What kind of food is included on a cruise? Here's how to take advantage on your next sailing

  • Cruise fares include many items that would typically cost travelers extra, like food.
  • Some cruise lines may have more included dining options than others.
  • Not all menu items and eateries are included.

During a cruise last month, I indulged nearly every day in a travel luxury I usually reserve only for special occasions: room service. My fare for a Holland America Line sailing from the Netherlands to New York included in-room dining, and I took advantage.

I started many mornings eating breakfast, looking out at the ocean from my stateroom, and watching the waves as I sipped coffee.

Cruise line fares include a number of items that may usually be additional expenses for travelers, like food. And while a number of offerings, such as specialty restaurants and alcohol, might cost extra, passengers can generally dine well while spending as much or as little as they like.

"It's very easy on the (mainstream) lines to go and not spend any additional money on food," Joanna Kuther, a New York City-based travel agent and owner of Port Side Travel Consultants, told USA TODAY.

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Here are some tips to make the most of the included food on a cruise.

Choose your cruise line accordingly

Breakfast in the dining room on Holland America's Rotterdam ship.

While many mainstream cruise lines offer a range of included food options, some may have more variety than others.

Adults-only cruise line Virgin Voyages, Kuther noted, has more than 20 different eateries built into the fare, which range from steak and seafood to Mexican cuisine. On board, 98% of food is included in the voyage fare, a spokesperson for the cruise line said in an email. There are also a few "Treat Yourself" items for an additional fee.

Virgin's food hall, The Galley, serves sushi, sandwiches and more. "If I have adult (clients) who are foodies, that would be my first go-to," said Kuther.

She said Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International also have an assortment of included dining options. Travelers who do not want to spend money on extra food can also consult a travel agent, who can give them a sense of the available options on a given line.

The specifics can make a difference. For instance, Alyssa Griffin, 32, who makes videos about cruising with her husband, Cullen Griffin, on their YouTube channel, Griff & Alyssa, noted that room service is not included on all cruise lines.

Have a strategy

As you take stock of your food options, having a plan of attack can help you avoid crowds and sample all the ship has to offer. On the first day, for instance, "Everyone flocks to the buffet because that's usually what they think is available and what's there," said Cullen, 33. "And the line's just really, incredibly long."

Cullen and Alyssa Griffin have been on nearly 40 cruises.

Instead, the St. Petersburg, Florida-based couple typically start their cruises by seeking out other eateries that may be less crowded. Kuther similarly recommended easing into the trip by heading for the main dining room or, for travelers sailing with Princess Cruises, snagging a table at Alfredo's Pizzeria, which she said has "the best pizza at sea."

"Have a nice sit-down lunch, relax, you know, it's your first day," Kuther said. For sea days, she suggested poolside options where guests can grab a bite while they lounge without having to get fully dressed again, as well as Carnival's Seaday Brunch.

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Depending on the length of the cruise and the number of options on board, travelers may find themselves going to the same spot multiple times, as I did with burger joint Dive-In during my Holland America cruise. But trying new menu items on return visits can help prevent mealtime boredom.

Take advantage of main dining rooms

Many cruise lines' main dining rooms – which are included in the cruise fare – have different menus each night, Kuther said, allowing guests to sample new dishes without spending more.

For those sailing with Carnival, though, she noted that the line recently added a surcharge for main dining room entrées. Each guest can order two complimentary entrées, but the line is now charging $5 for each additional entrée, the line confirmed.

"Although we have worked hard to mitigate the impact of inflation, higher fuel prices and supply chain challenges, we are taking some modest actions to address our rising food costs and minimize food waste," Carnival spokesperson Matt Lupoli said in an emailed statement. "Food is part of the fun on a Carnival cruise, and we are making sure the Carnival dining experience continues to be a key part of a memorable vacation."

Keep an eye out for prices

Just because a dining venue is included does not mean everything on its menu is. Travelers will often "see a little asterisk" next to items such as steaks, Cullen said, that note an additional cost.

Lunch from Dive-In on Holland America's Rotterdam ship.

The selection of included drinks to go with your meal may also be limited. Major lines such as Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line throw in some beverages, like iced tea or regular coffee, with the fare but charge for others. Depending on what drinks you like, Kuther said, it may be worth springing for a drinks package.

Many cruise lines offer a range of beverage packages for guests to choose from. Princess, for example, offers a combined Coffee & Soda Package for about $20 per person per day plus an 18% service charge, while the Plus Beverage Package features wine, beer, cocktails and more for about $60 per guest each day, plus the service charge, according to the line's website.

There is also a Premier Beverage Package that includes reserve wines and top-shelf spirits for nearly $80 a day per guest, plus the service charge, among other options. Keep an eye out for per order or daily drink limits, though.

"If people are big soda drinkers, if people are big specialty coffee (drinkers), I always say get a package upfront because it definitely adds up," Kuther said.

How do you take advantage of the food options on cruises?