Cruise Ship Dining Options

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By ,   May 12, 2016 ,   Food & Drinks

Cruise ship dining has changed dramatically during the past decade or so. Today, cruise lines give their guests more flexibility in when and where to dine. Alternative cruise ship dining options are now available on every large cruise ship and many smaller ones. Open-seating cruise dining options have been introduced on numerous passenger vessels. 

The following review is integrated with Cruise Food on the Largest Cruise Ships by the Numbers and Best Cruise Lines and Ships for Cruise Ship Dining.

Flexible Versus Traditional Cruise Ship Dining

On virtually every contemporary cruise line, you'll have to select between traditional and flex cruise ship dining. How to decide which is best for you? Here are the pros and cons of traditional versus flexible cruise dining so you can be informed before taking a decision.

What Is Traditional Cruise Ship Dining?

The "traditional" dining scenario allows passengers to be informed of their dinner seating assignments upon boarding. Table size and dining times are based on requests at the time of booking. However, on most ships they aren't guaranteed. Guests are assigned to a particular table in either the early (6 or 6:30 p.m.) or late (8 or 8:30 p.m.) seating. They dine with the same tablemates and are catered for by the same wait staff each night. But even if you choose traditional dining, your breakfast and lunch in the same cruise ship dining venue will be open seating.

Cruise lines that offer traditional assigned seating in the MDR during dinner include Carnival, Costa, Crystal, Celebrity, Disney, Fred. Olsen, Holland America Line, MSC Cruises, P&O, Princess, Royal Caribbean. Cunard Line offers assigned seating to travelers booking certain accommodations.

  • Traditional Cruise Ship Dining: Pros

Many passengers choose traditional dining because it gives an opportunity to get to know their wait staff and tablemates, and it allows the waiters to learn their preferences and anticipate requests, leading to more personalized service. Assigned seating also forces cruisers to plan activities around dinner time. Fans of traditional cruise ship dining enjoy meeting their tablemates and making friends. 

  • Traditional Cruise Ship Dining: Cons

If you have cruised long enough, you'll eventually have a tale to tell of the folks you did not get along with. But with traditional dining, it is not always easy getting assigned to a new table in case you do not like the tablemates at your original table. And you might find yourself in the buffet more frequently than you had ever intended.

Early and late seatings assume you'll feel hungry at the same time every day. But if one day you are not hungry at 6:00 p.m., you'll either have to force yourself to have dinner as that's your scheduled time, or head to the buffet later. You may not switch to late seating for just one day.

A final thing to consider is that you do not always get the cruise dining time you prefer. Early seatings are filling up fast and you may be assigned a late seating for dinner despite having selected early. However, you can change times once onboard in most cases, but not always.

Cruise Ship Dining Options

What Is Flexible Cruise Ship Dining?

With flexible cruise ship dining passengers can choose what time they eat each day (generally between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m.) and, in some cases, which restaurant to eat in. Some cruise lines assign a particular dining venue to flex diners, while others let guests choose from several dining areas. Show up at the restaurant of your choice when you are ready to eat. Some lines let cruisers make reservations ahead of time.

Cruise lines offering open seating in the MDR include Azamara, Celebrity, Carnival, Holland America, Hurtigruten, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, P&O, Paul Gauguin, Princess, Regent Cruises, Royal Caribbean, SeaDream, Seabourn, Silversea, Star Clippers, Uniworld, Viking Cruises and Windstar. Certain Cunard accommodations allow passengers to have dinner when they wish, but they are assigned to a specific table throughout the cruise.

Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International. Passengers aboard Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas are able to enjoy Dynamic Dining in one of two ways: those who prefer classic cruise ship dining style can opt for set times and wait staff throughout their voyage, while those who expect more flexibility can pick a new dining time or restaurant for each meal. The 18 eateries aboard Anthem include Silk, Jamie's Italian, Wonderland with molecular gastronomy creations, and Michael's Genuine Pub, which is the first American gastropub at sea.

  • Flexible Cruise Ship Dining: Pros

With flexible dining, passengers are not locked into single dinner time slot all voyage long. They can eat early one night and head to a show afterwards, then have an evening cocktail the next night before going out for later dinner. This can mean not having to rush back onboard the ship from an afternoon shore excursion because you don't have to be at the main dining room at exactly 6:00 p.m. For some vacationers, other pros are being able to choose between small or large tables and meeting various people each night.

  • Flexible Cruise Ship Dining: Cons

On many sailings, flexible cruise dining does not always mean showing up and getting seated right away. You may have to wait for a table, especially during prime dining times of 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. To avoid queues, make reservations in advance though it takes away some of the flexibility. For many cruisers, another drawback of flexible dining is not getting to eat with the same folks every night and developing a rapport. Not having the same waiter throughout the cruise is a disadvantage for passengers with dietary restrictions, who will have to communicate their food needs to a new server each night.

Traditional vs. Flexible Cruise Ship Dining: Bottom Line

Not every cruiser enjoys being told when and with whom to dine. If you are not into a regimented schedule and dislike being forced to eat with the same companions every night, traditional cruise dining is not going to sit well with you. Better choose the flexible dining option of your line.

On the other hand, if you prefer to make the fewest number of cruise ship dining choices and wish to have a waiter who can easily anticipate your needs, traditional cruise dining is likely right for you.

Several cruise lines - Celebrity, Carnival, Princess, Holland America and Royal Caribbean - are offering both traditional and open seating cruise dining. These lines have at least a couple of main dining rooms on most of the ships in their fleets, and on each vessel, both traditional and open seating dining are offered. At the time of booking, passengers choose assigned or open seating option.

The great majority of cruise ships offer one or more "alternative" dining venues in addition to their MDRs, ranging from 24-hour buffets to specialty restaurants. These alternative options typically offer open seating regardless of the guidelines of the main dining room, though many require reservations and there may be a per-person surcharge ranging from US$8 to US$30.

cruise ship dining

Cruise Ship Dining Venues

There is never time when cruisers cannot find a snack, treat or meal on a cruise ship. From multi-course gourmet tables to self-serve tidbits, there are options for any palate. Not all cruise ship dining venues are included in the price, however, and prospective travelers need to recognize which of the options are free and what the differences between them are.

Main Dining Rooms

The core of cruise ship dining is the main dining room (MDR): all passengers are allocated space in these communal eateries, often by assigned times in order to ease serving hundreds (even thousands) of guests and facilitate dining preferences. Generally, there are both early and late dining times. Vactioners can request a preferred time at the time of booking, though requests aren't guaranteed. There is no extra charge for meals in the MDRs.

Skilled servers attend every table in the main dining room with water, drink service, bread, menu explanation, special dining requests. The sizes of tables range from such for two (rare on most ships) to accommodating 10 or more guests. If passengers choose a different table assignment, probably to join new friends or to remove from unpleasant party, they can speak with the maitre d' about arranging a new assignment.

Alternative Restaurants

  • Casual buffets serving all three main meals.
  • Reservations-only venues, such as an Italian eatery, a steakhouse, or other high-class cuisine ship dining options.
  • Familiar brand names like Johnny Rockets restaurant found on Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
  • Bistro-style cafes that feature light menu items like sandwiches, croissants, ice cream, or specialty coffees.
  • Casual buffets, found usually in the aft part of the cruise ship, don't incur additional charges. However, more highly specialized restaurants may apply a la carte menu prices or a per-person surcharge.

Themed Buffets

  • Grand buffet. At least one themed buffet per cruise is offered on most cruise ships. The most regular is a midnight buffet featuring snacks, appetizers and desserts in stunning arrangements like carved fruits and vegetables, designer cakes and knotted breads. Coordinated displays and ice carvings make these a feast for the eyes and the palate. In addition to the grand buffet, specialty buffets are presented at deck parties or as other activities during the cruise. For example, a buffet of Jamaican treats may be offered when the ship docks in Jamaica; a chocoholic buffet may be presented as an indulgence any night of the sailing. Buffets rarely apply an additional charge.
  • Snacks. Passengers who are interested in snacks rather than full meals won't be disappointed by cruise ship dining. Some snacks, especially those with brand-name products, have extra fees, but many are included with cruise fare. There are a wealth of options for quick treats on most cruise ships, including:
  • Self-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt, usually found near the main promenade or in the casual buffet area.
  • 24-hour pizzeria, featured on all Carnival cruises and other lines.
  • Afternoon teas on Cunard and other luxury cruises.
  • Daily cookies/sundae parties on themed family cruises.
  • Specialty bistros offering gourmet desserts and sandwiches.
  • Food-oriented activities like wine-and-cheese tasting seminars or chocolate dipping workshops.

Cruise Room Service

cruise room serviceRound-the-clock cruise room service is an important feature of cruise ship dining options. Passengers can find the ordering instructions and room service menu in their cabin: the food will be delivered to their door. There are different room service menus: some offer only cold items (salads, sandwiches, desserts), while others allow guests to select from that day's main menu during regular meal times. Cabin stewards remove dirty dishes when the stateroom is cleaned, or cruisers may set them in the hallway (out of traffic flow) for regular collection. While there is generally no fee for room service, it's customary to tip the server, particularly for large orders or exceptionally prompt service.

Special Diets

Cruisers with special dietary requirements - vegetarian, allergies, diabetic needs, etc. - won't be disappointed by the options on a cruise. They just have to let the travel agent know about their special diets before boarding to help with extreme requirements. All menus include vegetarian, heart-healthy and "light" fare for guests to sample. To ensure appropriate diet, inform the server about your special needs as well. Read our review about Healthy Cruise Food.

Trying Out the Menus

With so many cruise ship options, many travelers feel overwhelmed. The key to experiencing different tastes is to not be scared to experiment: it's perfectly acceptable to order more than one appetizer, main course and dessert during dinner - the server will discreetly serve all without any fuss. Those who feel uncertain about different offers can ask for clarification. If they decide they do not like what they ordered, a replacement can be requested. Cruisers nervous about what they may find on the menu can preview the options before the assigned dining time. Most MDRs post the day's menu outside their entrance. The daily ship's newsletter often mentions themed buffets or special snacks scheduled for the day.

Cruise Line Dining Rules

Most cruise lines offer their own versions of Norwegian’s Freestyle Dining. However, many still retain the option to dine at the same table, at a certain time, every night in a specific dining room. Here is a sample of cruise ship dining policies:

  • Carnival Cruise Line: Two set dining times in MDRs, or choose the flexible Your Time dining, with no guarantee your group will sit together and possible waits. Specialty restaurants charge extra.
  • Disney Cruise Line: Traditional set-time seating in the main dining room. Specialty restaurants charge a set fee.
  • Norwegian Cruise Line: All cruise ship dining is Freestyle, with no set dining times. However, passengers can make reservations in the MDRs to avoid waits. The specialty restaurants charge a la carte.
  • Princess Cruises: Set dining times in the MDR, or choose Anytime Dining. Specialty restaurants charge extra. A cool option is dinner served on the cabin balcony.
  • Regent Seven Seas Cruises: All open seating in the MDR and specialty restaurants. All cruise ship dining options are included in fare, no extra charge.
  • Royal Caribbean Line: Set dining times, named Dynamic Dining Classic, or flexible times, named Dynamic Dining Choice. Specialty restaurants charge extra.

10 Cruise Ship Dining Questions

  1. What are different meal seatings? There are cruise ship dining rooms that can accommodate all travelers in one seating. But most vessels offer two seatings which differ by time. Early Seating begins at 6:00 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.; Late Seating begins at around 8:15 p.m. To choose, decide whether you wish to dine early or late, and then request your preferences when you book. Have in mind that one of the best ways to make friends is to ask for a big table. Many ships are offering both alternative cruise ship dining and choice dining options, which allows passengers to enjoy special theme restaurants like Chinese, Italian, Japanese or Southwestern separate from the main dining room and gives a chance to decide when and with whom you would prefer to dine. 
  2. Is it better to have Early or Late Dining? Early Dining means you will have dinner between 6:00 p.m. - 6:30 p.m., and Late Dining means that you will have dinner between 8:15 p.m. - 8:45 p.m. There are various reasons why one dining is better for than another. Early Dining is great in case you like to go to bed before midnight, you are an early riser or traveling with kids who need to stick to set meals and bedtime schedule. You may choose Late Dining if you don't mind finishing meals around 10:30 p.m, if you like late-night social activities, or if you don't like to be rushed for dinner after a port day.
  3. Is cruise ship dining as good as I have been told? All that you have heard about cruise ship dining is obviously true. You'll find various entrees (salads, soups, appetizers, vegetables, desserts) every time you visit the restaurant. There is no limit on what and how much you can order. But just because your ship offers plenty of food doesn't mean you have to come home out of shape. Choose spa, fitness or low-cal menu selections which are as tempting as the regular menu. Jog, swim, play tennis, golf, do aerobics, or work out in the gym. 
  4. Do I have to eat in the MDR? One of the highlights of contemporary cruising is having a wealth of options. Cruise companies know that their guests have different tastes in dining and offer different choices to accommodate them. Main cruise ship dining rooms are reserved for the traditional passenger. Dinner is served at the same table, at the same time, with the same guests and with the same wait staff each night. Travelers can order from a set menu changing daily. For most cruisers, it's one of the highlights of cruise ship dining experience and gives them the opportunity to develop a relationship with the wait staff who has learnt how to cater to guests' individual needs. Many companies offer alternatives to this structured cruise dining experience. This not only includes such casual dining venues like buffets and pizzerias, but also more specialty restaurants offering French, Italian, Asian and Southwestern cuisine. Passengers can eat anywhere they want depending on their tastes or mood for the night, including room service - available on most cruise ships 24 hours a day.
  5. Is there a charge for meals? Passengers can eat all they want on a cruise ship without having to pay for it. They can literally stuff themselves with some of the finest food they'll ever eat at one of the many cruise ship dining venues on their ship. All this is included in the cost of the cruise vacation. However, many lines now offer alternative cruise ship dining options that may require a service fee. These "reservations-only" venues are smaller bistros catering to a limited number of passengers every evening. They offer a chance to break the routine and have a romantic dinner for two. Many of the specialty cruise ship restaurants are comparable in quality to such finest restaurants as The Palm, Joe's Stone Crab, Mortons or Ruth Chris. The additional charges range from US$10-20 per passenger depending on the cruise ship and the option. These cruise ship dining venues book up quickly, so travelers should make reservations as soon as they board the ship.
  6. Should I buy dining or drink packages? A few cruise lines promote specialty restaurant dining packages. Passengers can buy at a discount three or more nights’ worth of specialty dining. Reservations go quickly, and some cruisers can find themselves shut out or in long waits at the dining venues despite buying the packages which, in certain cases, are worth getting. A drink package may sound like a great deal as cruise lines typically charge US$10 for a mug of beer, a glass of wine, or specialty drink of the day. Do the math first. For example, the deal aboard Norwegian Escape offers an unlimited alcoholic beverage package for a 7-day cruise for US$69 per person, per day - US$483 for the week, or almost $1,000 per couple. If you choose to get it, make sure it’s worth. About 25% of passengers get it.
  7. Can I get a special diet? Most cruise ships can accommodate Kosher, vegetarian, salt-free, gluten-free, or other diet preferences. The request, however, must be made in advance.
  8. Are there non-smoking areas? Virtually all contemporary cruise ship dining rooms are totally smoke-free. Onboard, in "open-seating situations," advise your waiter/maitre d'.
  9. What if I do not like my tablemates? If you wish to move to another table, better speak with your maitre d'. He will make every effort to discretely seat you with compatible dining companions.
  10. What about tipping? Tipping onboard is a matter of individual preference. However, plan for about US$2.50-3.00 per person, per day for the dining room waiter and room steward, and about half that for your busboy. A few companies include tipping in the fare and will so inform you. Other personnel onboard can be tipped, at your discretion, for special services.

Are there too many cruise ship dining options?

cruise buffetThere are 29 cruise ship dining options on Norwegian Escape, and it is kind of paralyzing. Escape is a modern example of where cruise dining is going: everything is a choice, and many choices cost extra. In fact, with more than 4,000 cruise passengers it is hard to decide if 29 options are too many or too few.

Cruisers swamp O’Sheehan’s Grill and queue up at regular dining rooms. Some are turned away from Japanese restaurant Teppanaki, while Cagney’s Steakhouse is usually sold out for the whole sailing on the very first day. Other choices include the global fusion restaurant Food Republic and the Haven, an elegant dining room for premier guests. But at the end of the voyage passengers keep thinking what they still miss.

If the dining atmosphere on Norwegian Escape seems more chaotic than on a traditional cruise ship, that is on purpose: having so much choice is not bad. The Freestyle Dining system with no set dining times or tables, launched by Norwegian in 2000, has proved so popular that most other cruise lines have copied it in part. This innovative system gives a possibility of sitting with other cruisers if you wish, and the possibility of having a poor sailing is actually very low. It's less bad this way, because you have more choices.

The first specialty restaurant onboard a cruise ship in modern times was introduced in 1998 by Norwegian. Suddenly, every other cruise line had a specialty restaurant which charged extra and promised to offer extra-super deluxe food, very often by a famous chef. However, most travelers continued to eat in the main dining rooms where meals were included in the price of tickets. 

In the 2004 “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz shared that while choice brings autonomy, too much of it is stressful. So theoretically, 29 cruise ship dining options would not be so great. But that is the trend and cruisers are getting used to it. And paying more for it.

Cruises are great for many things, including fabulous activities, luxurious spas, and exotic destinations, but cruise ship dining tops the list as the hottest indulgence on board. Whether you are just interested in a fun snack or prefer a sophisticated gourmet experience, you'll never go hungry on a cruise ship. From dawn to dusk and past midnight, there are so many cruise ship dining options to enjoy.