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  • Writer's pictureChristine Hardenberger

Dinnertime on a Cruise

When it comes to cruising, one of the most common questions we get is about dining. Given our specialty within food allergy travel, naturally we answer questions about who is the most food allergy-friendly, and who does the best stateroom cleanings for folks with food-borne contact or respiratory allergies. These, however, are not the top question we are asked.

The actual #1 question we get related to dining on cruises is – do I really need to eat dinner at a set time with a bunch of strangers at my table? Before we dive in to answering, let’s take a quick look at the history of cruising for perspective.

Leisure cruising has traditionally been viewed as a social activity. Think about the historic ocean liners of the past - elegant, chandelier-lit dining rooms which allowed the guests to enjoy a dinner party every evening. Menus printed daily on luxurious paper included the most popular meal options of the day alongside traditional favorites, created from ingredients as top of the line as they could get in port. Life- long friendships, alliances and business partnerships have been formed over the past century-plus in these dining rooms. For those who chose not to rub elbows over dinner, stateroom service or a buffet-style service “on the Lido deck” were, and remain, options.

In the last 20 years or so, however, the tastes and needs of the leisure cruiser have evolved. There is a greater desire, particularly among GenX and the increasing Millenial traveler, for a free choice of dining time and companions. In the cruise industry, this approach is considered “open seating” and has been gaining traction.

Norwegian Cruise Line was the first to introduce this concept fleet-wide in 2001 with their Freestyle Dining program. There are no set dining times or assigned dining companions in the complimentary main dining rooms on any of their ships. Specialty restaurants are also available on board (varies by ship). While reservations are required and pricing additional, there are still no assigned dining companions and the actual upcharge for these meals are minimal compared to a similar-style restaurant onshore. A specialty dining package is also available when booking your cruise, and, depending on the promotion, could be available for free.

While initially greeted with skepticism by other cruise lines, the popularity of the program was a catalyst to others introducing a similar concept. Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, and Princess Cruises, to name a few, all include some form of open seating program alongside traditional seating. Disney Cruise Lines, to date, has maintained a traditional seating only approach in the dining rooms.

Even with the flexibility an open seating concept provides, it doesn’t mean the traditional approach to dining has no merit. Knowing that you’ll be eating dinner at the first seating (generally 5:30 pm – 6:30 pm) or second seating (generally 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm) can take away extra planning. You know you don’t need a dining reservation, it can make planning your day a little easier, and you know that the wait staff will be the same every evening and know your specific needs and tastes by the end of your first night’s meal. If you’re traveling solo or just looking to meet new people, you’ll be able to meet fellow cruisers and find some Sun or Lido Deck buddies.

When booking a cruise, you’ll want to consider your needs and preferences, as well as any of your travel companions. Except for Norwegian Cruise Line, the cruise lines will require you to choose your dinner dining preferences during the booking process.

So, what is the better choice? Since this decision can impact your choice of cruise line and not just meal time, here are four things to consider:

  • What type of traveler are you? If you travel to “get away from it all” and don’t necessarily want to “people” when you’re on vacation, an open seating may be better for you. If you are the type of person who loves to meet new people whenever and wherever, and would talk to a file cabinet if it would talk back, a traditional seating may work for you.

  • How do you plan your day while on vacation? Whether you do or you don’t, either concept can work. Traditional seating works for those who like to plan every detail of the day. However, it also works for those who don’t like to plan, but at least like knowing when to show up for dinner. Open seating can work for those who like to plan every detail of the day, and have some flexibility on when they can plan their dinner time with other activities. For those that like to plan everything on the fly, open seating may be ideal.

  • What is your expectation of service? In traditional seating, your dinner wait staff is the same each evening. If you like extra maraschino cherries in your drink, they’ll know by the end of night one and you’ll have extra cherries every night for the rest of the cruise without a second thought. In open seating, expect your servers to be different every evening. Service will still be high, but each one will not necessarily “know you”. You can, of course, request to be seated in a specific server’s section; however, this may require an extra wait for a table, if there is room at all in that section for the rest of the evening.

  • Do you have food allergies? Traditional seating can be ideal for those with food allergies. Since the servers will be with you every evening, that single person or team will know your specific situation without having to repeat it daily to someone new. That said, open seating can also be ideal for those with food allergies. There’s no guarantee that even with knowledge of allergies in your group that your assigned dining companions will not order the pistachio-crusted filet. This can be a concern for those whose allergies include a contact or respiratory sensitivity and how closely they are seated to the person ordering the meal with the allergen.

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