(12:30 p.m. EDT) -- Celebrity Cruises is the latest line to jump on the flexible-dining bandwagon with the introduction of Celebrity Select. The programme allows passengers who choose the flexible option to dine any time between 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. and to decide whether they want to eat with their own party or on a mixed table with other guests.
Celebrity has been one of the few remaining cruise holdouts when it comes to offering passengers a more relaxing alternative to the traditional dining scenario, in which lines dictate specific dining times and assign dinner partners.
The notion of flexible mealtimes was started by Norwegian Cruise Line in 2000 with Freestyle Dining and lines that have followed suit to offer passengers a choice between fixed and flexible dinner times include P&O, Princess, Holland America, Carnival and Celebrity's sister company, Royal Caribbean, which introduced My Time Dining in May this year.
The primary advantage to the Celebrity scheme, according to a Celebrity statement, is that dining can be pre-booked online on a day-by-day basis. That way passengers can vary their mealtimes according, for example, to when they will be getting back from long shore excursions and want time to wind down before dinner. This is an option not offered by other lines.
There are three ways to book Celebrity Select. Passengers can go online up to four days before departure and choose a dinner time each day -- although this seems to eliminate spontaneity somewhat.
Alternatively, reservations can be made onboard daily with the dining room's maitre d'. This allows more flexibility, in theory, but there's always a risk that the best times have already been snapped up.
It is also possible to turn up and see if there's a table -- but this may involve waiting in line.
Passengers have to opt for Celebrity Select or regular dining at the time of booking, although it's possible to change from fixed dining to Select within 24 hours of boarding the ship.
Celebrity Select makes its debut on September 26 on the new Celebrity Equinox and will be phased in across the remainder of the Celebrity fleet in January and February 2010.
One thing British cruisers may have trouble getting used to, though, is the fact that anybody who chooses Celebrity Select must pay gratuities for their various waiters, assistant waiters and dining room management before cruising. This amounts to $11.50 per person per day for guests in staterooms and $15 per person per day for those in suites. Under the normal fixed dining system and in the case of P&O, Princess, Holland America and Carnival, the flexible dining as well, the gratuities are added to each passenger's onboard account to be settled at the end of the cruise and can be adjusted if the service is not up to scratch. Only Royal Caribbean operates the same prepayment system as Celebrity.
For those who enjoy the traditional two-sitting cruise dinners -- a time-honoured way to make new friends and form a rapport with the dining room waiters -- there are still lines that offer only traditional dining. Passengers in Britannia class on Cunard's ships still enjoy first and second sitting, as do those on Fred. Olsen vessels, Costa and MSC. Crystal Cruises is the only luxury line to offer set mealtimes.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor