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Although the cost of food is included in your cruise fare, what exactly is offered for cruise ship dining as complimentary can vary from line to line. Although as a minimum, you can expect breakfast, lunch and dinner provided in various venues with options for snacks throughout the day.
Each cruise line will detail what is included as part of your cruise fare, so check the website or brochure for detailed information where there will be lists of the complementary and ‘speciality dining’ venues available for a fee together with the cuisine offered in each restaurant and sometimes example menus that you can review.
Many ships/lines now offer ‘dining packages’ that enable you to dine in one or more of the numerous speciality restaurants available on board. These vary from line to line, some offering ‘buy one, get one free’ dinners, to packages valid for a number of dinners or even for the whole length of your cruise. Some deals include lunch in a selection of the speciality venues on certain occasions. All these should provide you with a discount from paying the full supplementary charge levied when booking each restaurant individually.
Many lines give you the ability to purchase these before sailing either by booking and paying in advance online or by telephone.
Always check for ‘sales’ and offers online prior to sailing which can mean you could pay even less than whilst on board.
However, this does not mean that there won’t be offers whilst you are on your cruise. Most ships have a ‘desk’ selling the speciality restaurants (most often near to the entrance of the main buffet). So, check this out if you haven’t booked in advance and don’t be shy of asking for a discount. Also check your daily newsletter for offers too.
If there are specific days that are traditionally quiet for a venue (first and last evenings often are quieter), then staff could offer you a discount to help fill the restaurant. You may also encounter staff actively selling speciality dining around the ship whilst you are relaxing by the pool for example, if so, you may be able to strike an even better deal.
If you belong to a cruise line frequent guest program, check your benefits as you could also qualify for reduced cover charges (e.g. 2 for the price of 1) or even complimentary dinners.
Speciality dining is covered separately later in this article.
Let’s start at the beginning of the day and for most people the first meal of the day.
On most ships breakfast can be enjoyed in the main dining room with open seating for full table waiter service and in the buffet for self-service. Opening and closing times of the venues can vary, so check your daily newsletter for the operating hours.
As most main cruise dining rooms offer open seating at breakfast your wait time to be seated will depend on whether you like to share a table or dine with just those in your party.
Door hosts will often ask if you’d like to share a table but won’t deny your request to be seated with just your party if you so wish.
Even if you like the atmosphere of the main dining room for breakfast, many lines won’t restrict you to ordering from the set menu options, they often provide a self-service buffet selection in the middle of the room of cereal, fruit and hot items such as eggs and bacon.
Especially on port days, the opening and closing times of breakfast venues can be earlier than on sea days as guests often want to make the most of a day in port by taking breakfast early. Many buffets offer an ‘early riser’ option with a reduced number of items available, followed by the wider selection of food.
Later in the morning, some lines have a ‘late’ breakfast offering with a smaller range of food available. This is mainly due to the fact that the galley needs to prepare the venue for lunch and therefore, the number food stations could be reduced and commonly in some cases one whole side of the buffet closed whilst being set up for lunch service.
Room service breakfast can also be available and ordered either via your in-room TV, over the telephone or by completing a menu card and leaving this hanging outside your door.
Check the latest collection times if putting your order on a card and hanging it on your stateroom door handle!
More importantly, various cruise lines are now charging for room service (not just for breakfast), either a fixed service charge or al a carté pricing plus a delivery fee (both intend to include gratuity). A few items are usually still delivered for no charge, but you’ll need to check carefully. All day room service is covered later in this article.
More of the newer, larger ships offer alternative venues for breakfast to prevent the main dining room and buffets being overwhelmed with diners at peak times. These can range from cafés with made to order omelettes and eggs available to places serving paninis and breakfast egg/sausage/bacon sandwiches with accompanying cereals and juices.
Royal Caribbean for example, utilise their onboard speciality American diner ‘Johnny Rockets’ (which is normally a speciality dining venue - see later in this article) to offer a complimentary breakfast. This is only offered on a few ships in their fleet, so check the options when booking.
Due to the popularity of healthy eating, more and more now offer ‘spa’ cafes serving low calorie and/or high fibre breakfast items together with fruit and juice smoothies available.
Whether these are complimentary or attract a supplementary charge depends on the cruise line, so you’ll need to check the menus once onboard.
Some lines also offer complimentary ‘continental’ style breakfasts (comprising of pastries, cheese, hams, toast, coffee, teas, juices etc) to some of their frequent guest program members in dedicated lounges.
So, check any welcome letter from the loyalty ambassador once onboard that should detail the benefits afforded to you.
After breakfast the next meal of the day is
Once again, depending on the cruise line, lunch can be enjoyed as a more formal experience by being seated in the main dining room and choosing from an al a carté menu (usually a smaller selection than offered at dinner times) to a very relaxed self-service selection from the main buffet.
Once again, in most cases, this will be open seating for lunch in the main dining room and your wait time depends on whether you like to share a table with others or dine with just your party at a table together.
However, there is a growing trend for alternative venues to offer lunch including, but not limited to, ‘burger bars’, ‘pubs’ ‘sports bars’, ‘hot dog stands’, themed fast food restaurants (Mexican, Latin, or Caribbean for example), ‘pizza joints’ American style diners, tapas bars and poolside grills serving freshly cooked burgers, chicken and sausages.
Some may be complimentary, others for a fee, so you need to check once on board.
In addition, there is a growing trend for some of the speciality restaurants to open for lunch, offering a lower supplementary fee than charged for dinner, with a reduced menu.
To keep you going after lunch and before dinner, many lines offer an ‘afternoon tea’ option.
This can vary from just a limited complimentary buffet offering of traditional items such as scones, sandwiches and cakes, to elaborate waiter service in the main dining room for an additional fee with white-gloved service of tea and cake stands loaded with tempting treats.
Times can vary, so check your daily newsletter for opening times and venues.
As the sun sets, it’s time for dinner.
Traditionally your cruise ship dinner would be taken in the Main Dining Room at set times with you being seated at your assigned table at 1 of 2 sittings, often referred to as ‘First’ and ‘Late’ seating.
However, most lines offer a more relaxed option of dining in the main buffet for dinner. Some still offer table service for some dishes in the buffet, others dress up the buffet providing tablecloths and tables are set with cutlery and glassware for beverages.
There can be more dedicated food stations offering cooked to order dishes such a shrimp, fish, steaks etc. All this offers a more relaxed option, including a venue where usually the ‘suggested dress code’ being observed in the Main Dining Room is not enforced.
However, there is now also a vast range of ‘speciality’ dining venues being offered by cruise lines which is covered in a separate topic later in this article.
Times for First and Late seating in the Main Dining room often vary from line to line, and also due to the itinerary, so you can’t guarantee that the time you were allocated on a previous sailing will be the same on the next. In general, each sitting starts and ends earlier when ships sail the Caribbean and later in the Mediterranean where locals traditionally eat later in the day.
This option is still provided by most lines, but more prevalent is the expansion of a flexible dining option. This is where you can choose to dine when it suits you between the opening times of the Main Dining Room.
Several lines let you make advance reservations just as you would for a land-based restaurant prior to sailing, or you just turn up asking the hosts for the next available table.
How long you may have to wait depends on several factors, the number in your party, the size of table you request and the popularity of the dining room.
Of course, there are peak times that can result in a lengthy wait. In this case, some cruise lines will offer you a pager which will notify you when your table is available, or direct you to the nearest bar to enjoy a beverage whilst you wait, advising you to return in a few minutes after taking your stateroom number and placing you on a list.
Several lines now also have electronic screens located around the ship that you can view to see how busy the dining venues are. Well worth reviewing if you’re turning up without a reservation or looking for an alternative dining option.
Due to the popularity of this option, many cruise lines like to encourage you to make advance standing reservations for each day of your sailing. Again, this is not compulsory, but on a ship where this option is extremely popular, it may be an idea to at least try to make a reservation, even if it is only earlier in the day when you know your plans for that evening.
You may hear this flexible dining option referred to as ‘Freedom’, ‘My Time’, ‘Select’, ‘Your Time’, ‘Anytime’ ‘As You Wish’ or ‘Freestyle dining’ amongst others. Each cruise line that offers a flexible option has its own name for it.
Due to the increasing number of entertainment options provided, and although traditional shows in the main theatres are traditionally scheduled around ‘First’ and ‘Late’ seating, this flexibility is proving an extremely popular choice for many cruisers.
Another form of choice offered is what is commonly known as ‘rotational’ dining.
This is where, (although you are assigned a specific time, First or Late), you dine in a different one of several ‘main’ dining rooms each evening throughout your cruise.
In most cases, each dining room offers a different choice of cuisine or ambiance due to the decor. Some dining rooms may be very relaxed in terms of suggested dress code leading to those with a more elegant setting for the traditional ‘formal’ nights if the cruise line still offers those.
The number of courses on the Main Dining Room menu have generally reduced down to 3 (appetizer, entrée and dessert), but some lines such as those with a Mediterranean and Italian heritage may still offer more courses. This does not preclude you from ordering additional courses such as soup and salad.
Although there will be a choice of items to select for dinner, and/or a theme to the evening menu, there will also be ‘classic’ options of fish, chicken, meat and vegetarian to choose from.
Some lines also offer a limited number of options from some of the speciality restaurants for a supplement, (most often from the signature steakhouse), that can be served in the main dining room removing the need for you to pay the full additional fee to dine at that venue.
Increasingly, cruise lines are expanding the number of alternative venues offering a wide selection of cuisines to their guests. Most are available for an additional fee as mentioned earlier, be that as part of a dining package, or just a ‘one-off’ fee.
Invariably there will be a signature Steakhouse, and a plethora of restaurants catering for those of you who enjoy cuisines including but not limited to, Italian, Indian, French, British, Asian Fusion, Chinese, Japanese, American, Mediterranean, Mexican, Sushi, and Pacific.
Many have links with world-famous chefs such as Jamie’s Italian (onboard some of Royal Caribbean’s newer vessels), Guy Fieri on Carnival, Thomas Keller (Seabourn), Jacques Pepin (Oceania), and Nobu on Crystal.
There is a growing trend to offer a range of different dining experiences from molecular gastronomy (utilising techniques such as precision temperature cooking, freeze-drying and liquid nitrogen), to Japanese Teppanyaki show cooking and a ‘chefs table’ experience.
Japanese Teppanyaki is usually in a restaurant with several tables for 8 diners who are seated around a cooking area where a chef will cook to order whilst providing entertainment.
A ‘Chefs table’ dinner is usually provided in a private dining room for a relatively small table of diners who experience a multi-course dinner (often with the option for wine pairings) prepared and introduced by the cruise lines head chef.
For all these experiences, the ‘upcharge’ can vary from line to line and from venue to venue. The cost can also differ depending on the cuisine or experience such as a ‘Chefs table’.
If you have a preference for a specific cuisine, then it’s important you review the cruise lines speciality offerings before you make that reservation.
In addition to breakfast, most lines offer the ability to dine in your stateroom by offering room service.
Once again, the traditional complimentary room service offerings are declining with a rise in the number of al a carté options for a small charge. Some items are still complimentary, but these are definitely in the decline.
Lines are also increasingly charging for late night room service between certain hours, say from 11:30 pm to 5:00 am the next day. Again, you need to review the In-Room dining guide that will be provided in your stateroom.
However, In-Room dining does not always attract a fee. Some lines offer those travelling in a suite to choose from the Main Dining Room menu and have this delivered to their stateroom by the room service staff. Again, details and offerings differ by cruise line, so if you are booking a suite, check the dining benefits offered.
Many lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian and MSC are increasingly offering dedicated restaurants which are included in the cost of booking suite level accommodation and where meals are taken separately from the Main Dining Room. Others have specially reserved areas of the main dining room for suite level guests.
Some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian and MSC have these venues located in dedicated areas of the ship (Norwegian’s ‘The Haven’, MSC’s ‘Yacht Club’, Celebrity’s Luminae and Royal Caribbean’s Coastal Kitchen).
On some ships, even where guests have not booked full suite accommodation, there are still categories of cabin that allow cruisers the ability to dine in a speciality venue dedicated to that category of cabin, such as Blu onboard Celebrity for “Aqua class” guests.
Again, some cruise lines allow certain members of their frequent guest program to dine in these ‘suite’ restaurants or the cruise line reserves some areas of a speciality restaurant where you can eat your buffet breakfast away from the main area. So, checking your benefits is crucial to take full advantage of all that is available.
OK so we’ve pretty much covered the 3 main meals of the day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) but what about snacks between meals or late evening?
A lot of cruise lines have various venues that offer snacks outside of the main dining times.
These range from cafes which are dedicated to speciality coffees and offer either complimentary cakes, pastries and sandwiches or where they are available for a small fee, to pizza and salad bars which are open for longer hours.
Some have ‘grab and go’ areas where pre-made sandwiches and desserts are available that you can pick up and take away to enjoy around the pool deck or back in your stateroom.
Others have dedicated ‘dog houses’, donut shops, patisseries and ice cream parlours and/or a late-night buffet offering where you can make your own sandwiches after an enjoying an evening of entertainment.
As many lines now offer you the opportunity to watch movies or major sporting events on a big screen on the pool deck in the evening, there may be the opportunity to enjoy popcorn either complimentary or for a small charge.
In summary, all lines ensure that there are so many dining options that it is extremely unlikely that you’ll go hungry! Just check out all the options available and enjoy!