Some cruisers might think there is no such thing as a “dining mistake” on a cruise. A vacation at sea can be akin to a feeding frenzy, with 24/7 dining options and all the pizza, ice cream and burgers you can eat. How could you go wrong with so many food choices?
However, if you actually care to have sit-down meals at the times you prefer in the restaurant of your choice and if you want to make the most of the dining opportunities provided on the ship, there are better and worse ways to approach your vacation.
A lack of planning can lead to your being dissatisfied with the onboard culinary experience – even though your tummy is full (or possibly, overly full) of food.
I prefer to treat cruises as a week of wonderful eating — like I would a visit to a city known for its culinary offerings — rather than an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. To optimize the experience, I avoid these 12 dining mistakes whenever possible. If you want to taste all the best things on your next cruise without ever feeling hungry or grossly full, I suggest you fix your culinary strategic errors, as well.
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Not making reservations as far in advance as possible
Cruise lines make a big deal of their multiple onboard restaurants. They neglect to mention that, like the hot new eatery in your hometown, it can be nearly impossible to get a table for four at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night — or at any reasonable dining time on any day of your sailing.
Spontaneity is nice on vacation. However, when it comes to onboard dining in specialty restaurants, a lack of advance planning will leave you dining too early, too late or not at all. If you want that perfect reservation, you’ll need to secure a table in advance.
Ideally, you will make your specialty dining reservations online before you set sail. On some ships, suite passengers get early access to the best times. Make your dinner plans as soon as you’re able. If not, make it a priority to book a table as soon as you’re on the ship.
For restaurants that don’t take advance reservations, you’ll need to strategize your evening. For example, on a recent Carnival Celebration cruise, guests needed to request a table through the line’s app if they wanted to dine at included venues, such as Chibang! or Cucina del Capitano. However, if you waited to request a table until you were ready to eat, you might have found yourself, as we did, with an hourlong wait.
If you’re able, you should put your name on a list or request a table 30 to 60 minutes in advance of when you wish to sit down, knowing you might end up eating earlier than you intended.
Related: The ultimate guide to cruise ship food and dining
Missing the mid-cruise specials
On the other hand, if certain restaurants aren’t driving enough business, cruise lines will run promotions mid-cruise to entice more diners into the emptier venues. Or, the ship might run lunch or brunch specials in restaurants normally open only for dinner.
I noticed this on MSC Cruises’ MSC Seashore. Certain nights were designated all-you-can-eat sushi nights for a flat fee at the Kaito Sushi Bar. The Butcher’s Cut Steakhouse offered brunch on a sea day for less than its typical surcharge. If you’re interested in a nicer meal in an intimate setting for the right price, don’t forget to look for the mid-cruise specials printed in the daily newsletter.
Eating in the main dining room on the first night
It’s tradition for many cruisers to eat in the main dining room on the first night of the cruise. You’re still getting the lay of the land, and if you’ve selected assigned-seating dining, you’re eager to meet your waiters. Also, some avid cruisers remember a time when the best dishes, such as lobster, were served on the first night and don’t want to miss them – even though the cruise lines now often save their best dishes for formal night.
Because of this mindset, reservations can be easier to get in specialty restaurants on the first night of the cruise. Some lines even offer incentives if you book a table on the eve of embarkation. Carnival, for example, offers a free bottle of house wine or 50% off the regular wine list to cruisers who choose to dine in certain extra-fee restaurants on night one.
Related: 5 reasons you should splurge on a cruise ship specialty restaurant
Don’t miss out on the food and possibly a freebie by not considering a specialty restaurant for your first dinner on board.
Always eating as a family
You often see the multigenerational family cruise advice that everyone can do their own thing during the day and then come together at dinner and spend the evening as a family. This is great advice for families with teens and older children, but it’s not always ideal for little kids.
When I cruise with my children, I find our dining choices to be vastly different. My son has no use for a leisurely sit-down meal in a waiter-served restaurant. He wants to go to the buffet, grab food, eat and be done.
My picky eater daughter has no interest in a seafood restaurant, nor do I want to pay specialty dining fees for her to take two bites and declare she’s finished. (Know that many specialty restaurants will serve the regular kid’s menu of pizza and chicken tenders and not charge your children to dine.)
So on some nights, my husband and I will take the kids early to the buffet or a fast-casual restaurant before depositing them in the kids club, at which point we are free to enjoy a date night in the main dining room or in an upscale steakhouse or French restaurant on board. And everyone is happy. (I’ve even ordered room service on lines like Holland America that don’t charge.)
Forgetting about free room service breakfast
So many cruise lines have added delivery fees or a la carte pricing to their room service menus that budget-conscious cruisers have stopped considering in-room dining as an option. So it’s easy to forget that most lines have not yet slapped a price tag on Continental breakfast.
The options might not be vast, but sometimes you just want to sip a coffee and munch on some fruit or a croissant out on the balcony while you watch the sunrise. You’re always welcome to grab a more filling meal elsewhere on the ship later.
Room service is great for appeasing kids with cheerios and muffins while everyone gets ready to go up to the buffet. You can also order little boxes of cereal to keep on hand as afternoon snacks.
Sticking to the menu
Cruise ships don’t really have a secret menu like In-N-Out Burger, but sometimes galley staff can indulge you in a little creativity.
Luxury lines encourage it. Seabourn volunteered to cook my friends and me a vegetarian Indian feast, and SeaDream kept a secret stash of chocolate-chili ice cream that I could request whenever I wanted. That doesn’t mean mainstream cruise lines are hard-liners when it comes to the set menu, though.
Nearly every cruise ship I’ve sailed offers a veggie burger wherever regular burgers are found, including at private island barbecues, but you’ll hardly ever see one listed on a menu. I often ask for a side of roasted broccoli in the main dining room. The Carnival Pride staff got that one spot on, but the MSC Seashore folks delivered some sad steamed veggies that I never ordered again.
Related: What not to eat on a cruise
Also, according to my colleague Gene Sloan, you can order a secret off-menu steak at Virgin Voyages’ vegetarian restaurant.
You can always order appetizers as entrees, entrees as appetizers and get a scoop of ice cream on whatever dessert you like.
Skipping the extra-fee venues
I’m sympathetic to cruisers on a budget, as I’m often one of them. We all have to make choices about where and how we spend our vacation dollars.
Please do budget some money, if you can, to try a few of the extra-fee restaurants on cruise ships. They add variety to your onboard dining, and many offer great value for the money compared to land-based restaurants. The ambiance is quieter and more intimate than in the main dining room, which can be loud and overwhelming, depending on your table.
Additionally, the food can be outstanding. I’m a fan of both Jamie’s Italian and Giovanni’s Table on Royal Caribbean, the steakhouse on Carnival, the Pinnacle Grill on Holland America and the Eden Restaurant on Celebrity Cruises.
Related: Cruise ship restaurant nirvana: The 9 best meals you can have at sea
Some extra-charge dining experiences, like teppanyaki venues and churrascarias on various cruise lines, can be more fun than the typical sit-down restaurant. You don’t have to be a foodie to get a lot of satisfaction from specialty restaurants.
Not trying new foods
Cruise ships have all your foodie favorites, whether they be juicy steaks, cheesy pizza or freshly rolled sushi. It’s easy to indulge in feel-good food, but when meals are included, I’d encourage you to live a little dangerously.
A cruise is a perfect opportunity to try something new because, if you don’t like it, you can ask for something else. If you haven’t ordered a ridiculous amount of food already, you can get a second entree or dessert for no extra charge. Try buttery escargot or your first baked Alaska; Carnival even routinely has frog legs and alligator fritters on the menu.
If you’re worried about food waste, order one dish for your table to share. If you love it, you can always order another.
Eating too early or too late
This dining mistake is not always something you can control. If you want set-seating dining, you’re often looking at a 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. dinner time, when 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. would be preferable. My problem is an early dinner leads me to go on a snacking spree before bed, when pretty much only pizza and ice cream are available, while a late dinner has me hunting for food at 5 p.m. and ending up with a pre-dinner burger.
One way around this is to select a cruise ship’s anytime dining plan and figure out how to work the system to get the dining time you want. This might involve agreeing to share a table with strangers, making reservations or requesting a table at least a half-hour before you want to eat.
As I said earlier, making reservations for specialty restaurants as early as possible is the best way to ensure better dining times. Alternatively, if you’re flexible, simply go where the waits are shortest. Norwegian Cruise Line ships often have real-time displays indicating which dining venues have shorter or longer wait times for tables. Of course, the buffet and other fast-casual venues will have you eating in a jiffy.
Not hoarding snacks
You might be thinking, “But Erica, there is food everywhere on a cruise ship. Why would I hoard snacks?”
The truth is, while food is plentiful at 4 p.m. on a cruise ship, it’s not always the food I want to eat at that time. At home, I eat fruit, baby carrots or granola bars mid-afternoon.
While I wholeheartedly agree that a cruise is not the right time to diet, I also find that some days I can’t stomach another cookie or slice of pizza, which is what’s available between meals on board. Sometimes all I want is a simple yogurt or a bowl of grapes in the afternoon when they are nowhere to be found.
My solution: Case the breakfast buffet for healthy items, and store them in your cabin’s mini-fridge for mid-afternoon snacking. Fruit, yogurt, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, small boxes of cereal – they all work to satisfy those late-day cravings without resorting to something straight from the fryer.
Or, make a PB&J at breakfast to eat later in the day. It’s an especially good strategy when you’re traveling with small children.
When you’re at sea, you should seek to strike a balance between trying new things and wasting food. Food waste is a huge issue on cruise ships. The number of half-eaten room service dinners and pizza crusts I saw on my last cruise was appalling (especially since the pizza was so good).
Take small portions at the buffet, where you know you’re going to want to try a few different dishes. Pick one dessert to try, and then go back for seconds, rather than piling your plate high with all the choices. Have everyone at your table choose their own desserts rather than bringing back a pile of cookies for the table that no one actually eats.
Related: 9 best cruise ship desserts to tempt you at sea
Ask for one slice of pizza instead of two, and handle the soft-serve machine gently so you don’t end up with a towering cone you can’t finish. Don’t order room service breakfast for your friends as a prank, and don’t be afraid to say no to unwanted fries. Ask for smaller portions if you don’t eat a lot (though sometimes you can’t convince your waiter to bring you one), or share a dish with a friend.
That way, when you do genuinely want to try something and end up not liking it, you don’t feel as bad ordering a replacement dish that you truly intend to eat.
Not pacing yourself
As I mentioned earlier, a cruise can be a nonstop smorgasbord if you let it. While it’s fun to give in to your guilty culinary pleasures for a day or two, a week of constant eating and fried, sugary high-fat foods can start to make you feel ill.
Remember: It’s not a competition or about getting maximum value by eating all the included food offerings. It’s OK — dare I say, encouraged — to pace yourself. Don’t pick up that cookie just because it’s there. Don’t eat pizza every single day. Actively seek out a — gasp — salad to balance out the giant steak you’re eating.
Showing a little restraint will keep you from feeling bloated and gross by day four of your sailing. More importantly, it will also make the food indulgences you choose more special because you can truly appreciate those delicious meals.
It’s difficult to go hungry on a cruise ship, especially if you’re willing to pay for food, but it is possible to leave a meal feeling dissatisfied. No one wants that on their vacation.
A little forethought and some self-restraint go a long way toward making your onboard culinary experience memorable and enjoyable.
When you fix your cruise ship dining mistakes, you can avoid some of the frustrations surrounding access to the best restaurants and the mealtime ambiance you prefer. If you can make it through a week on board without overeating or feeling hungry waiting for mealtimes, you’ll know you’ve mastered the art of cruise ship dining.
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