Freedom dining, my time dining, your time dining, personal choice dining — call it what you will. Most of the big cruise lines introduced this alternative to first or second sitting because passengers said they wanted more flexibility. People wanted to feel they had a choice of when they’d have dinner, just as those on smaller, more luxurious vessels do.
But is the experience really that good? Having tried it on four different ships now, I’d say no. I’d say the only real advantage is that you get a table to suit your party size (good luck if you’re hoping for a two) and, in theory, you can dine when you like, typically any time between around 6 and 9 p.m.
Here are the problems, in my experience:
First, although we say we want the choice, the vast majority of people (in Europe especially, where they eat later) seem to turn up at 8 p.m., so they may as well be on second sitting. The result is an unsightly line to get into the dining room, sometimes up to 45 minutes, as everybody has to be seated. Okay, so you could argue that the freedom diners get their tables for four and don’t have to share with strangers — but if that’s the case, why not make second sitting bigger and put in smaller tables? The pressure on the galley is exactly the same.
The next problem is the service. Like it or not, waiters on mass-market ships are highly motivated by tips. Often, with the flexi-dining option, you are obliged to pre-pay the “recommended” gratuities, so the waiters are going to get their tips either way. But a lot of people, particularly American passengers, tip extra. This is only going to happen when you’ve built a relationship with your waiter. When you’re in a different part of the dining room every night, with different servers, the banter isn’t there. So the motivation to provide the kind of excellent service we now expect on cruises has gone, at least in the flexi-corner of the dining room. I imagine, for a waiter living on the bare minimum and depending on extra tips, being allocated to these tables is drawing the short straw.
Finally, there’s the question of Table Siberia. I was on flexible dining on a large ship on the penultimate night of the cruise — the night the waiters paraded around bearing baked Alaska, waving napkins and singing “We are the World.” Corny though it is, it’s quite sweet, but these displays are clearly only for the fixed seating diners who are likely to tip more. The freedom diners were positioned on a lonely mezzanine, with no singing or napkin-waving to speak of.
To me, this last point is mainly irrelevant. But the queuing and the sad-eyed waiters are not the answer. I’m going back to second sitting.
What’s your experience with flexible dining? Let us know below.
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