The Elusive Table for Eight

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This is the story of my unfortunate encounters with Princess Cruise Lines' "Personal Choice" Dining (anytime dining) on our recent cruise aboard the Golden Princess.

The advertised theory is that you can dine with whom you want, any time during dining room hours (5:30 to 10 p.m.). Mrs. Kuki may have objected had she known about some of the ladies onboard I wanted to dine with. But her objections probably would have been no louder than those from the women themselves, had they known they were on my list of preferred dining companions.

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On the first night, we arranged to have dinner with six other members of our CruiseMates group. We met for a pre-dinner drink at 7 p.m., then went to be seated, only to find fairly significant lines at the doors to each of the two dining rooms dedicated to Personal Choice.

When we reached the front of the line and asked the maitre d' for a table for eight, he gave us a paging device and told we likely had a 15-20 minute wait. The maitre d' also rather harshly informed us that if we would like a table "this large" for future evenings, we should reserve one in advance.

After a 25-minute wait, our pager alerted us that our table was ready. But when we returned to the dining room, we had to stand in line once more. Apparently their procedure puts the people whose tables are ready in the same line as passengers who have just arrived to request a table.

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The end result: We stood in line to request a table, waited 25 minutes for a table, then stood in line again to get into the dining room once our table was ready.

On the second night of the cruise, since I didn't want to the maitre d' yelling at me again, I took his advice and called ahead during the day to request a reservation for a table for eight. I was informed that the time we requested wasn't available, but 15 minutes earlier was, if that was satisfactory. I had to wonder what the answer would have been if I said it was not.

The 15-minute time difference was of little consequence to me, but why it would be to "them" is beyond my simple comprehension abilities. I was exasperated further during dinner that night when I approached the maitre d' during a break between courses to request a reservation for the next night for a table for 10, at a later time (thinking perhaps we had requested a "peak time"). I was told this time wouldn't do, but they could manage the time I had originally wanted tonight (but was unavailable). I did inquire as to why it would be good for the next day, but wasn't good for tonight. I think he understood the question was hypothetical when I walked away without waiting for his response.

By day four, I was actually able to get the reservation time I wanted, but when I spoke to the maitre d' to request that time for each coming evening, I was told it was not possible. He told us we'd have to come 15 minutes earlier some nights, and a half-hour earlier others.

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It was becoming obvious to me that our "Personal Choice" dining times would be more his personal choice than ours!

Here's another disruptive factor in the Personal Choice dining room experience: As we ate our dinner, the staff rolled tabletops past us and carried chairs above our heads, as they struggled to change table sizes to match the demands of the incoming traffic.

"Personal Choice Dining" is no longer new to Princess. They've had it in place for a considerable amount of time, and by now should be able to handle it better than they demonstrated on our sailing if they want to continue to use it as their "signature."

Various waiters indicated to us that they prefer working the Personal Choice dining rooms to the traditional dining room. They said they felt they weren't as rushed, nor were they rushing the passengers.

We experienced five different teams of wait staff, and found all to be very friendly and courteous, but we felt the food service was just reasonable, in some cases not good, and in all cases far from exceptional.

We did find one advantage to Personal Choice dining. A couple of nights, we had tables for six or eight, and one night we arranged for a table for 10. Changing table sizes like this would not be possible in a traditional dining room. To be fair, we spoke to some fellow passengers who were delighted with the Personal Choice system, and did not encounter the same issues we did. We also spoke to a number who felt exactly as we did.

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For us, Personal Choice seemed to require too much organization on our part to make up for the lack of organization of the dining rooms. When we simply showed up to get a table, we were told to make reservations. When we attempted to make reservations, the times we chose were not available. Frankly, the entire system reminded me of some land-based restaurants I choose to avoid.

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