12+ Questions & Answers About Eating and Food on a Cruise Ship

Hungry? On a cruise, that’s not going to be the case. One of the biggest stereotypes of cruising is that there’s a lot of eating and drinking onboard. In this case, the stereotype is absolutely true. From tons of restaurants for you to enjoy to some eateries that are open 24-hours a day, food is everywhere.

So what should you know about eating on a cruise? You might think that it’s as simple as hitting the buffet whenever you want to eat, but dining on cruises is much more than that. Today’s modern ships offer a wide array of experiences, from burgers and dogs, all the way to expensive fine dining.

Before you sail, it helps you have a handle on what you can expect — and what you should know — prior to sitting down to a meal. We’ve covered some of the most popular questions below.

Is All the Food Free on a Cruise?

Lobster and steak dinner

These days, not all the food on a cruise is included for free with your fare, but plenty is. Cruise ships have moved to offering more and more specialty restaurants (those restaurants that charge extra). Even so, you won’t go hungry if you don’t want to spend more.

Every ship will have a buffet available and included with your cruise fare. This buffet serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is also the main dining room for evening mealtimes (and some also offer breakfast/lunch). Many cruise lines also include a few other eats onboard with your cruise fare, generally a 24-hour spot that’s always open and maybe a couple of other casual spots such as Carnival’s Guy’s Burger Joint.

In terms of quantity, the majority of meals are eaten by passengers at the free restaurants. Buffets and the main dining room are by far the busiest spots. However, cruise ships continue to add other places to eat that are a charge. This can range anything from casual spots all the way to fine dining, as well as a wide assortment of cuisines, from Asian to Italian to steakhouses.

Bottom line: Most meals you eat will be included with your fare, but there are more and more that are an extra charge.

How Much Are Specialty Restaurants?

Just like on land, the restaurants on the cruise ship will vary in both what they serve and how much they charge. Some ships have cheap restaurants like Royal Caribbean’s Johnny Rockets (hamburgers/milkshakes) that can cost less than $10, all the way to steakhouses that run around $30 per person to exclusive dining catered by the ship’s chefs that can be nearly $100 per person.

In general, however, it’s a good idea to expect to spend about $20 per person on a specialty restaurant. Price will vary, of course, but that should put you in the ballpark of most meal charges on the ship.

One thing to know is that some specialty restaurants simply charge by the person (e.g. a $20 charge to dine and eat whatever you like) while others charge by what you order (like a typical restaurant).

How Can I Save Money on Specialty Restaurants?

Specialty restaurants are tasty, but eating them every day can get pricey. As well, it can be hard for budget-conscious cruisers to spend extra on these restaurants when there is free food available.

So how can you save some money?

First, if you know that you plan to eat a specialty restaurant, then see if you can book a spot ahead of time. Cruise lines will usually let you book specialty meal plans ahead of time through your online account. As a bonus for booking early, there is often a discount offered.

Some lines have sales, such as Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Free at Sea” offer that includes several meals at specialty restaurants (along with other perks) with your fare. These deals can save a bundle if you know you plan to eat there.

Finally, if you want to save money, then see if the restaurant serves lunch. Some lines offer a discounted lunch option where you get to enjoy the meal just like you would in the evening, but without as high a price tag.

Do I Have to Tip in the Restaurants?

Tipping is common on land, but not in restaurants on a cruise ship. Or at least, not the traditional way.

When you take a cruise, you will be charged automatic gratuities. This daily charge (usually around $14 per person, per day) is given to those providing service on the ship. This includes people like your room steward, but also the dining staff.

That means if you eat at the buffet, dining room, or other free restaurant, then gratuity is already covered. When you’re done eating, you simply get up and walk out. There’s no bill to pay or tip to leave.

With specialty restaurants, however, gratuity will be added on to your bill. The amount varies by cruise line, but is generally 18-20%. So if the meal charge is $20 per person, and the ship’s gratuity rate is 20%, then you’ll actually pay $24 for the meal. You can tip additional if you want, but it’s not required.

What Sort of Food Is Available on the Ship?

Desserts in case

Today’s modern cruise ships can have a dozen different places to eat, and possibly more. That means no matter what you want to eat, it’s likely served somewhere on the ship.

The buffet is where you’ll find the widest variety. It offers a number of basic staples, including salads, burgers, dogs, and desserts, but also tons of variety from all around the world. No matter what you like to eat, you’ll find something for you.

The main dining room serves a rotating menu of dishes, from steaks to seafood to pasta, and more. Other restaurants typically focus on a specific cuisine, covering cravings for everything from Tex-Mex to BBQ to Italian and fine dining.

Have a special diet such as vegetarian or vegan? Cruise ships can cover that as well. You’ll find dishes labeled on the menu so that you can stick to your diet. You can also call the cruise line ahead of time and they can help make special arrangements for any specific dietary needs.

Is the Food Good on a Cruise?

Main dining room menu on Royal Caribbean

Obviously whether or not something is tasty depends on the specific person’s tastes, but we can give our opinion.

To us, the food is largely good to great. To us, meals in the dining room and restaurants are served fresh and taste wonderful. We also like the wide variety and the opportunity to try new dishes or twists on classics that we don’t normally see back at home. From Mexican food to BBQ to Asian, we’ve had lots of different types of food and always come away satisfied.

Desserts deserve special recognition. You’ll have lots of options in both the buffet and in dining rooms and restaurants. We’ve been hard-pressed to find anything we didn’t like.

The one exception to us is the ship’s buffet. Sailing on multiple different lines, we’ve always found the buffets to be extremely similar in quality and taste. While it is fine for a meal here and there, eating it daily gets old quickly to us. We find that there are some things that are delicious and quickly become go-to dishes. However, to us many items don’t taste as high quality as they could. Again, it’s not bad, just not anything to write home about. (Note that we don’t eat buffets at home either for similar reasons.)

Can I Bring Food on a Cruise Ship?

Yes, you can bring your own food. The big rule is that it must be pre-packaged and unopened. Bringing homemade food is not allowed. So if you have a favorite brand of chips or candy bar, you can pack them with you.

However, there are no cooking facilities for passengers to use. So if you plan to bring something that requires cooking or warming, that’s not a good idea.

If you require bringing something with you on the ship to meet special diet requirements, feel free to call the cruise line ahead of your cruise and let them know. They can help you make any arrangements that you might need in order to bring it on.

Is Room Service Available on a Cruise?

Absolutely. Room service is a stable across every cruise line. You’ll find a menu in your cabin with tons of options from snacks to full meals.

In recent years cruise lines have moved from having room service be free to charging for more and more items. Some lines have a flat fee to order anything you want. Others charge a la carte menu prices. Often there are still some free options — most notably breakfast — that you can order.

But no matter when you’re hungry, you can order room service around the clock. Be sure to tip a few dollars cash to the crew that brings your food.

Is There Somewhere Open 24 Hours to Eat?

MSC cruise pizza

Yes. Every major ship will have at least one place where you can get something to eat around the clock. For some it is a sit-down restaurant, such as The Local on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Others have small “grab-and-go” eateries that offer sandwiches or pizza that you can get something to eat whether it is 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. As well, room service is always available if it is late and you don’t feel like leaving the room.

How Do Dining Times Work in the Main Dining Room?

When you book your cruise, you’ll be given the option of a dining time. Normally there is an early dining (e.g. 5:30) and a late dining time (e.g. 8:00), but also the opportunity for dining at any time.

Dining times allow you to have the classic experience where you sit and eat with the same dining staff over the course of the cruise. Many people like building this relationship and the structure that a set dining time offers. It allows you to plan the evening, when there can be a lot going on around the ship.

But dining times aren’t set in stone. If you show up late for your dining time, you won’t be turned away, but it might take a few minutes to find you a seat. As well, you might not be seated with your usual wait staff.

It is similar if you choose to forego a set dining time. Simply show up when you are hungry and you’ll be seated wherever there is space available.

What Is the Dress Code When Eating on a Cruise?

The dress code depends on where you are dining.

In casual eateries like the buffet, the attire is casual no matter the time or day. That means shorts are fine, as well as hats, tank tops and t-shirts. Shoes are required, and if you are wearing a swimsuit, you’ll be expected to be covered up somewhat. Apart from that, you are free to wear what’s comfortable.

In the main dining room, you are asked to dress slightly nicer. It’s appreciated if you wear pants instead of shorts, no sandals, and no tank tops or ballcaps. Can you wear these things and still eat? You won’t be kicked out, but you may feel underdressed.

On formal nights in the main dining room, the dress code is stepped up somewhat. You don’t have to wear a suit or an evening gown, but things like shorts and t-shirts shouldn’t be worn. Pants, dress shirts, cocktail dresses, or a nice blouse are the order of the day, but feel free to dress all the way up to a tuxedo and head-turning gown if you like. (For more on what to wear on formal nights, see our article here.)

For dining in the specialty restaurants, the dress code is usually mentioned. In general you can get a good idea simply by the atmosphere for the restaurant. Headed to a fun Tex-Mex spot on the ship? Then casual dress will be fine. A quiet spot with fine-dining? You’ll want to dress up a bit more.

Do I Need Reservations to Eat?

Reservations depend on where you plan to eat. Specialty restaurants typically do require a reservation. You can make this ahead of time through your online account (or just call the cruise line). You can also make the reservation once you board, but some prime spots might already be taken. 

For places like the buffet or dining room, no reservations are needed. Whenever you are hungry you can walk in and eat.

What Tips Are There for Eating on a Cruise?

Guy's Burger Joint hamburger

There are little tips we suggest to make your dining experience more enjoyable, or save money.

Reserve Early: If you know for sure that you plan to eat at a specialty restaurant and it requires a reservation, try to book as early as possible. Popular times will fill up quickly and you don’t want to be stuck eating at an odd time to enjoy a restaurant.

No Reservation? Try It Anyway: Reservations will ensure you get a table at a specialty restaurant, but what if they are all filled? It doesn’t hurt just to show up and ask if there is a spot available. Sometimes people with reservations don’t show, or there is simply a table available. At worst, you’ll just be told there isn’t any space and need to try another restaurant.

Breakfast in the Dining Room: By far the most popular spot for breakfast is the ship’s buffet. But you can also eat in the main dining room in the morning. It’s less crowded, the food is similar, but fresher, and you don’t even have to get out of your chair to get what you want.

Have more questions about dining on a cruise ship? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. My wife and I, (60 – 61), have been cruising since we retired in 2017. We have so far cruised exclusively with Holland America due to the maturity of the passengers, meaning NOT the age but their actions, ie: no pier runners, loud partiers, no arguments etc.
    We must disagree with a couple of your comments though.
    First of all, the food at the buffet IS NOT any less fresh than that in the dining room. Many nights the food in the buffet is basically the same served in the dining room, ie surf and turf nights. You may have a couple more choices in the dining room but many are the same.
    You also say that there is ALWAYS at least one restaurant that is open 24 hours. That is simply NOT true. HAL does not have any ships that have any restaurant open 24 hrs. They do have a late night buffet in the Lido buffet from either 10 – 11 pm, or 10:30 – 11:30 pm for late night eaters. We also have friends that cruise on other lines that also don’t have restaurants open 24 hours.
    You also mentioned that to eat in the dining room you don’t need reservations. That may be true if you asked for “open seating”, but not for “closed seating” where you eat at the same time every evening, ( usually the choice of either 2 or 3 seatings). This applies to other cruise lines also not just HAL.
    You really should upgrade your “tips,” as they really do not truly reflect how things are on cruise ships today.

    • Henry — thanks for writing in and sharing your specific experience. This article is based on our experience across multiple major lines and doesn’t speak to any line in particular, but in general terms. Of course with dozens of cruise lines, each one will be slightly different here and there.

      Note that it doesn’t say there is always a restaurant open 24 hours, but somewhere you can get something to eat around the clock. For instance, Holland America has 24-room service, which is mentioned as an option: https://www.hollandamerica.com/en_US/dining/24-hour-in-room-dining.html

      As well, we’ve eaten at different times that what is assigned on cruise lines before, with no issue. There may be a slight wait, but we were seated and enjoyed dinner.


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