Early Or Late Dining On A Cruise: Which Is Best?

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A lot of cruise lines still offer set dining times, with the option of enjoying dinner earlier or later.

And you might already know exactly which one is right for you – but if you don’t tend to eat to a set schedule at home, you might not know which is the better option when you sail.

2 couples having a fun time at a elegant-looking dinner double date on a cruise

So, let’s compare – and help you decide which dining sitting is best for you.

Dining Times By Cruise Line

“Early” and “Late” dining times are fairly consistent across cruise lines, but with some exceptions. So it’s important to understand what the times are, as what constitutes late for one cruise line might seem early for another.

They aren’t always fixed either – sometimes it can vary depending on your ship or even on the port you’re visiting that day – but your times will always be communicated to you.

Here are the average dining times for each major cruise line:

Cruise LineEarly DiningLate Dining
Ambassador Cruise Line6 pm8.15 pm
Carnival6 pm8.15 pm
Celebrity Cruises6 pm8.30 pm
Costa Cruises6.30 pm9 pm
Cunard Line6 pm8.30 pm
Disney Cruise Line6 pm8.30 pm
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines6.15 pm8.30 pm
Holland America Line6 pm8 pm
MSC Cruises5.15 – 7 pm (varies)7.15 to 9.30 pm (varies)
P&O Cruises6 pm8.30 pm
Princess Cruises6 pm8.30 pm
Royal Caribbean5.30 pm8 pm

Marella Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages don’t offer fixed dining times – they are completely flexible.

Now you know the times, here’s some info to help you decide which is best for you…

Pros of Early Dining

1. It’s better for families (sometimes)

My daughter diningh on a cruise

With late dining often starting at around 8pm, that can sometimes be a little too late for the impatient tummies of your children, if you’re cruising as a family.

Choosing early dining means that they won’t get ‘hangry’ and you can enjoy a nice dinner together, perhaps before you send them off to the kids’ club or babysitting and then enjoy the rest of your evening.

Some cruise lines offer an alternative, though, with a dedicated children’s meal in the buffet earlier on. With P&O Cruises, you’ll still need to attend with your kids at 5 pm, so try to avoid filling up on food yourself. Some other cruise lines like MSC Cruises will take your kids to the buffet without you needing to collect them, so you can relax while they eat with their ship friends.

That way, the kids can eat at 5 pm, the adults can eat at 8 pm and everyone’s happy!

2. You’ll sleep better

A woman wearing a sleeping blind fold while sleeping soundly on a comfy bed

Experts recommend eating at least three hours before you sleep. Otherwise, you won’t have fully digested your meal and will not sleep well. Choosing an early dinner makes this much more likely – if your dinner starts at 8 pm (or, on Costa, as late as 9 pm), you might not be finished until well after 10 pm.

Now, that might be fine if you’re planning on staying up to enjoy the entertainment until the early hours, but if you like to be asleep before midnight, you might not be as well rested the following day. 

And if you’ve got an action-packed day in port, or you planned on making use of all the facilities onboard, you might feel a little sluggish. Early dining usually means a night of better sleep.

3. Flexible evenings

Cruise guests spending the night at a bar drinking after dinner

If you choose to dine at the earlier time, it means the rest of your evening is free to be spent however you want to. You can be more flexible with your plans, depending on how you feel – if you want to hit the bars, take in a show, or visit the casino, then you can do all of that, or you can just head for an early night to watch a movie in your cabin.

A Reddit user, morncuppacoffee, shares their preference for early dining around 5:30 PM during cruises to have the rest of the evening free. They mention they prefer to book their meals once onboard and do not prioritize planning meal times in advance. The user emphasizes that they enjoy waking up early to make the most of the cruise experience.

With later dinner, you instead have a window of time that you always need to fill beforehand, which is often fine – there are plenty of things you can do – but if you’re just not really feeling up to anything, you might feel like you’re sitting around waiting. For many people it won’t be an issue but some don’t like that feeling of having to wait til later on.

4. Longer sleep before excursions

An old man sleeping longer than usual before shore excursion

Some cruise excursions can start quite early in the morning, especially if you’re visiting a port where the main destination is a bit of a drive away, such as Civitavecchia for Rome. You might need to be getting off the ship at 8 am.

Nobody wants to feel rushed on their cruise, but you also don’t want to have to set your alarm for 6 am to start getting ready if you only finished your dinner 8 hours before. Choosing an earlier dining time can mean you get more time for that early night so that you’ve got all the energy you need to explore those ports.

5. No need to snack mid-afternoon

A mid afternoon snack on a clean white plate

There’s nothing wrong with snacking on a cruise, but some people do try to limit themselves in order to make sure all their outfits still fit by the end of their sailing. Choosing an earlier itinerary will make you less likely to snack after lunch, since you’ll know you don’t have quite as long to wait before you’re eating dinner.

But there’s zero judgement if you do decide to indulge mid-afternoon. You’ve paid for it, after all.

6. Snack options are available late

Cruise Mummy smiles beside a room service tray on a Cunard cruise ship, featuring a bowl of tomato soup, a slice of bread, croutons, a bowl of mixed fruit, and a pitcher of water.

If it feels like the early dining times are a bit too early, and you’re worried you’ll be hungry again later, remember that cruise ships will almost always have late-night food options.

Whether it’s 24/7 pizza, or cafes serving sandwiches, or even just your room service – it’s very unlikely you won’t be able to find something good to eat if you didn’t completely fill yourself up at dinner.

True, it counteracts some of the other reasons I’ve given for eating early, like limiting your snacks or eating too close to bed – but you do you!

Pros of Late Dining

1. You won’t feel rushed

A happy couple taking their time during their sweet dinner date

One of the biggest reasons people choose late dining is because they don’t want to feel rushed to make it to the restaurant. And that can happen, especially if you’ve been on a full-day cruise excursion. You might not have much time at all to get back to your cabin, grab a shower and get changed.

A reddit post by a redditor telling the Pros of Late Dining - “I LOVE getting back on the ship, taking a shower, getting nice and drunk for the 7:00 show, then putting $20 in a slot machine over another cocktail before heading off to my 8:30 dinner by which time I’m just a silly goose”

Even if it isn’t an excursion, you might just be enjoying the ship, especially during the summer where you can just lounge by the pool until the later evening with the sun still shining. Knowing that you have to move to go eat, especially if you’re not really hungry yet, can put a dampener on the night.

2. Pre-dinner entertainment is available

MSC cruise stage artists entertaining the cruise goers before dinner meal

Don’t assume that choosing a late dinner means that you won’t get to enjoy the entertainment on your ship. Most cruise lines will make sure there’s plenty happening during the earlier evening hours, including a second theatre performance just for those who want to eat later.

Some ships even have three performances per night, with a late show at 10.30pm in the theatre.

If you’re someone who is happy to start off their evening with a show, or that wants to head to the casino before it gets busy and then dine later, then choosing a later dinner setting could fit your schedule perfectly.

3. Fewer kids in the dining room

My two year old in the main dining room on a cruise

Honestly, I’ve never really had any problems with kids in the dining room, but I know some people would just feel more relaxed knowing that they were dining with adults only, with no risk of rowdy children spoiling the atmosphere.

A forum user named bobsfamily, with a profile picture of a seashell, shares their preference for late dining on cruises. They list several reasons, including fewer children, a laid-back crowd, less hectic service, and not missing sailaways or sunsets. They mention they often miss 1-2 nights due to attending specialty venues or other activities and find it easier to get a table for two during late seating. The post is dated March 25, 2016.

There won’t be many children, if any, on a later dining sitting. They’ll either eat earlier or eat separately with the kids’ clubs. So choosing late dining is a good way of guaranteeing a more laid back and calmer ambience.

4. Better for enjoying late nights

People are dancing and enjoying themselves at a lively nighttime event. The scene is set on what appears to be a cruise ship with a festive atmosphere, featuring twinkling string lights overhead. The participants are dressed in stylish, casual attire, with one woman wearing a sequined dress and another in a crop top and skirt. A man in a fedora dances enthusiastically with his arms raised. In the background, other guests are seated and engaged in conversation, with a few servers attending to them. The mood is joyful and energetic, capturing the essence of a fun evening.

While I’ve argued that early dinner is better for enjoying a flexible night of entertainment, you might be a night owl who loves staying up until the next morning enjoying the nightlife of the ship. If that’s the case, then late dinner might suit you better, since you can break up the evening more.

You might struggle with the next morning if you’re accidentally woken up early, but for the night owls who are always going to be in a bar come midnight or beyond, you might want to avoid eating too early so that you aren’t getting hungry again when you want to just dance.

5. Time for sophisticated cocktails

A vibrant red margarita served in a classic margarita glass with a salted rim. The drink is garnished with a slice of lime, adding a touch of citrusy freshness. The background is softly blurred, highlighting the colorful and refreshing cocktail, which sits on a polished wooden bar counter. The overall setting suggests a lively and inviting bar atmosphere, perfect for enjoying a delicious beverage.

A later dinner fits perfectly with a cocktail hour before you eat. If you love the idea of a sophisticated evening, perhaps attending an organised event (or even hosting one, if you’re staying in a suite), then consider a later dinner to leave enough time for those aperitifs. 

Some cruise lines will offer a happy hour event, typically from 5 pm to 6 pm, where special drinks may be served in lounges. You don’t want to have to down a fancy cocktail just so you can rush off to start your dinner!

What About Flexible Dining?

Many cruise lines will offer a third option for flexible dining. This may be the only option – such as with NCL – or you might get to choose. With some cruise lines, flexible dining may be limited to a set number of guests, or there might be other prerequisites – with Royal Caribbean, you can only choose My Time Dining if you prepay your gratuities.

It’s a good option for a lot of people, since you get to choose when you eat, but it isn’t perfect – you might be waiting a while for a table, depending on how busy the restaurant is, and while you’ll be given a pager you don’t want to wander too far, so it restricts you a little.

Can You Change Your Dining Time?

If you get assigned a dining time that doesn’t work for you, you can usually change it but you’ll have to do it onboard the ship. Head to the main dining room and ask to speak to the maitre d’. They can usually change things for you, especially if you’re sailing with kids and need to move to the earlier sitting.


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Final Word

There’s no right or wrong answer on which is the best dining time – it depends on you and who you’re sailing with. Some people prefer early, some have to eat later, and some insist on flexibility – even if it means a wait for a table.

Check the average dining times for your ship before you commit, but don’t panic if you do get a time you’re not happy with, as the crew onboard will always do everything they can to accommodate you.

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Cruise Mummy

Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.

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