March 20, 2018

That Time I Tried Anytime Cruise Dining...

I've been following a bunch of cruise message boards and I've noticed that a lot of people are confused about what's called "Anytime" dining that more and more cruise lines are starting to do. I decided to break it down....

First let me explain what "Traditional" dining is. The way cruise ship dining was done traditionally was that passengers picked what time they wanted to eat, early or late (usually ~6pm and 8pm), and then they would be assigned to a table. Most of the tables are large so generally cruisers eat with passengers they hadn't previously met. They would eat at the same time, at the same table, with the same people, and the same wait staff every day. Some people like this experience because they get to meet new people and potentially make friends to hang out with on board.

Note: to be a considerate cruiser, if you're not going to be able to make it to dinner at your assigned time, and/or you are just choosing to eat else where on any night, you should make the effort of letting the dining room know ahead of time because the waiters will wait to serve your whole table.

Some lines still offer traditional dining on a first-come-first-served basis (selected when booking the cruise) and some have switched entirely to Anytime Dining. My guess is that cruise lines started offering Anytime dining as a way to feed more passengers in the same amount of space because not everyone takes 2 hours to eat dinner.

In the Anytime dining rooms there are more smaller tables so guests only eat with the people they want to eat with; appealing to those who are trying to have an intimate vacation, people who don't love meeting new people (no judgement from me!), and those who have had bad experiences getting stuck with people they didn't care for with the Traditional dining experience.

Anyway... how does Anytime dining actually work? *Disclaimer: I have only experienced Carnival & Norwegian's Anytime dining so I cannot elaborate on other cruise lines*

Anytime dining (Carnival calls it "Your Time Dining," NCL calls it "Freestyle Dining") is like going to any restaurant on land without reservations. For Carnival, you go to a specified location when you're ready to eat (the earlier the better or you might have to wait) and then they send you to the dining room with a table assignment (or they give you a buzzer and you wait somewhere nearby). NCL only offers Anytime dining, but has two or three Main Dining Rooms on each ship. Go to the one you want when you're ready to eat; if there is a wait they will give you a buzzer (eat early to avoid a wait). NCL offers reservations for their MDRs but they are not necessary unless you want to eat at a very specific time.

The only differences from that point is that you aren't seated at a big table with the same people and waitstaff every night. You would be seated with just your party (though I think you can ask to be with other people? I never tried), and you'd have different waiters every night. You can request the same waiters and/or table if you like them one night, but may have to wait longer if you do so.

The main negative I've really had with Anytime dining is that they are set up for smaller groups/couples, so if you are cruising with a large group you may wait a while for your table. Basically, you'd want to plan on going on the early side, and then expecting to wait at a nearby bar for a bit. Likely you will be split between two tables but they will put them next to each other.

With Anytime Dining, you can opt to eat at the buffet any night and not have to tell the dining room not to expect you. I've had Anytime Dining on the Carnival for three cruises and I was happy enough with it each time. The one time we went later at night (8ish?), the service was not great, so you're better off going to the buffet if you're eating later than 7:30.

I did feel that the overall service is a little slower, a result of servers getting random tables at random times and/ or multiple tables all at once, but it's nice to have Anytime Dining and just eat with who I want to eat with.


  1. didnt realize the service slacked off the later u went - my first two cruises were with RC and we had assigned dining both times. wasnt too bad because u know for sure that ur table will be there for u and u dont have to wait. have done the anytime on the last two cruises which were on Carnival and didnt really have that long of a wait that i recall(even when one of those times was for a formal night). so i would go either route honestly

    1. I wouldn't say they slack off... It's more that they cant keep up once they start falling behind, and its hard to catch up when every table is full.