When it comes to dining on a cruise ship, you might think there’s no “wrong” way to do it.
But with so many dining venues and options on a cruise it can be easy to get lost and fail to maximize your culinary journey.
Eating like royalty is one of the best part of cruising. In fact, dining is the top priority for most people who cruise regularly.
However, there are a few unwritten rules to dining and also a few mistakes people make when it comes to both the main dining room and specialty restaurants.
In this article we will look at some of the biggest mistakes cruisers make when it comes to dining on the ship and how you can make sure you can avoid the same slip ups.
1. Not eating in main dining room outside of dinner
I’ll admit, I was a few cruises in before I realized I could eat in the main dining room for breakfast. For those casual mornings when you don’t have to rush off the ship to catch a shore excursion, the main dining room is great place to enjoy your first meal of the day.
The breakfast menu is more limited compared to what you may be used to at dinner time, but the service is just as excellent and you can just sit down and relax.
Nothing against the buffet on a cruise ship, but the morning rush at breakfast time can be a little hectic.
Just trying to carry your tray of food while keeping your coffee mug and glass of orange juice from spilling over as you look for a table is not an ideal way to start the day.
You can eat in the MDR for lunch as well. I suppose that’s the misnomer of the main “dining” room.
Just remember, eating in this venue is included in your cruise, so try it out for a few morning or mid-day meals for a more relaxing and slower-paced dining experience.
Related: 9 tips for eating in the main dining room.
2. Thinking everything is FREE in the main dining room
While there was a time not too long ago when everything on the menu of a main dining room restaurant was included in the price of the cruise, there have been some changes as of late.
If you want that extra lobster tail you may have to pay for it. Royal Caribbean and Carnival recently added these surcharges for additional lobster entrees.
Additionally, some cruise lines will allow you to order steaks and special entrees that are from the specialty restaurants on board.
This is been a great addition as you can still eat with your group but order something extra special from another venue, but realize that not everything in the main dining room is actually free.
That being said, you can certainly dine without paying an extra dime.
3. Waiting to reserve specialty dining
Don’t wait to make reservations. If your cruise line allows it, make your reservations online as early as you can.
You might want to wait until you’re on the ship and can actually check out the venue in person first. Just remember, the best times will fill up fast and you may not be able to get a reservation at an optimal time if you wait too long.
If your cruise line doesn’t allow reservations until you’re on the ship, make sure you do this right away on embarkation day.
Related: 19 things you should do on embarkation day
Cruisers make this mistake because they plan to redeem an onboard credit (and are under the impression they cannot do so online), or because they are simply unaware of their high demand.
Most cruise lines have now developed advanced reservation systems, which allows passengers to reserve dining in advance.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to take advantage of the online reservation system if you plan to eat at a high-demand specialty restaurant, especially on the larger ships.
4. Running dinnertime into showtime
There’s nothing like having a fantastic meal on a cruise and then heading to a great show right afterwards.
A mistake some cruisers make is failing to plan for how long dinner will take and missing most or part of the show they wanted to see.
And then, if they do make it late to the show they can’t get decent seats in order to enjoy it fully.
Some of this will come down to the planning process during dining time selection. And if you are on an anytime dining schedule you will want to make sure you provide ample time for dinner ahead of the start of the show you want to see.
I have found it helpful to notify my server that I plan to see the show afterward, but don’t show up late to the dining room and expect them to get you out of there in half-an-hour.
Larger groups will take longer to serve, and if you start ordering second and third entrees it will delay your meal even further.
If you have a specific dining time, be prompt, notify your server that you plan to see the show, and enjoy your meal.
Remember, some cruise ships have the same show twice in order to accommodate each dining time.
5. Not pre-purchasing a drink package
If you decide that a drink package is worth your wallet (and your waistline) – simply put, do not wait until you are on board to purchase.
Most cruise lines offer a steep discounted rate for advanced purchases on drink packages, which absolutely saves you on the overall cost.
Outside of saving money, you’ll save yourself a good chunk of time – as the lines to purchase drink packages on embarkation day are historically long and involve some paperwork. Paperwork & vacation don’t belong in the same sentence!
Related: Drink packages compared between 7 cruise lines
6. Being unaware of your cruise line’s dress code
Although cruise lines are a lot more forgiving than in years past when it comes to dress code, there are still rules to abide by when sailing, which differs by cruise line.
When booking your cruise, keep in mind the type of vacation you’d prefer. Are you a casual dresser? Try Norwegian Cruise Lines, or Carnival. Still fancy the formal life? Check out Cunard, or Holland America.
It is important to remain respectful of others and note that while formal nights may be a way of the past, there are still a few things to remember. Pieces such as flip flops, swimwear, athletic wear, and even tank tops are frowned upon in the Main Dining Room.
Casual, jean shorts are not permitted as well, so remember to leave those in your stateroom for a port day.
Related: 10 Things you CAN pack on your cruise but shouldn’t.
7. Not informing the cruise line of any food allergies or special diets
Food allergies, intolerance, and other special diets or restrictions are taken very seriously across cruise lines. Any special accommodation can be noted at the time of your reservation, and it is highly important to do so to avoid any issues.
Be sure to have this noted, inform your travel agent, or your cruise coordinator.
Often, the cruise line will send you a form to complete prior to sailing to ensure they can meet the needs of your requests.
Once you are on board, it is important to inform the maitre’d, your servers, and anyone else who may be handling your food of your special diet to ensure that it is prepared safely, and accordingly.
Most cruise lines will meet with you nightly to order the upcoming day’s food, which allows their staff to ensure proper ingredients are sourced. In the event you fail to do so, you may be left with a mediocre dining experience, wishing you had what was on your neighbor’s plate.
Read more: Eating on a Disney cruise ship with a gluten allergy.
8. Failure to select a dining time slot
When booking your cruise, one of the website’s prompts is to select a window in which your party will dine in the Main Dining Room. This slot is reserved especially for your party size, with a specific set of servers to allow for a personalized experience throughout your cruise, and often at the same table setting.
Disney Cruise Line follows a method referred to as ‘rotational dining’ where your party is moved throughout a series of a few dining rooms during your cruise, typically with different theming. Your servers will follow you, and the cuisine is the same, albeit with rotating specials.
Time slots are typically divided into three main categories – an early seating, which can vary between 5:30pm-6pm, a later seating between 8pm-9pm, and a ‘My Time’ seating which allows for flexible dining. If you’ve chosen either the early, or late dining, you’ve secured your spot.
However, you can run into issues with the more flexible option. When utilizing this method, you are essentially using the ‘Walk-Up’ method when showing up to the Main Dining Room (MDR for reference). During slower times – very early, or very late – this doesn’t pose much of an issue.
However, during those high traffic, typical dinner seating hours (think 6-7pm), you might be stuck waiting longer than you planned for a dining time you ‘reserved’.
To mitigate this issue, I recommend making a reservation to have dinner nightly at the same time – at a time of your choosing. You can easily do this on the first night of your sailing in the MDR, or at the concierge desk prior to dining to avoid that dreaded wait.
9. Only ordering familiar foods
Perhaps you’re just not an adventurous eater. You know what dishes you like and you stick to that very safe list.
But the time to try new foods is definitely on a cruise. Not only is the food already paid for, but you also have so many new options to try.
You might just find a new favorite entree while at sea. I see too many people afraid to order something unfamiliar.
Remember, even if the dish is not exactly to your liking, you may have a table-mate who will gladly take care of it for you.
Things like frog legs, escargot, or a hard-to-pronounce cheese on a cheese plate are all things you can try for the first-time without any pressure.
Most don’t know it, and it’s kind of a hidden gem, but you can totally order more than one entrée and dessert while you’re dining as well. I do recommend ordering extra foods at the onset rather than half-way through your dinner though, as it will slow down the meal for everyone at the table.
Not only is cruising great for indulging, but this serves as a perfect time to try some new dishes, flavors and combinations you’ve always wanted (or never thought of) to try.
10. Wasting food you thought you could eat
This might seem like a counterpoint to the last one, but it’s important you don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach, so to speak.
Sure, you can eat as much as you would like on a cruise ship, but wasting food is not only frowned upon, it just makes more work for the wait staff.
The amount of food wasted on a cruise ship is pretty staggering. It’s been estimated that around 30% of all the food on a cruise ends up being uneaten and wasted.
It’s important to try foods in small quantities first. You can always ask for more.
If you’re dining at the buffet it can be all too tempting to load up several plates of food before you sit down. Instead, don’t be afraid to try a little bit of several things first and then grab another plate after you’ve finished the first one.
This way you’re also burning off a few extra calories by taking extra trips to the buffet line.
Don’t forget to pace yourself when it comes to dining. It can be easy to go overboard on that first day at sea and regret it later on.
11. Not informing staff of large groups
Cruise dining rooms are set up very strategically, and while staff members are incredibly accommodating, often cannot be rearranged at a last minute’s notice because of this.
Group cruising can be a bit of a challenge when approaching dining in the main dining room, and especially in specialty restaurants, where the spaces are often smaller, and the settings more intimate.
Due to this, larger groups may not always be able to be accommodated at the same table. There simply are not many tables that can hold more than 10 passengers on board.
When planning your group cruise, it is always advised to inform your travel agent, or cruise advisor of the number of passengers traveling together, and if something is being celebrated.
Celebrations are welcomed, and highly regarded on cruise lines alike. For your best chance at group dining at the same table, ensure this note is made on your cruise reservation, choose a specific dining time, and inform concierge on embarkation day.
Prior to embarkation day, passengers can even check their table location on their cruise ship’s app on some cruise lines (specifically Royal Caribbean). You are also encouraged to discuss your wishes with the wait staff in the Main Dining Room, where a table can be potentially secured on your behalf.
If you are doing a group cruise, do not assume you will all be seated together, and prepare for this potential. Reserving early, and choosing a specific dining time slot are your best bets at avoiding separation.
12. If you don’t see something you like: ask!
Picky eater? Or just don’t see something that sparks your interest? That’s okay – just ask the wait staff.
There is bound to be something for everyone, even the pickiest of eaters. Cruise lines want you to be happy. And full.
If you’re perusing the menu, and just don’t see anything you like, or wish the chicken dish came with the steak dish’s side, or just want something light for dessert, feel free to ask.
You never know unless you ask, after all. After a couple nights, the wait staff will remember your eating patterns, and will often have your favorites waiting on the table for you before you can say ice cream, please!
Some examples of off-menu favorites may include fruit, cheese plates, ice cream, and desserts from other nights.
There are usually some children’s food items available as well, like pasta and chicken entrees.
Final Thoughts on Cruise Dining
It is no secret that eating is an excursion when it comes to cruising. Passengers often cruise just to experience the enjoyable cuisine.
I hope you found these pointers helpful and that you can avoid some of the dining pitfalls too many fall into.
Remember to take care of any dining plans ahead of time, and keep an open mind when it comes to trying new foods.
The dining choices on cruise ships today are more abundant than they have ever been, so make the most of it.
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