It is a scrumptious dilemma, but a dilemma nevertheless.
There are 29 dining options on the Norwegian Escape, and it’s kind of paralyzing.
Escape, which debuted in November, is a sleek, modern example of where cruise ship dining is going: Everything in dining is a choice, and lots of choices cost extra.
In fact, with more than 4,000 passengers on a sold-out cruise to the Eastern Caribbean, I could not decide if 29 options were too many or too few. Passengers swamped O’Sheehan’s Grill. They queued up at regular dining rooms. Some were turned away from the Japanese restaurant Teppanaki. Cagney’s Steakhouse was sold out for the whole cruise on the very first day. I tried Food Republic, a clever global fusion restaurant. I sampled the Haven, the elegant dining room for premier passengers. But at the end of the week I kept thinking, what did I still miss?
If the dining atmosphere on Escape seems more chaotic than on traditional cruise ships, that is on purpose, says Jovo Sekulovic, hotel director of the Escape. Having so much choice is not bad, he says. The Freestyle Dining system introduced by Norwegian in 2000, with no set dining times or tables, has proved so popular that most other lines have copied it in part.
“It gives you a possibility of sitting with others if you wish, but the possibility of having a miserable cruise is actually very low,” Sekulovic says. “It is less bad this way than the other way, because you have more choices.”
A zillion decisions
Cruise enough and you will have a dining story to tell. You may have encountered the tablemate who talks of nothing except her husband’s brain tumor. Being assigned to the “singles table” could mean a week of torture. Tablemates may turn out to be delightful or become lifelong friends.
Because of these and similar issues, cruise lines have increasingly decided to transfer dining decisions to the customers. But the tidal wave of choices can be overwhelming.
Escape, for example, has two levels of specialty restaurants alone: the set-fee ones, such as the Brazilian Moderno Churasscaria ($24.95), and the a la carte restaurants such as the Cuban-flavor Bayamo or Cagney’s, with entrees ranging from about $13 to $30. In addition, it has the Garden Cafe basic buffet and three regular dining rooms. You don’t need a reservation for those but probably should make one if you want to avoid a wait.
The first specialty restaurant on board a ship in modern times was introduced by Norwegian in 1998. Suddenly, every cruise line had a specialty restaurant that charged extra and promised to have extra-super deluxe food, often by a famous chef.
Still, most passengers continued to eat in the dining rooms where their meals were included in the price of their tickets. No sense racking up extra charges, right?
“The willingness of people to pay, which is really incredible, is a break from everything that was going on in cruising the last 10 years,” says Sekulovic.
“When you are able to offer something substantial,” he says, “people will go for it.”
In the 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz wrote that while choice brings autonomy, too much of it is paralyzing and stressful. So theoretically, 29 dining options would not be a great idea.
But that is the trend. And passengers are getting used to it. And paying more for it.
Cruise line rules
Most lines now offer their own version of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle Dining. But many cruise lines still retain the option to dine at a certain time, at the same table, every night in a particular dining room.
Here’s a sample of policies:
Norwegian: All dining is Freestyle, with no set dining times, although you can make reservations in main dining rooms to avoid waits. Also offered are specialty restaurants that charge a la carte (ncl.com).
Carnival: Two set dining times in main dining rooms, or choose a flexible Your Time dining option — with possible waits and no guarantee your group will sit together. Specialty restaurants charge extra (carnival.com).
Regent Seven Seas: All open seating in main dining room and specialty restaurants; all dining options are included, no extra charge (regentcruises.com).
Princess: Set dining times in main dining room, or choose the Anytime Dining option on some ships. Specialty restaurants charge extra set fees. One cool option: dinner served on your cabin balcony (princess.com).
Royal Caribbean: Set dining times, called Dynamic Dining Classic, or flexible times, called Dynamic Dining Choice. Specialty restaurants charge extra (royalcaribbean.com).
Disney: Traditional set-time seating in the dining room. Specialty restaurant charges a set fee (disneycruise.disney.go.com).
Should you buy dining packages?
A few cruise lines offer specialty restaurant dining packages. You can buy three or more nights’ worth of specialty dining at a discount. The only catch? Reservations go quickly, and some people can find themselves completely shut out or in long waits at the restaurants despite buying the packages.
An analysis of cruise ship dining packages aboard Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean done by Brittany Chrusciel at CruiseCritic.com found that in certain cases, the packages were worth getting.
What about drink packages?
It may sound like a great deal because cruise lines typically charge $10 for a glass of wine, a mug of beer or the specialty drink of the day. But do the math. The deal aboard Norwegian Escape, for example, offers an unlimited alcoholic drinks package for the seven-day cruise for $69 per person, per day.
That is $483 for the week — or nearly $1,000 per couple. If you decide to get it, make sure it’s worth it. About 25 percent of passengers on Norwegian Escape get the drinks package, Sekulovic said.