An expert guide to cruise ship dining

It used to be so simple. You dressed formally and went to the Main Dining Room of your cruise liner at the appointed hour. You sat in the same seat, at the same table and talked to the same people night after night.

Now? Now it's like a floating Good Food Guide of dining options for breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything in between. It's free seating, tables for two, chef's tables, wellness and vegan menus, captain's tables, lawn picnics, wine-matched degustations and in-cabin dining. Specialty restaurants offer sushi, Thai curries, Italian pasta, Tuscan steaks, and Nordic fine dining. One cruise ship (Symphony of The Seas) has 23 different dining venues – good luck with that, on a seven-day cruise.

The truth is that making the most of dining on your cruising holiday requires quite a bit of work. You need to study the form, and reserve tables ahead, if you can. If not, find the reservations manager as soon as you board, as tables for two and early sittings sell out first. (And if you don't get what you want, just go with the flow, join a larger table and make friends. Remember, these are people who haven't heard your jokes before.)

Pro tips: eat at as many of the restaurants as you can; it's fun to try something new. Make a friend of the sommelier. Find out when the buffet restaurant is doing grilled lobster (it happens) and when the main dining room is opening the caviar (often the formal night, if there is one).

If you're a bit of a chef botherer, you can follow your favourite chef miles out to sea. Per Se's Thomas Keller has a deal with Seabourn; Marco Pierre White is with P&O cruises, Nobu Matsuhisa is on Crystal; Jacques Pepin is Oceania; Curtis Stone is Princess Cruises; Mark Best is Genting Dream, and Luke Mangan is with P&O.

As for that fiendish drinks package, it depends what sort of drinker you are – just a quiet beer, three martinis a day, or only-the-best-will-do wine? Go through the options and do the maths before you sign up. Check, also, if your cruise line allows you to bring a bottle on board per port of call. Some do, some don't.

Finally, if you have booked a fancy suite, you might score an invite to the Captain's Table, often in a dedicated private dining room. It's a good chance to meet your fellow suite-dwellers, but don't do it too often, or you might find yourself sitting in the same seat, at the same table, talking to the same people night after night.