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What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food and Drinks (2022)

What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food and Drinks (2022)

Cruise vacations are famous for all-you-can-eat buffets and free-flowing cocktails. But new cruisers often don’t know what cruise food and drink options are included, and which will leave you with a bill to pay at the end of your vacation.

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Are you planning on taking your first cruise soon? Confused about the food and drink options on board? You’re probably wondering, is food included on a cruise? Are drinks on a cruise expensive?

You’ve come to the right place! I’ll answer all of your questions about cruise food and drinks.

In this article, I’ll focus on mainstream and premium cruise lines. My cruise food and drink tips won’t necessarily apply to luxury or small-ship cruises, which tend to be more all-inclusive.

What you need to know about food on a cruise

A salmon dish I enjoyed on a recent Carnival cruise

1. The buffet and main dining rooms are free of charge

All cruise ships have at least one complimentary main dining room (many have two or three), and most also have a buffet that is free of charge as well.

The main dining rooms and buffets serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Your daily planner that arrives in your stateroom each evening will show the hours that each restaurant will be open for the next day.

If you prefer to eat your meal away from the crowds, you can bring food from the buffet back to your room. Or, you can take your food to a quieter area and enjoy it there. There’s no rule that you have to eat your buffet meal at the tables in the buffet area!

Obviously, the buffets allow you to eat unlimited portions. But did you know that you can also have unlimited portions in the main dining rooms? Most cruise lines let you order multiple appetizers, main courses, and desserts at no extra charge.

Tip: If you’re not super-hungry, or want to try multiple items, order several appetizers in place of an entrée. You can also ask for appetizer-sized portions of main course items!

2. You’ll have casual dining options

Some cruise lines also offer other complimentary casual table-service restaurants outside of the main dining rooms and the buffet. Princess offers Alfredo’s, a casual venue offering hand-tossed pizza and other Italian specialties.

Another complimentary food option is counter-service dining. Carnival ships have Guy’s Burger Joint, a celebrity chef-inspired hamburger restaurant where you can get a burger and fries to enjoy by the pool.

Royal Caribbean offers the Boardwalk Dog House, serving sausages and hot dogs with an international flair.

But what if you’re looking for a bite and it’s after traditional dining hours? Midnight buffets are a relic of the past on most cruise lines. However, some cruise lines do still offer an eatery that stays open past midnight.

MSC’s buffet has pizza available until the wee hours of the morning. Princess’ International Café (one of my faves) offers round-the-clock salads, sandwiches, and pastries. Norwegian has O’Sheehan’s Irish Pub, serving traditional pub fare (including fantastic chicken wings) 24/7.

Most ships have at least one other option for after-hours food: room service.

3. Room service is (usually) free

Many cruise lines offer free room service, usually with a limited menu. Notable exceptions are Norwegian ($9.95 service charge per order). Princess offers free room service excluding select items, from $3 pizzas to $19 steaks.

Celebrity has a $4.95 room service charge for orders placed between 11 PM and 6 AM (the service charge is waived for suite guests).

Back in 2019, Carnival announced that they’d be charging a small fee per item for all room service orders. Due to backlash from cruisers, the cruise line changed their policy. Today, you can enjoy a free room service menu on Carnival with cold options like salads and sandwiches. Hot items and orders placed from the late-night menu (after 10 PM) will have a service fee.

Even if your cruise line has room service fees at other times of the day, continental breakfast delivered to your room is usually free. You can order your breakfast the night before—either from a card that you hang on your door, or on your phone app if your cruise line offers that service.

Room service breakfast typically isn’t offered on disembarkation day (although some lines offer it to those staying in full suites).

Be sure to tip your delivery person a dollar or two for this service.

You may also like: Eight Things That Will Surprise First-Time Cruisers

4. There’s usually traditional set dining and flexible dining

Throughout most of modern cruising’s history, dining times and tables were always set. That meant that you were assigned to a group of dinner companions that didn’t change during your entire cruise. This option still remains on many ships, but a more flexible “anytime” dining style has also been added to all but the most traditional cruises.

Today, traditional dining is offered on most cruise lines, with a few exceptions including Norwegian (which pioneered the flexible dining model) and newcomer Virgin Voyages.

If you prefer traditional dining, you’ll have the option of choosing an early or late dinner time before your cruise sets sail.

The early seating will typically begin between 5:30 and 6:30 PM, depending on the specific cruise line and your itinerary. Late dinner seatings usually begin between 7:30 and 8:30 PM.

You’ll have dinner at the same time each night, with the same group of people and the same waitstaff.

However, even if you choose traditional dining, breakfast and lunch will be open seating.

Tip: if you’re seated with people that you can’t imagine dining with for the entirety of your cruise, speak to the maître d’ in private. It’s not a guarantee, but they may be able to change your table or dining time.

If you choose the flexible dining option, you can eat in any of the main dining rooms at any time. You may not have to share a table, but if you show up to dinner during peak times, there might be a bit of a wait.

On some ships, you can be seated faster if you request to share a table with others who are waiting.

Many lines also allow you to make main dining room reservations even if you selected the flexible dining option. This can save you from a long wait if you want to eat at a peak time.

5. You’ll have specialty dining options

Most cruise lines now have specialty restaurants that come with an added charge. Cuisine options are usually made with higher-cost ingredients, and the menu offerings may be more inventive.

The service is also generally a little more attentive, and the ratio of staff to guests is smaller than in the main dining rooms.

The steakhouses on Carnival Cruise Line charge $38 per adult for a three-course dinner ($12 for kids). With a focus on classic steakhouse fare and upscale service, the cost to dine on board is far less than in a similar land-based location.

Adult-exclusive Remy on Disney Cruise Line is a splurge at $125 per person for dinner to start (you can also add on premium Japanese beef or caviar at an added charge).

Remy features multi-course tasting menus including items like langoustine Royale and smoked bison. They also offer brunch, a dessert flight, or small plates with wine pairings for a smaller price tag.

Read more: How Does Dining on Disney Cruise Line Work?

But many cruise lines offer specialty dining for a lower cost. On average, you’ll find specialty lunch options for about $12-$15 per person, and dinners in the $25-$30 range.

Many cruise lines now offer a discounted package for a select number of nights of specialty dining. This can be a great way to enjoy several restaurants and save a few dollars per meal.

If you choose to eat at a specialty restaurant for dinner, it’s a good idea to make reservations as soon as possible, as the most popular slots can fill up quickly.

Sometimes, specialty restaurants offer complimentary breakfast or lunch on select days. Be sure to check your cruise planner! Often there’s a theme to the meal (like BBQ or a British pub lunch), so it can be fun to try something new in more elegant surroundings, for free!

If your stateroom has a balcony or verandah, a few cruise lines also offer balcony dining with your own dedicated waitstaff for an additional charge.

Read more: Ultimate Balcony Dining on Princess Cruises

6. À la carte items mean extra charges you might not realize

Some food offerings outside of set-price specialty restaurants may come with an added charge. For example, Gelato on Princess (premium Italian ice cream), Raw on 5 on Celebrity (sushi, oysters, lobster rolls), and Izumi on Royal Caribbean (sushi and sashimi) all charge by the item.

Tip: sometimes small bites that are usually priced à la carte are free when you buy a drink. Vines Wine Bar on Princess offers free tapas with the purchase of a glass of wine (and yes, this works with the drink package!)

On some cruise lines, you might even find à la carte items in the main dining room! Carnival offers Steakhouse Selections in the MDR ($23 per person) featuring elevated entrées like filet mignon and Maine lobster.

Your menu will clearly state the upcharge, so careful readers won’t be surprised by the extra cost.

7. Beware taking food off the ship

Although it might sound like a budget-friendly idea to pack up some food from the buffet to eat during your day in port, it’s actually against the law to bring fresh foods into many countries!

Some ports won’t have anyone checking for contraband foods, but many do (and some even have sniffer dogs). Play it safe and avoid risking a fine.

If you want to take food with you for convenience or to save money, bring factory-sealed packaged foods from home. Snack bars, sealed packages of nuts or trail mix, and packages of crackers are all good options that usually won’t be confiscated.

8. Know about allergies, intolerances, and other food restrictions

Many people have food restrictions due to allergies, intolerances, religious or moral reasons, or because of a specialized diet.

Or maybe you’re cruising with kids who are super-picky eaters! (I feel your pain—my daughter finally grew out of that stage after college.)

If you or your family has food restrictions for any reason, the chef and restaurant staff on most cruise lines will work to ensure you won’t be served ingredients you can’t eat.

I’ve found that dining on a cruise with food restrictions is far easier than trying it at land-based restaurants!

However, you should let the cruise line know as far in advance as possible, especially if you have a life-threatening allergy or religious restriction. Many cruise lines ask that you give them 30-60 days’ notice before you sail if you have dietary restrictions.

Once you’re on board (at minimum) make sure that your server knows about your restrictions. A good practice is to visit the restaurant you’ll be dining in most often (embarkation day in the early afternoon is usually a good time). Ask to speak to the maître d’ or head waiter and let them know about your food restrictions.

Often, the maître d’ will be able to guide you through the menu and make recommendations for your meals and any substitutions you might have to request.

What you need to know about drinks on a cruise

Mr. SBC enjoyed a bottle of wine at Le Bistro on Norwegian Sky

1. Which beverages are included in your cruise fare?

All cruise lines offer at least some complimentary non-alcoholic beverage options. Even if you don’t want to pay an extra penny for something to drink, you won’t find yourself parched!

Basic drinks are included on most cruise lines with your meal, and you can stop by the buffet whenever it’s open to either ask for a drink or use the self-serve machines.

Choices vary by line, but water, milk, coffee, tea, iced tea, hot cocoa, and lemonade are the most common complimentary offerings. Juices are often free with breakfast on most mainstream cruises.

Tip: Tap water on cruise ships is always safe to drink—but it doesn’t always taste fantastic. Consider packing an inexpensive water bottle with a filter (I’ve used a Bobble for over a decade) to fill up right from your stateroom tap.

2. Unlimited beverage packages are available

Unlimited drinks packages are a popular option, with choices ranging from endless refills on soda to all-you-can-drink wine, beer, and cocktails.

Soda packages usually include non-alcoholic “mocktails” along with the usual soda choices, and some will even include milkshakes! Prices may vary, but they usually cost about $8 per day.

Alcohol-included packages can be pricey (think $50 to $90+ per day), but they sometimes include other drink options like specialty coffees, and bottled water. Cruise lines always include sodas in these packages.

Your drink package includes gratuity, so you won’t need to tip extra for drinks. This gratuity is based on the cost of your total package, not on the menu price of individual drinks.

Most lines have restrictions in place to specify which alcoholic drinks are covered in the package. Usually, drinks must cost under a certain amount to qualify. Often, serving staff will notice if you have a package and will let you know when you order something that’s not covered. That’s not a guarantee, so be sure to check menu prices or ask before you order.

Some lines have implemented a limit to how many alcoholic drinks you can consume in a day with a package. Carnival and Princess will cut a passenger off at 15 drinks per day—that’s probably a good thing!

Tip: Bar and waitstaff will sometimes offer specialty drinks in souvenir glasses. These are more expensive, and not covered by your all-inclusive package! Just ask for the same drink without the special glass.

Note that if you purchase a beverage package, you must purchase it for the entirety of your cruise. The only exception is if your cruise line lets you buy it on board after the first day. You aren’t able to exclude certain days, such as a port day when you have a long shore excursion.

You may also like: Are Cruise Drink Packages Worth It?

3. How and where to get drink service

At the buffets, some cruise lines have self-service beverage stations, while others offer table service.

At the pools and lounge areas, bar waiters will bring you drinks. However, during busy times service may be very slow. I’ve found that it’s often quicker to go to the bar instead of waiting for a server to come around. But, a small cash tip to your server may motivate them to visit you more often!

Cruise ships are open-container friendly, so you can order a drink anywhere and carry it wherever you want (just refrain from taking glass to the pool area).

When you first arrive at your stateroom, you’ll likely notice that there are some beverages in your room. There are probably some sodas, beer, and wine in your mini-fridge, and maybe some bottles of water on the desk.

The drinks in your room probably aren’t free (even if you have a beverage package), but some of them might be. If someone staying in your room has a high loyalty program status, a mini-bar set up may be provided gratis.

Certain categories of stateroom on some cruise lines might qualify for a free bottle of sparkling wine. Ask your steward to confirm, and they can remove any beverages that you don’t want.

At restaurants, if you order or bring a bottle of wine, the waiter will be able to tag it with your name and store it for next time if you’re unable to finish the bottle. Most cruise lines will actually deliver your unfinished bottle to your table, even if you change restaurants!

Just be aware that ordering alcohol at dinner can be a very slow process. Most main dining restaurants don’t have their own bar, so a runner has to go out to the closest bar to request drinks. During peak times, this can cause an unusually long wait time for drinks!

On one of our recent cruises where most passengers received a free unlimited beverage package as a perk, the bar staff was overwhelmed. After our first dinner (when it took 45 minutes for our glasses of wine to arrive) we began ordering our wine at the wine bar and carrying it into dinner. A bit unorthodox, perhaps, but it beat waiting!

4. What you need to know about carrying on beverages

Most mainstream cruise lines allow passengers to carry on a limited amount of beverages. Rules generally allow some soft drinks and limited amounts of wine or Champagne. Luxury lines usually have no restrictions (and usually offer all-inclusive beverages with your cruise fare).

Learn more: How to Bring Your Own Drinks on a Cruise

If you purchase alcohol while in port, consider it a souvenir because mainstream cruise lines won’t let you drink it on the ship. When you pass through security upon returning to the ship, you will have to declare your purchase. The cruise line will usually store it for you until the end of your cruise.

The same goes for alcohol purchased in the duty-free shops on board—your purchases will usually arrive at your stateroom the night before disembarkation.

Smuggling beverages aboard your cruise

Smuggling alcohol aboard a cruise ship is a hobby for some, but cruise lines are becoming wise to this practice.

Rum runners are a hot seller, and many cruisers report success with them. If you’re caught, you probably won’t get in trouble but your expensive alcohol and your flasks will likely be confiscated.

5. How to get free alcoholic drinks on your cruise

Alcohol sales are a big profit-maker for the cruise lines, so they don’t give out tons of free alcohol to passengers. However, there are some ways to score free alcohol on a cruise.

There’s often a welcome cocktail party on one of the first nights of your cruise. Check your cruise planner to see if your sailing has one, and if you need to have a specific loyalty status to attend.

At the casino, you may be able to get free drinks if you gamble enough money. It’s not like Las Vegas, where drinks are free for all players—but if you’re a high-roller you might enjoy comped drinks in the casino once you play for a while.

The onboard art auctions usually offer a free glass of Champagne, along with other perks such as a complimentary art print for those who attend. They usually hand drinks out near the end of the auction, so don’t expect to show up, grab your glass, and run!

Some of the shops on board might host events where they pass out free bubbly. They often have raffles at these events, which can be fun as well.

One night of your cruise is usually reserved for the captain’s party. Some cruise ships have a Champagne fountain, and staff will come around with trays of complimentary sparkling wine.

Cruise staff might also hand out drink coupons in customer service situations. On a recent Norwegian cruise, the wait for a table at dinner was about 45 minutes. The MDR host handed each of us a buzzer, along with coupons for a free glass of Champagne.

Tip: If your cruise line offers drink coupons for customer service issues, it’s fairly common for passengers to leave unused coupons inside the Bible in the desk drawer. Look inside the Bible, and you might score yourself a free drink!

If you’ve booked a mini-suite or full suite, you may receive some free sparkling wine. Mr. SBC and I booked a mini-suite on a recent Princess cruise, and our steward brought us welcome-aboard glasses of Champagne while we unpacked.

You may also like: Nine Things You Need to Check Before Your Cruise

Are you eagerly awaiting your first cruise? Are you planning to eat in the main dining room, the buffet, or specialty restaurants? If you’ve cruised before, what surprised you about cruise food and drinks on your first sailing? Let me know in the comments below!


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Latest posts by Carrie Ann (see all)

Sharon

Friday 8th of March 2019

I would never think to look inside the Bible for unwanted drink coupons. Ha ha! You give so many helpful tips. The free room service sounds divine!

Carrie Ann

Friday 8th of March 2019

Haha, yes, that's where cruisers leave them!! I love the free room service. Just remember that a $2 tip means the world to the people delivering your food!

Roshni

Monday 4th of March 2019

I wish I had read this before my cruise in December, but it will definitely come in handy for next time! I preferred eating in the restaurants rather than buffet

Carrie Ann

Monday 4th of March 2019

I prefer the restaurants as well, but the buffets are great if you're looking for a quicker meal. Hope you enjoy your next cruise!

Lissy L'Amoreaux

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

Great list of tips for a cruise - I wasn't totally aware of all the alcohol rules. The last cruise I did was a short weekend one and I loved the free room service!

Carrie Ann

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

Isn't the free room service the best?!? I can't stand how expensive it is at hotels...but on a cruise it's just what you do. :D

Annick

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

I only went on a cruise once and it was 7 years ago. This would have been a very helpful article to read! I love the details you put in it and how you outline all the options. Cruises are so fun but it’s good to be well informed before booking one! Thanks for sharing!

Carrie Ann

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

Annick, I'm so glad you liked my post! They never tell you any of this before you're on board so I hope I can help some newbies. Hope you get to take another cruise; they're a good time once you know all of the rules!

Pia

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

So many useful tips, this is very helpful in hopefully soon planning our first Caribbean cruise. I always thought that it's not allowed to take food from the buffet but thanks for clarifying how it works!

Carrie Ann

Sunday 3rd of March 2019

Thanks, Pia! Yes, you can take food from the buffet anywhere, just don't take it off the ship in a foreign port. Hope you love your Caribbean cruise!!