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Ship Tips

Early or Late?
Big Table or Small?

by Douglas Terhune

Dining assignments cause a ship more havoc than almost all other problems put together. A ship markets itself as a nice relaxing vacation, but every time you see one pull out of a harbor, rest assured that someone is in the face of the Maitre d'.

Remember when you were growing up and your mom and dad held Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at your house? Do you recall how important it was where everyone sat? And do you recall that the time of the meal was also quite critical? I mean, whatever you do mom, just don't have it during the football game!!

So OK, take this table and multiply by 300. That just 'might' give you an idea of the headaches a ship goes through in seating everyone. But rest assured my beloved readers; I am here to pass on a few ways to avoid any unnecessary incidents while on your vacation.

First, there is 'some' truth that the earlier you book, the more say-so you have in your dining time. I believe most ships have settled on the terms of "Main Dining" and "Late Dining" - so depending upon your preference, be sure to inform your agent when you book your cruise.

Ship Tip: The earlier you book, the better chance you 'should' have of getting your requested time selected.

I have however heard of people booking a year or so in advance and not getting their requested time - and conversely, people have booked last minute and gotten their choices. So, the first step is to let nature take its course. When you book a cruise, some lines confirm early or late immediately. I am a firm believer that there is a lot of chance involved in dining time assignments.

Ship Tip: Let nature first take her course.

If you find out before heading down to the pier that you have been seated at the inconvenient seating, take the situation into your own hands. Tell your travel agent to earn their commission and have your time changed, PLUS, call the line directly and get a fax number of the person responsible for dining assignments. Most of the major lines have toll free numbers - so dial 800 555-1212 and ask for your line's number. You might need to be a little bit crafty to get what you are looking for, but getting a fax number is not against policy. Do not expect to speak with anyone about your request - they are far too busy for this.

Ship tip: Contact the lines directly if your request was denied.

In your fax, be friendly and explain why you are in need of dining at a particular time. Some people have biological dining clocks and others plan dining around activities - so no matter what the reason, you are entitled to be heard. One word of advice here though is to be very friendly in your letter - kindness works better than threats and demands in any company!

Ship tip: Be very friendly with any cruise line employees you encounter.

Dining times can be extremely important to people. I usually sail the Caribbean itineraries, and down there where it is nice and warm year round and the sun sets between 7-8 PM, many passengers request the late dining. I prefer late dining because my favorite time on a ship is from 5-8 PM. The Main diners are enroute to the dining room and many of the Late diners are in their cabins primping for the evening. The pool and hot tubs are deserted, the casino is empty and there are endless chairs on the top deck to watch the sun set.

Ship tip: A ship is virtually deserted around dusk each night.

A minus to the Late seating though is that you finish your 7 course meals between 10 and 10:30 PM each evening. It is tough to get motivated to dance or do much of anything at this time, and you can almost bet that very few Late diners partake in any of the midnight buffets!

If you dine with the Main Seating, your dining room times are approximately 7 AM for breakfast, noon for lunch and 6 PM for dinner. Late Diners usually have breakfast around 8:30 AM, lunch at 1:15 PM and dinner at 8:15.

The only time in 20 plus years of cruising that I have heard people complain because they could not be accommodated in the Main seating was in Alaska. Of course, there the average passenger tends to be 15 years older than the average Caribbean cruiser - but I still thought it was pretty strange hearing some senior passengers raising a hoot over not eating dinner till 8:30 PM. In fact, one gentleman uttered that he is normally sound asleep by 8:30!!

Ship tip: In the Caribbean, Late is the favorite time; in Alaska, Main is the number one choice.

If you by chance get onto a ship and wish to change your time, the lines usually will have the dining room management set up in a specific area for a designated period of time when you first board. Find these people and make your request. The first night can sometimes be overwhelming, so be patient and usually by the second night your request can be filled.

When you board a ship today, most lines have a credit card key for you that has your dining assignment written on it. I always find the dining room and check out my table. Sneak into the dining room if possible or find the dining room management to confer with them. Perhaps if you had requested a large table and received a table for two (or vice versa), you may wish to ask for a change of table.

Ship tip: Upon boarding, find your dining room table to see if you like it.

If you make it to your table the first evening and are of the opinion you cannot dine with your table mates, see the Maitre d'. You are within your rights to request a new table, but PLEASE understand that the request cannot normally be filled until the second evening. Usually what happens by then is that some people decide to eat in the alternative dining rooms, some change to another seating time or others just order room service.

It is not easy for the management to just up and move you to another table. Why passengers think this is so easy is beyond me. I mean, it is like going to a crowded restaurant where all seats are occupied or have reservations and demanding to be seated in someone else's seat.

Ship tip: If you don't like your dining partners, be patient if you insist on moving.

With the addition of all the new alternative dining options such as the 24-hour grille rooms and bistros, juggling table assignments becomes a virtual nightmare. Passengers seldom phone the dining room and inform management they have decided to no longer dine in the dining room.

Ship tip: If you decide to dine elsewhere for the entire cruise, please call the dining room staff and inform them.

I prefer to be seated at a large table. One, I usually travel with buddies and I need a break from them! Two, I always learn a lot about my cruise through the eyes of the other passengers. Swapping stories of what to do or what to see is very helpful. Plus, you can broaden your horizon by meeting people from different countries and or walks of life.

Ship Tip: Large tables provide a myriad of benefits.

Years ago, I often dined in the main dining room 2-3 meals a day. Today, I eat one meal a day in the dining room - namely, dinner. Having the correct dinnertime is the most important factor for myself, followed by sitting at a large table and three, not sitting near a very noisy entrance to the kitchen. Many ships now have pianos in them, but the noise of 500 people consuming consommé often drowns out the playful ivories.

Your dining assignment could be very important to you or not important at all. If you do care about it, spend some time insuring you get what you wish and your trip will have one less thing to potentially go awry.

Best of luck and good sailing!


Doug TerhuneDoug Terhune is quite the experienced "solo cruiser" and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter. His monthly "Ship Tips" columns are very popular with our readers.

Doug's special interest is interviewing various officers on his cruises, including interviews with the Tropicale's head chef, the Inspiration's Chief Engineer, and the Sensation's Captain. To find all of Doug's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Douglas Terhune" as your search phrase.

Doug can be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.

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