Cruisers never have to spend a dime on food onboard their cruise ship if they don't want to. All mainstream cruise ships offer one or more main dining rooms as well as an upper-deck cruise buffet. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at both a main dining room and the buffet each day, and all are included in the cruise price. Most cruise lines also offer one or more additional venues for free food, from counters where you can grab a quick bit to sit-down eateries with full menus. But, as more and more for-fee restaurants infiltrate the cruise dining landscape, complaints about the sparsity and quality of free food on cruises are increasing.
So which of the three biggest mainstream cruise lines (Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International) offers the best free food on cruises, both in terms of the number of venues, variety of food choices and quality?
Cruise Critic breaks down the free food offerings from each cruise line to help you decide which line does it best.
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Carnival Cruise Line
What's On Offer
Not as well known for breadth of alternative restaurants as other mainstream cruise lines, Carnival offers quite a few spots for passengers to get free food. As is standard on mainstream cruise ships, Carnival offers a main dining room (two per vessel) and a cruise buffet. On top of these venues, Carnival ships offer anywhere from four to 10 additional spots to grab a free bite, even if just at select times. The average ship has between four and seven of these included alternatives.
Many of these extra options are located near, yet separate from, the buffet. For instance, Pizza Pirate (found on all but two of the line's 24 ships) is usually located near one of the pools rather than inside the buffet. And the Fish n' Chips venue (on five ships) is located one deck up from the buffet but can only be reached via stairs within the buffet. The Burrito Bar (also offered on five ships) and Tandoor, the line's regularly lauded spot for Indian fare (found on four ships), are also located in or near the buffet.
Guy's Burger Joint and the BlueIguana Cantina are the line's most popular alternative free eateries. Both are found on eight ships, with three more vessels scheduled to receive the venues in the next year. At Guy's Burger you'll find a selection of artery-clogging yumminess (beef, pork and veggie burgers, and fries), while BlueIguana serves up tacos and burritos (the breakfast burritos get rave reviews) with a full toppings and salsa bar. Both have set dining hours and are not open all day.
On select nights, cruisers on all ships can get a taste of menu items served at the line's for-fee restaurants -- as well as at free eateries either available on their ship or those located on other ships -- at the Taste Bar. Choices might include a chicken, avocado and lime tortilla soup (BlueIguana Cantina), Nonna's meatballs and ricotta bruschetta (Cucina del Capitano), or short rib croquettes and pumpkin bisque (Steakhouse), among others. While not enough for a full meal, the tasters make for excellent pre-dinner appetizers.
Cruise Critic readers who have sailed and reviewed Carnival ships rate dining between 3.7 and 4.1 (out of 5), with an average rating of 3.9. (Dining ratings do not differentiate between free and for-fee venues.)
Several of the free venues onboard Carnival ships are not standalone eateries but counters where cruisers can grab a bite to eat elsewhere (the Taste Bar, for instance). Others, like the Mongolian Wok and Carnival Deli, are really just part of the buffet, even though Carnival brands them as separate entities.
Norwegian Cruise Line
What's On Offer
The first cruise line to offer an expanded selection of for-fee alternative restaurants, Norwegian Cruise Line is well known among cruise enthusiasts for its variety of dining venues -- including a handful of free eateries. Par for the mainstream cruise ship course are two free main dining rooms (three on the Breakaway- and Breakaway Plus-class ships) and the buffet, which are associated with outdoor grills. Beyond these, most Norwegian ships offer at least one or two additional venues from which cruisers can get free food items.
On the house onboard 11 of Norwegian's 14 ships is O'Sheehan's, a pub-style eatery open 24 hours a day, offering a traditional breakfast menu in the morning and pub favorites like fish 'n' chips, chicken pot pie, meatloaf, chicken fingers and burgers the rest of the day. (On three of these ships, this space is called the Blue Lagoon Cafe, but a rebrand is coming.) The three remaining ships have different complimentary venues: Pride of America has the 50s-themed Cadillac Diner; Norwegian Sky has the Longbeard Bar, which serves breakfast and lunch; and Norwegian Sun has Las Ramblas Tapas Bar & Restaurant, which serves a selection of hot and cold tapas items.
Ten Norwegian ships also have a free Asian dining venue onboard.
Cruise Critic readers who have sailed and reviewed Norwegian Cruise Line ships rate dining between 3.5 and 4.0 (out of 5), with an average rating of 3.7.
Despite being the newest ship in the fleet, Norwegian Escape offers fewer free dining spots than the rest of its fleetmates, with no free Asian restaurant onboard. Additionally, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville at Sea, originally a complimentary restaurant, was changed to a la carte pricing shortly after the ship launched.
Royal Caribbean International
What's On Offer
Unless you're sailing on one of Royal Caribbean's newest and largest ships (Anthem of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas) you won't find a huge selection of free dining venues. Like Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line, ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet all feature one or more main dining rooms (more than that in the case of the three aforementioned ships) and an upper-deck buffet. Menus are the same in all dining rooms (except on Anthem of the Seas, where each main dining room is themed), and the buffets serve standard cruise buffet fare, including a poolside grill. Both the buffet and grill have set hours and do not remain open all day.
Most of the ships in Royal Caribbean's fleet offer at least one to three additional venues from which cruisers can get free food items. Among these options are typically one or more of the following: a pizza place; Solarium cafe or bistro serving sandwiches and burgers; a deli-type venue serving sandwiches, soups and pastries; and/or a lunch- or dinner-only sushi spot.
Other options might include a hot dog counter and spa cafe for lighter fare.
Cruise Critic readers who have sailed and reviewed Royal Caribbean ships, rate the dining onboard between 3.8 and 4.2 (out of 5), with an average rating of 3.9.
Just three of the ships in the 24-vessel fleet provide six complimentary dining venues or more, beyond the main dining rooms and buffet. Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas offer nine additional places to get free food, ranging from free breakfast at Johnny Rockets and a specialty hot dog at the Boardwalk Doghouse to yogurt in the spa and a chocolate croissant at Cafe Promenade. Both also offer an additional free main dining room only for suite passengers. Similarly, Anthem of the Seas offers six additional spots to grab free food.