Everything You Need to Know About Cruise Ship Dining

The back of a cruise ship with a deck of round tables with orange chairs and the ship wake in deep blue water
Get to know the ins and outs of cruise ship dining with this helpful guide | Author: neufal54

With cruising on the rise in popularity, it’s becoming more and more likely that you will take a cruise in your lifetime (if you haven’t already). One of the best parts of cruising is the abundance and variety of food. From 24/7 soft serve ice cream and frozen yogurt stands to buffets full to bursting with delicious comfort food, cruise ships have quite a reputation for offering the best eats at sea

More and more cruise lines are also pairing with celebrity chefs like Guy Fieri and Jamie Oliver, as well as culinary savants like Jacques Pepin and Nobu Matsuhisa to create world class specialty restaurants. These days it’s not uncommon to find cruise ships boasting Michelin-starred onboard eateries - though sampling these savory servings can cost a premium. While specialty restaurants are certainly worth the occasional splurge, there are also plenty of ways to channel your inner epicure without paying extra. 

Here are a couple things you can expect from your cruise dining experience. We’ll also share some tips for how to make the most of the main dining room - your mainstay for meals while at sea.

What to Expect From Your Cruise Ship Dining Experience

While it’s important to recognize that dining packages and policies vary from cruise line to cruise line (and occasionally between cruise ships in the same cruise line), there are some things you can always expect. If you have specific questions beyond what’s covered here, we recommend you check with your cruise ship before sailing.

Here is a brief overview of what you can expect when dining on a cruise ship.

An aerial shot of a buffet spread with white columns and blue carpet
Royal Clipper offers a special spread in their onboard restaurant | Author: © Star Clippers

Is food included in a cruise?

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is included on all cruise ships, at least on sea days. When in port, or on embarkation or debarkation day, many cruise ships offer limited meal options, so check your ship’s individual policy for those days. Debarkation day usually includes breakfast.

However, it’s important to note that only meals in the main dining room or the buffet are always included. On many cruise lines, you can also eat free in casual dining spots (like poolside eateries or cafes), though specialty restaurants almost always cost extra. Sometimes this upcharge comes as a flat cover charge; other times, you’ll pay a la carte just like at a typical restaurant. Prices are always marked, so check before you order. For more information on the total cruise price you can check out our article about all the costs that are included in your cruise fare

Where can you eat on a cruise?

A man and a woman toast with glasses of red wine while eating in a restaurant
There are lots of places to eat on a cruise ship, including specialty restaurants | Author: © Disney

Dining options on cruise ships are numerous. Even small ships will usually offer more than one specialty restaurant. Large cruise ships, particularly the megaships like Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, will boast tons of eateries, from upscale restaurants to cafes, bakeries, hot dog stands, and pizzerias. 

Unless you purchase a dedicated dining package or are sailing on an all-inclusive cruise line, chances are you’ll spend most meals in the buffet (close to the pool) or the main dining room. The main dining room is a large sit-down style banquet room, where you’ll likely be seated at a table with other passengers. Some cruise ships assign this table; on others, you can choose where you’d like to sit. Normally the same server will serve you each meal here, which can be a huge benefit for cruisers with dietary restrictions. 

You can also eat at specialty restaurants. These restaurants typically serve cuisine from a specific chef or culture (like Japanese sushi bars, authentic Italian trattorias, or Brazilian steakhouses). These restaurants are rarely included in your fare, and it’s best to make a reservation for them in advance. They’re typically more intimate and offer high-quality fare. Some specialty restaurants are only available to guests staying in certain cabin classes, like suites or spa rooms. 

Another option on many cruises is to eat in your room by ordering room service. This is usually included in your fare, so feel free to satisfy late-night cravings or indulge in breakfast in bed after dancing the night away in the cruise ship disco or nightclub.

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When can you eat on a cruise? Are there set meal times?

Cruise ships are good at making food available 24/7, so if you’re hungry, there’s usually no one to blame but yourself. The main dining room usually has set meal times, but sections of the buffet will always be open, and you’ll usually be able to find a diner, cafe, or pizza shop that’s open at all hours. Room service is also an option for grazers or snackers.

Can I bring my own food on a cruise?

For many cruisers, the idea of bringing food to the smorgasbord that is a cruise ship seems silly. However, for parents of picky eaters, health-conscious cruisers, or cruisers with food allergies or other dietary restrictions, this is a very important question. In fact, you can bring your own food on board, provided it isn’t raw meat (sorry Halal or kosher eaters) and doesn’t need to be stored in a fridge. While many suites come equipped with mini fridges, they aren’t an industry standard, so it’s best to check with your cruise ship in advance about what’s allowed and what isn’t. 

Some things that are allowed: baby formula, granola bars, coffee and tea (as long as you don’t take it off the ship), pre-packaged snacks, pre-packaged kosher meals.

How to Make the Most of the Main Dining Room

The main dining room on your cruise ship is where you’ll likely eat most of your meals. So it’s important to make sure you know how to get the most out of your dining experience - especially if you love to enjoy food, try new things, and savor flavors. You don’t always have to spend money in specialty restaurants (though they are worth an occasional splurge) to sample a spate of culinary conquests. In fact, if you follow these tips, you may find the main dining room is your favorite spot on the ship.

A blurry person in uniform carrying a tray of glasses moves through an empty dining room
The main dining room is an essential part of any cruise ship experience | Author: © Silversea

Give advance notice of dietary restrictions

It’s best if you let your travel agent or cruise ship know of any food allergies or dietary restrictions when you book your cruise. Most cruise ships require advance notice of up to 90 days before departure of special diet needs in order to plan and prepare accordingly. The good news is that cruising is one of the best ways to travel with a food allergy or special diet. Once you inform the cruise ship of your needs, they’ll do everything they can to keep you safe, satisfied, and happy.

It’s also a good rule of thumb to get in touch with guest services, the head waiter, or the head chef on embarkation day in person to remind them of your needs. If you’re cruising with a special diet, check out our comprehensive guide to cruising with dietary restrictions and food allergies here.

Make friends with your waiter

A server smiles as she hands two smiling people cocktails in tall glasses
Your waiter can offer great insight into the tastiest choices on (and off) the menu | Author: © Disney

Your waiter is more than just someone ferrying plates to and from the kitchen. They’re trained to anticipate your needs, remember special requests, and keep favorites handy. If you have a hankering for a specific dish, or if you want to celebrate a special occasion with a unique treat, let your waiter know. The more advance notice you can give for special requests, the better, but even last-minute cravings can usually be accommodated. 

Plus, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can (and should) ask your waiter for recommendations. Remember, they spend a lot more time on the ship than you do, and they’ve probably seen it all. They also eat on the ship and may have a better insight on what exactly to ask for to make a certain dish stand out. They’ll also be your main point of contact if something isn’t quite right, or if you want to try a bunch of different courses. 

In fact, many cruisers advise you tip your waiter in advance. It’s an investment into building a rapport with them, and also shows that you appreciate their insight, service, and courtesy. It isn’t required, but it’s a nice gesture that your waiter will definitely appreciate and remember. Anyone would be happy to go above and beyond for a favorite guest, and tipping on a cruise is just another way to say please and thank you when it comes to cruise dining.

Don't be afraid to try new things

A gourmet meal of steak and vegetables in the foreground with glasses of wine and a woman in the background
Try everything! There's plenty of options to go around | Author: Li Yang

This tip definitely ties in with the previous point in that you should let your waiter take the lead on at least one meal. Maybe when you’re shelling out your hard-earned cash on land you’re less likely to make bold choices with your food habits. But this is vacation! Plus, the food in the main dining room is always included in your fare, so feel free to sample. Order half-portions if you’re nervous about not enjoying something, and feel free to try a bit of everything. You may just find a new favorite where you least expect it.

We also recommend letting loose a bit with the cheesier side of cruise dining. Dress up for formal nights, wave your napkin at the arrival of dessert - just don’t take yourself too seriously to have a good time. Think of it as an exercise in self-improvement if you must, but try to enjoy the playful, cheesy, and downright corny aspects of the cruise as much as you enjoy the refined, exciting, or cultured. You’d be surprised at how much more fun you’ll have if you participate ;-).

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Make requests and use the concierge

Want to celebrate a birthday with cake and candles? Dreaming of surprising your spouse with a special sweet treat? Maybe you loved a certain dish and can’t wait until your next cruise to try it again? Make a request! From the head chef to the concierge to the waitstaff, everyone on your cruise ship is happy to make your wishes come true. If you loved a truffle ravioli dinner, order it again for another night. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, let your waiter or concierge know and they’ll be sure to add a special touch or make your favorite dessert. 

For those of us who are more Type A cruisers, visit the concierge early to get a sneak peek at the main dining room menu for the duration of the cruise. Each meal is planned well in advance (which is why you should give advance notice of special dietary needs), so you can make your own arrangements. Maybe you’re curious to try the specialty sushi restaurant, but don’t want to miss out on homegrown favorites. Or perhaps the main dining room is serving something you’d rather skip in favor of a cozy room-service picnic in your cabin. The main thing to remember is you have plenty of options to make your cruise exactly what you want it to be.

There's Even More to Love About Eating on a Cruise

Discover everything you need to know about letting your inner foodie loose on your cruise vacation. We’ve put together comprehensive, in-depth guides on the ins and outs of cruise food, from the perfect planning of a foodie cruise or the best foodie cruises to the best destinations for epicurean adventures. Plus, you can save up to 70% off the initial cruise price when you book here on Cruisewatch - meaning you can splurge on specialty restaurants or shore excursions that will delight your palate and leave your wallet healthy. 

What’s your favorite part about dining on a cruise? Let us know in the comments below, and you could help a fellow cruiser have the time of their lives.