Here's what you need to know about meal service options before you sail.
Open Seating Dining Open seating is also referred to as flexible dining on some cruise lines. Other names include "anytime" dining or "my time" dining. Whatever name it goes by, flexible dining is gaining in popularity, so most of the larger lines have found a way to implement this option.
In earlier days, the only cruise lines that offered open seating were those with smaller ships, since they had dining rooms that could accommodate all the passengers onboard, even if most of them showed up for dinner about the same time. The cruise lines sailing larger ships had a fixed capacity in their dining rooms, so they needed to make every table do "double duty" if all passengers were going to get fed each night.
Open seating simply means that you are not locked into a particular dining time. You can dine when and with whom you choose, within certain limitations. For example, if you want a table for two, you might have to wait for one to become available. But if you are willing to share a large table with others, you could be seated right away.
The dining room will have posted hours for dinner service, perhaps 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and you can walk in at any time during those hours. This kind of flexibility is great, especially for families, since any given day on a cruise ship can be different. Maybe on a day at sea, everybody is hungry and wants to dine early. But after a long day in port, everyone needs some "wind down" time after arriving back on the ship. Maybe the younger kids have missed their nap and are getting cranky; you can give them an hour to sleep before getting them ready for dinner. While you lose the benefit of having the same wait staff and dining companions each night, the added flexibility often more than makes up for that.
Some lines let you call a reservations number in the morning to make your dinner plans for that evening, so you can request that coveted table for two just for you and your sweetie. Reservations are a good idea if you want to dine just with your own small party at a table for two or four. If you are truly flexible, however, and don't care about the table size or sharing it with others, then reservations are not required and you can "wing it." Just walk into the dining room when you are ready to eat, and you'll be seated reasonably promptly. Open seating is similar to what many lines offer for breakfast and lunch service in the main dining rooms.
Generally the same food items served in the traditional dining room are also served in the flexible one. Dress codes for each evening are identical as well. If it's formal night in the traditional dining room, it will be formal night in the flexible dining room. Some lines use two separate dining rooms for the two dining formats, while others will use an upper and lower level of the same dining room.
When you book your cruise, your travel agent will ask you what type of dining you prefer. The farther in advance you book, the better chance you have of getting your first choice. On some lines, traditional dining is overwhelmingly popular, especially the early seating. You might not get early seating if you book late, but perhaps you can still have traditional dining at the late seating.
Casual Dining Venues Almost every cruise line offers a casual dining venue, generally with buffet service. While the buffet is popular for lunch or breakfast, most people prefer table service in the dining room at dinner. But the buffet offers a great casual dining option, especially when it is formal night in the main dining rooms and you just don't feel like getting dressed up.
The casual dining venue generally operates as strictly buffet service during the daytime hours, but often at dinnertime the cruise lines will kick the service up a notch. On Holland America's ships, white tablecloths adorn the tables, and the lighting is subdued during the evening hours. While you walk down the buffet line to get your various sides and salad, your entrée choice will be prepared to order and delivered to your table. A steward will also be waiting at the end of the buffet line to take your tray and escort you to a table. Some tableside service is also available. For example, a friendly steward will go up to the buffet line and get you some fresh bread, or refill your coffee cup.
Most cruise lines offer a casual dining venue for passengers who don't wish to deal with the formality of the main dining room, or who want to enjoy a very late night meal when the dining room is closed.
Specialty Dining Venues Most cruise lines today also offer specialty or "premium" dining venues -- restaurants that offer dining options a cut above what is served in the main dining room. These are often specialty restaurants that focus on steaks and chops, Italian cuisine, New Orleans fare, even French-inspired entrees. Royal Caribbean even has a specialty restaurant devoted to burgers and shakes called Johnny Rockets.
Depending upon the cruise line, using these specialty dining venues can incur an added charge, usually between $10 and $30 per person. On some luxury, all-inclusive cruise lines, the specialty restaurants have no additional charge, though reservations are required.
Whether there is a surcharge or not, these specialty dining venues offer an added dimension to the cruise experience that is generally worth the money. They are often more elegant than the main dining room, offering a quieter, more refined atmosphere in which to dine -- especially for a special occasion such as a wedding anniversary or birthday. Generally children are discouraged if not prohibited in these venues, which contributes to their special ambience.
Continue Article >> Special Situations -- Cruise Lines with Unique Dining Options (Part 3)