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Cruise Buffet Etiquette: 12 Tips to Avoid Annoying Other Passengers

Cruise Buffet Etiquette: 12 Tips to Avoid Annoying Other Passengers

Are you curious about cruise buffet etiquette? Find out all the dos and don’ts about eating at your cruise ship’s buffet.

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Many passengers choose the buffet as their preferred dining option on a cruise ship, for several reasons. Cruise buffets provide a broad variety of foods and the flexibility to pick exactly what you want to eat.

But with the communal nature of buffet dining, it’s important to be mindful of buffet etiquette to make sure everyone has a great experience.

Even if you’re not usually a “buffet person”, you might find yourself eating at one, at least once on your cruise! Cruise line private island destinations typically only serve a buffet-style lunch while you’re ashore, and many shore excursions that include lunch serve it buffet-style. Or, you might feel a bit hungry on the ship and the buffet’s the only thing open!

Etiquette at cruise buffets is all about knowing what to do so you feel comfortable—and so you can make others feel comfortable too.

Here are 12 essential cruise buffet etiquette tips that all cruisers need to know.

1. Put a cover-up over your swimsuit

Cruise ship buffets are often located near the pool deck, but that doesn’t mean you can saunter in for lunch wearing only a bikini or swim trunks! The buffet will always have a more casual dress code than the other sit-down restaurants, but wearing just a swimsuit inside isn’t proper cruise etiquette.

Your swimwear is fine outside by the pool, but cruise etiquette says you need to cover up before entering the buffet.

You don’t need to change completely—just throw on a coverup over your bathing suit. A t-shirt is just fine if you’re wearing shorts or a swim skirt.

Related: 20+ Cute Swim Coverups for Cruises & Beach Travel

Just be careful that your swimwear isn’t damp before you sit down! Take a few minutes to dry off thoroughly so you don’t leave a soggy chair cushion for the next buffet guest.

If you really don’t want to cover up, consider trying one of the outdoor quick-service venues around the pool deck. Most cruise ships have at least one option that serves casual food like burgers, hot dogs, or burritos.

2. Wash (or at least sanitize) your hands before entering the buffet

We all know that thorough handwashing helps prevent nasty germs from spreading around the ship. This is especially true with self-service buffets.

No one cares that your hands are “already clean”—wash or sanitize again when you enter the buffet. Ships will have sinks or sanitizer stations right at the entrance.

Many cruise ships have hand washing stations at the buffet entrance. Always wash or sanitize your hands before choosing your food.

As you move through the buffet area, avoid touching your face, hair, or other objects while serving yourself food to prevent the spread of germs.

Related: How to Avoid Getting Sick on a Cruise

3. Respect the buffet line

I cruise a lot, but even I’ll admit it. Navigating the various lines at the cruise buffet can be confusing. Smaller buffets, like what you might encounter at a wedding, usually have just one line—and it’s obvious where it starts and what direction you should go.

But cruise buffets, especially on the newer megaships, often feature massive spreads with various stations.

The long-established etiquette rule for buffets is that they move counterclockwise, so lines should move from right to left. The stack of plates should be placed at the beginning of the buffet section.

However, some sections of cruise buffets are rectangular or circular, and don’t offer plates, so it’s hard to tell if you’re supposed to jump right in or begin at a specific point.

Wait your turn and don’t jump the line at cruise ship buffets.

Before I enter any buffet line, I take a moment to stand back and observe the flow of traffic. Even if it’s going the opposite way to conventional etiquette, I join at the end of the already established queue.

One hard and fast rule, even if the line looks confusing, is to never just jump in between two other guests who are obviously moving along an established path.

The only exception is if you just made it through the entire line and forgot something. In that case, it’s fine to politely say something like, “I’m so sorry, but I forgot to add the croutons to my salad. Would you mind if I just pop in here and take some?”

Related: Cunard Partners With Etiquette Expert Grant Harrold for the Ultimate Afternoon Tea Lesson

4. Don’t take forever to make your selections

Cruise buffets have so many options, it can be hard to choose exactly what you want to eat! But with lots of hungry diners lining up to fill their plates, excessive indecisiveness can cause a real holdup.

Pausing for a quick second to ask yourself whether you’d rather have Caesar dressing or balsamic on your salad is just fine. But spending a full minute staring at the chicken piccata and the baked halibut, not knowing what you’re in the mood for will absolutely annoy the guests behind you.

Cruisers expect the buffet line to move efficiently, so don’t cause a backup by being indecisive.

For you indecisive buffet-goers, I have a few tips that will help:

  • If it’s not super busy, scope out the entire buffet before you grab a plate (behind the line, of course) to see all the options. Your brain will start narrowing down the choices before you hop in line.
  • Take a small amount of each dish you can’t decide about. If you especially like something, go back and take another portion.
  • If you’re already in line and know you’re taking a bit longer than the average person, apologize to the guests behind you and politely invite them to pass. Be sure to step out of the way if they want one of the items in front of you.

Related: What New Cruisers Don’t Know About Cruise Food and Drinks

5. Supervise your kids at the cruise buffet

If you’re cruising with kids, it’s an obvious breach of cruise buffet etiquette to let them run around the buffet. But even if your child or grandchild is super well-behaved, they might not understand all the buffet health and safety rules.

Younger kids might be amazing at serving themselves during family-style dinners. But at home, no one really cares if little Braxxton or Brockleigh uses the vegetable spoon to scoop up some hummus, or touches every carrot on the crudité plate to find the right one.

At a cruise buffet, literally every other guest will care. Until your kid is old enough, you’ll need to do the scooping and serving. I’ve found that while cruising with little ones, the best strategy is to fill up their plates first, leave them at the table with your partner or another family member, and then go back for your own food.

Younger kids should be supervised at the buffet so they don’t touch food or disrupt other guests.

Most tweens and young teens have reached the stage where they absolutely understand proper health practices, especially today’s teenagers whose lives were disrupted by the pandemic!

If they’ll sometimes be dining alone or with siblings or friends, younger teens might just need a few reminders about etiquette at the buffet—like how to enter the line correctly and the importance of self-awareness in crowded spaces.

Sure it might go in one ear and out the other, but it’s worth a try!

6. Use the designated utensils

Every food item at a cruise ship buffet will (or at least should) have a serving utensil that goes along with it.

Make sure that you only use the utensil that corresponds with the food you’re picking up. Food allergies are very common, and many people have dietary restrictions for medical, religious, or other reasons. As an example, if you pick up shrimp with tongs and then use the same tongs to grab a piece of chicken, you could potentially be endangering someone with a shellfish allergy.

Each food item at the cruise ship buffet has its own utensil for that item only.

Even cruisers with non-life-threatening dietary restrictions won’t be happy if the foods they’re able to eat have been contaminated with bits from other serving containers.

If there isn’t a serving utensil near the food you want (or if you accidentally drop it on the floor), just ask a member of the dining staff and they’ll be happy to get you a new one.

7. Avoid eating in line

With all the things to do on a cruise, it’s not hard to work up an appetite! I get it—sometimes by the time I make it to the buffet line I’m seriously hungry and want to eat everything in sight.

But eating (even just nibbling) your food in line goes against cruise buffet etiquette. It’s not just because it’s rude!

You might be hungry, but eating in line at the buffet is a no-no.

If you snack in the buffet line, odds are your fingers are touching your mouth. Even if you’re some kind of superhuman balancing act and you manage to use a knife and fork to take bites from your plate, you’re potentially introducing germs to the fresh food you and other guests are adding to their meals.

So hold off on eating until you get to the table. Your fellow cruisers will appreciate it!

8. Don’t put food back

The rule at cruise buffets is that if you put a piece of food on your plate, it’s now your piece of food. Never return it to the serving dish, even if it’s too large of a piece or not what you really wanted.

“You touch it, you own it” is a cardinal rule of cruise buffet etiquette.

If you touch a piece of food with your hands (accidentally, of course), put it on your plate—you now own that food. You don’t have to actually eat it, you just can’t put it back on the buffet. I know it was an accident, and I know you washed your hands. Sorry, it’s now yours.

9. Don’t cough or sneeze near the food

Yes, buffets have sneeze guards, but that doesn’t mean you can achoo all over it! If you feel a cough or sneeze coming on, turn away from the food and use the crook of your elbow to cover your mouth.

Avoid sneezing or coughing on the food or on your hands while in line at the buffet.

Germs from your hands can get on the serving utensils, which will potentially be used by hundreds of other passengers.

If you’re truly sick, please avoid the buffet and let the medical center know. Germs can spread fast on a cruise ship!

10. Always use a fresh plate and cup

If you return to the buffet for another helping, always leave your dirty plate on the table and choose a fresh one. Bringing a used plate back up to the buffet raises the risk of germs contaminating the food.

The crew would rather wash your extra dish than have to deal with an outbreak of illness on the ship!

Cruise buffets have plenty of cups and plates, so take a fresh one each time!

The same goes for cups and glasses on cruise lines with self-serve drinks—when you need a refill, get a fresh cup. If you have a refillable water bottle or coffee mug, it’s proper buffet etiquette to fill a fresh cup from the drink station and then pour it into your reusable container.

It’s also a smart idea to sanitize your hands again before you return to the buffet for a second serving, dessert, or a drink refill.

11. Don’t sit at a buffet table when you’re not eating

Most people who hit the cruise buffet are doing so to have a relatively fast meal. As long as you can quickly find an empty table, you can be in and out of the buffet much faster than it takes to eat in the main dining room.

Timing is especially important when you have an early shore excursion, or if you’re rushing to eat before a show or other time-sensitive activity.

Hogging a cruise buffet dining table when you’re not eating is a surefire way to annoy other passengers.

But some clueless cruisers like to camp out at a table in the buffet’s dining area, even if they aren’t eating. I’ve seen people leisurely reading a book with no food in sight, and on a recent cruise there was a group that would take up a large table to play card games!

The buffet can get really busy, and it’s frustrating to have to walk around carrying your plate and not finding a place to sit. If you’re not eating, there are plenty of places around the ship to hang out and relax.

12. Respect cultural and dietary differences

Cruise ships host passengers from around the world, with different food choices and dining practices. The crew and staff on the ship also come from various cultural backgrounds. Be mindful of making comments about foods at the buffet that look or smell different than what you’re used to in your home country.

At most cruise buffets, you’ll find a range of international food options, including favorites that will be familiar to you. If a certain type of food isn’t your thing, just move on and choose something you like.

It’s courteous to respect other passengers’ dietary choices when dining at a cruise ship buffet.

The same rule applies for the food that other guests select—or what they choose not to eat. Commenting on strangers’ dietary choices when in line at the buffet is simply rude.

Even comments like “Boy, you must be hungry!” to someone piling their plate high, or “You don’t need the sugar-free muffin, a few extra calories won’t hurt you!” might seem like good-natured conversation. But what some might think of as harmless banter can be hurtful. Skip the unneccessary comments about food choices to avoid offending others.

What to do if another guest is breaking cruise buffet etiquette

On every cruise I’ve taken, I’ve encountered people who break even the most basic rules of buffet etiquette. From oblivious line-cutters to the lovely person I spied digging through all the bread rolls with bare hands to find the perfect one, there’ll be people who make your blood boil (or could potentially get everyone sick!) at the buffet.

But despite how infuriating the other guest may be, I wouldn’t advise confronting them. For queue-jumpers, a polite, “Excuse me, the line starts over there,” is fine. With anything else, especially health and safety concerns, avoid escalating the situation. After all, making a scene is definitely not good cruise etiquette!

Discreetly saying to a dining crew member, “Someone just sneezed all over that macaroni salad,” or “A little kid just licked his finger and touched all of the cheese cubes,” will usually get them to quickly switch out all the affected food.

Eating at the buffet on a cruise can be an exciting adventure, with so many new items to try! Now you know what to do and what to avoid when it comes to cruise buffet etiquette.

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More resources for new cruisers

What are the most common cruise buffet etiquette breaches you’ve encountered? Did any of these buffet rules surprise you? Let me know in the comments below!

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Carrie Ann Karstunen

MaryBeth Parker

Saturday 1st of July 2023

Hi Carrie, do you have any buffet etiquette tips for people using mobility devices? I'll be cruising next month with my partner and my parents who are both in their eighties. My mom's in decent shape for her age but Dad has trouble getting around now. He has a scooter but can walk for short distances. He just doesn't like to because he has problems with his balance. The whole scooter thing is very new to him and he's nervous that he's going to upset other cruise passengers in crowded places like the buffet. Any tips are appreciated.

Carrie Ann

Sunday 2nd of July 2023

Hi MaryBeth, thanks for the excellent question! I've seen plenty of people in the buffet line on scooters. I think the only buffet etiquette issue is to be aware of the surroundings and not back up suddenly without looking! That said, does he have any type of tray on his scooter? If he's nervous about the buffet line and wants to choose his own dishes, I'd consider buying an attaching tray so he'll have a free hand for driving and one hand for selecting food, and he won't need to grow a third hand to hold his plate! Hope you all have an amazing cruise :)