While the main dining room and buffet will likely be the biggest restaurants on your cruise ship, you will find additional dining options that vary by line and ship. Some of these restaurants are free of charge, such as a poolside grill, a casual pizza place or even an open-all-night comfort food venue.
Other restaurants charge a fee. Those range from venues serving ethnic food to high-end gourmet establishments backed by Michelin-starred chefs. Some ships have exclusive restaurants only accessible by passengers booked in suites or spa cabins.
Like hours of operation, dining surcharges are all over the map. Food in specialty restaurants is sometimes included in your cruise fare; examples include Carnival's BlueIguana Cantina and Guy's Burger Joint, as well as Princess' Alfredo's Pizzeria. Some cruise ship restaurants price items a la carte, such as Celebrity's Sushi on Five or Norwegian's Cagney's Steakhouse.
But most cruise dining venues have a flat-fee surcharge, ranging from $6.95 (Royal Caribbean's Johnny Rockets) to $125 (Disney's Remy). The base price of most flat-fee restaurants is in the $30 to $50 range at dinner. Drinks are generally not included in the flat fee.
Expect to pay even more for a chef's table experience ($279 on Celebrity, as an example), but wines paired with each course are typically included on those. Some high-end specialty dining venues offer wine paring with their menu for an additional flat fee.
Most of the sit-down type specialty cruise ship restaurants serve dinner only. Some do offer a lunch menu, usually at a lower price and possibly only on sea days. Casual venues might serve food around the clock, like Sorrento's Pizza on Royal Caribbean, while some will offer breakfast and lunch like Celebrity's AquaSpa Cafe. Check your daily cruise bulletin for hours of operation.
Every cruise line has its own reservations policy. In general, most sit-down specialty restaurants take reservations; the most casual pizza-by-the-slice or diner-type venues and food counters without specific seating tend to be first-come, first-served.
For restaurants that do take reservations, it's always recommended that you book your dining times in advance. Most will accept walk-ins, but the more popular venues will fill up, and you might have a hard time getting a table. If you do want to play it by ear, your best bet is showing up either when the restaurant first opens or late in the evening, on the first night of the cruise (when most people eat in the main dining room) or on a night the ship is still docked in port at dinnertime.
Making reservations is easy. Some cruise lines allow you to pre-reserve tables through the "booked guest" section of their website. Once onboard, you can call the restaurant from your in-cabin phone, drop by the venue to make a reservation in person or go down to the reception desk, where someone can usually help you. Some lines with multiple dining venues will set up a reservations area by the front desk.
In addition, you can use technology to help you. Some lines have mobile apps that allow you to make restaurant reservations, while others have interactive display screens where you can view restaurant availability and make reservations.
If you do reserve before you sail, check with your cruise line to find out its cancellation policy. Some will charge a minimum fee if you cancel within 24 hours of your dining time. If you booked pre-cruise and prepaid the cover charge, you will be refunded in either cash or onboard credit, depending on how far out you cancel.
Yes. For the most part, you can dine at any restaurant as often as you like, provided you are able to get a table. The exception would be lines that put a restriction on reservations; these are often lines with only one or two extra restaurants.
For example, river cruise line Amawaterways has a small Chef's Table restaurant, with each passenger allowed one reservation per cruise. Viking Ocean Cruises limits advance specialty restaurant reservations to either one or two, based on cabin category, but once onboard all guests are free to make additional reservations. On Crystal Cruises, the first reservation in its Japanese specialty restaurant, Umi Uma, is complimentary, but additional visits incur a fee.
Generally, children can dine in specialty restaurants. Certain ones do designate themselves as adults-only, such as Disney's Remy and Palo. And Celebrity only allows children ages 12 and older to dine in more upscale restaurants, such as Murano.
Cruise lines also have differing policies about how much children should pay. For example, Norwegian stipulates that children ages 12 and younger eat free from a kids' menu in all specialty dining venues; Royal Caribbean allows children younger than 5 to eat free in its alternative dining venues and kids ages 6 to 12 dine for $10.
It also pays to ask for other options at individual specialty restaurants. Some restaurants will allow kids to choose from the adult menu for half the adult price. The regular children's menu from the main dining room might be available as well, possibly even at no charge.
Daytime dining on cruises usually does not require a change of dress. More formal restaurants that open for lunch might ask that you not wear shorts, tank tops or swimwear.
At dinner, most cruise ship specialty restaurants tend to be "smart casual" -- casual dresses, skirts or nice pants outfits for women and khakis, button-downs or collared shirts and shoes (not sneakers) for men. On some lines, the general ship dress code carries over into the specialty restaurants, so if it's formal night in the main dining room, it's formal in the other restaurants, as well.
In some upscale specialty restaurants, every night is dress-up night. For example, in Disney's Remy, jackets are always required for men while the women dress in evening attire. On the flip side, the most casual dining venues -- like pizzerias and diners -- tend not to care about what you're wearing.
Unlike in the main dining room, you generally do not have to share a table with strangers in the smaller restaurants onboard. You simply make your reservation for the size of your party, and you'll be seated accordingly.
One exception is if a specialty restaurant is nearly full. In that case, you might be asked if you'd rather share a table to get the dining time you prefer or take a less ideal time to get a table for just your party (or not take a reservation at all). A few places, such as some chef's tables, sushi bars or hibachi-style restaurants like Norwegian's Teppanyaki, have shared seating as part of the dining concept.
Most onboard restaurants, especially the sit-down venues, can handle special diets by pointing out which menu items fit the bill, adapting dishes or creating a special dish for you. If you have an especially restrictive diet, it's best to look at the menu and meet with the chef or restaurant manager in advance so he can be sure to have a meal that suits your needs. For example, in Disney's Palo, the chefs can make a gluten-free version of the chocolate souffle -- but only with 24 hours' advance notice.
Yes! Several cruise lines offer specialty dining packages, which allow you to pay a reduced rate for multiple restaurant reservations on a cruise. Choices typically range from three-restaurant packages up to unlimited specialty dining.
Free specialty dining is also often included as a perk when those are offered as part of your cruise purchase. Just make sure the package works for you because the cruise line may stipulate which restaurants and how many reservations in each. Packages are generally booked (and paid for, in some cases) in advance, but watch for multi-restaurant packages offered during the first day or two of your cruise once you board if you didn't buy one in advance.
You can also save on specialty restaurants that are open for lunch. Many will only be open for lunch on select days, but it's almost always at a lower price than dinner. These include Holland America's Pinnacle Grill and Royal Caribbean's Giovanni's Table.
Finally, some lines will offer a deal on dining on the first day. For example, Carnival provides a free bottle of house wine or half off a premium wine in the line's Steakhouse restaurant on the first night. If you miss out on first-night specials, you can always check with the restaurants themselves mid-cruise to see if additional specials are offered.
Cruise Critic's cruise ship reviews list all onboard restaurants in the Dining section. You can also find lists of restaurants on your cruise line's website. Alternately, you can look at a deck plan (on Cruise Critic, on a cruise line website or onboard).
The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.