When my husband and I first cruised, we tried to keep our budget as low as possible. Cruises can be a very economical way to travel, but there there are also ways to increase the costs.
One of the ways to spend extra money is to eat at specialty restaurants. My husband and I did not explore that possibility, but instead at at the wonderful restaurants that were included in the price of the cruise. On my more recent cruises, however, I’ve sampled a few of the specialty restaurants.
My last few cruises, one in 2018 and two in 2019, were on Norwegian Cruise Lines. I like this cruise line, but others are comparable. I started cruising with Norwegian with a group of friends. When the group invited me along for a second cruise, I couldn’t resist.
I was assigned a bronze level in the Norwegian’s loyalty program on my first cruise. With each additional cruise, I earn points to help me move up a level. The loyalty level rewards include discounts on excursions, internet minutes, and credit toward specialty dining. This is the cruise line’s way to get you hooked on their brand.
Most of the popular cruise lines have several options for dining. Some lines require that you choose ahead of time. Norwegian advertises “Freestyle” meaning that you can choose the dining option each time you wan to eat. Several other cruise lines have implemented the same or similar programs.
There are a number of restaurant choices for dining on a cruise ship. I can choose to eat at the buffet, a complimentary restaurant, or one of the specialty restaurants. Each one has its benefits, but the best part is that you can choose what fits your own style.
The easiest and most casual is the buffet. On the Norwegian ships that I’ve cruised, the buffet was open longer hours than other restaurants. It was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus there was usually a variety of snacks between meals.
A large selection of food was available on the buffet – sometimes it followed a theme, like Mexican or Asian – but there were always basics to choose from, too.
I like eating breakfast at the buffet. Although the sit-down restaurants are nice, I usually like to get started on my day and don’t want to take the time to wait for my food to come. On my first cruise, I frequented the same egg line so often that the “egg man” knew my order.
On one of the ships, there was a mini buffet by the pool. There were hot dogs, burgers, salads and fruit. I would often get a salad and fruit for a nice light lunch.
In the past, cruise ships would have a midnight buffet one night during the cruise. These buffets included ice and food sculptures with a lovely display of delicious choices. Most cruise lines have discontinued their midnight buffets because, although cruisers would come to take pictures, most would not come to eat. All the beautiful food would go to waste.
Each ship has a number of sit-down restaurants that are included in the cruise price. In my experience, these restaurants would be available for breakfast and dinner, with limited hours. If I decided to sleep in on a sea day, I might miss breakfast in one of these restaurants (but still could eat at the buffet). Some of them were also available for lunch.
One of my favorite complimentary restaurants on the Norwegian ships is O’Sheehan’s. This Irish pub themed restaurant offers great fish and chips, fajitas, and dinnertime specials. It is advertised as open 24 hours a day, although I haven’t tried to get food at odd hours (like the middle of the night). I usually eat my first cruise meal here, because it is one of the first restaurants open when boarding. The newest cruise Norwegian ships have replaced O’Sheehan’s with The Local – I’ll be trying one out next summer.
Each Norwegian ship has two or three complimentary formal restaurants. These may have dress codes, although they are not strict (no shorts is a common request).
On each restaurant menu, there is a selection of five or six entrees that appear every night. In addition, there are an equal number of specials. If a special sounds good, order it – you might not see it again. If you order it and it’s not what you expected, feel free to order a different entree. If you are especially hungry, you can order two to begin with.
If you choose the same complimentary restaurant and eat around the same time each night, you will begin to recognize the wait staff – and they will recognize you. They remember who drinks coffee, a certain brand of soft drink, and even the wine you prefer. It’s amazing how much the wait staff remembers – and when your cruise is over, they start learning the preferences of a new group of people.
Specialty restaurants are ones that are not included in the price of the cruise – they cost extra. The complimentary restaurants are great, so why would anyone pay extra? When I cruised with my husband, that was what we thought. If your budget is limited, or if this is your first cruise, you may not want to try out the specialty restaurants. They are very nice, though, so if you can fit them in your budget, go for it.
Currently on Norwegian, some specialty restaurants are priced a la carte, others are $39, plus a 20% gratuity. Specialty dining packages on the cruise line are available for a bit of a savings if pre-purchased. Packages start with three meals, then four meals, five meals, and so on. It is possible to eat in a specialty restaurant every evening of the cruise.
I’ve purchased a three meal package in the past, although the price has gone up considerably since then. If I do three meals, it works out that I save about 20%, as the gratuity is included in the pre-purchase price. For each additional night after the first three the average price per meal goes down. Eleven nights ($226) cost less than twice as much as three nights ($118). I’ll try it sometime to see if it’s worth it.
Here are some restaurants I’m familiar with:
Le Bistro, French – French Onion Soup, Escargot, and Duck Two Ways were some of my favorites. Oh, and Crème Brûlée for desert.
La Cucina, Italian – It was hard to decide what to eat here – so many great Italian dishes.
Moderno Churrascaria, Brazilian – twelve different slow-roasted meats, and amazingly delicious roasted pineapple.
Cagney’s Steakhouse – I don’t eat beef, so I skipped this restaurant. My friends said it was great and the menu had a seafood platter. I think I’ll join them next time.
Teppanyaki, Japanese – The chefs are as interesting and fun as the food is delicious.
Restaurants on the Cruise Ship
One of the best parts of cruising is eating. No matter which restaurant you choose, you are bound to have good food.
What was your favorite meal on a cruise ship? Do you cruise with a different line? What have your experiences been? Leave your comments below.