Princess' new 'Personal Choice' Dining

Note that Personal Choice Dining is offered on Princess ships with two or more dining rooms. It is not available on Royal, Pacific, Tahitian or Regal Princess. On these ships alternative dining is offered but dinner in the dining room is in two seatings.

Suppose you were spending a week at a pricey resort and management said, "You must eat at 8:30 p.m. every night, at this table. And by the way, you will be sharing this table with six strangers." Wouldn't fly, would it?

But basically, that's what most cruise lines have been saying for years. Your only choice was whether to dine at the early seating or the late seating, and maybe, if you were extremely lucky, you could snag a table for two.

Fortunately, things are changing. Smaller ships, like those of the Radisson fleet, offer open seating dining. NCL has its "Freestyle" program.

And now Princess Cruises has gotten onboard the flexibility boat with its Personal Choice Dining.

When you book a cruise on the newer Princess ships, you'll have a choice between traditional dining or Personal Choice Dining. Traditional dining is just that: An assigned table in a designated dining room, at an assigned first or second seating.

Personal Choice Dining gives you the option of dining anytime between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., and with whom you please each night--a table for two at 8 p.m. one night, perhaps with a group of six at 7:30 another night. The simplest comparison is to a restaurant at home.

If you chose traditional dining, you may change to the Personal Choice program during the course of your cruise. But you cannot flip back and forth between the two programs.

Personal Choice Dining is not the open seating pattern that several lines have. In open seating, passengers can arrive at the dining room anytime they want during the meal service hours. The drawback of open seating is that two or four of you might be seated at a table, and then, as you are eating your entree, others might join the table, giving the dining experience a rather disjointed effect.

Princess' Personal Choice diners can reserve a table in advance by calling a Dining Hot Line during the day, or they can just appear when they decide to eat. It's best to make reservations--then you can bypass the line and go directly to the maitre d'hotel to be seated. If you especially like your waiter, you can reserve the same table for each night of the cruise. You cannot reserve a table in advance of your cruise.

Personal Choice Dining has eliminated the Captain's Welcome Aboard Party, as everything had to be scheduled around this. But without everyone departing at once for dinner, bars are livelier throughout the evening. With diners arriving at varied times, meals are prepared on more of an "a la minute" basis. Instead of cooking, for example, ten kilos of pasta at once, the galley prepares only one kilo at a time.

Does Personal Choice Dining work? In theory, and on the Grand Princess where this program has been in place for a while, yes. On our three-night preview cruise, it was not as successful. But that was probably caused by passengers misunderstanding the program. A friend and I went to the dining room about 9 p.m. and found a long, long line. Forget it; instead, we went to the Desert Rose for a little Tex/Mex. The problem that evening was caused by first-seating passengers who had decided to stay on deck when the ship sailed at six, figuring they could just go to the Bellini Dining Room, which was the designated Personal Choice Dining room, and eat when they pleased. They did not understand that you cannot, at a whim, opt out of your assigned table seating in the traditional dining program in favor of eating at another time.

According to Brian Langston-Carter, Executive Vice President-Fleet Operations, two-thirds of the passengers book the traditional seating, then, once onboard, half of these choose to switch to the Personal Choice program. Currently, two of the dining rooms on the Grand Princess are designated for Personal Choice Dining, and the line expects a similar pattern--which can be changed from cruise to cruise--for the Golden Princess. Executives also claim that there will be plenty of tables for two, as rectangular tables can be split into smaller ones.

Aboard the ships ofrering Personal Choice Dining, because of the variety of dining locations and wait staff, dining service gratuities of $10.00 per passenger, per day are automatically added to guests' onboard accounts. This includes the room stewards' gratuities.

Has Personal Choice Dining worked for you? Please post your comments on this program on the message boards.

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