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.