Here's what you need to know about meal service options before you sail.
Special Situations -- Cruise Lines with Unique Dining Options For every rule there is an exception -- or perhaps several. Cruise lines are no different: Some have their own unique dining options. While most mass market lines offer a choice between traditional and open dining, some have dining arrangements far removed from the more mainstream choices.
Disney: During a typical cruise, you'll eat in several dining rooms, but in a fixed "traditional seating" form. The table layout in all dining rooms is the same, though the atmosphere is distinctly different in each one. Each night you move to a different dining room, but with the same tablemates and dining time. Your waitstaff moves with you as well, so you enjoy the consistency of the same team of waiters.
Disney also has a premium dining venue called Palo. This is an adults-only venue, guaranteeing a quiet meal on a ship full of children.
Cunard: Cunard has always been the signature cruise line for the great traditions of cruising. The dress code is far more formal than most, with formal dress at night taken to a whole different level. On transatlantic crossings between New York and Southampton, England, every evening at sea will be a formal night. Even on what may be considered a casual-dress evening, the dress will be far more classy than on most mass market lines. Cunard offers a little something for everyone, and while it is possible to sail Cunard on a tight budget, one can pay more to enjoy a far more elegant experience.
On Cunard ships (Queen Mary and Queen Victoria), your dining room assignment will be based on the level of accommodations you select. Those in a standard inside or outside cabin, or even a lower category balcony cabin, will dine in the fixed seating restaurant onboard. You'll be assigned a dining time and table, and enjoy your meals in the formal dining room (which on other lines would be considered traditional dining). But if you book a Princess or Queen's Grill suite, the highest level of accommodations, you will be admitted to those dining rooms where open seating is the order of the day, and a great deal of customization is possible. (For example, if you'd like to order off-menu in the Queen's Grill, that can be arranged. Changing around one of the menu entrees -- perhaps asking to have the wine sauce replaced with something more to your liking -- can easily be done.) Some table-side preparation of meals is also offered in the Queen's and Princess Grills -- something you would never see in the main dining room. The fixed seating dining room is strictly menu-based, with little to no customization possible.
The selections available in the Grills are also more plentiful, and probably of a higher quality. The environment is far more elegant than that in a dining room seating close to 2,000 people on a given night, and the service is far more personalized. Grill passengers also enjoy exclusive use of a "Grill lounge" where they can enjoy their pre or post-dinner cocktails in less crowded conditions.
Cunard, probably more than any other cruise line, has retained the old-style "class" system of cruising -- though other mass market cruise lines are moving more and more in this direction.
Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL): NCL ships do not offer any form of "fixed seating" or "traditional" dining. Instead, they are totally committed to the "freestyle" form of cruising and, in fact, pioneered the concept.
Freestyle means doing what you want, when you want. NCL tosses out all the trappings of traditional cruising, such as the requirement to dine at a specific time and at a specific table. Freestyle extends to all areas of NCL ships, including entertainment venues. Instead of one elaborate stage production offered at set times each evening, many smaller venues host a variety of acts, such as small combos, comedy troupes, vocalists and the like. Passengers are encouraged to keep to their own schedules, eating when they want, taking in a preferred form of entertainment wherever it may be playing, and personalizing their vacation from embarkation to disembarkation.
Since NCL ships offer exclusively open seating dining, they probably have more dining venues than any other cruise line. Most NCL ships have two "free" restaurants, as well as a free buffet venue and a pool grill. All other dining venues are fee-based, ranging from $5 to $30 or more per person. The whole idea of a "freestyle" vacation is to sample various eateries during your sailing, and the idea of paying an additional fee for most dining turns off some people. But "freestyle" is all about choice and variety, and those who restrict themselves to the "no added fee" restaurants are not fully taking advantage of freestyle cruising.
NCL ships have six to ten (and sometimes even more) "fee added" dining venues. Each is unique, catering to a particular taste: a steaks and chops place, the fine Italian eatery, a restaurant serving up great sushi and other Oriental favorites, a Cajun joint and a burger spot. You probably won't find more variety in eating venues than you will on an NCL ship, especially the newer/larger ones. So budget an extra $100 or so per person for premium restaurants when taking an NCL cruise. You'll be glad you did and you'll have a far better cruise experience.
NCL is also one of the few cruise lines that partners with onshore restaurants on some itineraries, offering a dining plan that lets guests sample shoreside restaurants when the ship is in port. Especially in Hawaii and in Bermuda, where NCL ships spend more time in port, the line encourages passengers to try this option, and offers dining plans and coupons for this purpose.
In Summary Every cruise line has its own unique approach to onboard dining. However, certain staples are fairly standard. While dining can be more elegant on certain ships, such as the smaller vessels of the luxury brands, open seating is open seating and traditional dining is traditional dining no matter which line you sail.
Many major lines offer both options, while some only offer one. Just about every cruise line has a casual dining venue and a poolside grill for simple daytime fare such as burgers and fries.
Dining has long been a key ingredient of cruising, and that's not about to change. In fact, today more than ever, the emphasis is on fine dining with multiple "added charge" or premium dining venues.
However you prefer to take your meals, you'll find something you like on just about any of the major cruise lines. The key is advance research of what your cruise line of choice offers if dining is a "make it or break it" factor of your cruise experience.
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