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Early-dining options on a cruise

March 08, 2009|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: I have been on five cruises with two ship companies, and I have asked as soon as I've made the reservation for early seating for dinner. The request was honored on only one cruise. The others were for the late seating. (I didn't know this until I received my tickets.) What would you suggest to ensure an early dining time on my next cruise?

Don Maddox


Answer: Fellow cruisers, you can take a stand on seating.

Because Americans tend to dine a bit earlier than their European counterparts, the early seating on a cruise, usually at 6 or 6:30, often proves more popular than the second, which is 8 or 8:30.

So there's frequently a stampede to eat at the first, partly because many of the shows start immediately after early chow and partly because people, um, of a certain age tend to eat earlier and often are the crowd the more formal cruises attract.

The easiest way to eat when you want is to choose a ship with open seating -- that is, you can choose when you want to eat and with whom, as in Norwegian Cruise Line's "freestyle" cruising. No more getting stuck at dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Reginald P. Stuffybottom IV.

But there are downsides to that. For one, your waiter doesn't get to know you and your preferences. At a fixed seating, you can develop friendships when you dine with a group.

For some cruisers, those are huge pluses, so consider these ideas:

* Book early, says Tom Baker, president of, which specializes in ship trips. Frustrated letter writer Maddox says he's made his dining request as soon as he's made his reservation, but savvy cruisers intent on a certain seating know they have to book far in advance. How far? "Six months to a year," Baker says. Not waiting means you'll probably be able to book a good airfare to your port of embarkation as well as the best shore excursions. Just make sure you buy insurance (and not from the cruise line) to cover you in case something goes amiss.

* Use a cruise-connected travel agent. Baker, who has been taking cruises for four decades, says an agent who knows the cruise industry sometimes can call in a favor for a client.

* Hold the cruise ship company's money hostage. OK, that sounds a little extreme, but Douglas Ward, the author of "Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2009" and "Insight Guides Cruising: All Questions Answered," says that after you book with the specialist cruise agency, you should "insist that final payment . . . not be made unless a written confirmation of first seating is provided by the cruise line." Ward adds, however, that the cruise line has no legal obligation to comply, but it can be a good bargaining chip for the consumer.

* And finally, if you're not quite ready for open seating, consider a cruise that offers both options and see what floats your boat. Karen Candy, media spokeswoman for Princess, says its large ships offer traditional and "any time dining," adding, "Cruisers who aren't familiar with any time dining end up switching to this option during their cruise because they love the flexibility of being able to eat dinner at any time between 5:30 and 10 p.m."

There's no reason, cruisers, to take the seating situation sitting down.


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