Cruise Ship Dining Times: Early, Late, or Anytime?

princess cruises main dining room restaurant
There are pros and cons to each type of evening dining. - Photo by Princess Cruises

Most cruise lines offer three options for dinner in the main dining room: early, late, and anytime. We’ve gathered the pros and cons of each dining option.

Early Dining

celebrity cruises family main dining room

Families with children often prefer the early dinner seating. - Photo by Celebrity Cruises

Early dining typically begins anywhere from 5:30 to 6:30 pm.


  • Early dining frees up your entire evening for shows, live music, deck parties, and other activities around the ship.
  • It’s also great for families with children, because kids are often used to eating a bit earlier.


  • Eating during the first seating can be rushed, as crew needs to get ready for the second seating.
  • Early dining also tends to be more popular, which means it will fill up first on many cruises. If you want the first seating, be sure to make your selection as soon as you book the cruise.
  • Sometimes a ship will stay in port until 5 or 6 pm, which can be difficult for early diners that also want to maximize their time on land. You may be in a time crunch to get back to the ship, change, and get ready for dinner. 
  • Since the early seating is great for families with younger kids, that naturally means that there will be more children in the dining room during early dining. Many people aren’t bothered by that, but if you prefer a more quiet experience, consider the late seating.

Late Dining

celebrity cruise main dining couple restaurant

Adults might prefer late dining, where the dining room will be quieter and more laid-back. - Photo by Celebrity Cruises

Late dining begins anywhere from 7:45 to 8:30 pm.


  • Since there is no one after this seating to prepare for, late dining tends to be a more relaxed atmosphere with both the crew and guests.
  • Since early dining is so popular on most ships, the late seating usually fills up slower, so if this is your preference you have a better chance of securing it.
  • Port days can be very tiring, and having a nice gap between getting back to the ship and eating dinner can be a great time to recharge a little bit. Guests who are dining late don’t have to rush back and get ready for dinner right away.
  • Families with children often prefer early dining, which means the late seating won’t have as many little ones around.


  • If you’re eating later, you’ll probably have to catch the early evening show, which can cramp evening plans and make you feel the need to look at your watch all too often.
  • Sometimes the most appealing evening activity happens right when late diners are sitting down to eat. If you really don’t want to miss out, you can always choose another dining option for that evening.
  • Waiting until 8 pm for dinner can be too long for many kids, which means you will either be grazing at the buffet until then, or seeing if you can switch to early or anytime dining.
  • Some people don’t give this a second thought, but late dining means you’ll probably be going to bed somewhat soon after eating.

Anytime Dining

royal caribbean main dining american icon

The American Icon on Anthem of the Seas is one of the anytime dining rooms. - Photo by Royal Caribbean International

Anytime dining can be anywhere from 5:30 to 9:30 pm, but it will vary depending on the cruise line. Guests who don’t want to stick to a set dinner schedule each night can choose anytime dining, where you can go to the assigned dining room (which will be different than the set time dining room) at any point during dinner hours and be seated.


  • There’s one big pro for anytime dining, and it’s enough to convince a lot of people to choose it. You gain the ultimate flexibility with your dinner schedule, because you can eat whenever you want within the allotted hours. Many families choose this because sometimes it’s hard to predict when the kids will be hungry, especially on vacation, and this allows them to head to the dining room whenever the mood strikes.


  • During popular meal times, there will most likely be a wait to get a table. Instead of just standing in a line, many lines give you a little buzzer, and it goes off when they have a table ready for you. If you don’t want to ever have to wait though, we strongly recommend choosing a set dining time.
  • Since anytime dining isn’t scheduled and you don’t have an assigned table, you probably won’t have the same wait staff from night to night. This isn’t a big deal to some, but others enjoy getting to know their servers and the servers tend to learn your preferences, which is a nice addition to the cruising experience.

Tip: Most cruise lines allow you to make a reservation for your preferred dining time if you have anytime dining. This will usually allow you to have the same wait staff and is a great option that combines the flexibility of anytime dining with the traditional benefits of a fixed dining time.

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Which type of dinnertime dining do you prefer?

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