Cruise Ship Buffets: What to Know From a Veteran Cruiser

When it comes to eating on a cruise ship, there are tons of restaurants, but without a doubt the spot where you’ll eat the most meals is the ship’s buffet. We estimate you’ll eat here at least once a day during the cruise.

Cruise ship buffet
Don’t be fooled by the small amount of people in this photo, cruise ship buffets are the most-dined spot on the ship and get busy.

This spot is a staple no matter which cruise line you sail or which ship you choose. (The one exception is Virgin Voyages, which doesn’t have a buffet.) Yet for the amount of meals that you eat here, it’s actually discussed relatively little.

As cruise veterans that have been on dozens of trips, we’ve eaten countless meals in the ship’s buffet. From what’s served to etiquette, we have everything you need to know.

The Basics of a Cruise Ship Buffet

Breakfast on a cruise buffet
One thing we like from the buffet is breakfast. It’s consistently solid and there’s a wide variety of items to choose from.

First things first, there are some basics of what to know about the buffet onboard. You can think of the restaurant as a “catch all” spot. It serves every meal — breakfast, lunch, and dinner — each day of the cruise. So no matter what you want to eat, the buffet is always an option.

Just like a buffet on land, there isn’t sit-down waiter service. Instead, you simply walk into the restaurant, grab a plate, browse the buffet options, and get what you want. Seating is open and you just sit at an open table. If you want more to eat, just leave your plate on your table and go grab a clean one. There is staff roaming the area to clear plates and clean tables.

When you’re done, there is no check to settle or tip to leave. You simply get up and walk out and get back to the fun.

What Hours Is the Buffet Open?

While the buffet serves every meal during the day, it’s not open 24 hours. Typically there are three different opening times (one for each meal). In between, the restaurant closes for an hour or two to prepare for the next mealtime.

Often the buffet opens around 6:00 a.m. for breakfast until about 10:00 a.m., opens again at 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. for lunch, and then 5:00 p.m. for dinner. The dinner hours typically end around 10 p.m. 

You are free to visit anytime during these hours. Unlike the dining room, there are are no set dining times and there’s no “checking in” for a table either. Simply show up when you’re hungry.

What’s Sort of Food Is Served?

Salad bar on a cruise ship buffet
There are staples like burgers, pizza, fruit, and a salad bar, along with a wide assortment of rotating dishes from all sorts of styles of food. 

It might be easier to explain what’s not served in the cruise’s buffet. First, the buffet will vary in size with the size of the ship. Larger ships will have more stations that serve more options while smaller ships are more limited.

There is basic fare like burgers, dogs, pizza, salad bar, and desserts that are always on the buffet. But then there are a number of dishes that rotate out nightly. Often there are themed nights such as Italian or Indian where many dishes of a specific style are offered. So no, you aren’t going to be stuck eating hot dogs and hamburgers! We’ve noticed that higher-end lines tend to have more elevated fare, such as the lobster night when we sailed Celebrity. 

Breakfast is classic American breakfast fare from pancakes and waffles to bacon, sausage, fruit, cereal, and more. Omelet stations are also a staple.

What’s the Dress Code in the Buffet?

Despite taking a lot of cruises, which almost always have formal nights, we personally like to keep things more casual. That’s where the buffet dress code is nice.

First, there is a dress code, but it’s so minor that you likely won’t even notice. As long as you are covered up beyond a swimsuit, then you’re good to go. Entering shirtless or in a swimsuit without a wrap is frowned upon (and rarely happens). Beyond that, there isn’t’ a dress code.

Feel free to wear whatever makes you comfortable as the buffet is always casual — even if it’s formal night in the main dining room. Shirts, shorts, hats, and flip-flops are all allowed.

Do I Tip in the Buffet?

Customarily when you leave a restaurant — even a buffet — you leave a couple of bucks on the table. That’s not the case on a cruise ship.

You’ll pay a daily gratuity charge (usually around $15-18 per person, per day) when you cruise. This covers people like the room steward that keeps the cabin clean, dining room staff, and yes, the crew in the buffet that cleans the tables and clears plates.

That means whenever you dine in the buffet, the tip is already taken care of with this daily charge. You simply get up and leave when you’re done.

Is the Buffet Food Good?

Our take on buffet food? It’s ok. Breakfast and desserts are great (we have a sweet tooth), but most dishes served at lunch and dinner are just serviceable in our opinion. That said, sometimes there are gems that really stand out.

We’ve sailed a lot of cruises and eaten at the buffet on every one of them. That means we have a unique perspective on the food across lines.

In our experience, we find the buffet to be hit and miss and definitely prefer to eat other spots on the ship.

Breakfast we find to be very good. Frankly, the basic staples are hard to get wrong and whether you want an omelet, pancakes, cereal, fruit, French toast, or any other classic breakfast dish, you’ll find it available.

We also find desserts are usually pretty good, with lots of variety offered. So you don’t have to choose between chocolate cake or lemon bars, you can have both. (Portions are usually small, which makes grabbing 2-3 items ideal anyway.)

In general, however, the lunch and dinner fare is mediocre to us. Some dishes can be fantastic, but overall the quality seems lower than other restaurants around the ship. When you’re feeding literally thousands of passengers a wide variety of dishes, it’s not surprising that quality suffers.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just not anything we think most people would get excited about. We don’t mind eating there occasionally, but after a few trips find ourselves wanting something different.

And one thing to note is that we’ve tried buffets across all the major lines. Some may be better than others, but in general we actually find the quality similar.

Tips, Etiquette, & Things to Know

View from buffet
Buffets normally take up the width of the ship and are on a high deck. As a result, you can get great views of the water if you are lucky enough to find a seat next to a window.

Overall, the buffet is pretty self-explanatory. Go in when you’re hungry, pick what looks tasty, and find a seat. Still, there are some things that are helpful to know…

Be Sure to Cover Up: For 99.9% of people, the dress code is no issue — it’s basically wear what you want. However, we have seen people entering the buffet in swimsuits only. You always want to be fully clothed and not only in a bathing suit, which means a shirt for guys and a coverup for ladies.

Great Views… But Prime Seating Goes Fast: One nice thing about the buffet is that it almost always has some of the best views on the ship. That’s because it’s located on a top deck and takes up a whole section of the ship so there is seating next to windows looking out over the water. The views are great, but these seats also go first, so don’t be surprised if there isn’t one available.

Overeager Cleaners: If you get up to go get dessert or a second serving, don’t be surprised if your table is cleared by the time you return. The cleaning staff usually gets to tables quickly. It’s great when you want to clear dishes, but can be a pain if everyone at the table gets up at the same time and comes back to find that it’s been turned over and new people are now sitting there. If you can avoid leaving a table empty, it’s a good idea.

Don’t Touch the Food: There are two types of food on the buffet — items that are plated already (so you just grab and go) and those that you serve with tongs or a serving spoon. Either way, you should never touch anything on the buffet with your bare hands.

Clean Your Hands When Entering: Any buffet you enter will have a stand dispensing hand sanitizer, a hand-washing station, or both. There is usually a crew member encouraging you to wash up. At the buffet, you’re sharing space — and serving utensils — with a lot of people. Cleaning your hands is a common courtesy to help you from getting sick.

More on Cruise Dining:

Popular: 39 Useful Things to Pack (17 You Wouldn't Think Of)

Read Next: Park & Cruise Hotels for Every Port in America

Popular: 107 Best Cruise Tips, Secrets, Tricks, and Freebies


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here