When the pandemic made its entrance in 2020, the future of the beloved cruise ship buffet quickly became an unknown.
A combination of not quite knowing how transmissible the virus was and the inherent design of a communal buffet — all those shared utensils, shared buffet lines — made it clear that the self-serve buffet was going to be one of the first onboard features to get nixed by the pandemic’s axe.
The pandemic left many people curious about what to expect from cruise ship buffets once cruising came back. Would the buffet disappear forever? Turns out, it would be a surprisingly short-lived question.
Rather than get rid of the buffet altogether, most cruise lines debuted a new approach to service, similar to cafeteria style. Instead of passengers serving themselves from the buffet, cruise line staff portion out dishes set up along the line.
Most major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess and MSC, took this stance, which was in line with CDC recommendations.
But now it seems that as the pandemic has waned, self-serve buffets are coming back.
Norwegian Returns to Normal; Royal Caribbean Expected to Follow
Norwegian is the among the first to return to normal. When Norwegian Jade re-entered service in Greece in July 2021, Cruise Critic found that all buffets were served. On the Cruise Critic message boards, BirdTravels mentioned that Norwegian Encore’s Garden Cafe buffet was already back to self-serve status on its August 7 sailing. Since then, other cruisers have posted about witnessing the return of the pre-pandemic buffet setup on Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Gem.
Norwegian Cruise Lines confirmed the change. "We continue to work closely with our destination partners to adhere to local and international requirements," the line told Cruise Critic in an email.
"From the vessels that we have relaunched, self-service buffets are currently available on Norwegian Encore, Gem, Breakaway and Bliss, operating as they have in the past." They also added that self-service buffets are not yet available on ships departing from Europe due to local regulations.
While Royal Caribbean hasn't yet made the change yet, it's coming, at least on some North American sailings. Speaking onboard Harmony of the Seas on its final European cruise before heading across to Florida, the ship’s Environmental Officer, Mabel Diaz confirmed that the self-serve buffet would return once the ship had made the crossing. Diaz cited the Americans’ desire to have a self-serve buffet as the main reason for the dropping of the served buffet, along with looser COVID-19 restrictions.
Carnival is one line that never changed its buffet policies. Even before its ships restarted, Carnival Cruise Lines announced they would be offering self-serve buffets on all of their rebooted cruises, citing discussions with professionals and the fact their ships would be following the new industry standard requiring 95% vaccination rates aboard all sailings.
Carnival's stance follows those of some resorts in Las Vegas, such as The Cosmopolitan and MGM Grand, that brought back their famous self-serve buffets back in June 2021.
On the Cruise Critic message boards, feelings around the return of self-serve buffets are a mixed bag. While several cruisers seemed to take the news in stride, a surprising number of cruisers voiced their disappointment at the change.
When Turtles06 shared that their late-October Norwegian Breakaway sailing to Bermuda had reverted back to "pre-pandemic operations, with guests serving themselves at most stations" and crew directing passengers to handwashing stations at the entrance, several cruisers expressed unease over leaving buffet safety in the hands of their fellow passengers.
"I've seen how well THAT has worked in the past," replied hallux. "Hopefully they have someone there actually forcing people to wash their hands. I've seen people directed there that just passed through without stopping." Pebbs48 agreed, writing, "Exactly. I was hoping to hear crew serving rather than self-serve."
"Sailing on NCL next Sunday and disappointed it's serve yourself. I guess I just expected the staff to be serving guests still, regardless of the cruise line," writes Matman1215. "I wish it was always like that. People are gross, COVID or not."
For LaCal, the self-serve buffet is a dealbreaker. "I’ll be passing on the buffet totally my next cruise and having breakfast either in the Local or the main dining room. Lunch will be in the MDR and dinners in the specialty restaurants."
Cruisers were also quick to point out that benefits of having a served buffet stretch beyond COVID-19 safety.
"It's a great way to minimize the chance of Noro(virus) as well, etc. Too bad if it isn't staying that way," writes GeezerCouple. "I think Noro is probably a greater risk from shared utensils than COVID, but for 'all of the above reasons', shared utensils aren't something we want anymore, to the extent we can avoid it."