It probably doesn't come as a surprise that small ships offer fewer dining options, while big ships offer a plethora of culinary delights that can range from basic room service to multi-course meals prepared under the direction of Michelin-starred chefs.
What you might not know is that there is also a world of choice when it comes to simply choosing when and how you'd like to dine. Gone are the inflexible dining times and rigid dress codes of old… unless you prefer a fixed early or late dinner seating for dinner. Most big ships still offer that as a time-tested option. If you like more flexibility, many cruise lines have adopted open-seating options that invite you to dine when you'd like, with whomever you'd like to, during the restaurant's opening hours.
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Small ships are the exception here, but even they offer open seating that lets you sit where you want and with whomever you want, though generally at a set time. Which brings us to.
Traditional dining on most big ships means choosing between one of two predetermined dinner times: early (typically 6pm) and late (usually 8:30pm). There are advantages and disadvantages to both times. Early seating is usually far more crowded and is the preferred time for families with small children and seniors. The dining experience can be a bit more rushed (the staff needs to make way for the next wave of guests coming for the second seating), but you'll still have the rest of your evening to enjoy the ship: You can see a show right after dinner and have first dibs on other nighttime venues as well.
Late seating, on the other hand, allows you time for a good long nap or late spa appointment before dining. Dinner is not rushed at all, and guests tend to linger at the table until well after 10: 00 p.m. Folks who like to watch sailaway may find this dining time to be more advantageous, as 5:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. departure times from many ports are fairly common. Don't worry about missing your favorite shows: Main production shows are often run twice in an evening, and scheduled entertainment options usually run until midnight.
Most big ships will offer some form of flexible dining, though each cruise line gives this a different name. Holland America Line calls it As You Wish dining. Princess Cruises dubs it, Anytime Dining. ? But whatever you call it, the basic system remains the same: Guests are invited to dine in one of the ship's main dining rooms in an open-seating environment. You can choose who (if anyone) you would like to sit with, and simply waltz in at any time during the room's published opening hours. Like a land-based restaurant, though, you might find yourself in for a wait during peak times; typically, you'll be given an electronic buzzer that will light up when your table is ready.
The vast majority of large ships today also have alternative dining options. Most have a buffet-style restaurant offering an extensive spread of both hot and cold food items at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (as an alternative to the dining room). Some ships also have reservations-only restaurants, seating fewer than 100, where except on some luxury ships a fee is charged.
Do you mind sitting with strangers? Are you looking to make new friends? Your dinner companions can sometimes make or break your cruise experience. Most ships have tables configured for two to eight people. For singles or couples who want to socialize, a table of eight seats generally provides enough variety that you don't get bored and also allows you to steer clear of any individual you don't particularly care for. Tables are assigned, but seats aren't. Couples may choose to sit on their own, but singles may find it hard to secure a table for one. A family of four may want a table for four, or request to sit with another family at a table for eight.
You need to state your table-size preference in advance, unless you're on a ship with an open-seating policy. If you change your mind once you're on board, don't worry; you'll probably have no trouble moving around. Just inform the dining-room maitre d' on the afternoon of embarkation, and he or she will review the seating charts for an opening. Check your onboard Daily Program for times; the maitre d' generally holds court for an hour or two on embarkation day for guests with dining queries or special dietary needs.
Put off by all this formality? Want guaranteed casual all the way? Back in 2001, Norwegian Cruise Line started serving all meals with open seating dine when you want (within the restaurants' open hours, of course) and with whom you want and now other lines are doing this, as well. The catch, particularly with Norwegian, is that you have to be on-top of your dining game, choosing and reserving a table at the restaurant of your choice early on in the cruise; simply walking up without a reservation when you decide to eat usually doesn't get you a table. Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America Line, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all have a version of this system, allowing guests to choose traditional early or late seating or open restaurant-style seating, typically selecting one or the other during the booking process. Sailing on a luxury line like Regent, Seabourn or Silversea? Your dining is already Open Seating.
The cruise line should be informed at the time you make reservations about any special dietary requirements you have. Some lines provide kosher menus, and all have vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, low-salt, gluten-free, and sugar-free options. Allergies can usually be catered to if the cruise line is notified in advance. Reconfirm your requests with the maitre d' on the afernoon of embarkation so they can ensure their dining staff are all on the same page; mistakes do happen and sometimes your request can get lost in the shuffle (though this is very rare).