Cruise Ship Dining 101: Part One, The Basics

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From breakfast to special dietary needs, food has become an integral, and important, part of today’s cruising experience. No longer are you restricted to a single dining room; many ships today offer a plethora of dining options, and venues in which to satisfy your appetite. Here’s part one of our guide to culinary matters on board a cruise ship, sorting out what’s new and what’s for you: 

Sittings For Dinner - What Are They? 

A sitting hails back to a more traditional era of cruising, and is often referred to as “fixed seating”, “traditional dining” or “early and late seating”. They all refer to much the same thing; you are assigned to a specific table for the entire cruise, and will eat dinner every night at the same time. Table sizes vary, from two up to as many as eight or 10 people, and the seating happens twice per evening; the first usually at 6pm or 6.30pm, and the second at 8pm or 8.30pm. There are advantages and disadvantages to this form of dining, which still occurs on even premium and larger ships. Advantages include having the same wait staff for every meal, who should learn your preferences over the course of the cruise, and eating at a fixed time may also suit some people. Disadvantages, however, include a lack of flexibility, and you will be sitting with the same people every night, which can be a blessing or a curse. When you book your cruise you have the opportunity to request fixed seating for dinner, the time, and the size of table you wish to sit at. This can be changed after you board if you are unhappy with the result, but only if the ship isn’t full.

Can I Eat When I Want To? 

Called “open seating”, this is a much more flexible option, and comes under a variety of names depending on the ship. This form of dining used to only apply to much smaller ships, and those at the luxury end of the scale, however, larger and mass market ships are adopting the policy to apply to at least part of their main dining rooms at night. The venue will have hours for dinner service, say 6pm to 9.30pm, and open seating means you can walk in and ask for a table at any time during these hours. In some cases the ship will even allow you to make a reservation. There are advantages and disadvantages to this form of dining also. On the plus side, you get to dine in a much more flexible way; if you have been out all day touring ashore, you may wish to eat late that night, while on another day you may prefer to eat earlier. Also, you don’t have to sit with the same people each night, or with anyone at all if you choose. The disadvantages, however, are that you will get different wait staff every night, you may not always be able to get a table when you turn up, and you may not get a table for two if you are looking for a romantic or quiet night. 

Casual Dining and Room Service

Most cruise ships have a casual dining venue, usually a buffet which operates for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They offer a more flexible way of eating, which can be great if you are busy, or you are travelling with people of different ages, and if you don’t feel like dressing for dinner you don’t have to. Although you will help yourself to food, there will usually be table service for drinks including alcohol. Room service is also widely available on many ships today. Largely it will be complimentary, although some mass market ships will charge a fee between 11pm or midnight and the normal breakfast service. As for what’s on offer, this can range from a wide option, or even food from some of the restaurants on board, to a fixed menu of basics which doesn’t change.


Joanna Hall


  • 3
    I have to disagree

    Posted by Debby K on 23rd Jan 2019

    I have to disagree with Mr Churches. I have cruised on Royal Caribbean ships Radiance and Explorer and I was very impressed with the quality of the meals in the main dining room. I only attended one specialty restaurant over the two voyages which was Giovanni's Italian which was also very good. However I didn't want to eat at any more specialty restaurants as I didn't want to miss what might be on the menu in the main dining room! The menus were similar across both cruises, which just meant I was able to have my favourites again! Apart from that the menu was different every night within the same cruise.

  • 3
    It isn't all about food

    Posted by Neil R Churches on 18th Jan 2019

    Having survived my one and only big ship cruise - Voyager of the Seas - I feel able to make comment. Over the 12 nights of the cruise we experienced very little fine dining other than when we paid to eat at one of the 3 specialty restaurants. This option did not guarantee good food or service though... The Grill was to my mind the only meal worth accolades. We were initially placed on a 5.30-6.00 pm seating which we changed immediately - the disadvantage of the 8.30 pm seating was that it conflicted with entertainment options. The food was not bad but it was repetitive - the staff were attentive but the alcohol was surprisingly expensive. We, a couple, were placed on a 10-person table with one disgruntled German. who did not want to speak English and complained incessantly about not being seated on the adjoining German-speaking table. Breakfast and Lunch were generally pretty mundane affairs. Yet people we shared tables with would regale us with stories of their 30th cruise on the ship - to my mind a massive lack of imagination. Would I cruise again? Only if I could always experience 'open' seating and if it was possible to request specific dishes. And it would not be on Royal Caribbean.