Editor's note: Content was up to date at time of publication.
Note to self: In order to avoid confrontation on a cruise ship, avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics, religion and ... flexible dining.
At this year's Seatrade conference, we heard that Celebrity and Royal Caribbean were experimenting with their dining programs. These sister lines may consider switching from traditional dining to a half-and-half plan similar to Princess or Holland America. Within days, our inboxes were full of e-mails from readers who passionately supported -- or vehemently opposed -- the introduction of flexible dining.
While some of us are happy simply to be fed, many cruisers (and cruise lines!) have strong preferences about how and when everyone eats dinner on a cruise ship. With the industry's constant innovation, change is inevitable, throwing cruisers in a state of near-panic as they wait to see how their line weighs in on the debate. For those of you who think dinner is just dinner, we'll have you know there are three general styles of dining on a cruise ship:
The traditional approach, embraced by lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival, is to assign guests a specific dinner time and table. Each night, you dine with the same tablemates and are served by the same waiters.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, NCL and many of the luxury lines offer flexible dining. The main restaurant is open during specific hours in the evening and guests can arrive for dinner whenever they want. In the case of NCL's Freestyle Dining concept, cruisers can choose among multiple restaurants, as well as choose a time to dine.
In the middle, lines such as Holland America and Princess, offer two plans. Guests sign up in advance for traditional, assigned-seating dining in one level of the dining room, or flexible, eat-when-you-wish dining in the other.
Now, on to the fun stuff -- your comments! Listen up cruise line execs, because here's what your current and future guests are saying about flexible versus traditional dining.
Dining Like Gumby: The Flexible Way
The proponents of flexible dining like it for its, well, flexibility. Here's what readers on this side of the issue have to say:
Reader Choochella likes the social aspect of the flexible plan and writes: "The flexible dining plan was one of the main reasons we sail with Princess. Since it's normally only the two of us, we like the opportunity to meet new people. Having the same waiter each night does not matter much to us, as it seems all of Princess' waiters are very accommodating. If we do happen to meet up with someone, we just all agree to meet at the dining room at an assigned time and wait for a table."
You may think there's an age gap on this issue, with the young whippersnappers preferring to dine anytime in jeans and older sailors preferring to dress up for their 5:45 p.m. dinnertime. Not so. Joe Ging writes: "I don't see any downside to flexible dining with the stated exception of the wait staff relationship -- although that has been going downhill anyway. As a couple in our 60's we prefer flexibility so we can plan our schedule around us ... not the ship."
Veteran cruiser Cruisefrelse says: "My wife and myself have cruised 17 times in the last eight years. We have cruised with NCL, RCCL and European cruise operators. Our preference is the flexible option for dinner. We will also mention that we are very pleased with NCL's large number of tables for two for all meals in the main dining rooms. We really would welcome if Celebrity and RCCL in the future will offer the choice for flexible option for dinner."
Bill and Nancy James seem oblivious to the debate. That's because they're so upbeat and cheerful -- probably because they've been on 20-plus cruises. About the rumors, they say: "Thrilled! Flexible dining works for everyone."
And Ask4Jay sums up the feeling of many flexible dining proponents: "Our six cruises so far have been with NCL and Oceania, and for future cruises we will also book Azamara. Once the other lines have instituted their own flexible dining plans, and they have worked out the kinks, we would gladly consider them as well. Until then: Not interested."
Working the System: Finding Tradition in Flexibility
Many readers favor the mixed system ... as long as they can get reservations or choose the traditional option.
Allyn and Alan write: "We sailed on Princess a couple of years ago and fixed seating was sold out. They did allow us to make a reservation for the same time at the same table each night in the open seating dining room, as long as it was at 6 p.m. or earlier (which is when we usually eat)."
Les from St. Louis appreciates the half-and-half system because guests get the choice: "I have mixed feelings. I understand the reasons for both, but I favor assigned seating. The Celebrity approach of having assigned seating downstairs and flexible seating upstairs may be a good compromise."
Phamer55 sums up the reality of the "anytime" system: "Flexible dining, as I've read, is really fixed dining with a different time every night, because you usually have to have a reservation if you want to avoid a long wait."
And, finally, someone who actually enjoys both types of dining. Johnny_cruiser writes: "I read 'flexible' in a larger sense as having the choice not only to eat whenever you wish, but to also have the option for the traditional seating as well. We love Princess for this reason. When we travel with a family group, we like the Personal Choice for its flexibility. When we travel by ourselves, we enjoy traditional (early) seating as an opportunity to make some new friends (and we have met some really wonderful people!)."
Traditionalists Speak Out: Assigned Tables or Bust
Most Cruise Critic readers appear to be dead-set against flexible dining, either because they like the camaraderie of an assigned table or because they've had bad experiences with flexible dining on other lines.
Jim Smith is all for traditional dining. He says: "Frankly, I have always looked forward to meeting the same people during dinner. You tend to have more time to get friendly and not as superficial in discussions on the ship, ports and other passengers. At the end of a day it gives me something to look forward to with anticipation. Plus I do enjoy formal evenings. It is the only chance I have to dress up!"
Kathy H. agrees: "I'm not in favor of flexible dining. It's exciting to board and check out the formal dining room to see what table is going to be 'ours' for the week. Plus getting to know our waiter personally is a big plus. If I wanted to stand in line (in shorts or jeans) and wait for a table, I'd stay home and go to a restaurant. Even though cruising is my favorite way to travel, I honestly don't think it would appeal to me if flexible dining was the only option. Don't do it Royal Caribbean!"
Sometimes tricky eating restrictions necessitate traditional dining, such as in the case of Allyn and Alan: "Because of our complex dining restrictions, we much prefer having the same wait staff each night. They quickly learn what we can eat. I don't mind flexible dining as long as I can get my fixed schedule."
While some cruisers, like Kent and Sharon, have had bad experiences with flexible dining: "Have been on Princess -- it ruins your cruise dining. It's like an unorganized mess. Hated it. Would not cruise a line that had it again."
Kathleen Lyons is perhaps the most adamant: "If I can't get a set seating, I will not cruise. I do not want to wait in line to be seated. I do not want a waiter who will stretch dinner out (so he doesn't have to wait on as many people or work too had). I will not wait for food to be prepared and come to me almost cold. I WANT FIXED SEATING OR NOTHING AT ALL."
As a side note, many readers conflate flexible dining with flexible dress codes. We have heard no mention that if Celebrity or Royal Caribbean move to anytime dining in one of their restaurants that they would also relax the dress code for dinner. Although NCL's Freestyle Cruising concept embraces guest choice in both dress and when to dine, the two concepts don't necessarily need to go together.
Readers to the Rescue
Many readers offered great suggestions the cruise lines might want to consider.
Per Arne Hermansson suggests the lines solve the debate this way: "I like the ability to choose [a] restaurant, and maybe eating time, but I want to be able to have the traditional experience as well. My ideal experience is that they add another 'somewhat formal' restaurant which has open seatings (and no surcharge) in addition to the dining room and freestyle restaurants. Because I like the finer settings and service."
Laurie O'Hara writes: "I'm not against the concept of flexible dining, but I like the idea of the traditional dining setup. You know your table will be ready! I think the best direction would be both, as long as they make sure they have enough room with both scenarios. The ships will need to make sure you chose either flexible or traditional seating when you book, and they need to make sure there is enough seating available for whatever their guests have chosen."
Cruise lines, are you confused yet as to the best approach? Kathleen has a great suggestion for you: "Suggest to the cruise lines that they do the mystery shopper thing. I was one for one of our local banks, and many changes were made -- for the better -- based on input from me and the other people who were selected to do this. I really don't think that they always know the public perception of their ships."