At-Sea Flexible Dining: Take It Away

July 24, 2012 | By | 45 Comments

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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    45 Responses to “At-Sea Flexible Dining: Take It Away”

    1. Tracy Mitchell
      July 24th, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

      I have had only positive experiences with my two anytime dining attempts. I agree with the points you made in your article. However, I must divulge that I always develop a rapport with the maitre’d to ensure my requirements are met. I get a table for two and the same waiter every night and everyone gets the extra tips that they would with regular assi
      gned dining. Wink wink

    2. Barbara Herron
      July 24th, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

      We’ve had great experiences with MyTime Dining. We always get a table for two unless we indicate we’d like to share. The maitre’d is great about placing us with the same wait staff, so we get to know them, they get to know us, and we tip above and beyond the mandatory gratuity (and usually tip the maitre’d, too!). We like being able to pick different times, depending on what’s going on, especially on port days when we may not want to hurry back and get ready for dinner at 6, or have to wait until 8:30. On sea days, we usually dine around 7. And we’ve always been there for the napkin-waving and serenade. The waiters have paraded through the mezzanine on the ships we’ve been on. All in all, we love it.

    3. JANY FRY
      July 24th, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

      I won a cruise on Norwegian to the Bahamas. It was my first experience with Freestyle Dining. Can’t say one bad thing about the service or food on this medium sized ship. I could understand the mega ships having long waits and other issues.

    4. Lisa Bowgren
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

      I agree with Tracy. We’ve done the flexible dining twice now and have always been able to secure a table for two and most times can request the same server, etc. I love the flexibility of eating at whatever time we want!

    5. Vicki Yarnell
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

      I agree! Put me down for second seating….plenty of time to get ready after a day on the beach or by the pool and then I can walk straight to my table where the rest of my bottle of wine from the night before will be waiting and with a nod the bar steward will be off to get my Coke Zero. Nothing beats getting familiar with the wait staff over the length of the cruise.

    6. Vanny
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

      I personally haven’t had to wait long for flexible dining. And if the wait is say, longer than 15 mins, I always seem to find another place to dine. Fortunately, I’ve never felt I’ve received not as good service, even when comparing it to specialty dining venues.

      I like the flexibility and I’d have to agree with you that your last point doesn’t matter to me.

    7. Gail Heywood
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

      I have been on both ‘anytime’ and ‘fixed’ dining, and frankly I prefer the latter. If we choose to eat on the lido or one of the upper dining rooms, that’s our choice. I like having the same waiter every evening–you develop a rapport and they know exactly what you like. On the ‘anytime’ ship, one night our table was right next to the kitchen–felt like we were in a traffic zone. Another night we were seated next to a table of screaming kids. I have never had a bad table (knock on wood!) on the ships where you a predetermined dinner time. I was never that lucky to have the maitre’d do more than say ‘good evening’ as you walked into the dining room. On the any time ship, he never came to our table during the entire cruise. To me, it also seems a big chaotic when all the ‘anytime’ patrons are waiting in line…more leisurely when people are granted to walk in at the pre-determined time. Just my two cents…we’re cruising again in November and yes, we chose a dining time.

    8. Charlie Wallace
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

      We found ourselves in a “dine as you wish” category once because an early fixed seating assignment wasn’t available. For us, it was not the experience we have come to love while cruising. The relationship with our wait staff is a significant part of our experience. We can “eat as we wish” or even “dress as we wish” at home. A little structure and and an opportunity to dress for dinner helps make cruising the vacation we love.

    9. Nancy J
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

      I have done both and am much happier with the assigned dining times and tables. My experience shows that even with any time options the actual dining times seem to parallel the standard dining times. For instance walking in at 7:00 we found that there were no anytime tables available and had to wait for the earliest diners to depart which was about a half hour later. Many evenings we were able to get a preferred server we had used previously, but it wasn’t always possible. I suspect that less experience wait staff is used for the anytime option. We have reverted to assigned times and seating which we feel provides better service, a personal relationship with the waitstaff and less stressful.

    10. Tanya Palmer
      July 24th, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

      My only experience with flexible dining was in the small Blu dining room on the Celebrity Summit. It was FANTASTIC. Never a wait, aside from the one night we came just as the first round of diners were finishing up and waited for a window table, and truly fabulous service. Admittedly we bonded most with the maitre’d and wine steward but the bond WAS there.

    11. Janet Hay
      July 24th, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

      We always do anytime dining, usually go around 8:15. Last cruise in April with Holland America we got a table for 2 every night and the same waiters most nights. We also like being off to the side as its not so busy and noisy.

    12. Jo Williams
      July 24th, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

      Totally disagree. I prefer the anytime dining because I don’t want to have to rush back from excursion to quickly get ready for dinner. If we are happy with our waiter on first night, we ask for him for rest of the cruise – never been a problem. We’ve always had excellent service & good location of tables. If you want something special or different table, just ask! Just finished my 13th cruise & doing 14 next April – love it & anytime dining!

    13. Mike
      July 24th, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

      One of the main reasons that we sail NCL is that they know how to do anytime dining. We may not be hungry at the same time every evening, or our plans may change from minute to minute. After all, we are on vacation. Sometimes we have had large groups or just a table for two by the window, it’s never a problem. When we had have to wait, we were given a pager and could go anywhere on the ship until our table was ready. Incidentally, we have never had to wait more than 15 or 20 minutes. As for the service, when we encounter exceptional service, we request that server every time and are always accommodated. We have tried anytime dining on Carnival and not only did we have to pay a premium but the service was substandard. Needless to say Freestyle is the way to go and NCL has gotten right.

    14. Susan
      July 24th, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

      One of the best parts of the cruise for me is the dining experience. We always eat at 6pm and have met some lovely people at a mixer table. We have also had a small table just for our party. I love the way the waiters become one of the family.
      And thanks to Tracy, I now know that the Maitre d’ is good for something! We have never understood why anyone would think they deserve a tip!

    15. Sherri Lorenz
      July 24th, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

      I have experienced my time dining on my last two cruises, I would say I had a good experience the first time on our trip to Alaska. However, in the Caribbean, if we didn’t go early, we waited, sometimes up to an hour. We have a cruise booked in September and went back to assigned dining. If we don’t like the timing, we will hit the buffet, we prefer to not have to wait though, and feel you do get more personal service with the same wait staff nightly. p.s. we did tip extra still to our wait staff, we left it with our waiter nightly. I feel strongly about how hard everyone works and won’t let my convenience affect their tips from me.

    16. Barb
      July 24th, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

      Having done fixed seating as well as flexible dining, I much preferred the flexible. I didn’t have to worry about being there at a specific time, I didn’t have to wait around for the show from the waiters, and dinner was more speedy. I was seated with the same waiter every night, even when we were not at the same time each night. We got the table size we wanted with no problem. We never had to wait more than a few minutes. I may try fixed dining again in the future, but maybe not.

    17. Dan Bahr
      July 24th, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

      We have cruised a dozen times and always had the late seating until our last cruise on the Allure. My Time Dining was so good we will probably never go back to specific time seating. We never waited more than 5-10 minutes to get a table and we never felt like we were in Siberia. The wait staff was efficient and courteous and we had no problem getting a table for two.

    18. jonathan
      July 24th, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

      3 ncl cruises and one more booked Freestyle dinning is the only way for me. I’ll eat when I want to and only with my family or friends. Who wants to go eat at the same time daily and take 1.5 hours or longer.. Not me NCL is my cruise line

    19. Myriam Burgos
      July 24th, 2012 @ 9:33 pm

      We have had the same positive experience as Tracy with the anytime dining option. We usually dine between 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. and ask for a table for two. Usually after the first two nights we get to know some of the friendly waiters and then we ask to be seated in the tables they wait. We will keep asking for the anytime dining option whenever it is available.

    20. Jean
      July 24th, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

      I agree with the above comment. We just asked for the same waiter every night and everyone was happy. Also, we didn’t have a line, we were given a pager and came back when it went off.

    21. Penguin
      July 24th, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

      I agree. I’m split with any time and second sitting. I much prefer the second sitting, where I can simply walk into the dining room and head right for my table without having to wait to find out where I’ll be. I like my servers getting to know me- that I like water with a lot of ice, that I like tea after my meal, etc. It’s a much classier situation. On my last cruise, I did ask for a waiter we all liked. Sometimes we got him, others we didn’t. I like that people can choose, however. There seem to be a lot here who like anytime dining. I don’t.

    22. Jim
      July 24th, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

      We had fixed seating on the Mariner and anytime dining on the Oasis. Had the same wait staff every night and never had to wait. I don’t understand the problem.

    23. JUS' ME....JIM
      July 24th, 2012 @ 11:34 pm

      The young lady writing this article is greatly mistaken…..and very narrow in her thoughts. I have been on 10 different cruises, having both types of seating….I greatly prefer the system used by NCL…. Never had to wait for a table over 5 minutes, had the same waiter each night, (also sometime for breakfast), so, sorry…but I greatly disagree with her…

    24. Chef-Geoff
      July 25th, 2012 @ 10:34 am

      I have been on ships and I have done both. I prefer the scheduled dining. My reasoning, I can and will build a relationship with my waiter & I will tip. I really hate tipping for poor service; and poor service is what I feel i get when i participate in the “anytime” dining. I have never had to wait in a dining room line over 8 min. The line on the lido deck is ALWAYS longer than the dining room. As a chef, I love to cook, eat and have a great time while I’m out eating. I really HATE tipping for bad service (2nd time for emphasis). Furthermore I do not like the singing and dancing in the dining room, I think it cheapens the experience. I really do get ample entertainment on the ships; I should not be forced into more silly “entertainment” while I am eating (if you can call it entertainment).

    25. Iris
      July 25th, 2012 @ 11:32 am

      We have been on more than two dozen cruises so far, and used both fixed and anytime dining. Hands down, we preferr anytime! We have never had a problem waiting more than a few minutes, wine from the last evening is always brought to us, waiters are just as accommodating as in fixed…as a matter of fact.. We were told by the maitre ‘d that only the Best waiters are in anytime as they can handle it, and they are happier there as they already got tips in advance and never get stiffed! We have had future menus brought to us to check over, and received special requests not on the menu- causing envy from neighboring tables. BTW…we only ask for tables for two and it is NEVER a problem on any ship or cruise we use.

    26. William
      July 25th, 2012 @ 11:44 am

      I always enjopyed getting a table for eight or ten and meeting a bunch of new people every night or staying with the same crowd for the entire cruise. Too often with Freestyle dining we wind up at a side table for two and a new waiter every time. When they’re not “required” to be personable, they are often very businesslike and I might as well be at Denny’s. I’m all for assigned seating and a late dinner.

    27. John
      July 25th, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

      Only drawback I found on Princess was that if you sign up for traditional dining, you can’t opt for anytime dining in other restaurants unless you are invited by other passengers who are doing anytime.

    28. Tori
      July 25th, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

      I have had good experiences with set time dining (always with shipmates our age and never at to large of a table) until we cruised on a “mega” ship. We were placed with a family who acted like we weren’t even there. Could be because we were used to fill the last two seats at the table. We excused ourselves before dessert on the first night and were switched to my time dining. Since most of the ships seem to be going to the large tables I will not take my chances and choose my time dining. Eat with who ever I feel like that night.

    29. cruisegirl1219
      July 25th, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

      My BFF/TA(she’s a CLIA certified Master Class Cruise Specialist) and I have been cruising for 15 years. We had always done assigned dining and liked it. In December 2010 she got an offer from her NCL district manager to take a cruise on the Jewel. We had been on a variety of ships but not NCL. She had a group sailing on NCL for the first time so she decided we should go so she could give her group advice on what to expect. WE HATED IT.

      Our first night in the dining room was so bad we didn’t go back there the rest of the cruise. It was so noisy in there that we couldn’t hear each other talking and we were sitting by each other. It was like we were in a Cracker Barrel on a busy Sunday. We could barely hear our waiter. Speaking of the waiter he came to our table twice. Nobody came to refill our ice tea glasses. We had to grab someone going by if we needed something. When my husband and I and my BFF cruise we enjoy eating with the same wait staff. We like the fact that you can talk to your tablemates without yelling. I’m disabled and on every cruise, but the NCL one, the wait staff asked what I needed to make my meal enjoyable and I never had to ask for anything after that. They were always there offering their assistance. We appreciated that. After our NCL dining room fiasco we ate at the buffet and their 24 hour cafe. Their food was very good but the atmosphere was crappy. We could have eaten in one of the pay restaraunts but we shouldn’t have to do that to get a peaceful meal. We would only do it if it’s a special occasion.

      We have had great cruises made special by the wait staff in the dining rooms and our tablemates. If we are tired from activities in port or we get back late we go to the buffets. We will never do freestyle dining.

    30. caryn
      July 25th, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

      Have done both. find anytime on NCL is fine but anytime on Princess is utter chaos not in the dining room but at the theater. Mass choas at shows, even arriving 30 minutes prior sometimes diffciclut to get a seat. Either traditional or anytime would be great but both is awful.

    31. Kathy
      July 25th, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

      We’ve done My Time Dining on 4 cruises now, all of them long (10-18 nights), all of Royal Caribbean. We love the flexibility and have not had the problems Sue experienced. As someone mentioned, maybe the trick is to immediately get to know the dining host and/or the head waiter – call them by name, smile, say please and thank you, and make sure they know your name. We’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for a table, and those waits were only because we requested a specific server’s section. We’ve had the same servers for entire cruises, and they’ve been very efficient and friendly and quickly learned what we like, just as the servers in fixed dining did. And, yes, they did get extra tips at the end of the cruise. We’ve had tables for 2 when we wanted them, larger tables when we requested them. Absolutely no down side for us – will never go back to fixed.

    32. Betty
      July 25th, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

      Does any one know of passengers going on the Diamond Princess to China, Japan and Russia in September 2012? If so, have you selected shore excursions on your own or with P/O?

    33. Marian
      July 25th, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

      We thoroughly enjoy flexible dining times so we don’t have to be on a schedule. We have no desire for a table for two because we want to meet and mingle with fellow passengers. We’ve never had a problem getting a sharing table and most of the time can get the same waiter if requested. Service is usually quite good. We hope never to have to return to the structured seating. Late dinner is way too late for us and early seating is a bit early. So flexibility allows us to meet our needs around 7 and the schedule from our trips, naps, and activities without rushing.

    34. Arch
      July 25th, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

      We’ve had anytime dining on 13 out of 14 cruises. Obviously enjoy the former. We have always found on three different cruise lines that we could get a table for two with no waiting and have usually been able to request the same table and staff for the entire cruise. We tend to prefer to eat early so maybe that helps. Should we have a reservation for a specialty restaurant, we always let the staff know the night before so they don’t hold the table, but it is always waiting when we return to the main dining room.

    35. ted
      July 25th, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

      My experience has been quite different from the author’s.
      I have been on numerous cruises with anytime dining, including on Carnival, NCL, Princess, and RCCL. I have never had any difficulty whatsoever getting a table for two. I have never had to wait more than 15 minutes for a table, and we have eaten at all times from very early to very late. While it is true that the waiters do not know my personal desires, but service has always been at least acceptable, and generally excellent, on the whole equal to the service we had back with assigned dining. Being courteous to and appreciative of the staff seems to generally work wonders — life is a mirror, although somewhat distorted on occasion :-) .
      I would never go back to assigned dining. And no, I have never greased the palm of the Maitre’d in advance (although I always give an envelope to especially helpful staff at the end of the cruise).

    36. texancruzer
      July 25th, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

      I am for “take it away”…… having done anytime dining only once because it was all that was left since we booked our cruise last minute. While we didn’t have to wait long most nights, we were ALWAYS asked if we would sit at a larger table (the wait was much longer for a smaller table). We are of the old school who enjoy getting to know our table mates throughout the week and discussing our day. We found that in anytime dining the tables were not seated in any particular order which resulted in people being seated all during our meal at the adjoining tables. Too much moving around. My waiter did not know what kind of roll I liked, or that I wanted my iced tea and then a glass of wine (only red) and there was no rapport. One night, after our table of 6 was fully seated (they don’t start serving until it is) 2 of the people took one look at the menu and left…… leaving our waiter waiting for 2 more people …… finally we demanded to be served. Another night we said we did not mind being seated at a large table and were seated at a 10 top. They then proceeded to seat all the tables around us leaving us alone at a 10 top….. we felt the kids that nobody wanted to sit with in the lunchroom …… that is my experience and I didn’t like it !

    37. Paula
      July 25th, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

      We usually do anytime dining because the standard times are too early and too late. So we go at 7 or so and it works perfect for us. We usually agree to hare and it is a good way to meet other passengers. Some nights great, some nights….. Glad it was just for one night. On Princess,usually there are specific anytime dining rooms ( as in more than one) so no feeling of being an outcast.

    38. Evelyn
      July 26th, 2012 @ 3:47 am

      Not sure what cruise lines the author sailed with to have those negative experiences with flexible dining. I have never had a problem getting a table for two, have always had good service and, often, exemplary service. I love flex dining. If I were forced to take set seating, I would likely go to another cruise line. The need to tailor my entire evening around a set dining time strikes me as stressful in terms of fitting in shows I want to see or whether or not I just feel like lounging around longer before diner or eating earlier because I want to make it a short night. I tend to agree with an earlier blogger who said that NCL knows how to do flexible dining best. Afterall, they invented it. On RCCL, they did relegate the My Time Diners to the top tier of the main dining room which was the least desirable location. This is the key reason I would likely not sail with RCCL again.

    39. Kati
      July 26th, 2012 @ 11:35 am

      We have been on several cruises and have always done assigned dining. The most recent was in February this year on the Grand Princess where we tried Anytime dining. We always had a table for 2, same wai staff and never waited over 15 minutes. We will definately do Anytime again.

    40. cindy Paulos
      July 29th, 2012 @ 2:39 pm

      The Aqua Class on Celebrity has really addressed this issue.
      The Dining provided by Blu is the finest you could find. Anytime dining, personal service, perfect setting to relax and meet new friends.
      I’m a Vegetarian, and I was concerned about the choices I might have.
      But with the Blu restaurant everything was fresh, and delicious
      with a HUGE selection of different delectable meals.
      If you are looking for a great choice for intimate dining
      Blu on Celebrity is it.

    41. George Cossey
      July 31st, 2012 @ 12:41 am

      We normally cruise on Princess and go with the Anytime Dining. My wife has allergy issues and we make the wait staff aware of them the first night. Thereafter, we almost always get the same table and wait staff and the menu for the following night so my wife can ensure that the food will not trigger a reaction.

    42. Charisse Scully
      July 31st, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

      We absolutely love Any-Time Dining offered on Princess. I think the other cruise lines should take lessons from them, they have it down to a science. In all honesty, we love sitting with strangers. I love my hubby but I get to talk to him all the time. It’s nice to meet new people. Several times we’ve had to tell them we do NOT want a table for only two.

    43. Bob
      July 31st, 2012 @ 5:35 pm

      I like assigned seating. I enjoy getting to know my tablemates and hearing the day’s adventures at dinner. I also like having the same waiters every night. I would NEVER do “anytime dinner.”

    44. P&O Cruises Australia
      August 1st, 2012 @ 1:09 am

      We operate an hybrid of the anytime time/fixed time dining. We have a reservation style in place where passengers are able to reserve a time that suits them for dining. If so inclined, they are also able to reserve the same table (and wait staff that comes with that table). We find this is the best way to ensure our passengers have the flexibility to make their cruise holiday their own!

    45. Mike
      August 15th, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

      Having experienced booked sittings and anytime dining we have to say from personal experience that it is anytime dining for us.
      Early sitting is too early, it means rushing back from excursions and racing to get ready for dinner.
      We have had to put up with overbearing bores and know it alls, people who continually turn up late making everyone wait. Even a couple who spent the whole cruise refusing to speak to fellow diners, not even saying hello.
      The late sittings are way too late for us.
      7pm is an ideal time for us to eat, anytime dining gives us that flexibility. I have already made my 7pm reservations for my next two cruises.
      We like to think that we are friendly we enjoy meeting different people every night and rarely request a table for two. As for waiters we find that there is a pool of waiters who serve anytime only and got to know several of them.

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