Specialty dining starts with something nearly everyone loves about cruises -- eating a fine meal -- and kicks it up five notches. Whether you’re searching for the perfect location for a quiet, romantic dinner overlooking the ocean, or that crave-worthy hamburger or sushi roll, cruise lines have doubled up on their efforts in recent years to provide truly customized, premium dining experiences at sea that many gourmands would argue are worth every penny.
Examples of specialty dining range from the imaginative Wonderland on Royal Caribbean, where dishes arrive to your table swirling in smoke, to elegant kid-free spaces on Disney Cruise Line like Remy aboard Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, where your meal rivals that of any exclusive shoreside restaurant.
Many cruise lines also offer intimate Chef's Table dining options, which are capacity-limited, multi-course experiences that frequently take guests behind the scenes to ship's galley to see where chefs create their gourmet magic, before feasting on a fabulous wine-paired meal.
How can you save money on these specialty dining experiences? The good news is that there are several strategies you can use to maximize your dining enjoyment onboard, all without taking a huge hit out of your wallet.
Throughout the year, cruise lines typically offer deals and special booking promotions that include specialty dining packages or on-board credit as incentives to book your next cruise. These can be great ways to save on specialty dining, rolling in any premium charges with a deal on your next cruise, so keep an eye out for these. Repeat cruises frequently receive loyalty perks, and occasionally these include discounts on specialty dining, too.
Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Wave Season (typically December to March) are some of the best times to save on cruises -- and specialty dining.
If you know that you want to sample more than one specialty dining venue on your next cruise, purchasing a dining package in advance can save you some money. Typically, dining packages are discounted the more days you choose to dine out.
Currently, Royal Caribbean offers one of the most robust discount programs. A three-restaurant dining package can cost as little as $75 per person. Current (2022) cover charges for dinners at onboard fine dining restaurants are usually $50 per person, so this pass could potentially save you 50 percent off the price of those meals. There are also five-restaurant packages for $105 per person, and an Ultimate Dining Package with a price range that varies based on the itinerary, which gives you unlimited access to premium dining.
Norwegian offers a similar dining package, though not all cruise lines do. Typically, the most expensive premium options, such as Chef’s Table, special sea day brunches or mystery dinner events, are not included in these packages. Crunch the numbers on how many specialty dining venues you’d like to visit and see if the savings is worthwhile to purchase a specialty dining package in advance.
It’s not a foolproof strategy, but you might luck out with some same-day savings on specialty dining once you’re on board the ship. The trick is to consider the days that are least popular for specialty dining and either look for an advertised discount in your cruise planner, or (if you’re feeling bold), stop by the restaurant and inquire in person about a discount.
Generally, the first day on board is one of the least popular days for specialty dining, followed by the last night and port days (especially if your all aboard time is later in the day, when most passengers are tempted to linger in port right up to or past dinner time).
A good strategy for saving money in land-based restaurants works on board the ship, too. If you’ve just got to try a certain specialty restaurant but you’re on a tight budget (or if reservations are hard to come by), consider stopping in for lunch instead. Lunch prices can be half the rate of dinner, or even more, and frequently offer the same high-end cuisine and relaxed atmosphere that dinner does. For folks that eschew dress codes, lunch can be a better option, too, with its casual dress requirements.
If you’re a high roller (or even a medium roller), be sure to explore any benefits that might be offered as part of the casino’s rewards program. In general, the more points you accrue and the higher your tier or status, the more incentives you’ll receive. It’s not unusual that some of these perks might include comped meals at one of the specialty restaurants, so if gaming is something you typically enjoy, it might be worth inquiring.
Everyone who loves interesting food experiences should try a Chef’s Table experience at least once -- but they are also one of the priciest specialty dining experiences, usually upwards of $100 per person. Specialty dining packages typically exclude this experience from the menu of restaurant options. Keep this in mind whenever you see a dining discount offered (for example, occasionally you might see a buy-one-get-one-free cover charge for a specialty restaurant) and use this on a Chef’s Table if at all possible to get the most savings.
Updated October 17, 2022