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Early vs. Late Seating Dining
What's your preference?

by Linda Coffman

Decisions, decisions! Your travel agent will ask you a number of questions, but one that can set the tone for your entire cruise is your dining selection. Which is best? Early dinner seating is generally scheduled between 6:00 and 6:30 pm, while late seating can begin from 8:15 to 8:45 pm. Your answer—the “best” seating—depends on you, your lifestyle, and your personal preference. Each seating has advantages for different passenger needs and situations.

You may wish to choose early seating if: 

  • You have small children accustomed to an early meal and bedtime.
  • Your personal routine calls for meals at an earlier hour.
  • You retire earlier in the evening and are an early "riser."
  • You don't want to experience that "full" feeling at bedtime.
  • You want to attend the early shows, enjoy the casino and other activities, and take in the midnight buffet.

Late seating may be better if: 

  • You are a night owl and don’t mind finishing dinner until after 10:00 pm.

  • Your itinerary is port-intensive and you don’t want to rush to get ready for dinner after a day of touring.

  • You like to indulge in a late afternoon nap.

  • You don’t care about the midnight buffet and like to sleep late in the morning.

  • Your personal habit is to dine late.

Some trends to consider before you make up your mind:

  • Families and groups lean toward early seating, particularly when several generations are traveling together and ages vary widely.

  • Older passengers tend to select early seating.

  • Americans are more apt to select early seating than European and South American cruisers who are accustomed to later meal times.

  • Early seating diners are encouraged not to linger too long over dessert and coffee; the dining room has to be readied for late seating.

  • Late seating is viewed by some passengers as more romantic and less rushed.

Cruise lines understand that strict schedules don’t satisfy the desires of all modern cruise passengers. Many cruise lines now include alternatives to the set schedules in the dining room, including casual versions of their dinner menus in their buffet facilities where more flexibility is allowed in dress and meal times.  la carte restaurants are showing up on more ships and offer yet another choice, although a small charge or gratuity is often suggested.

“Open seating” is an amenity primarily associated with more upscale lines, which allow passengers the flexibility to dine any time during restaurant hours and be seated with whomever they please. Led by Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle Cruising” concept, more contemporary and premium cruise lines are exploring this alternative to offer variety and a more personalized experience for their passengers. On most of their ships Princess Cruises now offers “Personal Choice Cruising” with full service dining available around the clock and Carnival Cruise Line has added a new twist with four seating times instead of the usual two, plus casual evening dining in the lido buffet.

No matter what you opt for—Early, Late, Open Seating, or a version of Freestyle—you’re sure to enjoy menus without a price column and the pleasure of dining afloat.

The find print... some cruise lines advise that, while dining preferences may be requested by your travel agent, no requests are guaranteed. Table assignments are generally not confirmed until embarkation; however, every effort is made to satisfy all guests. Should there be a problem, see the Maitre d' for assistance.


Freestyle Cruising on NCL -- How does “Freestyle Cruising” work? Pretty well, according to George Leppla's report.


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