deal on wines and beers.

Are Royal Caribbean's packages good deals? These days, cruisers report that beer and house wine by the glass start at around $6 each and often go higher. And the lowest-priced house wines may be only a small step above what the Brits delightfully call "plonk." That means you'd break even at, say, four or five beers or wine glasses a day. Depending on how the line defines "glass," a lot of you might well come out ahead with the package, especially if you have beer or wine at lunch or in the afternoon as well as at dinner.

At least with alcoholic beverages, Royal Caribbean and most other cruise lines try to stop you from doing it yourself. Most confiscate any hard liquor you bring onboard and return it to you at the end of the cruise. Many allow you to bring only one bottle of wine onboard during the entire cruise. Even those that allow you to buy wine in port charge a stiff corkage fee for you to drink it in a dining room.

Although Royal Caribbean is the only mass-market line to offer a beer-wine-liquor package, many of them sell packages for soft drinks and other items: soft drinks, bottled water, juices, premium coffees and such.

The basic idea of these "all you can" packages is to increase a cruise line's total profit -- specifically, to make more by selling packages than by selling stuff by the glass. Sure, the lines figure, you'll probably consume more on a package than if you had to pay separately each time. But the markup on ordinary wine, soda from the machine and other beverage items is so high that the line really doesn't care how much more you consume: The extra package revenue far exceeds the modest increase in costs.

It's no secret that the mass-market cruise lines are increasingly nickel-and-diming cruisers once they're onboard. Given the increasing influence of online price comparison systems, each line feels pressured to post the very lowest baseline cabin rates it can, hoping to profit from the extras. Newer ships have one or more "specialty" dining options that set you back $25 a person or more. Many cruise lines charge extra for ice cream except during meals, for "premium" coffees, "premium" desserts, and often "premium" menu items. I sometimes suspect that, in a few more years, the only no-extra-fee dinner entree option in the main dining room will be mac and cheese.

The bottom line remains as it has been for some time: Cruising can be a really good travel deal if you are careful about the extras; expensive if you aren't. The new packages don't change that conclusion at all.

e-mail: eperkins@mind.net