I have read that when you board they shove a drink in your hand and then charge you for it. I have also read about free drinks being offered at the Captain's Party, etc. So, how do you know when they are offering you a FREE drink without waiting until they ask for the S&S card and without sounding cheap for asking?
I am a travel agent and this is a really frustrating situation! I am very happy to help to clarify for you....
First of all, when they try to hand me a drink - I ask the waiter directly if this drink is complimentary. If they start to get pushy, just repeatedly and politely tell them, "No, thank you." I suspect that the cruise lines are trying to add to the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation at the beginning of the cruise with a fun atmosphere - some of the stewards can get a bit aggressive, but you can always refuse the drink. Generally speaking, anything beyond coffee, tea, iced tea, ice water, juices and milk are going to be added to your account. Occasionally, the soft drinks are complimentary in the dining rooms, but, again, be sure to ask!
Just be very clear before you board the ship and while on the ship about the drinks that are included in the price of your cruise. Anything with bright colors, fruit, umbrellas, wine or other alcohol is going to an additional cost. When I am on a cruise, I usually drink lots and lots of iced tea - it is a complimentary drink and is always available in the buffet on the ship. I find it very refreshing and a nice change from my usual soft drinks at home.
I encourage you to enjoy a nice glass of wine at dinner, a cocktail after a formal evening or for a special event, but prices on cruise ships are at a premium.
Also, make sure that when you get to your cabin, DON'T open any of the beverages that were there when you entered. Ther are usually a few bottles of water and a 6 pack of soda. The water (if missing) will show up at 6 bucks a bottle and who knows about the Coke.
Your best bet is to buy the unlimited soda jug for $113.00 which allows you to fill up as many times as you want for the entire cruise
My first cruise I wasn't aware of this and the waiter came up and said would you like a "WELCOME ABOARD DRINK" Now who would think that would mean I would have to pay. So I said sure and then he said I need to see your sail and sign card. The drink was awful, so I just went to the bar and told them It was nasty and asked if I could get something else and I got a pina colada instead and no extra charge. So the Welcome aboard drink is not free. Also you will notice every where you turn they are asking you to get a drink. I politely tell them one of two things when I don't want one "I haven't eaten yet and can't drink on an empty stomach" or if I am trying to have lunch on the lido deck and they keep coming to the table I say "I'm in AA and can't drink". Works everytime.