When you book a cruise, the fare includes food. And there is a lot of free food -- in the dining room, at the buffet (both day and night), and in other venues such as the pizzeria and burger grill where you can stop as often as you wish. If you want, you can turn your five-day vacation into a total gorge fest.
But there is also the option on many cruise ships to eat at a specialty restaurant, where you pay extra to dine. Sometimes, these are worth budgeting for. Here's why: Specialty restaurants often have the best food on the ship. The upcharge goes toward high-end ingredients, like sushi and foie gras, that you are unlikely to find in the main dining room. Further, the nicer of these restaurants are intimate spaces with the sort of table-side service you'd splurge on for a fancy date.
In some cases, top land-based chefs design the menus, and it shows. You shouldn't miss a meal at Remy on select Disney ships (partly conceived by chef Arnaud Lallement of Michelin three-star restaurant l'Assiette Champenoise in France) or chef Michael Schwartz's 150 Central Park on select Royal Caribbean ships, for instance.
A word of caution, though: Not all specialty restaurants are worth the additional $20 to $85 per person. We suggest you take time before your cruise to become familiar with the venues onboard and read reviews of them. If you have your heart set on a particular restaurant, see if it's possible to make reservations pre-cruise to assure you get in. Some ships may also offer discounts on these restaurants if you reserve on the first night, when many guests are still getting settled.
Alternatively, there may also be a way to upgrade your experience in the main dining room. For instance, on select Carnival ships you can order a 1.5-pound Maine lobster, a 9-ounce filet mignon, or have Surf and Turf every night of your cruise for $20 per item -- still an added fee, but less than what you might pay for a meal at a specialty restaurant.
That said, with a bunch of options available that are included in the price of your ticket, it's up to you to determine whether fancier food is worth it.