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Dining on a Cruise: The 10 Best Tips and Tricks

Dining on today’s cruise ships is much more exciting than it was even a few years ago. Cruise lines are collaborating with renowned chefs and creating innovative culinary venues. Additionally, some companies are focused on serving sustainable seafood and offering plant-based and healthy alternatives. 

Oft-quoted cruising expert Stewart Chiron, aka “The Cruise Guy,” contends that dining has become one of the top reasons people choose to cruise, with many ships having better dining venues than land-based options, he says. And on some ships, that’s true.

With so many dining options—some that are included in the price of the trip (usually categorized as “complimentary” by cruise lines) and others that come with additional fees (known as “specialty” dining)—it’s smart to map out a dining plan before you board. 

To that end, you’ll want to consult your cruise line’s website or download the company’s mobile app well before you head to the port. Knowing what’s available ahead of time—and at what price—will give you the best culinary experience whether you’re sailing with a mainstream line or aboard a luxury vessel.

That’s also where you can peruse meal and drinks packages to figure out whether they make sense for you and your budget. 

The following 10 tips and tricks for cruise dining will further enhance your time at sea. 

(Los Lobos and Onda by Scarpetta restaurants on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Viva ship | Credit: Zac Thompson / Norwegian Cruise Line)

Find deals on specialty dining—and get the timing right. 

Look for specialty dining packages before your cruise, either on the cruise line’s website or through your travel agent. Some lines, like Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean, offer reduced pricing for the first night of the cruise. 

You’ll also find promotions once you’re on the ship, such as lower prices and free or discounted bottles of wine with your meal. So keep your eyes peeled.

Another option is to save the specialty restaurants for lunchtime, when prices are typically lower.

If possible, make reservations for your top selections for specialty restaurants in advance of the cruise to make sure you can secure a table. Otherwise, you’ll want to book your specialty dining as soon as you board the ship.

Avoid the buffet on embarkation day.

You and everyone else you just saw boarding the ship will have the same idea to head straight to the buffet on embarkation day, so consider your other choices. Check to see what’s open (and at what times) on your cruise’s planning app. 

Less-crowded alternatives might include the main dining room, one of the specialty restaurants (usually at a discount on embarkation day), or the outdoor grill. Your stateroom category might come with other options, too. If you’re staying in concierge-class accommodations with Celebrity, for example, you get a private welcome-aboard lunch after boarding the ship. 

(Oceanview Cafe on Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Ascent ship | Credit: Jason Cochran)

Plan your specialty dining around the main dining room menus.

The menu in the ship’s main dining room, where meals are complimentary (i.e., included with your cruise), typically changes daily, though there’s an always-available selection of standbys such as Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, and grilled steak, chicken, or salmon on the menu every day. Depending on the ship, the main dining room may be one large venue, or you may find several smaller restaurants serving the same dishes. 

Check your cruise app to see the week’s offerings before making specialty restaurant reservations so that you don’t pass up a meal that you’d enjoy in the main dining room (and that you won’t have to pay extra for).

As Gillian Clark, a cruise consultant at Cruise Specialists, part of Internova Travel Group, puts it: If you love lobster, you don’t want to miss lobster night in the main dining room

Note that a special menu in the main room is usually offered during an “elegant attire” evening aboard the ship, if your cruise is doing one of those.

Order multiple dishes at meals. 

One of the perks of having a meal in the main dining room: You can order more than one item for each course. So if several interesting dishes on the menu catch your eye, ask to try them. 

For some items, like pasta, you can request a smaller portion. If you’d like a larger serving, such as a dinner-sized portion of an appetizer, you can ask for that, too. 

On lobster night, there’s typically a steak option for carnivores, so don’t be shy about ordering surf and turf for dinner.

(Main dining room on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas ship | Credit: Royal Caribbean International)

To save money on wine, go for a bottle at dinner—or BYOB.

Ordering a bottle of wine is usually less expensive than ordering several glasses. If you don’t finish the bottle at dinner, your server can hold it for you until the next evening—or you can take it back to your stateroom to enjoy at another time. 

If you have a special bottle of wine that you’d like to bring on board and open during your cruise, most lines will allow at least one unopened bottle of wine or champagne when you’re boarding the ship, though there may be a corkage fee. 

Be sure to read the line’s list of prohibited items carefully to find the exact amount of wine you’re allowed to carry on. Ships are strict about passengers bringing outside booze. 

Explore modern buffet alternatives. 

Food stations with international cuisine and made-to-order dishes are replacing many of the old-fashioned cruise buffets.

Among the cool new concepts are Indulge Food Hall, a complimentary venue on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Prima class ships, Prima and Viva. This casual eatery features well-prepared specialties from around the world, including Asian noodle dishes, Spanish tapas, and Indian chicken tikka masala. Best of all, you order your selections from as many venues as you’d like on an electonic tablet at your table, and servers will bring your food to you. 

Look for special food-focused events.

Special complimentary dining events can be found on the cruise app in the ship’s daily schedule. You don’t want to miss lavish brunch buffets (complete with ice sculptures), outdoor barbecues, and lunches with sushi and fresh seafood.

Some of these festivities are part of the lines’ signature dining and entertainment events during which the ships pull out all the stops, as at Windstar’s international barbecue that’s served outdoors under the stars or Azamara’s White Night party.

(Breakfast on a cruise ship balcony | Credit: Kirk Fisher / Shutterstock)

Seek out quiet breakfast spots. 

If you don’t have time for a sit-down breakfast in the main dining room but don’t want to deal with the morning madness at the buffet, most ships have options for a quiet breakfast on the go, some with an additional cost.

Sample morning offerings with a view in the Observation Lounge on Norwegian Bliss, Encore, or Joy. Try Norwegian specialties at Viking’s Mamsen’s restaurant. Or opt for a healthy meal at Eden Café on Celebrity’s Edge class ships, Edge, Apex, Beyond, and Ascent

Holland America Line’s Grand Dutch Café is another cozy choice on the Koningsdam, Nieuw Statendam, and Rotterdam ships. 

Dine in your cabin with free room service. 

Many cruise lines offer some type of complimentary room service (though some items may come with small fees or upcharges). It’s a special treat to have a leisurely breakfast or dinner on your balcony at least once during your cruise. 

Princess Cruises will even deliver your order anywhere on the ship when you use the MedallionClass app’s OceanNow feature. If you’re sailing with a luxury line, like Silversea, you’ll have access to 24-hour room service and can order from the main dining room’s menu. Your butler can arrange for a private soiree in your room.

If your accommodations are in one of the expensive ship-within-a-ship private sanctuaries, such as Norwegian’s The Haven or MSC’s Yacht Club, you’ll have extensive room service offerings, also delivered to your room by your personal butler. 

Ask about items not on the menu.

Special dining requests are not unusual, especially if you’re sailing on a smaller luxury cruise or river ship or are booked in the ship-within-a-ship area or in a concierge-level stateroom or suite. If you have a craving for something that’s not on the menu, ask if the chef can prepare it for you—your chances of success will improve if you give the kitchen 24-hour notice. 

Likewise, ships can accommodate restrictions based on food allergies and plant-based diets. If you’re traveling with kids, you can view preset children’s menus online and speak with crew members or customer service reps about special requests. The ship likely has jarred baby food available or might even be able to make you some fresh purees for the littlest seafarers in your party. 

If servers know that you like, say, spicy Asian food, they may even offer you some of what the chefs are whipping up for themselves in the kitchen. 

And it just may be the best thing you eat on your cruise.