In the realm of cruise dining, choice is supreme; new ships might offer as many as 15 different restaurant options. While the idea of trying out a different specialty dining venue each night is appealing, surcharges can quickly add up. To combat this cost, select cruise lines offer dining packages that allow meals at for-fee restaurants to be pre-purchased in a bundle. Do these dining packages actually result in savings for cruisers? We analyze the top cruise dining packages at sea to determine if they save dollars and make sense.
Editor's Note: Packages and pricing were up-to-date at the time of publication.
Cost: Norwegian Cruise Line's Specialty Dining Package (SDP) -- formerly known as the Ultimate Dining Package (UDP) -- ranges from $69 per person for three specialty meals to $199 per person for 14 meals in extra-fee restaurants on all ships. Prices reflect online rates, which save $10 per person when booked in advance. Passengers are asked to call for pricing on cruises lasting longer than 15 days. Restaurants covered by the package include Norwegian's French and Italian restaurants, including Le Bistro and La Cucina, plus Cagney's Steakhouse, Moderno Churrascaria, Los Lobos, Q Texas Smokehouse, Margaritaville at Sea and Teppanyaki.
What's not included: Dinner theater dining (such as Illusionarium or Cirque Dreams), as well as certain restaurants such as Ocean Blue and Bayamo aren't included. However, if you have purchased the SDP, you can dine at several non-included venues for only a slight upcharge. For example, dinner theater shows start at $10 per person, while Ocean Blue will only cost $15 a head, when you'd normally pay more than that for an entree. Sushi, tapas and the raw bar can all be accessed for just $7 each. A 20 percent gratuity and a service charge are not included in the package price. Beverages are additional, as well as certain dishes in Le Bistro or Cagney's.
Does it save you money? We think so.
Why? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more meals you purchase, the less they cost. (The 14-meal package comes in at a little more than $14 per person, per meal.) If you're a fan of the onboard restaurants included in the SDP and plan on eating there every night, even the smallest package saves you money on menu pricing -- if not with an entree alone than certainly with an appetizer in tow. Want more of a reason to book? All Norwegian Cruise Line restaurants (excluding Moderno Churrascaria and Teppanyaki, which retain their cover charge model) have now transitioned to a la carte pricing. La Cucina, Le Bistro and Cagney's are still no additional charge with the package, even if menu items have exceeded the sum total of previous covers (creating more of a value for package purchasers).
How to book: Purchase online under "Dining" once logged in to ncl.com/myncl or through any Norwegian reservations associate or travel agent. You can also purchase a dining package onboard on the first or second day of your cruise. For three- and four-day cruises, the SDP may only be purchased on the first day of your cruise.
Cost: Packages extend from three to five specialty restaurant reservations, and then an Unlimited Dining Package that allows for one extra-fee meal per night (and lunch on sea days). The three-meal package starts at $75 per person; $90 for four meals and $105 for five meals -- plus $10 more per package if you're sailing on a Quantum- or Oasis-class ship. Unlimited Dining allows for a meal at an alternative venue every night of your seven-night sailing for a flat rate of $24 per person, per day. Savings are calculated to add up to 40 percent. Be sure to book dining reservations in advance of your sailing for your choice of venue; kids ages 6 to 12 can now dine in specialty restaurants for $10 (5 years and younger dine free).
What's not included: Flexibility is a bit tough when reservation agents are trying to accommodate thousands of passengers; your exact choice of venue, day and time might not always be facilitated. In fact, beyond your first evening, you will have to negotiate your remaining dining reservations once onboard. For the package to be worth it, be sure to book meals as soon as possible, manage expectations and try different venues. Drinks are not included.
Does it save you money? Yes, especially considering that Royal Caribbean includes the gratuities and service charges in the price of your dining package.
Why? Rates for Royal Caribbean's popular eateries are always rising, so taking advantage of locked-in rates helps to budget for special meals. Covers for dinner range from about $25 to $50, so consider three nights of Chops Grille, Wonderland and 150 Central Park ($49 each) -- even with the $10 surcharge for an Oasis-class ship ($85 for three meals) the package saves you a whopping $62 per person. If eating at a new restaurant every night is thrilling to you, then the Ultimate Package (which also includes select lunches) has the potential to save you lots of cruise dollars.
How to book: After you book your cruise, visit RoyalCaribbean.com/CruisePlanner and select the "Dining" tab. Dining packages include a meal on the first night of your cruise, so be sure to book by 5 p.m. the evening before departure.
Cost: Dine from $109 per person for three meals, all the way up to $336 per person for 14 meals. Celebrity's specialty dining packages are based on length of cruise and start from three nights to two weeks. Per diem costs begin from $24 per person per day, if the top-tier (14-meal) package is purchased, with the other end of the range being $36.33 per person per day for the three-meal package.
What's not included: While packages are available with wine pairings (which include a 15 percent wine service charge), the base price does not include alcohol. Same as Royal Caribbean, your first meal onboard is arranged for you -- make sure to list your preferences before you board.
Does it save you money? If you like eating at dining venues that charge a cover of $45 or more, the savings adds up.
Why? Savings per package -- up to 47 percent, when you purchase the 14-meal plan -- is based on the value of eating at specialty restaurants with at least a $45 fee. Even with the three-meal package, the savings is calculated to be 19 percent. If you only plan on patronizing casual venues with lower covers -- Silk Harvest and The Porch are less ($35 and $30, respectively) -- consider how many meals equate to the specialty package charge. However, most restaurants, from Qsine to the Lawn Club Grill, charge at least $45.
How to book: Start online at celebritycruises.com. Specialty dining packages must be booked ahead of your cruise; they're available onboard during the first or second day only. More meals can be purchased to be used for breakfast or lunch via advanced request to Celebrity Dining.
Cost: There are many different dining packages available for purchase on the MSC Cruises website. Packages for different venues across different ships are bundled and sold in a format similar to Groupon. As such, prices range from a 45 percent discount on a single meal at a restaurant like Sushi Festival on MSC Poesia to a two- to four-meal dining package aboard MSC Divina. When you pre-book, restaurants with a la carte menus offer a prix fixe version for a cover charge -- $23 per person for Bistrot La Boheme to $50 for Ocean Cay. If diners at Ocean Cay would rather dine from the a la carte menu, they can do so at half price.
What's not included: Choice. While there's choice in the meals and packages themselves, once you purchase something, the option to switch restaurants is off the table. The ability to book dining online is more about saving time and a little money than the freedom to dine anywhere for a set amount of nights, like many other cruise dining packages. Drinks are not included.
Does it save you money? In the sense that booking before you board shaves off a fraction of the cost, planning ahead and booking some dining reservations online before you cruise MSC can save some money.
Why? Cruise lines like reservations on the books before the ship even sails; as an incentive, select dining experiences are offered to cruisers at a "pre-board rate." This doesn't equate to the same level of savings as many of the other more all-encompassing dining packages, but waiting until you board doesn't ensure you'll find the same reduced rates.
How to book: Head to mscruisesusa.com and select "Customize Your Cruise" under "My Booking" at the top. There, you'll find a link for specialty restaurant packages. You can also explore your options by clicking "Specialty Restaurants Packages" under Discover MSC. If booking with an agent, talk to your travel professional about your interest in a particular onboard venue or how often you plan on dining out.