Once upon a time, cruise passengers had few choices when it came to their evening meal -- one could go at a certain time to a certain table in the ship's main dining room, head to the casual buffet restaurant or order room service. These options still exist on most ships today, but cruise lines now give passengers much more flexibility in when and where they dine. Alternative restaurants -- those available beyond the formal main dining room and the buffet restaurant -- can be found on virtually every large ship and many smaller ones, while open-seating options have been introduced on numerous vessels. Here's a quick look at today's shipboard dining scene.
In the "traditional" dining scenario, dining times usually can be confirmed at the time of booking, but table sizes are based on requests only and not guaranteed, no matter how far in advance the booking is made.
Guests are assigned to a specific table in either the early (around 6 or 6:30 p.m.) or the late (around 8 or 8:30 p.m.) seating. Passengers dine with the same tablemates and are served by the same wait staff each night of the cruise.
Many passengers prefer traditional dining because it gives them an opportunity to get to know a few of their fellow passengers and their wait staff, and it allows the wait staff to learn preferences and anticipate requests after a night or two, leading to more personalized service. On the other hand, assigned seating forces passengers to plan activities around their dinner time, which can be inconvenient on days when the ship is in port.
Cruise lines offering traditional assigned seating in the main dining room during dinner include Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Crystal, Disney, Holland America, MSC, P&O, Princess, Pullmantur and Royal Caribbean. (On Disney ships, guests rotate through three themed main dining rooms during their sailing, and their wait staff goes with them.)
Cunard offers assigned seating and dining times to passengers booking certain accommodations.
Hurtigruten offers assigned seating from 6:30 to 7 p.m.; busier periods may have two seatings. Table reservations for Hurtigruten's assigned seating are made on board.
Most small-ship cruise lines, plus several large-ship ones, offer open seating in their main dining rooms. Ships with open seating operate their main dining rooms much like shoreside restaurants -- the dining room is open for dinner during set hours, and guests may dine when and with whom they please during those hours.
This dining style allows passengers to choose their tablemates (or dine alone) and vary their schedules as desired. On the other hand, some feel they do not receive the same personalized service since their wait staff changes each night. And, as with busy restaurants on shore, guests on larger ships who choose this option may have to wait to be seated, and service may be a bit slower during the most popular dining times.
Cruise lines that offer open seating in the main dining room include Azamara, Blount Small Ship Adventures, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Oceania, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Ponant, Princess, Quark Expeditions, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea, Star Clippers, Viking and Windstar.
Passengers in certain suites on Cunard ships can dine when they wish, but they are assigned to a particular table throughout the course of the cruise.
Several cruise lines -- Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean -- are listed above as offering both traditional assigned seating and open seating. Several of these lines have at least two main dining rooms on most of their ships. At the time of booking, guests choose assigned (early or late) or open seating.
Note: The Pacific Princess offers assigned seating only. Celebrity's ships in the Galapagos -- Celebrity Xpedition, Celebrity Xperience and Celebrity Xploration -- offer only open seating.
The great majority of ships offer one or more alternative restaurants in addition to their main dining rooms, ranging from 24-hour buffets and poolside grills to celebrity chef venues and high-end gourmet restaurants. These alternative restaurants typically have open seating regardless of the main dining room's guidelines, though many require reservations (which are made on board the ship). There may be a per-person surcharge for specialty restaurants, usually ranging from about $10 to $50.
For detailed information about the dining venues on any cruise line, click any link above or click here. Our cruise counselors also will be happy to verify dining options available for any cruise.
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