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The Slow Demise of Traditional Cruise Dining

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Over the weekend Celebrity Cruise Line became one of the last hold-outs amongst the major cruise lines to amend their dining room arrangements to include a version of “unstructured” dining times ,rather than assigned times and  specific table seating assignments for passengers.

No doubt there will be many cruisers out there bemoaning what may be a movement towards the total loss of traditional assigned dining on cruise ships. Traditional assigned dining has really been something unique to the cruise industry. I know I’d never experienced anything like it during any other type of travel; where, unless you were traveling with others, you’d likely be seated to dine with strangers.

It normally brought rather interesting results, and overall most passengers seemed fairly satisfied with the uniformity the system offered. They also seemed to enjoy having the same service teams for dinner each evening.

Certainly now there will be those who lament this newest trend to make a cruise more similar to land based resort vacations. I’m one of them, but more on that later.

Until very recently the freedom to choose to dine “when you wanted, with whom you wanted“ was pretty much the domain of the luxury cruise lines; sailing much smaller ships than their much larger mass market cousins. The difference on the smaller luxury ships is their dining rooms are large enough to accommodate all the passengers, if by chance all passengers chose to dine at the same time.

Crystal and Cunard Cruise Lines, at this time, are still sticking with “traditional, assigned dining”.

In the large ship categories, Norwegian Cruise Line was the innovator in regard to the introduction of open seating dining several years ago when “Freestyle Cruising” debuted. In fact much of their marketing showed images of robot like guests (on other cruise lines) marching off to dinner, all wearing the same clothes… implying the rigidity of what it was like cruising on “those other cruise lines”.

That must have struck a chord with the management of “those other cruise lines” because shortly after “Freestyle” was introduced on NCL, Princess Cruise Line introduced what they called “Anytime Dining”. While they still offered, and continue to offer, a choice of “traditional dining”. Their version amounted to simply taking one or two of their already existing dining rooms, and allowing guests to choose to dine at unstructured dining times. Other lines followed with their own, yet similar to Princess, versions; each in turn trying to come up with their own “cutesy names” to describe very similar programs.

One has to assume that the trend to more “open seating dining” was in response to demand the lines have received in their own customer surveys and polls. I do see some inherent problems for the lines which offer both traditional and variable dining. For example, I’ve personally experienced the situation where my preference requested was traditional dining, yet in the end were assigned the variable dining because the traditional dining rooms were already fully booked. The result… the choice was the cruise line’s, not mine. To be fair, similar problems do occasionally arise on ships with only traditional assigned dining, when one of the dining times is over subscribed.

A significant problem when offering both dining types is the scheduling of evening entertainment on the ships, especially featured showroom entertainment. Generally with traditional dining times, shows are scheduled twice nightly; once for early diners, and again for late diners. If you’ve chosen variable dining times, but enjoy the showroom entertainment, you must examine your dining options quite carefully to coordinate with the entertainment schedule.

As NCL has been functioning in its “Freestyle” mode for the longest time now, it has also worked on the functionality of those issues, now offering more varied and flexible entertainment schedules as well. The goal – to make cruises on their ships a “Freestyle experience” as opposed to simply offering Freestyle Dining. As the more traditional cruise lines move to offering the variable dining-time option, I believe they’re going to find they’ll need to find those issues are more difficult to deal with than they may think.

During the past decade we’ve already seen most cruise lines adding alternate restaurants as an option to the traditional dining rooms; normally only one or two, and almost always carrying an extra charge for their use. Once again NCL was ahead of the curve, where their most recent new builds have offered up to 10 different restaurants onboard (and even more on their newest ship currently in the shipyard; NCL Epic).  Some may argue with my “ahead of the curve” terminology, but with the manner the competitors have moved to push towards variable dining times I foresee them also adding many more alternate restaurant choices as well, and of course at an extra cost.

In many ways I am a fan of the variable time/ open seating dining options, but only if it’s done well. However there are situations where it may not work as well as hoped. The very best I’ve ever seen it work was on Silversea Cruise Line. As guests entered the dining room they’d ask if the guest would like to join a table, or prefer to dine by themselves. The Maitre D’ took the initiative, which created a very social situation. Almost each evening of the cruise we met and dined with new and interesting people. We even met people who, though they were cruising together, dined separately each evening, simply to enjoy meeting new people. Our experience on other lines with open seating, if it were just two of us entering the dining room, we’d almost automatically be seated at a table for two.

Open seating also does not work well if you’re traveling with a larger group. It can be difficult finding a table for 8 or 10, and even more difficult if it’s a large group wanting multiple tables in close proximity.

Combined with other recent trending changes in the cruise industry, like designing some ships to resemble amusement parks rather than cruise ships, it seems like there’s a concerted move afoot to create resorts and amusement parks that happen to be on the water.

There’s no question land based resorts and amusement parks can possibly appeal to a broader audience for the cruise industry. Personally though, I’m looking to go on a cruise ship to cruise. The closer the experience gets to an amusement park or land based resort the more likely I am to stay on land. So there may also be a cost in the loss of the “traditional cruise passenger” while attempting to appeal to the “new crowd”.

Does the slow demise of traditional dining strike you as yet one further step closer to the demise of “cruising” as you’ve known it, and come to love? Or has this entire blog simply showing I’ve become an old curmudgeon?

– A View From the Kuki Side of Cruising –

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Comment from Tim Butler
Time June 24, 2009 at 12:23 am

I watched a travel channel piece on Disney Cruise lines and how you dine in a different dining room each night but your servers move with you. I thought to myself that it would be great if Carnival or Royal Caribbean started doing this and theming the different dining rooms.

I personally am like you and like both anytime dining and traditional dining. I just hope that traditional dining doesn’t go away altogether.

Comment from Bill Belt
Time June 24, 2009 at 7:43 am

Years ago four of us boarded an NCL ship where we learned for the first time there was “freestyle dining”. We were not the only ones “lost” on the ship as many crew members didn’t have a clue. As regulars aboard Holland America we quickly concluded that HA would never go “that route”. Were we ever wrong? Now we have gotten used to the “systems”. On our last 38 day HA crusie we had the same table, same waiter and same dining time for almost the entire crusie. A few dollars early on and by magic, we had the same table every night even with “freestyle dining”. We repeatidly tried the reservation system that HA has in place and it just didn’t work. Calling the very first thing earlry in the morning always got us a “sorry we are full” on the telephone. An inperson visit to the reservation stand got much better results. We were often ask, how did you get the same table and waiter in here every night? Is this right—of course not–however one learns to play the cards they are dealt. Would not have had this to deal wtih however first seating was booked before we booked the cruise and we could not get that first seating.

Comment from MagnoliaBlossom
Time June 24, 2009 at 7:43 am

Well done article, Kuki. I am truly a fan of anytime dining, and all things being equal when deciding between cruise lines, it would be the deal maker for us. I know many others delight in the tradition of traditional dining, and at one time I did too. But, as we’ve cruised more and aged a bit the flexibility of anytime dining wins out over meeting new people and having a waiter who knows my passion for chocolate.

Our society has become increasingly one in which we want what we want, when we want it, how we want it and without anyone telling us how to do it. I think this “rebellion” from many traditions has lead to the popularity of freestyle.

People dress more casually – even wear blue jeans to church (our grandmothers would just die!), we use more causal langauge (thanks to texting, email, and the internet). Along with those societal changes come day to day changes, like cruising. I can’t say I don’t miss some things from the ‘good old days’, but time marches on and anytime dining is something I see as a plus.

Comment from ScurvyDog
Time June 24, 2009 at 7:51 am

We enjoy traditional dining in moderation but are happy to see other options. Especially on longer cruises we tend to tire of going to the dining room at the same time each evening. Sometimes going to the buffet or a specialty restaurant is a welcome change.

Comment from Bob
Time June 24, 2009 at 8:35 am

It would be interesting to know if the introduction of flexible dining options have reduced the number of passengers who “horrify” some traditionalists with their behavior in the dining room. (not wearing “proper” attire, arriving late, etc.)

Comment from Trackypup
Time June 24, 2009 at 8:43 am

Great article Kuki. We’re also fans of open dining and like to see cruise lines offer both

Comment from Paul Motter
Time June 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

While I understand the positive side of pre-assigned dining, I have to say that I have ALWAYS thought that open seating is better. In my mind, that was why the luxury lines had it.

The assigned seating approach has always been set up solely for one thing, the convenience of the cruise lines, especially where tipping is concerned. People are much more likely to hand a tip over to a waiter they “know” than to one they never did get to know.

Now that ships have gratuities charged to shipboard accts the assigned waiter concept is far less important.

I love the fact that I can arrive at a dining room at any time. That doesn’t stop us from usually getting there right when it opens anyway, but it sure is nice when you are running 15 minutes late that you don’t have to worry about whether people are wondering about you. You don’t have to rush if you are late.

Furthermore, the “getting to know you” waiter thing in my mind led to a lot of practices that I personally do not enjoy, dancing and singing waiters, etc. In truth, I tolerate that stuff because I know a lot of people enjoy it, but I prefer dining with my friends & family. I don’t really want to be interrupted in the middle of a good conversation so the waiter can show me a magic trick.

Okay, I know I’m a curmudgeon, and I also know the drawbacks:

1. Sometimes open seating gets overcrowded if the whole ship arrives at the same time

2. Your waiter won’t get to know your preferences and anticipate your needs

But here are my advantages:

1. If I don’t like my pre-selected tablemates it is easy to change them

2. The maitre’ D will seat you with a group of people, different ones, every night if you ask for it. That way you actually meet more people than with assigned dining.

3. I can arrive at anytime I want

4. We can ask for a table for two when tired and not offend anyone

5. Generally, more open seating has also meant relaxed dress codes – which is something I like.

6. There is far less of the “getting to know you” personal chit chat with the waiters. I’m sorry, but I just prefer not going there. Probably because I’ve worked on ships and I know that asking a waiter if he “went ashore” in port is pointless. If he did it was probably to buy toothpaste – he didn’t go snorkling like you did. (curmudgeon talking)

Comment from Kuki
Time June 24, 2009 at 4:01 pm

I’ve been saying for some time that NCL’s “Freestyle” has become one of my favorites… because of all the restaurant choices. Then of course Silversea’s version of open seating was close to perfection.

I think the lines which are trying to have it both ways have problems, and will have problems.

But, I think this is just the beginning… and soon there will be no “traditional dining rooms” and times.

With all the “amenities” (I prefer to call them tricks) the cruise lines are throwing onto their ships < the RCI Blimp that flew away>, I think the move away from traditional dining is just another stumble on the road to trying to be floating amusement parks.

I’d personally rather keep my Six Flags visits on land, and keep my cruise ships for cruising.

Comment from felix_the_cat
Time June 24, 2009 at 6:34 pm

I prefer traditional mainly because I like to know where I’m sitting and who I’m sitting with. I’ll change tables if there is a clash or I don’t like where we are seated.

We don’t get to know our waitstaff anyway (not being snobby – just truthful) but we always pay our gratuities in cash at the end of the cruise. I’m not sure what we would do if we had different wait staff every night. Tip nightly I suppose. I’m absolutely against giving unearned gatuities upfront.

As for all the rest – yes, cruising is becoming more like Disneyworld or Six Flags of whatever and I don’t like it. We don’t have children at home anymore and we’re looking for adult R&R. I suppose that means we will be changing cruiselines and I do feel as if we are being forced to move more upscale which will mean cruising less often.

I believe, at least in the long run, this is going to create a financial problem for cruiselines such as RCI who are trying to run a resort/theme park on a ship.

Comment from Mike M
Time June 25, 2009 at 5:31 am


I agree that NCL’s Freestyle is the best dining options at sea. I haven’t had the privilege (or pocketbook) of cruising Seabourn or Regent so I can’t compare.

I do feel that the lines that try to be everything will at the most fail and at the least leave a lot of irritated people. I have tried “Anytime Dining” on Coral Princess and it was less than enjoyable. Long wait times for both seating and food and hit and miss waitstaff. It was only one cruise but it left an impression. Cruise lines need to identify what they do well and do it, improve it, and market it to their target market.

Many people who do not like open seating are, in my opinion, those who have trouble making decisions and enjoy the structure of traditional cruising. I have no problem with that and sometimes I feel that way but I got to a point in cruising where I started to become “irritated” about rushing to dinner at a specific time or not being able to wait awhile until we wanted to eat. Open seating and extended dining times solved those issues. We no longer had to “settle” for the buffet. We could have a wonderful dinner when we wanted to have it.

I do agree that if you are cruising with a large group, Freestyle, or open seating is not a great option but if you are cruising with your husband, wife, family or S/O it is about the best alternative out there.

The trend of turning ships into floating malls has become one of my greatest, personal, dislikes about cruising. The Mall of America is only forty minutes from my house but I have been there only about 8 times in 20 years. The mega-ships remind me a lot of the mall experience and not a ship. Many people like it but I don’t and if smaller ship alternatives disappear then my business will also disappear. I want to sail a ship, not a mall. The business may evolve where these are the ships that sell but I’ll be the brontosaurus and not evolve but rather relocate to another type of vacation.

Take care,

Comment from Mike Lawson
Time June 25, 2009 at 8:58 am

Kuki, we have not tried the freestyle dinning option yet. We will sail NCL for the first time this September. To be honest one of the things we enjoy are meeting new people at dinner and having enough time to get to know them. It takes a little time for people to relax with one another and the first night is always the most difficult. The idea of nothing but first nights concerns me a little. I cannot say anything bad about freestyle or open setting because we have never had that experience. I have read comments on both sides of the issue and both make good points. One thing that does concern me how large ships growing. I have tried to avoid the huge ones with ice skating and mall like atmosphere. Mike

Comment from Rita
Time June 25, 2009 at 9:14 am

I’m gonna go one step further and say that I think traditional dining will be something people will have to one day pay for, just as you do in specialty restaurants. I think traditional dining is probably more expensive to offer, because I would imagine people in traditional dining tend to “linger” at the table longer, socializing and whatnot. In anytime type dining people probably are more likely to eat and then get the heck out … letting the cruise line turn that table over more often.

As the price of cruising comes down … as the ships get bigger and more people have to be accommodated on each sailing … you’re gonna see some economies instituted that simply make sense … and I think the total demise of free traditional dining will be one of them.

Comment from Marc
Time June 25, 2009 at 1:04 pm

I think open seating is even better with a large group. We usually cruise with a group of from 15 to 40. It is great each night meeting in a lounge and deciding with whom to have dinner that night. We have never had a problem getting a table of 10 or 12 when we have desired; often eating at the Captain’s table while he is not there. However, our preference is to seat eight at a six-top so we are closer for talking.

If you haven’t tried open dining, give it a try. It is the only way that we will cruise.

Comment from Kuki
Time June 25, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Marc… you neglected to mention that you’re talking a luxury line, where the dining room can manage to seat everyone at any time they care to dine… as I mentioned in the blog.

As I said, Silversea handles open seating beautifully. It’s certainly not so easy on the larger ships, with open seating choices limited by the size of the dining rooms.

It’s simply not the same! And the majority of cruisers sail on those ships.

Comment from Suzanne
Time June 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

When I was cruising Princess back in the 70’s, the dining room was ALWAYS the highlight of the cruise … the charming and handsome Italian waitstaff, the Captains Table, the Baked Alaska parades, the two seatings to accomodate everyone … I remember all of that quite fondly but I am loving today’s cruise industry with all its choices and options.

The best thing about cruising (besides just being at sea) is unpacking once and experiencing different ports of call, people, cultures, etc. I prefer smaller, more exotic cruises in the old school manner, but I also LOVE the big ships and their Disney on Steroids appeal.

I think they are two different experiences and comparing the two is like the proverbial apples to oranges analogy. I think we will continue to see ships offering the traditional dining experience with the possibility of it’s demise when it no longer has the demographic to keep it going. Face it, most older folk like the traditional experience. Once they are gone, then yes, maybe the traditional dining will die with them but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Comment from MrPete
Time June 27, 2009 at 5:08 am

First, I have to admit I’ve never tried anything but traditional dining.

And while I look FORWARD to meeting new dining partners, I have no desire to do it night after night. I enjoy the continuous bond I make with these people that are strangers the first night.

I also like the ABSOLUTE issue of not having to wait; walking DIRECTLY to my waiting table, my expected servers who I also bond with during the week, enjoying epicurian delights night after night.

I’ll be one of the last hold outs while it lasts.

Comment from Qudas
Time June 28, 2009 at 5:45 am

I perfer traditional dining but for another reason. I need special meals as I cannot eat meat, (including poultry or fish) or dairy products. Yes I sign up with the cruise line ahead of time but usually the waiter is clueless once I arrive at a table. By having the same waitstaff, and dining time I can “train” them and the headwaiter to provide proper meals. I’ve had anytime dining on Princess and this requires new training each night with the waitstaff. Perhaps if the menus included sufficent vegan options this would not be a problem, but until the cruise lines gets away from the “meat and three” type of menu choices, I prefer traditional.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time June 28, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Another consideration which was quite evident on my just completed cruise aboard Grandeur Of The Seas…the main show room seating on older ships was based on two fixed dinner times. So first comes the buffet dinner option, and now the anytime dining option. The main show room cannot handle so many “variable” dining passengers showing up at whatever show they want to see. It was typical on our cruise to find the room full if you dared show up 15 to 20 minutes before the show started. If you wanted seats you needed to be there at least 30 minutes early. Of course this is exacerbated by the bingo and other stuff they plan for the time immediately prior to the show. This is annoying to me, and of course it also means a captive audience for the bar waiters to wear down until they capitulate and buy another drink.

To me, alternate dining is not something that can be done on all ships yet they all seem to be rolling it out fleet wide. It is easier done on a playground ship like the Freedom class or Oasis class, where the classic cruise experience is located in a dust bin somewhere on deck 1. It just doesn’t work in every case.

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