Eating at Sea – When Should I Eat?

Generally, life is not regimented on a cruise ship. There is a slew of daily activities, in which you can choose to participate (or not) as you wish. Shows are put on at multiple times, allowing you to see them when they are convenient for you. Breakfast and lunch are casual affairs that you can enjoy at the time(s) of your choosing. But dinner on a cruise ship is the last holdover from the ‘traditional’ cruise experience of decades ago. In many cases, cruise passengers choose a specific time for dinner in the main dining room and must stay with that time for the entire cruise.

Traditionally, dinner was a big event on a cruise. People would dress up, service and food quality would be top notch, live music would be played, and the entire affair would be like a giant dinner party, held every night. It is an echo of this tradition that most cruise lines still hold onto today, with set dining times for passengers.

Traditional Dining is the name given to this eating regimen. You are required to pick a time to eat, and request a table size. Seats will be allocated to you before the cruise begins, requiring you to dine at the same time, at the same table, and with the same waiters, every night. There are normally two ‘seatings’ for traditional dining. The first seating (early seating) is usually between 5:30 and 6:30 pm, while the second seating (late seating) is usually between 7:30 and 8:30 pm. Note that these hour long ranges do not mean that you have an hour during which to show up to dinner. You will be given a specific time (somewhere within those hour ranges) and you are required to show up at that time exactly, or perhaps within 5 or 10 minutes of it. There is very little leeway given if you are late and miss your assigned time.

For many people, such rigidity is the very antithesis of a relaxing vacation, while others enjoy having dinner scheduled, and knowing that they will be immediately seated and served. The main disadvantage of traditional dining is this lack of flexibility. Additionally, many people do not like to eat as early as 6:00 pm, or as late as 8:00 pm, and as such, find these assigned times inconvenient. If you are seated at a larger table, you will be dining with other cruise passengers: the same tablemates for the entire cruise. If you find that you do not get along with these tablemates, you may not enjoy the dining experience.

The advantages of traditional dining are having the same table and waiter every night. On the first night you can meet your waiters and explain to them your preferences, any food allergies, etc. Then on all subsequent nights of the cruise, they can cater their service to you and your wants. Imagine entering the dining room to find your reserved table with your favorite drinks ready to go, specialty menus or recommendations available, and your waiters greeting you by name. This is especially useful if you have small children, food allergies, or other medical needs that require special consideration in the dining room.

If you are assigned to traditional dining and you discover on the first day that you do not get along with your tablemates, or do not like the location of your table, a discrete conversation with the maitre’d can often result in a change. There is no guarantee, of course, but if you are unhappy with your traditional dining assignment, the cruise line will do everything they can to change things to your satisfaction. When you board the ship, there will be a station set up for ‘dining changes’, where you can make such requests, or you can speak with the maitre’d at your dining room when you go to dinner. Note that the earlier you make a change request, the more likely it is that the ship will be able to make different arrangements.

If you choose traditional dining, many people wonder what time they should book: early or late? This depends on your personality type and activity cycle. If you are a night owl, dinner at 8 pm, followed by a show and dancing until the wee hours of the morning, may seem like a wonderful lifestyle. However, those who adhere to the ‘early to bed and early to rise’ adage may prefer a 6 pm dinner, followed by a show, and being in bed by 10 pm. Your cruise itinerary may also play a role in your choice of dining times. If you are sailing in the Caribbean, it may not matter when you leave the ship each day, as your destination may be shopping, or a beach, where arrival time is not a significant issue. In these situations, a late dining time may work well. But if you are sailing in Europe, where each port is packed with things to do, you may be eager to get off the ship by 8 am every morning, in which case an earlier dining time might be conducive to more sleep! In a similar vein, cruises with more sea days would likely be better for late dining, while cruises with many port days might make early dining more popular.

While there are many adherents of traditional dining, there is also a growing segment of cruise ship passengers who demand flexibility in their dinnertimes. As such, many cruise lines have now adopted a form of ‘Anytime Dining’. In theory, if you sign up for this kind of dining program, you will be able to eat dinner at whichever time you please. However, the reality is that most people want to eat dinner around 7 pm. As such, during the more popular dining hours there may be a line, and you may have to wait to be seated. Additionally, you will be seated at a different table, with different tablemates, and with different waiters, every night. There is no opportunity to have waiters learn your preferences, and you will be required to explain each night what it is you desire.

Some cruise lines, such as Disney, only offer traditional dining, while other cruise lines, such as Norwegian, only offer anytime dining. However most cruise lines (such as Princess, Carnival, Holland America and Celebrity) offer both options, allowing you to choose the option that works best for you.

But suppose you don’t want to eat in the main dining room every night? Next week, I’ll talk about casual dining alternatives.

Eating at Sea – Main Dining Room: Menus

One of the most important aspects of cruising is the culinary experience. That’s not to say that everyone who cruises is a glutton, wanting to stuff themselves with as much food as possible, but that part of the cruise experience is enjoying the wide variety of foods and venues available, including the fact that you have to do nothing to assist in the food’s preparation, serving, or cleanup. A cruise is about being pampered, and multiple offerings of readily available food is part of that offering.

Dining can also be a large part of the social experience, and if you desire, mealtimes can be an occasion where you get to know your fellow cruisers (see next week’s blog ‘When Should I Eat?’. As such an important part of your vacation, I will be writing a few blog posts on the various dining options available at sea. This first entry regards the main dining rooms.

Every cruise ship has at least one main dining room. This is the dining room that is included in your cruise fare, which does not cost extra to visit (although occasionally some cruise lines might charge extra for one or two specialty dishes, which are completely optional).

The main dining room(s) always serve(s) dinner, and usually a sit down breakfast as well. Often on sea days, these dining rooms will also be open for lunch. In the main dining rooms, you can expect a reasonable level of service, with at least two waiters (a main waiter and an assistant waiter) assigned to your table, tablecloths and elegant china/silverware/glassware, as well as a fancier menu than the more casual dining options on the ship (more on casual dining in a couple of weeks).

It is typical to offer a variety of foods, so as to have something to please every taste palate. Most cruise lines have ‘always available’ offerings, usually including a beef, a chicken, a main course salad, and a salmon dish. As indicated, these dishes are available every night, should the daily menu not suit your tastes. The daily changing menu will offer appetizers (both hot and cold), soups (often one of them cold, the remainder hot) and salads, along with main entrees (usually including a pasta dish, and always with vegetarian options). After your meal, a cheese plate is usually available, as well as a fruit plate, and a more traditional dessert menu from which you can indulge.

Many people worry that the food in the main dining room will be ‘too fancy’ for their tastes. What cruisers often do not realize is that the kitchen is usually able to customize your meal for you. If you only want the meat from one dish, but not the side dishes, that can be brought to you. If you’d like to make an entrée out of an appetizer, you can be served a larger portion. If you want to switch out a side dish for French fries or rise or a baked potato, that can be made to happen. If you try something and do not like it, you can always try something else. In short, your waiters will do everything within their power to please you, and to make sure you enjoy your dining experience. If you’re not comfortable with what is on the menu, you are always free to ask for the waiter’s suggestions, and they can help you decide on your meal. From the opposite perspective, if you want to try everything, it is often possible to have the waiter bring multiple dishes, so that you can have a taste of everything you see.

One little known secret to eating in the main dining room is that on family-friendly cruise lines, there is a children’s menu, but anyone can order from these dishes, regardless of age. If you’ve had a difficult day in port, and you simply want a hamburger, chicken nuggets, or spaghetti and meatballs, the kitchen is happy to oblige. You never have to feel restricted in your choice in the dining room!

You will likely spend many of your mealtimes in the main dining room, so make sure you let your waiter know your likes and dislikes, and explore the wide variety of dishes available to you!

What kind of room should I book?

New cruisers are often confused by the different types of accommodation on a cruise ship. Staterooms are usually priced over dozens of categories, based on a number of different factors. The two most important factors in stateroom pricing are stateroom type and location.

The types of staterooms are inside, oceanview, balcony, mini-suite, and suite. All of these staterooms have twin beds (usually convertible to a single queen bed), a bathroom with shower and/or tub, a television and a closet, as well as other ‘hotel’ type amenities. Their differences usually have to do with physical characteristics. Space on a cruise ship is a precious commodity, and as such, staterooms are quite small, compared to hotel rooms on land (usually one half to one third the size of a standard hotel room), with Disney Cruise Line staterooms being approximately 50% larger than staterooms on other cruise lines (since they were designed to hold families, rather than couples). However despite their small size, cruise ship staterooms are usually luxurious and comfortable.

An inside stateroom has no window. This means that it will be pitch-black when the lights are turned off. Other than this feature, the stateroom is the same as oceanview and balcony staterooms. Some people like inside cabins because they are usually the most inexpensive way to cruise. If you sail in an inside cabin, bring along a night-light, so that you can see your way around in the dark. Another tip is to tune your television to the ‘front of the ship cam’ that is usually available. Then you have a sort of ‘window’ to the outside: enough to determine whether it is day or night, and to get an idea of the weather.

An oceanview stateroom has just that: an ocean view from a window. Twenty years ago, many ocean views were tiny portholes, but now they are often large windows at least three or four feet across. The windows in an oceanview stateroom do not open. Some staterooms are listed as ‘obstructed oceanview’. These staterooms have a window, but there is something in front of the window (usually a lifeboat) blocking the view. Naturally these staterooms are usually cheaper than unobstructed oceanview staterooms, which make them appealing to cruisers who do not want to be in an inside room. No matter how much the obstruction covering the window (it might be significant or quite small) you will be able to see whether it is day or night, and have some idea of weather conditions.

A balcony stateroom has a balcony in place of a window. The balcony is accessed by sliding glass doors that take up one entire wall of the room. While the balcony itself is small, it should be wide enough to allow at least four people to stand side-by-side, and deep enough to allow for two upright chairs and a small side table. The interior of a balcony stateroom is usually identical to the inside and oceanview staterooms.

Mini-suite staterooms can go by various names, but are essentially larger versions of standard balcony staterooms, giving more space in the interior of the stateroom, and usually a larger balcony as well. The bathrooms in such staterooms usually have a shower/tub combo, while lower level staterooms usually only have a small shower. Bathroom amenities are usually nicer in a mini-suite, and often there are other perks, such as a second television, a partitioned ‘living room’ separated by a curtain, or a bottle of ‘welcome aboard champagne’.

Full suites have two separate rooms: a bedroom and a living room, as well as a large bathroom. Suites enjoy the most interior space and often have large balconies, although some cruise lines offer ‘window suites’ which, as their name suggests, only offer large windows. Most cruise lines offer special amenities only for suite guests, such as complimentary drinks, a stocked minibar, exclusive specialty dining options, receptions, free laundry, etc. A suite is certainly a luxurious way to travel, but the price tag accompanying such amenities is substantial.

Location on a cruise ship is a matter of preference, but generally staterooms that are higher up and toward the center of the ship are considered to be more desirable, and as such are priced higher than staterooms at the bottom or ends of the ship. As such, an inside stateroom on Deck 3 will be cheaper than an identical inside stateroom on Deck 10. A balcony stateroom all the way at the front of the ship will be cheaper than a balcony stateroom on the same deck at a mid-hip location. One exception to these general rules is for staterooms at the very back side of the ship (the aft), which often have large balconies with a spectacular view. Such staterooms are some of the most expensive onboard, and many suites are placed in this location.

Before booking a stateroom, be sure to investigate the various choices and determine which one is the best balance of cost and amenities for you.