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Top 10 Cruise Dining Mistakes

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When people think of cruises, they often think about unlimited food, and while that's true, the dining experience onboard a cruise ship differs from land-based restaurants. 

You, for instance, will not receive a check at the end of your meal. While it might seem a bit foreign, all you have to do is say thank you and leave! No need to worry about having anything billed to your onboard account— Unless, that is, you choose to dine at one of the ship's specialty restaurants or order a premium selection in the Main Dining Room. 

Whether you're a first-time cruiser or simply want to refresh yourself on cruise ship dining etiquette, here are 10 mistakes that you'll want to avoid making. 

Read more: The unwritten rules of going on a cruise

Forgetting to reserve specialty dining in advance

MSC specialty restaurant

Your cruise fare will include all of your meals in certain complimentary venues, such as the ship's buffet and dining room. If, however, you want to spice up your dining experience, you might consider reserving a specialty dinner or two. 

In addition to higher-quality ingredients, the atmosphere in specialty venues is more akin to what you'll find at land-based restaurants, with fewer tables than the ship's Main Dining Room and a more relaxed feel. 

Reservations can go quickly, though, especially for prime dining times. If you wait until you are on the ship, you might be disappointed to find that all times for teppanyaki have been booked. 


Plus, many cruise lines offer pre-cruise sales on things like specialty dining. To get the best price possible, you should check your cruise planner to see what is available. Otherwise, you might be stuck paying a higher price for the same experience. 

Read more: 16 hidden cruise ship extra charges you should know about (2024)

Assuming that everything on the menu in the Main Dining Room is included


If you choose to forgo the specialty restaurants to take advantage of the complimentary dining options, it is important to be aware that, while extensive, not everything on the menu in the Main Dining Room is included in your cruise fare. 

Onboard Royal Caribbean ships, for instance, you will pay extra for a Maine lobster tail ($16.99), Chops Grille filet ($19.99), or surf & turf ($34.99). 

Similarly, Carnival Cruise Line now charges extra if you decide to order a third entrée. While the price is only $5, you cannot order whatever you want without being subject to an additional fee. 

Read more: Your really dumb cruise ship dining questions answered

Choosing the wrong dining option

Celebrity Cruises Main Dining Room

When booking your cruise, you will have to decide whether you want to dine at a set time each evening or would prefer to have a more flexible dining experience. The correct answer varies based on each party. You might, for instance, value not having to worry about making reservations or wait times while on vacation, whereas another group may want to dine in between the early and late seatings. 

Before making any selections, you must do enough research to choose which option is best. With traditional dining, you'll select one of two times. 

The first is an earlier seating that's often between 5:30pm and 6:00pm, while the second is considered late dining, and you can expect to eat anywhere from 7:45pm to 8:30pm. Since you have a set dining time, you will also have an assigned table and wait staff. 


Flexible dining has different names based on what cruise line you're sailing with. Royal Caribbean, for instance, calls it "My Time Dining," and Carnival calls it "Anytime Dining." 

This option means that you won't be assigned a table or have a specific dining time. Instead, you'll sit somewhere different each evening based on what's available when you arrive at the Main Dining Room. Some flexible dining programs allow you to make reservations in advance, whereas others require you to check in when you are ready to eat. 

Read more: Guide to flexible dining vs traditional dining on a cruise ship

Foregoing complimentary room service breakfast


If you have an early excursion, the last thing you'll want to be doing in the morning is trying to rush everyone out the door to get to breakfast on time. 

Instead, most cruise lines allow you to order complimentary room service for breakfast. You may, however, have to pay a service charge. On Virgin Voyages, this comes out to $5.00 per order. 

While you won't have as many options as you would in the ship's buffet, having your food (and coffee) delivered to your stateroom will save you both time and energy; you can eat while you finish getting ready for the day! 

Not allotting enough time for dinner

NCL tropicana

Cruise ship dinners are meant to be an upscale dining experience. Rather than feeling rushed, you're meant to enjoy each course and be in the company of those you traveled with! That being said, you should not expect to be in and out of the Main Dining Room in thirty minutes. 

You should not arrive at the dining room around 7:15pm with hopes of being seated for an 8:00pm show. If you're running late, you might want to consider eating dinner at the buffet instead. 

While your waitstaff will try and accommodate your needs, you also need to give yourself plenty of time to navigate from the dining room to the venue. You may even need to use the restroom in between! 

Read more: 10 common cruise ship mistakes first-timers make all the time

Skipping breakfast and lunch in the Main Dining Room


Did you know that the Main Dining Room is open for more than just dinner? Treat yourself to a delicious brunch instead of visiting the crowded buffet for breakfast. Carnival Cruise Line, for instance, is known for their Sea Day Brunch. The 12-hour French Toast with roasted pecans is a must-try! 

Even on disembarkation day, you can visit the Main Dining Room for breakfast. While the offerings may be more limited, you do not have to search for a seat like you would in the buffet. 

If you aren't sure when the Main Dining Room is open on your cruise, simply check the daily schedule. On most ships, you'll be able to do this via the mobile app; however, you can always request a physical copy from your cabin steward or Guest Services. 

Thinking you don't have to research the dining options on your ship before booking 


If your preliminary research hasn't revealed this already, not all cruise ships are built the same. Some of the newest ships at sea have over 20 dining options onboard, whereas some of the oldest might only have four or five. 

Foodies will want to consider what they're hoping to get out of their cruise culinary-wise. Will you be satisfied dining in the Main Dining Room for the majority of your meals, or would you prefer a ship with more specialty restaurants? 

Similarly, is the buffet okay for lunch, or would you like some fast-casual options that dish up fresh tacos, burgers, etc.? 

Read more: Things you'll notice when cruising on the newest cruise ship

Filling up your plate in the ship's buffet with more food than you will actually eat


While cruise ships seem like a haven of endless food, it is important that you do your part to ensure you are not being wasteful. Prior to loading up your plate in the buffet, evaluate all of your options, so you do not get more than you will eat. If you finish your first plate and are still hungry, simply return to the buffet for seconds. 

Plus, you'll be able to tailor your selections more toward your specific cravings at that moment. Maybe you want to start with eggs and yogurt for breakfast before choosing what carbohydrate you want. At lunch, you might begin the meal with a craving for chicken tenders and end with wanting something sweeter. 

Not trying the local cuisine in favor of saving money and eating complimentary meals onboard


(Paella in Valencia, Spain ordered from es.paella)

Even if you're just traveling to The Bahamas, you should have at least one meal ashore. Personally, I have always found that trying the local cuisine is a great way to be immersed in the culture, even if I only have 8 hours in port. 

For instance, when I cruised to Sicily with MSC Cruises, I booked a local street food tour and got to eat my way through the city while learning about the region's history. 

While I consider myself to be a pretty adventurous eater, I couldn't bring myself to try pani ca' meusa, otherwise known as the Sicilian spleen sandwich. I did, however, appreciate seeing it being made! 

Sicilian-spleen -sandwich

(Pani ca' meusa being prepared in Palmero)

Additionally, while in Valencia, Spain, I made a point to find a place to try paella. This was a bit more difficult than I imagined since I was traveling solo and most restaurants require you to place at least two orders of paella at once. I was successful in my mission, though! 

Not trying new foods


Even if you are a picky eater, you should try and venture out of your comfort zone at least once during your cruise vacation. 

When I sailed onboard Carnival Vista, for instance, my cousin and I tried frog legs for the first time. While the texture wasn't my favorite, I can now say that I have done it! I also tried a spicy tuna sushi roll for the first time while dining at Izumi onboard Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas. 

I took three of my friends on their first-ever cruise on Allure of the Seas back in May 2022. One of them was so excited to try escargot for the first time that we ended up nicknaming him "Snail Boy."

That being said, it is important to be mindful of waste. If you are not sure whether you'll like a dish or not, ask the waitstaff if you can half a half portion. 

While it is difficult to go hungry on a cruise ship, it is more common than you might think to be disappointed with a specific meal or dining experience 

oriental plaza

When it comes to ensuring that you have a memorable culinary experience onboard, you might have to put some thought into it ahead of time, especially if you have hopes of dining in certain specialty venues, want to plan a food-based excursion, or simply want to cruise on a ship with more complimentary dining options. 

You shouldn't bypass researching the restaurants onboard your desired ship before booking, as some have more dining venues than others. Getting onboard to figure out that there's not a teppanyaki restaurant or upscale seafood venue could be a disappointing start to your cruise. 

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