Shared, Single Table or Freedom Dining: Which to Choose on Your Next Cruise

Everyone has to eat. Regardless if your cruise ship holds 600 or 6,000 people, everyone expects to sit down to meals on a regular basis. Three meals a day is inclusive on cruise ships, although the trend is to widen your choices through the addition of alternative dining options, often with a supplemental fee. Assuming you are planning on having dinner in the main dining room, what table configuration should you choose?

Let us start with seating options from the perspective of time. Cruise ships traditionally offer two seatings, first and second. They are also called early or late seatings. One often takes place at 6:00 PM and the other at 8:30. The timings are aligned with the evening entertainment, those floor shows in the theater or movies in the cinema.

Realizing many people do not like to tied to a schedule, many ships have been offering “dine anytime” or “freedom dining.” This might be a separate dining room or separate entrance to a segment of the main dining room. This option comes with its own pros and cons.

This is a good time to point out assigned seating only applies to dinner. Breakfast and lunch are open seating.

Pros and Cons of the Shared Table

My wife and I have always chosen the shared table option. When asked by our travel agent for our preferences, we indicate late sitting and a shared table. This means when we enter the dining room on the first evening and hand in our seating card (found in the cabin) we are led to a table for six, eight or ten passengers.

Pros:

  • New friends. You are meeting new people. You might have arrived knowing no one. Now you know several more people.
  • Statistics are on your side. If you sat at a table of four, there is one other couple at the table. If you hit it off, that is wonderful. If your personalities don’t align, it can be awkward. If you are sitting at a table for eight, the chances are you will get along with most, or at least some of your fellow diners.
  • Serving staff continuity. You have the same servers at every dinner because they are assigned to your table. They get to know and anticipate your preferences. The wine steward has figured out which tables need regular attention. You don’t need to hunt for them.
  • The story develops. When you spend a week or two having dinner with the same people, they open up. You learn their backstory. Everyone has something that makes them interesting.

Cons:

  • You are tied to a set dining schedule. If you want to do something that causes a time conflict (you can’t be in two places at once) you need to have dinner elsewhere.
  • You cannot be late. It’s considered rude. Everyone tends to sit down and order at the same time. This keeps the flow of the meal going smoothly from course to course.
  • If you make other plans for dinner, it is considered impolite to simply not show up. Your tablemates ask, “What happened to (name)” They wonder if you were stuck in port because you missed the ship. Are you in your cabin, suffering from seasickness?
  • Do you share wine? If you order a bottle of wine, it seems only proper to offer to share it around the table. In most situations your tablemates return the favor the next night. Sometimes they simply drink your wine and do nothing. This gets expensive.

Pros and Cons of the Single Table

In the restaurant industry, a table for two is called a deuce. Two people sitting at one table. You are still tied into first or second seating, but no other people are sitting at your table.

Pros:

  • These tables are often set up in a row of two or three, but sometimes they are stand alone, near a pillar or serving station. You and your partner can have dinner together without feeling the need to make conversation with other diners at the table.
  • Togetherness is an option. These tables might have a couple of inches between them. This delivers privacy, because you can tell when people do not want to be disturbed. However, if you feel like talking to someone, they are nearby. You can start conversations with the neighboring tables if you choose.
  • If you decide not to show up that night, you do not need to alert your tablemates beforehand as a courtesy. You might let the serving staff know.

Cons:

  • Too much togetherness. In real life, couples see each other at home, but head in separate directions for work during the day. On vacation, you might be together all the time. At a large table, you can “mix it up” and change seats. At a table for two, it’s just the two of you. It is not uncommon to see two lone diners not speaking or absorbed on their smart phones.
  • Cruise ships provide plenty of opportunity to socialize. If you do not take advantage, you and your partner will find yourselves together for a couple of hours over dinner. If you don’t feel like talking, it can be uncomfortable.

Pros and Cons of Freedom Dining

Many cruise ships allow you the flexibility of choosing when you want to dine every evening. This is often the format used at breakfast and lunch. In those cases, you show up and are asked if you mind sharing a larger table. If the answer is no, they seat you at a table for two.

Pros:

  • You dine when you choose. You went ashore and got back just before they pull up the gangway. You might want to dine late. You stayed up late the night before and are tired. You want to dine early.
  • Mixing it up. Today you want to dine as a couple. You request a table for two. Tomorrow you feel like making new friends. You opt for a larger table.
  • You made new friends on the shore excursion. You say: “Let’s all sit together for dinner.” You can make that happen.

Cons:

  • Are reservations required? If the ship carries 6,000 passengers, everyone cannot choose to dine at 7:00 PM. You may need to make reservations, much like you do when dining out at home. Will your preferred timeslot be available?  The ship’s alternative dining venues probably work the same way.
  • Lack of server continuity. If you are dining in a different section of the dining room every night, it’s unlikely you will have the same dedicated serving team every night. They cannot anticipate your requests because they don’t know you.
  • Will there be a wait for a table? Perhaps you can simply show up, hope it’s a quiet night and get a table without a reservation. Maybe not. Its possible walk ins would need to wait until they have availability.   At home you have had the experience of visiting a neighborhood restaurant on a whim and being told “there is a 45-minute wait.”

What Are My Other Options?

We are looking at dining in the main dining room onboard. You have other options:

  • The buffet restaurant. Some people prefer to serve themselves, choosing as many (or few) items as they wish. Families with small children might not want a drawn-out meal. The buffet restaurant is an alternative. No reservations required.
  • Room service. This is often an underutilized benefit on cruise ships. Imagine having dinner on your balcony at sunset! How about a dinner for two with a romantic movie?  That option is as close as your phone and in-room menu.
  • Alternative dining venues. Most ships have added restaurants focusing on specific cuisines. There might be Asian, Italian, Steakhouse and French venues all onboard. This is similar to going out for dinner at home. You book a table at a specific time. You get a bill and pay at the end of the meal. In this case, the bill is for the supplemental charge plus liquor and optional tipping. A service charge is usually included on the bill.

One of the great pleasures of cruising is…eating. I have often figured out there might be only two waking hours every day when having a meal is not an option somewhere!


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