If you’ve never taken a cruise before, you might be a little confused about what happens with the food on the ship.
Is it all completely free? Or do you have to pay for it? And if so, how do you pay?
You don’t want to be worrying about how you’re going to eat on a cruise, so this guide will tell you everything you need to know about what food is included on your cruise.
Is food free on a cruise?
On every cruise – regardless of the cruise line – you will be able to enjoy included food without paying extra. Not every restaurant will be free, but there is always a main dining room, and there is usually a buffet, and these are typically open for every meal and they don’t charge extra.
The only time that food isn’t free would be on a cruise ferry, such as those between mainland Australia and Tasmania or in Scandinavia. But those aren’t really cruises. They’re more ferries.
So yes, you can relax a little – you don’t need to pay any extra for your food on your cruise. It’s perfectly reasonable to stick to the free options, and you will never go hungry. The buffet is usually open throughout the day, and you can just go and help yourself whenever you want a snack.
And then with the Main Dining Room, you get a sit-down meal with a menu that usually changes daily, and that will be open for breakfast and dinner. Sometimes they are open for lunch but that depends on the cruise line.
Beyond that, cruise ships will have a selection of dining venues, some of which may be included, but others might not be, and may have an extra charge.
Food Included In Your Cruise Fare
Here’s a look at all the different dining options on a cruise ship, and whether or not they’re included.
1. Main Dining Room
Every cruise ship has a Main Dining Room. Often split across multiple levels, this is considered your core dining venue – you’ll have the option of eating breakfast and dinner here, and usually, lunch too, although some cruise lines may close the Main Dining Room for lunch.
In most cases, everything you want to eat in the Main Dining Room will be included. You’ll get a full three-course meal, usually with bread served too. And here’s the fun thing – you can actually order multiple meals if you want to – if you’re stuck between two options on the menu, why not get both?
You’ll need to check with your cruise line whether there is a charge. Holland America Line introduced a $10 charge for a second entree in 2019 but withdrew this charge at a later date.
And Carnival now charges $5 for every additional entree you order after your second – but you can still get two main courses without paying extra.
Also, I said that “in most cases” everything you want to eat in this venue will be included, but some cruise lines do include a selection of premium options that do have an additional charge.
These are usually premium steak or seafood options, or they might be dishes from one of the speciality restaurants on the ship, but instead served in the Main Dining Room.
The charges for these will be clearly labelled on the menu when you order, so don’t worry about accidentally ordering a meal that isn’t included for free.
All cruise lines have some form of buffet – a casual dining venue that’s open from early in the morning until the evening, serving a wide range of foods. And this is always included in your fare – there’s never anything extra to pay for at the buffet.
Breakfast will usually involve a selection of pastries, cereals, yoghurts, continental meats/cold cuts, and a wide variety of cooked items, such as bacon, sausage, eggs and more. The exact items offered will vary by cruise line. You can often get your eggs cooked to order too.
Then the buffet is changed over at lunch to offer various different items. Typical items include a salad station, burgers, fries, pizza, pasta meals and more, and many cruise lines will have a carving station with a meat of the day. Items will sometimes change throughout the cruise itinerary but there will be a core selection of simple favourites.
The buffet’s a great spot if you’re travelling with kids who are fussy, because the options are always simple. It’s also a great spot if you want to spend less time sitting down for a meal – you tend to be in and out of the buffet much faster.
Finally, the buffet is often used for guests who don’t want to take part in formal night onboard. If you don’t want to pack a suit or a dress for formal night, you can avoid the dress code by dining in the buffet instead.
3. Casual Dining
Now we’re starting to get into the areas where there are more differences between cruise lines. Most cruise lines will have some casual dining venues and they may or may not be included in the cost of your cruise.
Many cruise lines will have a pizzeria onboard designed for those times when you just want to grab a quick slice, or take a pizza back to your cabin with you. And they’re often open quite late – perfect if you’re peckish after a night at the entertainment.
The pizzeria is usually free, though not always.
When you’re lounging by a pool, you don’t want to trek all the way to the buffet (and risk losing your lounger) when you’re in the mood for a bite. So many cruise lines will have outdoor grills serving burgers, hot dogs and other classic snacks for a quick grab-and-go option.
Again, these are often included at no extra charge but it does vary by cruise line. They’re usually open for lunch and may extend into the late afternoon/early evening, but typically they’re aimed at guests enjoying a smaller meal during the day.
A little less common on cruise ships – but still not unusual – is a relaxed cafe location where guests can enjoy a selection of sandwiches, pastries and other lighter bites. Typically open only at lunch and sometimes breakfast, they’re a good option if you plan on enjoying something smaller to tide you over until your main dinner that evening.
Sandwich shops and cafes vary on cruise ships – some will be included, others will cost you extra.
Ice Cream Parlours
Who doesn’t love the idea of a cold ice cream while enjoying a cruise? There are two options for ice cream – some lines will have a soft-serve ice cream machine typically on the pool deck, while others will have a dedicated ice cream parlour where you can make custom sundaes with all kinds of toppings. Some ships have both, because why not?
Soft-serve ice cream is sometimes free, but not always. Ice cream parlours, where you’re making bigger sundaes or loaded cones, tend to have a charge.
Here’s a look at the casual dining options by cruise line, and whether they’re included or not.
|Cruise Line||Pizzeria||Burger Gril||Sandwich Shop||Soft Serve Ice Cream||Ice Cream Parlour|
|Ambassador Cruise Line||Included||Included||Included (at the buffet)||N/A||£1.50 per scoop|
|Celebrity Cruises||Included (at the buffet)||Included||Included (at the buffet)||Included (at the buffet)||N/A|
|Disney Cruise Line||Included||Included||Included||Included (at the buffet)||$2.50 per scoop Sundaes from $4.95|
|Holland America Line||Included||Included||Included||Hard scoop included at the buffet||$2 per scoop with 2 toppings included|
|Marella Cruises||Included||Included||Included||N/A||£1 per scoop|
|MSC Cruises||Included (at the buffet)||Included (at the buffet)||Included (at the buffet)||Included (at the buffet)||From £3 for gelato|
|NCL||Included||Included||Included||Included||$2.75 per scoop|
|P&O Cruises||Included||Included||Included (at the buffet)||Hard scoop included with meals only||£1.50 per scoop|
|Princess Cruises||Included||Included||Included (at the buffet)||Included||$1.50 per scoop|
|Royal Caribbean||Included||Included||Included||Included||Sundaes from $7.50|
|Virgin Voyages||Included||Included (at the buffet)||Included (at the buffet)||N/A||Included|
4. Room Service
Cruise lines almost always offer room service, letting you relax in your room and enjoy a snack or a full meal without having to head to a restaurant.
Some offer room service during limited hours, but most offer room service around the clock – yes, even if you wake up at 3 am, you can request food to your room and in around 30 minutes or so, you’ll have it.
Room service prices vary – sometimes it’s completely free, other times there will be some free items, and you may or may not have to pay a service charge.
Here’s a full breakdown of room service on the major cruise lines:
|Cruise line||Room service hours||Food cost||Delivery fee|
|Carnival||24-hour||Continental breakfast included, everything else charged||Included|
|Celebrity||24-hour||Included||Complimentary for continental breakfast.$9.95 + 18% gratuity for all other orders.Free for guests in The Retreat.|
|Holland America Line||24-hour||Mostly included||Included|
|Marella||24-hour||Charged – from £2||Included|
|MSC||24-hour||Some included, some charged||$4.99 on Bella cruise faresFree on Fantastica & Aurea|
|NCL||24-hour||Included||Complimentary for continental breakfast.$9.95 for all other orders.|
|P&O||24-hour||Continental breakfast included, everything else charged||£2.50|
|Princess||24-hour||Some included, some charged||Included|
|Royal Caribbean||24-hour||Included||Complimentary for continental breakfast.$7.95 + 18% gratuity for all other orders.|
|Virgin Voyages||24-hour||Included||$5Free if a drink is bought|
5. Speciality Dining
Most cruise ships will have speciality dining restaurants – these are restaurants that specialise in one type of cuisine.
The term ‘speciality dining’ has become a little muddled though, because some people use it to only refer to dining venues that have a charge. In most cases, a speciality dining venue will charge, but there are some which are included in your fare. It varies by cruise line.
Some ships will have one or two speciality dining venues, and some may have more than 10. It depends on how big the ship is. You don’t need to eat at these venues – the Main Dining Room and buffet are fine – but if you want more variety or a better quality of food then these are great places to try.
Cover Charge Restaurants
Some speciality dining venues work with a flat cover charge. You pay one fee, and then you can enjoy whatever you want from the menu.
Prices vary – some cover charges are pretty nominal, starting at around $20 per person. A typical cost would be around $30-50. The most expensive I’ve found is Remy, onboard Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. This venue costs $125 per person for dinner.
A La Carte Dining
A la carte dining is when a speciality restaurant offers individually-priced menu options. This is more common on the more casual speciality venues on a ship – more formal restaurants tend to stick with a cover charge.
Again, costs will vary depending on the cuisine. Sushi rolls may be available from around $3-4, but if you’re heading to a steak restaurant without a cover charge, you may be paying $35+ for your entree.
Exclusive Dining For Suite Guests
Some ships have restaurants reserved for suite guests only – these venues are more exclusive, will have a higher quality of menu and tend to be lavishly decorated.
But typically, the cost is included. You’re already paying a higher price for your suite, so think of this as an alternative Main Dining Room.
It may not always be the case – check with your cruise line – but usually any suite-exclusive venues don’t have extra costs at all.
Plus, one of the perks of booking a suite is that you usually have fresh fruit and canapes delivered regularly to your room.
Which Drinks Are Free?
On most cruise lines, the only free drinks will be tap or fountain water served throughout the day, and then tea, coffee and juices served in the morning. Some cruise lines have slightly better free options, but usually, you need to pay.
The best cruise lines for inclusive drinks are Disney Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages – they include sodas at no extra charge. Some British cruise lines also have tea and coffee stations around the ship, or in your cabin, that you can use freely.
The worst for inclusive drinks is Costa – you don’t get free water throughout the day, and will need to pay for a drinks package or buy your drinks individually if you want to drink.
If you’re worried about food costs on your first cruise, don’t be. You can easily enjoy a cruise without spending a penny extra on food, and you certainly won’t go hungry. The buffet alone will see to that.
However, if you’re looking for the best dining experiences then you may need to pay extra for some of the venues. It’s optional, but there are some wonderful restaurants to try.
If you book a cruise with any free onboard credit, speciality restaurants are some of the best ways to enjoy it.
- Can You Take Food Off a Cruise Ship?
- What’s Included in a Royal Caribbean Cruise? (And How Much is Everything Else?)
- The Ultimate Guide to Cruise Drink Packages