Everything you need to know about cruise dining

Posted By Allison on Oct 5, 2017

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Are you planning a cruise? One of my favorite parts of any cruise is the food. Cruise dining is a little different than most people are used to, so this post is all about helping you navigate your options and having a great experience.

Most of today’s big cruise ships give you a variety of dining choices – buffet, dining room, room service or specialty restaurant – for every meal. I enjoy trying them all when I cruise.

Here’s a summary of your dining options, with my recommendations, for your cruise.

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Every large cruise ship will have a buffet open through most of the day. The buffet usually has an impressive array of hot and cold dishes, including fresh produce and irresistible desserts.

I have found on some cruises that the food on the buffet tends to look better than it tastes. The buffet is about convenience and quantity, not necessarily quality. I think the food is OK, but would not want to eat every meal there.

Dining Room

I love eating dinner – and sometimes breakfast – in the dining room. It’s a long, leisurely meal with appetizer, main and dessert courses. The room is elegant, the service is good and the food usually looks and tastes delicious. It’s one of my favorite parts of the cruise.

Dining room meals are included in the price of your cruise. The menu changes daily, and if you want to order two (or more) dishes for any course, you can do it. If you don’t like what you order, send it back and get something else. It’s a wonderful low-risk opportunity to try new foods.

The traditional cruise dining experience means eating at the same time at the same table with the same people and same servers every night. There is an early seating and a late seating. You can request your own table or to be seated with other people. Select your dining preferences at the time you book your cruise.

Many cruise lines offer a flexible dining room option that allows you to arrive whenever you want and sit at a different table every night. On most of our cruises, my husband and I chose the flexible option, but then arrived for dinner at the same time each night anyway.  Most recently, we chose the first seating of the traditional option and that worked well. Our family of four had our own table that overlooked the lower levels of the dining room.

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Guests are expected to dress up for the dining room. For men, think slacks and a collared shirt. For women, slacks or a dress. That said, I saw plenty of my fellow passengers in nice shorts and tees in the dining room on our last cruise with Royal Caribbean.

I was not sure how my kids, who were ages 10 and 12 on their first cruise, would like the long dining room meals. To my surprise, they loved it. They loved ordering whatever they wanted and being treated like VIPs. We enjoyed family conversations about all the fun we’d had that day. I confess that we allowed them to play on electronic devices or take a quick walk in the hallway between courses to keep them happy.

There was a kids menu on our Royal Caribbean cruise, which stayed the same every day. It featured traditional kid favorites like hamburgers, nuggets and mac n cheese. Kids had the option of ordering from the kids’ menu or regular menu.

Room Service

Room service is included in the price of most cruises, though your cruise line may charge extra for certain hours or menu items. Once my kids figured out how to get room service through our television, they ordered snacks nearly every day. The cheese plate was their favorite room service item.

Specialty Restaurants

Most big cruise ships now have several specialty restaurants, in addition to the buffet and dining room. These usually specialize in a particular fare like pizza, ice cream, international cuisine, premium brands or fine dining.

Some specialty restaurants are included in the price of your cruise and others (usually fine dining and premium brands) require a per-person surcharge. Our last Royal Caribbean Cruise had fast pizza and coffee shop fare that was included. My kids loved the pizza, and would often snack there when they weren’t ordering room service.

Our ship also had Ben and Jerry’s, Johnny Rockets and a couple of fine dining restaurants, which charged extra. Johnny Rockets was $5 per person and Chops Grille where my husband and I enjoyed a special romantic dinner was about $30 per person, with optional charges on top of that for high-end steak and lobster items. We also paid an extra tip for that meal.

Was it worth it? For a special night, yes it was. We like good food, and the steakhouse fare was a notch or two above the dining room. That said, I enjoy the dining room experience and could be happy with that every night of our cruise.

I recommend making reservations for fine dining, either on or before your cruise.

Disclosure: Royal Caribbean provided my family with onboard credit so that we could experience specialty restaurants and other optional cruise amenities on Independence of the Seas for the purpose of review. All opinions are my own.


Water and lemonade are typically included in the cost of your cruise. Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages are not. You can purchase these beverages almost everywhere on the ship with your room key, and its nice to have a drink on the pool deck, with friends, at dinner or at a show. It’s part of the fun for many passengers, but be careful. The cost of drinks can quickly add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your cruise.

You can purchase soft drinks and alcoholic beverages individually or in all-you-can-drink packages. Beverage packages are popular and the cruise line will sell them everywhere during the first couple of days of your cruise. If you want to enjoy soft drinks or alcohol every day and don’t want to worry about surprises on your final bill, look into a beverage package.


The personalized service you’ll receive in the dining room is better than you can expect in most family restaurants. You’ll likely have the same servers every night, and they will do their best to learn your names, favorite drinks and food preferences so they can serve you better.

A minimum tip is expected, and I pre-pay these when I book my cruises. If your dining service is exceptional or disappointing, you can adjust your tip at the customer service desk before you leave the cruise ship. In my experience, the servers work hard for their money and your service will most likely be exceptional.

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Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.

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