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What is the Difference Between Eating in the Buffet or the Main Dining Room on a Cruise Ship?

If you’re considering taking a cruise you may have heard about eating in the main dining room or in the buffet.

You may be wondering which would suit you best, and whether the food served in both is the same.

In this article we explore both options, look at the food served, opening times and convenience of both.

What is a Main Dining Room on a Cruise Ship?

All mainstream cruise lines have at least one – sometimes more – main dining rooms where you can eat your meals.

All food is served by wonderful waiters, who go out of their way to look after you and make you feel welcome.

Food in the main dining room is included in the cruise fare.

Occasionally there may be some items on the menu – like steaks for example – where there is an additional charge payable. This is always clearly marked – and I always avoid these menu items!

Tuscan Main Dining Room Celebrity Edge Tuscan Pork Chop
Tuscan Pork Chop, Celebrity Cruise Line

Main dining rooms are always open for dinner, and sometimes open for breakfast and lunch too.

You need to check your daily schedule or cruise ship App to find the opening times of the restaurant you are interested in visiting.

Fixed or Flexible Dining Times

Fixed Dining Times

Traditionally cruise ships have had fixed dining times, with an early or late sitting for dinner.

If you pay the cheapest or “saver” fare – as I usually do – you don’t get to choose the sitting. The cruise line will just allocate you a sitting, depending on where they have space available.

If you have paid more for your cruise fare, you will get to choose when you want to eat.

Norwegian Prima Main Dining Room Hudson's
Norwegian Prima Main Dining Room, Hudson’s. (Norwegian have Flexible, or “Freestyle” Dining)

Luckily for me, I always prefer to eat early in the evening and then go to the show. Early dining times are less popular, so I have never had a problem getting an early sitting!

Most people it seems, like to eat at around 8 pm, and this is the most popular dining time.

Find out more about cruising with a traditional cruise line with fixed dining times in the video below:

Flexible Dining Times

Many cruise lines, like Norwegian, have a far more relaxed approach to dining.

Dining rooms are open between set times, and you can just turn up to eat within those times.

This is very convenient. You can eat around any other plans you have, rather than making plans around a set dining time.

Check in the daily schedule or cruise ships App to check which restaurants are open and when.

You don’t have to pay or buy WiFi to use the Cruise Ship’s app. Find out more about that here:

You Don’t Need to Pay For Wi-Fi To Use a Cruise Line App – Here’s Why

Are the Main Dining Rooms Open for Lunch and Breakfast?

This varies a lot from one cruise line to another.

On most ships, you can go to the main dining room for breakfast, between set times and have your breakfast served to you.

Main dining rooms are often shut at lunchtime – unless it is a sea day.

I was disappointed to find on my recent cruise on Celebrity Edge that even though they had three main dining rooms, none were ever open at lunchtime.

You had to eat in the buffet, or pay extra to visit a “Speciality Restaurant.”

Dress Codes for Eating In the Main Dining Room

Day Time Dress Codes

Even on the most formal cruise lines, like Cunard, there are no daytime dress codes.

You are expected to be wearing shoes, and not turn up to eat in your swimsuit – but apart from that, pretty much anything goes!

Evening Dress Codes

There are normally three different evening dress codes in the main dining rooms.

It will say in the daily schedule or cruise ship App which dress code applies to which night.

On most cruise ships the dress code applies to the main dining room only. On the more traditional British cruise line Cunard, the dress code is ship-wide after 6 p.m.

These dress codes are normally

  • Formal – Dinner jackets, Tuxedos, Evening Dresses
  • Smart Casual – Blazers, collared shirts, dresses for ladies
  • Casual – jeans chinos, T-shirts etc

For more examples of dress codes, and what to wear, read the article below that explores Royal Caribbean’s dress codes:

What To Wear on a Royal Caribbean Cruise – Examples and Enforcement

I tend to wear a dress, whatever the dress code! I can easily wear jewellery and heeled shoes with a dress for formal night – or just wear it as it is with flat sandals for “smart casual!!

There are often set rules, which vary from cruise line to cruise line. When I recently travelled on the Symphony of the Seas, even on casual nights men weren’t able to wear shorts in the main dining room.

Europe was in the middle of “Heatwave Cerberus” and we avoided going to the main dining room as we didn’t want to dress up. It was just far too hot to bother!

Find out all about that very hot cruise here:

Drinks in the Main Dining Room

There is no need to buy drinks in the main dining room.

All cruise lines (with the exception of Costa) give you free iced water with meals – and often this is all I want.

Norwegian Prima Metropolitan Sustainable Cocktails
Norwegian Prima Metropolitan Sustainable Cocktails – Made from leftover ingredients!

If you have a drinks package, you can of course use this in the main dining rooms.

You may be offered Coffee after your meal. Sometimes this is included, but sometimes there is an extra charge for this coffee.

If there is an extra charge it will be clearly marked in the menu.

I don’t ever drink coffee, so I never end up paying extra for this.

If you don’t want to pay the additional charge, you can always go to the buffet and get a cup for free!

You can of course order all of your favourites like beer, wine and soda and these will be chargeable if you don’t have a package.

Cruise Ship Buffets

Cruise ship Buffets are open most of the time and you just wander in, pick up any food you want and sit down.

It is great to be able to just pop by and pick up a random selection of foods – depending on what you fancy at the time.

They serve everything from snacks, bread, cakes, and a wide range of main meals. Often these can have local or themed flavours.

English desserts on Celebrity Edge

Different options are available every day, I am sure you will never get bored of the selection!

Drinks in the Buffet

There are usually drinks machines in the buffet where you can help yourself to Tea, Coffee and water.

At breakfast time, there is usually a selection of fruit juices in the machines too.

There are often waiters on hand who will bring you alcoholic or soft drinks from a nearby bar.

On some more premium cruise lines, like Celebrity, there may be soft drinks available in the machines in the buffet all the time it is open.

Free lemonade and fruit drinks are available in the Celebrity Edge Buffet

Dress Codes for Eating in the Buffet

Really there are very few dress rules for eating in the buffet.

You need to wear shoes, and you would be expected not to be in the buffet in your swimsuit.

Men would not be able to go into the buffet without wearing a shirt or T-shirt of some kind.

Is the Food Served In the Buffet the Same as in the Main Dining Room?

There is a very wide range of food available in the buffet. Eating in the buffet has the advantage that you can see the dish and choose what you like the look of, rather than just ordering and hoping for the best!

Often, when I walk through the buffet in the late evening, I see dishes available that I had eaten in the dining room earlier!

I always choose to eat early evening on a cruise, so after the show, I may go up to the buffet for a drink and a snack. If someone else had a dessert earlier that I liked the look of, I could pick myself one up in the buffet.

It makes sense that if the galley were preparing hundreds of a particular dessert for the main dining room, they would make extra for people to help themselves to in the buffet.

Mini Pizzas served in the buffet onboard Costa Smeralda

Opening Times for the Buffet

Buffets are usually open for most of the day. They may be shut for a short time between lunchtime and afternoon snacks for example.

Food in the buffet is included in your cruise fare.

Often they are open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks, dinner and then late-night snacks.

I often pop by for a late-night snack or a cup of tea during the day.

Check the daily schedule or Cruise Ship App to find out the opening times of the buffet.

Before You Go!

Food from one cruise line to another varies a great deal. Food on Royal Caribbean tends to be American in style and the portions are large. Italian lines like Costa and MSC understandably serve a more Mediterranean fare.

I recently took a cruise on Celebrity Edge. The food quality, particularly in the buffet was amazing! Celebrity has a reputation as being a cruise line for “foodies.” Find out about everything I ate onboard in the article below:

Everything I Ate on my Celebrity Cruise (Photos and Menus) – Food Review

Compare this to food found on the Italian cruise line Costa. I took a bargain, out-of-season trip on Costa Smeralda. It was so cheap, I was surprised any food was included at all! Find out all about the food onboard here:

Everything I Ate on my Costa Cruise (Photos and Menus) – Food Review

I was lucky enough to take a cruise recently to Bermuda on one of NCL’s newest ships, Norwegian Prima. There was lots of wonderful food to choose from. Find out all about Norwegian’s food here:

Everything I Ate on Norwegian Prima (Menus, Speciality and Included Dining

Free Insiders Cruise Line Guide

Ever wondered how the mainstream cruise lines compare? Cruise lines won’t tell you this, but I will.

This FREE guide shows you everything you need to know to find your perfect cruise line.