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 at almost any time of the day or make a reservation at a specialty restaurant, but to dine in the main dining room, most cruise lines require 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.
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 cruise ship's buffet if you get hungry.
Some late-night eateries stay open past midnight to serve all the cruisers enjoying their vacation.
Early seatings 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. Plus, not all adults are late-night partiers.
Others who benefit from early dinner times are those who have dietary restrictions for various reasons. Plus, not everyone can eat a full meal then go straight to sleep; if that's the case for you, it's worth giving yourself a little time to digest by opting for early dining.
Cruisers who catch an early dinner can also set themselves up for success for the next day. You can head to bed early and prepare for the next port day or day at sea. Even if it’s a day at sea, you can grab the good loungers at the pool or wake up for an early morning breakfast at your favorite eatery.
For a more mature atmosphere during your evening meal, it's better to go with a late dinner, as families will likely attend the early dinner seating. Keep in mind, however, that this might differ on sailings with mostly European passengers.
While showtimes 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 often leads to calling it an early night instead of exploring the onboard nightlife or staying awake to catch the onboard comedian.
Early dinners aren’t for everyone. Even if you eat dinner early at home, you may not have enough time to explore and make it back in time for dinner onboard. Consider what type of shore excursions and activities you have planned and how late they run before choosing a set dining time.
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.
One of the best things about late dinner seating 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 are also 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 starts the night on an upbeat note.
You will likely enjoy more nightlife onboard and stay up longer if you’re willing to transition to later dining times.
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. On the other hand, don’t forget that you can stop in for some quick energy in one of the many eateries like the buffet or pizza shop.
While the extra time before dinner can be a nice transition from daytime to nighttime, you might miss out on the scheduled onboard 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 sets in. Staying up later for dining and entertainment may also shift your bedtime, affecting your wake-up time and how many activities you do the next day.
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 late dinnertime is the best option on your next cruise.
Most cruise lines offer traditional dining in tandem with flexible dining. Flexible dining is as the name suggests: a dining option where you can have dinner whenever you please (within a specific dinner time frame). Early and late dinner cruise dining times are part of the traditional dining option.
Some popular flexible dining options are the Royal Caribbean My Time Dining and Carnival Your Time Dining. Check out our in-depth breakdown of traditional dining vs. flexible dining to help decipher which option is best for you and your cruising crew.