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Can I get a table for two?

We started cruising back in 2003. Our first cruise was on the Norwegian Majesty out of Boston to Bermuda. Back then the decision to cruise was agonizing, we knew nothing about cruising and had many questions and concerns. Looking back I have to laugh because the cruise turned out to be so much better then we ever would have imagined. But what probably sold us on cruising is the Freestyle dining that Norwegian has become famous for.

The dining experience on a cruise ship is very important to the overall enjoyment of the cruise. This is because it is very difficult to go through any day without eating at least 3 times. We were impressed that we could go to the dining room at any time and ask for a table for two. Usually we were seated right away. Regardless on when we went and where we were seated the waitstaff were all very attentive to our needs. The food arrived hot and prepared very well.

small table on NCLBack in 2003, Norwegian Cruise Lines was one of only a few cruise lines that offered this type of freedom when it came to dining. Most cruise line would assign your table to you before you boarded. They would decide who you would sit with and there would be a fixed time that you had to show up by or you would not be allowed in the dining room. This is known as "traditional dining". The fans of traditional dining like it because you usually get to meet some great people, you develop a relationship with the same waitstaff, and they feel the service is much better than Freestyle dining. It also works for those singles who are on board to meet people. There were some heated discussions on the cruise boards about the pros and cons of Freestyle dining with many experienced cruisers hating the idea.

Things have changed over the past few years. More and more customers now really enjoy the freestyle dining experience and therefore all major cruise lines seem to offer some sort of freestyle dining. It is called different things. Some call it "my time dining", some call it "any time dining", some call it "select dining". Overall it has become more popular and cruisers really enjoy being able to choose their own dining times and even who they get to sit with.

Still, none of the other major cruise lines have taken it as far as Norwegian's Freestyle. Most of them still hold on to traditional dining options for their passengers. In other words, cruisers have to make a choice when booking the cruise. Do they want traditional seating at a fixed time or do they want Freestyle type dining? If they choose traditional, many cruise lines allow them to "request" a table size. They make it clear that the request is not a guarantee.

When given the choice, we sometimes will choose to book a traditional dining time. This is because several cruise lines now allow you to specify the size of table you want when you book. This worked out really well for us on a the Golden Princess cruise ship several years back. We ended up with a good table location and great waitstaff team. It was probably one of best dining experiences on a cruise ship.

Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are among a few cruise lines that do not even have a option for requesting a table for two at the time of booking. This made it a challenge when I was booking a cruise for a couple that always sailed Royal Caribbean but really wanted a table for two. Even though they had sailed Royal Caribbean many times, the cruise line just would not commit to their request. And there were several cruises that I booked for them where they had no choice but to sit at larger tables.

On a recent Royal Caribbean cruise we were able to choose "My time" dining and requested a table for two online. However we were very disappointed in the experience as the table for two's were placed in awkward positions and very close to each other. There was less than a foot between the tables and we were shocked when we were actually led in between two of these tables, that were only inches apart, to be seated at another table near by.

One reason why cruise lines have trouble fully embracing the freestyle concept comes down to space. Many of their ships are designed around the traditional dining concept and they just do not have the mix of table sizes to accommodate the many people who prefer sitting with their own group. Royal Princess table for twoUnfortunately, even in their new builds they aren't allowing enough space for cruisers who want a table for two.  The new Celebrity ships have very few small tables and the ones they have are usually placed in poor locations and often inches apart from each other. Princess's larger ships do have more table for twos, but since they are only inches apart from other tables it does not allow for the same type of dining experience. (Picture to right are table for two's on the new Royal Princess).

For the most part, Norwegian still leads the pack with the freestyle concept. Not only are the main restaurants on the Norwegian ships geared toward freestyle, they also load their ships with specialty restaurants. For a small fee you can go to different restaurants on board that specialize in different types of cuisine. They have an Asian restaurant, Italian, steakhouse, French restaurant, etc... Getting a table for two in any of these restaurants is no problem, but in some of the smaller venues the tables for two might be very close to another table.

The other major cruise lines have started adding more specialty restaurants to their ships. Carnival offers one of the best steakhouses at sea, Princess has a steakhouse and a great Italian restaurant, Holland America has a wonderful Asian restaurant, and even Celebrity and Royal Caribbean are getting into the act on their new ships by offering more specialty dining restaurants.

If you are interested in eating at any of the specialty restaurants be sure to make reservations as soon as possible. Many cruise line allow you to reserve specialty dining online before you even board the ship.

Keep in mind that many people still do prefer traditional dining over Freestyle, and sometimes it does work out really well. On a 14 night cruise that we took to Hawaii, several years ago, on a Princess cruise ship, the cruise line assigned us to a table for 8. We ended up really loving the experience and our table companions were great.

For those of us who do enjoy the freestyle concept, the industry is moving in the right direction.  On most ships today you will find more of a resort feel when it comes to dining.  Norwegian Cruise Lines leads the way, but the others are not far behind.

Steve Millay, ACC

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