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Who Does Free Cruise Dining Best: Royal Caribbean, Carnival or Norwegian?

Uptown Grill on Norwegian Breakaway (Photo: Cruise Critic)
Uptown Grill on Norwegian Breakaway (Photo: Cruise Critic)

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Cruisers never have to spend a dime on food onboard their cruise ship, if they don't want to. All mainstream cruise ships offer three meals a day in their main dining rooms and upper-deck cruise buffets, as well as one or more additional venues included in the cruise price. However, complaints about the sparsity and quality of free food on cruises are increasing as more added-fee restaurants infiltrate the cruise dining landscape.

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? Cruise Critic breaks down the complimentary offerings from each cruise line to help you decide which is best for you.

Updated February 21, 2020

Carnival Cruise Line

What's on Offer: 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.

Many of these extra options are located in the buffet. These include the Carnival Deli, Mongolian Wok and Lucky Bowl (only on Carnival Sunrise). Pizza Pirate (found on most of the line's ships) is usually near one of the pools rather than inside the buffet.

Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina are the line's most popular alternative free eateries. Both are available on the majority of ships. At Guy's Burger Joint, you'll find a selection of greasy 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.

Seven ships are treated to another Fieri-helmed eatery -- Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, which serves up smoked meats in all shapes and sizes for lunch. (On Carnival Horizon and Panorama, this venue is Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse and Brewhouse, which is bigger than those on the other ships and also includes a brewery; dinner at these two venues is not free, but lunch is.) All venues have set dining hours and are not open all day.

On several ships, free lunches are also offered at Cucina del Capitano and JiJi Asian Kitchen, both of which are extra-fee restaurants for dinner.

Ratings: Cruise Critic editors who have sailed and reviewed Carnival ships rate dining at an average of 3.9. (Dining ratings do not differentiate between free and for-fee venues.)

Read what other cruisers are saying in our Carnival cruise reviews.

Caveats: Several of the free venues onboard Carnival ships are not standalone eateries but counters where cruisers can grab a bite to eat elsewhere. 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

Appetizer from O'Sheehan's

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, most of which are adjacent to complimentary 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 most of the line's ships, is a 24-hour pub-style eatery called O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill (or The Local Bar & Grill on Norwegian Bliss, Sky, Joy and Encore, which boasts the same menu and design as O'Sheehan's). It offers a traditional breakfast menu in the morning and pub favorites like fish 'n' chips, chicken potpie, meatloaf, chicken fingers and burgers the rest of the day.

Ships without an O'Sheehan's or Local Bar & Grill have different complimentary venues (but with the same pub-style fare), such as the 50s-themed Cadillac Diner on Pride of America and the Sports Bar on Norwegian Sun.

A number of Norwegian ships also have a free Asian dining venue onboard.

Ratings: Cruise Critic editors who have sailed and reviewed Norwegian Cruise Line ships rate dining at an average rating of 4.1.

Read what other cruisers are saying in our Norwegian member reviews.

Caveats: The newest ships in the fleet (Norwegian Escape, Bliss, Joy and Encore) offer fewer free dining spots than the rest of their fleetmates, with no free Asian restaurant or outdoor grill by the buffet.


Royal Caribbean International

Solarium Cafe on Oasis of the Seas

What's on Offer: Unless you're sailing on one of Royal Caribbean's newest or largest ships (including Symphony of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas), you won't find a huge selection of free dining venues.

Like Carnival and Norwegian, ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet all feature one or more main dining rooms and an upper-deck buffet. Menus are the same in all dining rooms, and the buffet -- known as the Windjammer Cafe -- serves standard cruise buffet fare and includes 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 one to three additional venues from which cruisers can get free food items. Among these options are 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 a lunch- or dinner-only sushi spot.

Other options might include a hot dog counter and Vitality Spa Cafe for lighter fare. Three ships (five by the end of 2020) have El Loco Fresh, a colorful Mexican eatery located on the pool deck, open for breakfast, lunch and late-afternoon snacks. 

Ratings: Cruise Critic editors who have sailed and reviewed Royal Caribbean ships, rate the dining onboard at an average rating of 3.8.

Read what other cruisers are saying in our Royal Caribbean member reviews.

Caveats: Only a few ships in the fleet provide six complimentary dining venues or more, beyond the main dining rooms and buffet. Symphony of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas offer even more places (eight to 10, depending on the ship) 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. They also offer an additional free main dining room only for suite passengers.


Bottom Line

You'll find the most variety of complimentary dining on Carnival, with more than 75 percent of the fleet now offering Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina in addition to longtime favorites like the Pizza Pirate and Carnival Deli. The food quality is also some of the best we've had, when it comes to eating for free.

Royal Caribbean ships vary widely in the number of complimentary dining venues onboard, so choose your ship carefully if free food is important. Norwegian Cruise line is known for its many onboard restaurants, but the majority of them cost extra.

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