Caprese Salad with Buffalo Mozzarella, Tomatoes, Basil & Olives

Is Food Free On A Cruise? Here Is The Best Guide

If you’re like me, food is one of the most exciting aspects of a cruise vacation. I didn’t name my site Travel Eat Cook for nothing! The thought of indulging in delicious meals while sailing the open seas is enough to make any foodie’s heart skip a beat.

So, is food free on a cruise? The short answer is yes. The good news is that your basic fare includes food on all major cruise lines. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and most snacks you may want to eat in between are free and included in your fare.

In this guide, we’ll explore the vast array of dining choices on cruises, ranging from free dining options to tantalizing paid experiences. We’ll also delve into the world of drink packages and all-inclusive sailings. So, grab a seat (or a sun lounger), and let’s embark on this culinary cruise adventure together!

Is Food Free On A Cruise? Here Is What’s Included

Let’s start with the basics: the free food options available on most cruises. When you book a cruise, your fare typically includes access to various dining venues for you to enjoy delicious meals without shelling out extra cash.

The Main Dining Room or “MDR” In Cruise Lingo

The heart and soul of cruise dining, the Main Dining Room, is where you’ll have your daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These spacious and elegant spaces offer a diverse menu, including international cuisines and classic favorites. You’ll be assigned to a specific dining time and table, allowing you to get to know your fellow passengers throughout your cruise.

Main Dining Room On Celebrity Silhouette

You may imagine a huge banquet hall when you hear Main Dining Room. And in the past, you would be correct. Today, however, most lines have divided the MDR into more than one dining area.

For example, on our recent cruise to Alaska on Princess Cruises, “Ruby Princess,” there were three dining rooms: Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. These options are always open for dinner, although only one of the rooms may be available for breakfast and lunch (less demand).

Is Food Free On A Cruise - Prime Rib Dinner with mashed potatoes, carrots and green beans in the Main Dining Room

The Main Dining Room experience is perfect for those who enjoy a traditional dining setting, with attentive waitstaff and a changing menu that keeps things fresh and exciting. Often, there is an early seating (6:00) and late seating (7:30) for dinner. These times tend to coincide with the production shows in the theater.

Also, a dining room is usually set aside for what the cruise lines call “anytime” dining. Here, you can arrive when you want between 6:00 and 9:00 and ask to be seated. You can make a reservation for any time dining; if you choose not to, there may be a short wait.

So, is food free on a cruise in the Main Dining room? Yes, the MDR’s appetizers, entrees, and desserts are included in your cruise fare! However, you may see some items on the menu that have an upcharge. This a newer development where you can “upgrade” your dinner to add a lobster tail or filet mignon in the main dining room for an additional charge.

Lobster Night In The Main Dining Room on Princess Cruises - Lobster tail, filet mignon and green beans

Note: The only beverages included at meal times are milk, some juices, regular coffee, iced tea, and water. See the paragraph below about drink packages for more information on alcohol and sodas.

The Ultimate Answer To Is Food Free On A Cruise?

The All You Can Eat The Buffet. One of the most popular dining spots on any cruise ship is the buffet. Each cruise line has a different name for its buffet. On Carnival Cruise Line, they call the buffet the Lido Market Place. On Princess, the buffet is World Fresh Market Place; on Royal Caribbean Ships, it’s called Windjammer.

These expansive dining areas are a food lover’s paradise open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can expect a vast array of dishes, from omelets and pastries to salads, hot entrees, and a dessert station that dreams are made of.

Buffets are excellent for diners who prefer a more casual, self-service experience. The endless options make finding something for everyone in your group easy. If formal nights are not your thing, you can still find excellent cruise food, for free, in the buffet.

Special Theme Nights

Keep an eye out for special theme nights in the buffet. You might encounter evenings dedicated to Italian, Mexican, Indian, or seafood cuisine on some cruises. These themed nights can excite your dining experience and are included in your cruise fare.

Poolside Grills and Cafes

For those days when you just can’t tear yourself away from the pool or sun deck, cruise ships offer poolside grills and cafes. Here, you can grab burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, sandwiches, and other quick bites without venturing too far from your sunbathing spot.

Often, a soft-serve ice cream bar is located by the pool deck, and they may also have some freshly baked cookies for snacking!

These casual options are perfect for a relaxed lunch or afternoon snack while enjoying the onboard amenities.

There May Be More Free Food On A Cruise Ship

Room Service: Balcony Dining While Watching The Ocean Roll By

Don’t feel like leaving the comfort of your cabin? I love having breakfast or lunch on my balcony, gazing out at the sea. It may be one of my favorite times on a day at sea.

Many cruise lines offer room service 24/7, allowing you to order everything from continental breakfast to late-night snacks. It’s a fantastic convenience, especially when you want to dine in private or enjoy a quiet morning on your balcony. But is there free food from room service on a cruise? It depends.

The continental breakfast ordered by the “door hanger” menu you find in your stateroom on most cruise lines remains the one time you can have complimentary room service each day.

Princess Cruises recently implemented a $5 charge for room service other than that continental breakfast. However, on Princess, they also have the “Ocean Now” option on their app. This feature will bring you food and drink anywhere on the ship. As of August 2023, for a one-time charge of $14.99, you can order as often as you want when using Ocean Now. So after that first charge, yes, the food is free.

Celebrity Cruises charges $9.95 plus an 18% gratuity for a total of $11.74 for room service. However, if you are in a suite or have reached Zenith level in Captains Club, the $9.95 fee is waived.

Room service charges on Carnival Cruise Ships vary depending on what you order. Individual items range from $4 – $8. Putting together a light lunch with a Caesar salad and Spicy Firecracker shrimp (that comes with curly fries) will cost around $12 plus the 18% service charge ($2.16) for a total of $14.16 for one person.

Pro Tip: While a room service order may be complimentary, it’s customary to tip the delivery person a few dollars as a token of appreciation.

Casual Restaurants – Pizzerias, Burgers, and Pubs

If you don’t want to eat in the buffet or MDR and don’t want to pay the price to dine in one of the specialty restaurants, the cruise lines have you covered.

The larger mainstream cruise lines like Royal Caribbean Cruises have so many food choices you could eat in a different venue for nearly every meal on a 7-day cruise. They also have more casual dining options offered for a low cost.

For example, at “Johnny Rockets,” there is a flat fee of $6.95 per customer for everything on the menu except for ice cream, milkshakes, soda, and alcoholic drinks (which you may have included in your beverage package).

Back to our friends at Princess: the changes that took effect in August 2023 mean there is now a flat cover charge for dining at Alfredo’s or Gigi’s Pizzeria, $14.99, and $18.00 for The Salty Dog Pub.

Definitely Not Free Food On A Cruise

Now that we’ve covered the basics of free and casual dining options, let’s move on to the more enticing, albeit paid, culinary experiences available on cruise ships. For an exquisite dining experience, consider booking a reservation at one of the ship’s fine dining establishments.

Known as “Specialty Restaurants,” these venues often feature gourmet multi-course menus that include dishes like foie gras, truffle risotto, and decadent desserts. The atmosphere is typically intimate and perfect for celebrating special occasions.

If you want to elevate your cruise dining experience to a new level, specialty dining is where it’s at. While these dining venues come with an extra cost, they often offer gourmet cuisine, exceptional service, and an intimate atmosphere perfect for special occasions or simply treating yourself.

Steakhouses

Steakhouses are a staple of cruise ship specialty dining. Celebrity’s Tuscan Grill, Chops Grille on Royal Caribbean, and Crown Grill on Princess are some of the upscale restaurants featuring premium cuts of beef.

You can sink your teeth into juicy ribeyes and tender filet mignons at one of these specialty restaurants. The mouthwatering sides, like loaded baked potatoes and creamed spinach, compete with incredible desserts. Steakhouses are the go-to choice for meat lovers.

Seafood Restaurants

Cruise lines that sail in regions known for their seafood offer dedicated seafood restaurants. Here, you can savor dishes like lobster tails, crab legs, shrimp scampi, and fresh fish prepared to perfection. It’s a seafood lover’s paradise, and the ocean views don’t hurt either.

The Catch by Rudi on Princess Cruises offers an upscale seafood-centric menu. The starting price for this restaurant is $39 per person. Still, if you are craving lobster for just a mere $30 more, you can order the three signature dishes, including a whole lobster.   

Seafood Shack On Carnival prices its offering individually. New England Clam Chowder in a Bread Bowl is just $4. But from there, prices rise up. Want a Lobster Roll? That’ll be $12. And, of course, the fancier seafood, Steamed Lobster and Snow Crab, are priced by the pound and offered at whatever today’s Market Price may be.

The Magic Carpet on Celebrity’s newest ships offers great seafood options for dinner at around $120 per person. But then, when else will you dine nearly alfresco over the “edge” of a cruise liner 50 feet above the ocean? 

Asian Fusion and Sushi Bars

Suppose you have a craving for Asian cuisine. In that case, many cruise ships offer specialty restaurants serving delectable sushi, sashimi, and Asian fusion dishes. We make a point of dining at Sushi on 5 (now called Raw)whenever we cruise Celebrity.

These dining venues often have skilled chefs who create culinary masterpieces right before you at teppanyaki grills. As with land-based sushi bars, the menu items are priced separately.

Italian Trattorias

Indulge in the comforting and hearty flavors of Italy at an onboard trattoria. Some of our favorite dinners have been eaten in Sabitini’s on Princess. You can expect dishes like homemade pasta, wood-fired pizzas, and tiramisu. Pair your meal with a fine Italian wine for the ultimate dining experience.

Chef’s TableA Premiere Dining Experience

Consider booking a seat at the Chef’s Table for a truly immersive culinary journey. This exclusive experience allows you to dine in the ship’s galley, sometimes even watching the chefs at work while enjoying a specially curated menu. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the artistry of cruise ship cuisine.

These multi-course curated menus range from $95 to $140 depending on the cruise lines and if wine pairings are included.

Drink, Dining, and All-Inclusive Packages:

We’ve explored the dining options, and now you know if you choose, you can cruise forever and not pay a dime to eat. But drinking is a different setup entirely. So, let’s discuss another essential aspect of cruise life – beverages.

A Martini Up With A Twist Is Not Free Food On A Cruise

Maybe the best way to avoid a surprising bill at the end of your cruise is to buy one of the various drink packages cruise lines offer. There are a few to choose from to suit your preferences and keep you hydrated throughout your voyage. Here’s a breakdown of some standard drink package options:

Soda Packages

If you’re not a fan of alcoholic beverages, a soda package might be just what you need. These packages typically include unlimited soft drinks, sparkling water, and sometimes mocktails. It’s a great way to quench your thirst without breaking the bank. So what will it cost you for all you can drink, water, and soda? Probably around $15 / day. Want to add specialty coffees? Up that price to around $30 / day.

Classic Beverage Packages

The classic beverage package is a popular choice for those who enjoy a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. It often includes a selection of beer, wine, cocktails, soda, and bottled water. Keep in mind that premium brands may not be included in this package. These first-level drink packages range in cost from $65 to $90 per day and often have a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks per day.

Premium Beverage Packages

The premium beverage package is a must for those who appreciate top-shelf liquor and a wide range of premium beverages. Pretty much any wine cocktail or premium brand alcohol under $20/glass (shot) is included in this package, along with fancy coffees, bottled waters, sodas, and beers. Again, there is often a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks in 24 hours. But here, the premium cost is around $110 per day.

Note: On all the cruise lines, the beverage package is quoted at its daily price plus a service charge of 18%. So a $60/day package costs you $70.80 each day ($60 + 10.80 service charge).

The service charge is the tip for the bar service. But don’t let this stop you from offering your favorite server or bartender a few extra bucks for always knowing your favorite drink and having it on hand when you show up.

Now You Know About Cruise Dining Adventures And How To Navigate The Free and Paid Options

Cruise dining is a culinary adventure. Is there free food on a cruise? You bet! But you will also find alluring paid specialty restaurants and tasty casual dining. Heck, you can even have breakfast (or dinner; hey, we aren’t judging) in bed.

Ultimately, a cruise isn’t just a vacation; it’s a culinary adventure filled with diverse dining experiences that cater to every palate and preference. So, whether you’re savoring the complimentary delights or splurging on specialty restaurants and drink packages, your cruise dining experience will surely be a highlight of your voyage. Bon appétit, and happy sailing!

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