Updated January 8, 2020
Whether you prefer the set seating of traditional cruise dining or choose to eat anytime you wish, if you want to eat in the main dining room, you have to make a choice about cruise dining times: early seating or late seating. Sure, you can eat at the buffet just about any time of day or make a reservation at a specialty restaurant, but to dine in the main dining room, just about every cruise line requires you to show up at either a set time or during a limited timeframe.
It might seem like a small decision, but on a cruise ship, the difference of a few hours can mean a change in tablemates, the shows you catch and how tired you might be for your next day in port. We break down the pros and cons of late dinner seatings and early dinner seatings on a cruise so you can plan the best cruise vacation possible.
Early Dinner Pros
There are many reasons for cruisers to choose an early dinner seating time. In particular, an early seating lets you get dinner out of the way and frees up your evening for entertainment and drinks; you can always grab more food later in the buffet if you get hungry.
Early seatings also are a boon to families and others who enjoy getting to bed earlier rather than later. Kids tend to eat earlier and go to bed earlier than the rest of us, so it's easier to dine as a family during the early dinner seating. And not all adults are late-night partiers.
Others who benefit from early dinner times are those who suffer from chronic indigestion. While some people have no problem going straight to sleep after a long multicourse meal, others might suffer discomfort; if that's the case, it's worth giving yourself a little time to digest.
Early Dinner Cons
For a more mature atmosphere during your evening meal, it's probably better to go with a late dinner, as families will likely attend the early dinner seating. (This might differ on sailings with mostly European passengers.)
While show times in the theater and elsewhere on the ship might be scheduled to revolve around seating times for dinner, a full belly might mean less energy. This could lead to calling it an early night instead of exploring the onboard nightlife or staying awake to catch the comedian. It takes a dedicated cruiser to have fun all day, dine on a three-course meal and continue having fun late into the night.
A late dinner seating also addresses a common cruiser complaint: On the first day of your cruise if you have to be at dinner around 5 or 6 p.m., you're likely to miss sailaway. Being on your balcony or on deck with your fellow cruisers and toasting to your new cruise adventure is something many passengers wouldn't miss for anything.
Late Dinner Pros
One of the best things about late dinner seatings is you have more time to relax after a day by the pool or walking around ancient ruins. Especially for those who like to spend every last minute in their port of call before getting back onboard, a later seating allows for more breathing room to shower, nap and refresh.
Late dinners also are good for cruisers who prefer to catch a show or grab a cocktail prior to a lengthy meal. There's more time to schmooze and booze with a dinner that begins closer to 8 p.m. Some people aren't used to eating until later in the evening; for others, catching a performance in the theater or enjoying a pre-dinner drink gets the night started on a lively note.
Late Dinner Cons
Sometimes a late dinner can feel awfully ... late. Don't overestimate your daily energy level -- especially if you plan to spend hours of fun in the sun.
While the extra time before dinner can be a nice transition from daytime to nighttime, you might miss out on the scheduled entertainment if you don't utilize the pre-dinner period to squeeze everything in. Dinners can run late, and tablemates might beg out of those late-night plans as the post-dinner food coma begins to set in.
Cruise Dining Times: Early Dinner vs. Late Dinner Bottom Line
If you like to get a meal in before your evening of entertainment, are bringing the whole family or want to get to bed early to energize for the next full day, then selecting an early dinner seating on a cruise might be the best option for you.
If you need plenty of time to prep and primp before nightfall, would prefer fewer children as tablemates, cherish your pre-dinner cocktails or can't do without celebrating sailaway, then perhaps a late dinnertime is the best option on your next cruise.