Cruise Dining Options

The dining scene aboard cruises has been changing in recent years, driven partly by passengers who want to eat when they want rather than follow the shipboard tradition of assigned seating, with diners sitting at the same table with the same waiters and dinner companions at the same time each night.

Many cruisers prefer assigned seatings because they like dining with the same people throughout a cruise and having waiters who know their preferences after a meal or two. Also, assigned tables work smoothly aboard large ships, which often have two seating times, one around 6 or 6:30 p.m. and the other at 8:30 p.m. or so.

But publicity about the dining options has confused many passengers, and some don't realize that only two major cruise lines, both American-based, have adopted a more open dining policy, and even those lines still offer traditional assigned seatings.

Norwegian Cruise Line calls its dining policy "Freestyle Cruising," and Princess Cruises, "Personal Choice" seating. Carnival Cruise Lines' "Total Choice Dining" has assigned seatings but offers a wider range of dining times. Disney Cruise Lines has assigned times but moves waiters and their passengers from one restaurant to another each night.

All of Norwegian's ships offer open seating for dinner, allowing passengers to arrive when they wish during designated hours. If passengers don't want to wait in line at a popular dining time, they can make reservations as they would at a restaurant on land. (For groups larger than four, it's always wise to make reservations.) Many new larger ships have added small specialty restaurants as alternatives to the main dining room, some of which attach surcharges ranging from $5 to $25 person.

Aboard Princess ships, passengers must choose open or assigned seating when they book a cruise, but the line allows changes during the cruise. With three large dining rooms and one or more alternative restaurants on Princess ships, there are enough venues to have a change of scene almost every night.

As in shore-side restaurants, waiters are paid a base salary and receive tips from the passengers they serve. The tips, usually presented in cash on the last night of the cruise, average $5 or $6 per passenger per day for the two servers, with the waiter getting a larger amount than the assistant waiter. Wine and cocktail servers receive an additional 15% added automatically to the bill at the time of service. On open seating with NCL and Princess, tips are automatically charged to the cabin account unless other arrangements are made.

Small luxury ships, canal barges and expedition vessels usually allow passengers to dine when, where and with whom they please, either including the tips in the base fare up front or pooling tips to divide among the service staff at the end of the cruise.

In our cruise lines directory, cruise lines that offer open or restaurant-style seating are designated by a single asterisk (*). Lines or companies that offer traditional and open seating on the same vessel (as Princess does) or whose vessels offer either one or the other are designated by double asterisks (**). Lines that have no asterisks in front of the name follow traditional assigned seating policy.