Dining At Sea

Most cruise ships serve food nearly around the clock. There may be up to four breakfast options: early-morning coffee and pastries on deck, breakfast in bed via room service, buffet-style breakfast in the cafeteria, and breakfast in the dining room. There may also be two or three choices for lunch, mid-afternoon snacks or tea, and midnight buffets. You can eat whatever is on the menu, in any quantity, at as many of these meals as you wish. Room service is traditionally, but not always, free.

The chief meals of the day are served in the main dining room. Most cruise ships also have a cafeteria-style restaurant, usually near the swimming pool, where you can eat lunch and breakfast. Many ships also provide self-service coffee or tea around the clock.

Increasingly, ships also have alternate restaurants for ethnic cuisines, such as Italian, Chinese, or Japanese food. Other ships have pizzerias, ice-cream parlors, and caviar or cappuccino bars; there may be an extra charge at these facilities.

Many cruise lines ban smoking in their main dining room. If this is a concern, ask your travel agent to check the policy of the cruise line before booking your cruise.

When it comes to your dining table assignment, you have four options to consider: early or late seating; smoking or non-smoking section; a table for two, four, six, or eight; and any special dietary needs. Your cruise documents usually include a card for your dining preferences. Complete the card and return it to the cruise line as soon as possible. The cruise line will make every effort to honor your requests.

On some ships, seating times are strictly observed. Ten to 15 minutes after the scheduled mealtime, the dining-room doors are closed. On other ships, passengers may enter the dining room at their leisure, but they must be out by the end of the seating. When a ship has just one seating, passengers may enter at any time while the kitchen is open and are never rushed. Seating assignments on some ships apply only for dinner; they allow open seating for breakfast or lunch, which means you may sit anywhere at any time. Some ships offer open seating for all meals.

If for any reason you don't enjoy the company at your table, the maître d' can usually move you to another one, if the dining room isn't completely full - a tip helps. After the first full day at sea, however, he will probably be reluctant to comply with your request because the waiters, busboys, and wine steward who have been serving you won't receive their tips at the end of the cruise. Be persistent if you are truly unhappy.

Most ships offering cruises out of U.S. ports serve food geared to the American palate, but there are also theme dinners featuring the cuisine of a particular country. Some European ships, especially smaller vessels, may offer a particular cuisine throughout the cruise - Scandinavian, German, Italian, or Greek, perhaps - depending on the ship's or the crew's nationality. Aboard all cruise ships, the quality of the cooking is generally good, but even a skilled chef is hard put to serve 500 or more extraordinary dinners per hour. If you're unhappy with your meal, don't be shy about sending it back or requesting a different one from the menu. Often, you'll be able to combine different menu items to create the meal you'd like. And if you're completely displeased with what's on the menu at any given meal, it is possible - especially on the larger ships - to request a substitution on the spot. Omelets and simple pasta dishes likely will dominate the offerings, but larger ship kitchens might be willing to produce a steak or rustle up other items from their well-stocked larders.

With notification well in advance, many ships can also provide a kosher, low-salt, low-cholesterol, sugar-free, vegetarian, or other special menu. Large ships usually offer an alternative "light" or "spa" menu based upon American Heart Association guidelines, using less fat, leaner cuts of meat, low-cholesterol or low-sodium preparations, smaller portions, salads, fresh-fruit desserts, and healthy garnishes. Some smaller ships may not be able to accommodate special dietary needs.

Wine at meals costs extra on most ships; the prices are usually comparable to those in shoreside restaurants and are charged to your shipboard account.

It is both a privilege and a marvelous experience to be invited to dine one evening at the captain's table. Although some seats are given to celebrities, repeat passengers, and passengers in the most expensive suites, other invitations are given at random to ordinary passengers. Any passenger can request an invitation from the chief steward or the hotel manager, although there is no guarantee you will be accommodated. The captain's guests always wear a suit and tie or a dress, even if the dress code for that evening is casual. On many ships, passengers may also be invited to dine at the other officers' special tables, or officers may visit a different passenger table each evening.

Ships bars, whether adjacent to the pool or attached to one of the lounges, tend to be their social centers. Except on a handful of luxury-class ships where everything is included in the ticket price, bars operate on a pay-as-it's-poured basis. Rather than demand cash after every round, however, most ships allow passengers to charge drinks to their accounts. On most ships, drinks range from $3-$5 for beer, $4-$6 for wine and spirits, and up to $8 for specialty drinks. Almost all ships require passengers to be over 21 to purchase alcoholic drinks.

Is cruise dining as good as I've been told?
Everything you've heard about cruise dining is true. At each meal, you'll find choices for every course, and each day the choices will be different. If you've ever wanted to experiment with a cuisine or try a dish, you are free to order more than one item. Best of all, the one thing you won't see on the menu in the main dining room is a price. Because your meals are included!

Just because your cruise ship offers plenty of delicious food, doesn't mean you'll come home out of shape. You can choose low-cal, spa, vegetarian, or fitness menu selections that are just as tempting as the regular fare.

If you have special dietary requirements, you should advise your travel agent to notify the cruise line when you book your cruise. Most ships can accommodate salt-free, low-carbohydrate, or other diet preferences. Many cruise lines can accommodate Kosher. They must know in advance so they can prepare for you.

What are my dining options?
During the day, there are many different places to eat. The dining room offers a more formal setting, but many travelers prefer the informality of eating on deck. Many ships have a pizzeria, an espresso bar, or a buffet on the Lido deck.

At night, the choices depend on the size of the main dining room. If it can accommodate all guests at the same time, the ship has a single "seating". Some of these ships offer you a choice of eating times, and others encourage you to come to dinner whenever you like. More traditional ships have two seatings in their dining rooms. You must then decide if you prefer to eat early (typically 6:00 PM) or late (8:30 PM). The only difference between seatings is the time of your meal; the menu is the same. If your cruise has two seatings, you should ask your travel agent to submit your preference to the cruise line when you book the cruise.

Frequently, you can chose to dine at night at someplace other than the main dining room. You might try a more intimate restaurant that features Italian, Chinese, or Southwestern cuisine - there might be a fee for dining in these restaurants. Cruise lines are also opening up their informal Lido areas to evening dining, where the dress and dishes are always casual - sometimes, you can dine out under the stars. And a large number of ships offer romantic in-cabin dinners. The choice is yours!

Can I dine with only my family and friends, or will I have tablemates?
The cruise lines try to accommodate each guest's preference. It is possible to request a table for two or four. Some cruise guests prefer sitting with others because they enjoy making new friends. If you are seated with others and you wish to change tablemates, speak with the maitre d', who will discretely and politely make every effort to seat you with more compatible dining companions.

Are there non-smoking areas?
All ships have non-smoking sections in the public rooms. In fact, most dining rooms, and even some entire ships, are now totally smoke-free. If you want your dining table in a non-smoking area, ask your travel agent to inform the cruise line accordingly.

Can we celebrate a special occasion?
Cruise lines are delighted to help you celebrate a special occasion; many will even treat you to a complimentary cake and a chorus of "Happy Whatever". You can arrange for champagne, flowers, or canapes to make it even more festive. You can even arrange for a private party. Just let the cruise line know in advance.

© 2002 Cruise Lines International Association