Cruise travel tips: Skip the buffets and eat in the dining room

Cruise ship: Photo by Mike De Sisti and Jim Nelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Cruise ship: Photo by Mike De Sisti and Jim Nelson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel /

Cruise travel offers a plethora of food options and are a big draw but skipping dinner buffets would be smart.

Cruise travel can be fun and when you start looking at each ship’s offerings, the buffets typically stand out from everything else.

Let’s face it, buffets onboard a cruise ship can really drive you nuts when it comes to choices but at the same time, if you travel like I do, with kids, the buffet offers up enough choices that no one gets left out.

From burger joints off the pool deck to taco and burrito cantinas, there is something for everyone but if you are making this your go-to for the cruise, you are missing out and frankly, skipping them in favor of the dining room is a lot better.

For years I cruised and never stepped foot into the dining room. It didn’t have the draw for me and I was missing out. How could I pass up juicy hamburgers and a fixins bar for a sit-down menu? I’m not a fan of being “served” and I enjoy eating my meals at my pace without interruptions. The buffets offer that but then, we decided to try out the dining room one night and we haven’t gone back.

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The menus are typically simple but what you may not know is, your not limited to one appetizer, one entree, and one dessert. You can literally order it all and while at first, you may feel like a glutton, you shouldn’t.

After a few trips to the dining room, I took charge and as my guilt raged within me, I ordered two appetizers and two from the main course. Without batting so much as a raised eyebrow, my server simply wrote my order down and said, “Very good sir, excellent choices”.

What, that was it? No, “You must really be hungry” comments? No feeling of guilt? I scanned the room but no one was looking over at me like I was doing something wrong. On a ship, the menu changes by the night and while there is always one option that typically reappears through the week, most are singular menu items.

The best part though is that food is more fresh and isn’t sitting on a hot plate under a lamp like it is on the buffet. The food isn’t typically over-salted like it is on the buffet and depending on the ship you are one, it could be elevated nicely.

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Most cruise ships have three tiers of food for you to enjoy. The buffet for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in many cases, every hour in between. Then there is the dining hall that serves up breakfast to order, lunch, and dinner. While reservation times are most often required they are not 100% necessary but without them you could wait a long time. Try the flex time options.

Lastly there is the higher end food option. These would be the onboard steak houses or specialty restaurants and they are not part of your cruise price. They are a little more expensive than what you might pay on shore but they are also a lot higher quality than the dining hall menu and makes the buffet offerings feel more like a fast-food drive through which in reality is exactly what it is.

If you have not taken advantage of the dining hall on a cruise, now is the time. We tend to hit breakfast and dinner now and skip the buffets for those two. The kids love the options and trying new delicasies that might end up on the menu.

We haven’t yet tried out any lunch offerings and some ships don’t offer a lunch menu option in their dining room but the buffet options during the day are usually enough and offer the variety that you may need. Need another reason? Well technically, you are still paying the tips for the dining hall service whether you use the hall or not. May as well use it!

If you want to make it an even better experience, request a window table even if the wait is a little longer!