In the old days, cruise ship dining was an elegant affair taking place three meals a day plus an option for an afternoon snack served during tea time. No more.
Today, modern ships offer a wide array of dining options, from basic meal service all the way up to luxury specialty dining experiences. And, unlike land vacations, your meals are included in your fare.
If you're new to cruising, here's a Beginner's guide to dining options on a cruise, with eight key takeaways.
Sheri from CruiseTipsTV offers some helpful tips about dining on a cruise.
Where you will eat
Main restaurant: Nearly all cruise lines have a main dining room available for sit-down service during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Typically, you'll find that the venue offers a range of traditional American and Continental dishes served in a large, banquet-style room where you may have to share a table with other passengers.
Satellite restaurants: Many ships offer less formal dining venues that serve casual fare. On board you might find a self-service buffet, pizzeria, poolside grill or even a New York style hot dog cart.
In your room: Most cruise lines offer complimentary room service (although this is not an option on some river cruise ships), though Norwegian and Royal Caribbean charge $3.95 per room service order delivered between midnight and 5 am. In our experience, the menu is often limited and the food often so-so.
Specialty restaurants: A new trend in the cruise industry is the addition of specialty restaurants, also known as alternative restaurants. Specialty restaurants generally provide superior service, better food and sometimes dazzling decor. Examples include Carnival's steakhouses, Holland America's Pinnacle Grill, Princess' Share, Crown Grill and Sabatini's, and Disney's Remy and Palo. Tip: Dine at a specialty restaurant on the first night, when it tends to be less crowded.
$$$: How much it costs to dine
For the vast majority of luxury and premium cruise lines — Crystal Cruises, Oceania, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Windstar — the cost of the main restaurant and specialty restaurants is included in your fare. (See All about specialty restaurants and our roundup of the best cruise ship restaurants.)
For mainstream (mass market) cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Holland America, dining in the main restaurants on board is included in your fare, while it costs extra to dine in a specialty restaurant (although Royal in particular sometimes adds surcharges to certain items on the menu in the main dining room).
Also, remember that the mainstream cruise lines charge for bottles of water, soda and specialty coffee drinks that you order outside of the main dining room.
Assigned seating vs. open seating
A lot of first-time cruisers wonder, Will I be forced to eat with a lot of strangers? In general, no. Here's how it works:
Traditional assigned seating
Most larger cruise lines maintain the tradition of two dinner seatings each evening: at 6 pm and 8 or 8:30 pm. When booking, you'll be asked which you prefer. You may want to choose the earlier seating if you plan to go to a lot of shows, and you can request a small or large table or a seat near a window, but there's no guarantee it will be honored. Early seating is often favored by those cruising with kids and some seniors.
You generally don't get to choose your table mates with assigned seating. Upon embarkation, the first thing many veteran cruisers do is to check out their table assignment; sometimes you can make changes once on board. One upside of assigned seating is that your server gets to know your tastes and preferences when you return on subsequent nights. Cruise lines offering assigned seating in the main dining room for dinner include Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Disney, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Princess and Royal Caribbean.
A big trend on cruise ships is the prevalence of Anytime dining or what Norwegian calls Freestyle Cruising. This is the rule, rather than the exception, on nearly all luxury cruise lines and it's becoming the norm on some mainstream cruise lines.
Open seating — an option that lets you eat when you want and with whom you want — has been around for a long time on luxury and smaller ships (including Star Clippers). Several years ago Norwegian Cruise Line introduced Freestyle Dining to its ships, to positive results. More recently, Royal Caribbean introduced the concept of dynamic dining — no set dining times, no assigned seats, no required formal nights — to mixed results on its Quantum class of ships. Note that with open seating, you sometimes have to wait for a table or make a reservation each night.
Our advice: Go ahead and socialize, at least on some nights! Part of the excitement of cruising is the potential to meet interesting new people — perhaps even people with diverse backgrounds, cultural identities or political beliefs. You can scurry off with your companion to a specialty restaurant or a casual satellite dining spot on one or two nights while mingling with strangers at a table for 6, 8, or 10 people on other nights.
Cruise lines that offer open seating in the main dining room include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Hurtigruten, Norwegian, Oceania, Paul Gauguin, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, SeaDream, Star Clippers, Uniworld, Viking, Windstar and the luxury lines. Note that some cruise lines offer both assigned seating and open seating.
Breakfast and lunch are usually open seating. Note that several of the cruise lines listed above — Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean — offer both assigned seating and open seating.
If you opt for open seating, in some cases you'll need to make a reservation to reserve your spot. Check with your travel agent or the cruise line.
There's a certain amount of decorum expected on cruise ships during dinner. That means, no swimsuits, tank tops, flip-flops, casual shorts and sleeveless tops. If you're in the mood for casual, head to the smaller informal restaurant near the pool.
Dress codes on cruise ships vary by cruise line and by evening – many cruises feature one or more formal nights. Some cruise lines enforce the dress code and may offer to bring out a suit jacket for the gentleman. Others apply the dress code only sporadically, though some upscale cruise lines will turn you away from dinner if your attire is not up to snuff . On most nights, "resort casual" is the rule. (See Cruise outfits: What to wear on each cruise line.)
Formal dining has given way to casual dining on most cruise lines in recent years. Traditionally, cruise lines set aside one evening on a 7-night cruise for a formal night, when people dress in evening wear. On lines such as Princess, Cunard, Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea, you'll see quite a few men don tuxedoes on formal night, while most wear dress slacks and a sport coat. If you wear slacks and a dress shirt you'll be OK.
Al fresco dining
If you've ever enjoyed al fresco dining on a cruise ship — having breakfast, lunch or dinner on deck on a sunny day — you know what a glorious treat it is. On cruise lines such as SeaDream, Silversea, Viking, Ponant, Seabourn, Azamara and Windstar, you'll likely have a chance to indulge.
Dining options you'll find on board
The dining options below are available on most of the mainstream cruise lines. So check to see which of these are included on the cruise you're considering:
- Sit-down meals served by wait staff in the main dining room
- Formal dining, often on one night of the cruise on many ships (but you have the option to skip it)
- 24-hour dining venue (available on some ships)
- Room service (note that some ships charge a fee for delivery after midnight)
- Pool grill
- Outdoor dining at night around the pool deck during poolside parties (Azamara and Holland America Line, for example)
- Dining under the stars (Silversea's Hot Rocks or Tastes on Crystal Cruises, for example)
- Balcony dining (a hallmark on Princess Cruises)
- Special dining with the chef events (Princess, Seabourn, etc.)
- Special wine-pairing dinners in "vintage rooms" (Celebrity Cruises, Crystal Cruises, MSC Cruises)
- Rotational dining, where the room literally moves, as on Disney Cruise Line
- Alternative dining venues available for a nominal charge (Norwegian, Royal Caribbean)
- Coffee bar (regular coffee and pastries included, specialty coffees at nominal extra charge)
What's not included
Here are some items that are typically not included with the cruise fare: alcoholic drinks, soft drinks (on some cruise lines — soda is included in the price on Disney sailings) and dining at specialty restaurants. Special packages are often available for guests to purchase that include alcoholic drinks, soft drinks or specialty restaurants. This will vary by cruise line, so check for your cruise line’s policy or ask your travel agent.
For Bahamian and Caribbean cruises that stop at the cruise line’s private island, such as Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay, dining on the island is also included in the cruise fare.
Do everything in moderation
Don't forget: Even though you can order two entrees and three desserts or help yourself to a midnight buffet or wolf down double cheese bacon burgers, resist the temptation (but go ahead and order a couple of decadent desserts). We know friends who put on 5 pounds during a weeklong cruise — because they don't pace themselves and they don't exercise. Stay active on your cruise: Go on long walks on shore. Hit the gym or spa. And show some restraint.