Modern-day cruises are in many ways celebrations of excess, and nowhere is this more evident than in the dining habits of many cruise vacationers. On most cruises, food is included in the fare for the voyage, meaning that “all you can eat” cruises are the industry norm, and people take advantage of it. Moreover, there is food available 24 hours a day on many cruise lines, so you can eat as much as you want at any time, night or day. However, even if you are on an “all you can eat” cruise (which, again, is basically any cruise), this doesn’t mean that all the food on board the ship is available to you free of charge. There are certain limitations on what can be eaten for free, and if you aren’t careful, you could end up paying for food even on a vacation that is nominally an all-inclusive cruise.
The limits of an “all you can eat” cruise are similar to the limits of an “all you can drink” cruise. Just because your cruise claims that alcohol is included in the cost of your fare, this doesn’t mean you can drink anything you want. A fine wine or an aged whiskey, both of which can cost hundreds of dollars per bottle, will certainly cost you extra, for instance. However, “all you can drink” cruises are actually somewhat rare – only luxury cruise lines include alcohol in the cruise fair. Regular cruise lines charge you a daily rate if you want an “all you can drink” package. Thus, the average cruise passenger doesn’t expect all the alcohol they can drink at zero cost and with no restrictions, and so limitations on alcohol are for the most part expected and tolerated. As we said above, though, “all you can eat” cruises are the industry norm – most passengers expect unlimited food as part of their cruise fare, just as they expect a cabin to sleep in – and so the restrictions on food might come as a bit more of surprise, which is why it is all the more important to note the confines of the “all you can eat” policy on cruise ships.
Fortunately, it is fairly simple to avoid paying extra for food on a ship, as all you have to do is stick to the main dining room and buffet(s) for your meal, and this will give you plenty of food to select from. The buffets are not surprisingly all you can eat, and they are also frequently open 24 hours a day. If you stuck to the buffet, which generally has an impressive spread of options that changes periodically, you won’t ever be at risk of spending any money on food. However, there is no reason to limit yourself to the buffet, as eating in the dining room, being served by obsequious servers, and trying the chef’s entree for the night is a big part of the eating experience on a cruise. Even in the dining room, you can generally eat as much as you like, ordering an extra appetizer, entree, or dessert (or all three, for that matter). Finally, many cruise ships also have specialty venues (e.g., Carnival’s Guy’s Burger Joint) that offer free food whenever they are open.
So, how is it even possible to pay money for food on a cruise ship? The main way people end up racking up large food tabs on their cruises is by eating at the alternative dining restaurants. These are more upscale places to eat, like steakhouses or fine Italian restaurants, and are sometimes run by acclaimed chefs. These eateries are entirely avoidable on a cruise, although of course you can visit one if you want to have a special or unique dining experience. Another way to pay for food is to buy specialty drinks or food items that can be had for free from another venue. For instance, on Royal Caribbean you have to pay extra to get Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, even though soft-serve ice cream is available for free at buffets, in main dinning rooms, and occasionally from machines on deck. Basically, if you want something special that isn’t being handed out to the masses, you have to pay extra. Otherwise, all the food you eat on your cruise won’t cost you anything.
As we conclude, we should note that the (for the most part) unlimited food you eat on a cruise is obviously not free. Cruise lines expect people to capitalize on the vast amount of food they have on board, and so this is figured into the price they charge for their vacations. You are paying for the food – just in the ticket price. That said, cruises are in general very economical vacations, especially if you exploit what is included in your cruise fare and spend sparingly on the rest.