Your cruise fare always includes food for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a cruise ship. However, not all venues that offer food will be free. The main dining room and cruise ship buffet will always be included in your cruise fare, though a few specialty items might cost extra. Most upscale or sit-down specialty restaurants incur an extra fee, either a flat cover charge or a la carte pricing per item. Some of the more casual additional spots are free, while some charge a nominal fee. Prices are typically marked at each venue.
Cruise ships offer a variety of onboard restaurants and dining options. Typically, the bigger ships will have more options, but even the smallest ships tend to have more than one restaurant.
In general, cruise ships will have a main dining room, a sit-down venue where you can order from a menu of American and Continental favorites (often with some international choices). These are very large, banquet-style restaurants, with a dress code enforced at dinner, and where you will likely have to share a table with other passengers. Most ships will also have a buffet restaurant near the pool, where dress is more casual and passengers can help themselves to pre-prepared food.
Many ships also have specialty restaurants, smaller venues with more tables for two. These cruise restaurants will be themed: steakhouse, French bistro, Italian trattoria or Japanese sushi restaurant. More casual alternative dining areas might be outdoor grills and BBQ spots, pizzerias, hot dog stands or bakeries. Some ships have exclusive dining venues, only accessible to passengers in suites or spa cabins.
Yes, food can be delivered to your cabin 24/7 on most major cruise lines' ships. Typically, the room service menu features a Continental breakfast (some lines offer a few hot items, sometimes for an extra fee), plus an all-day menu of sandwiches, salads, pizza, perhaps a few hot items or appetizers, and dessert. Room service is generally free of charge; some lines, such as Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, charge a per-order fee for middle-of-the-night orders. Other lines, like Princess Cruises, charge for pizza delivery.
In addition to room service, which can be ordered round the clock, many cruise ships make food available 24/7 (or at least during normal waking hours). All-night venues might include a small section of the buffet, a pizzeria or a shipboard diner. During the day, the buffet and some of the casual dining spots might serve food throughout the afternoon, and onboard coffee shops tend to offer small snacks and baked goods.
No one will stop you if you take food from the buffet or other casual venue and bring it back to your room. If for some reason you need to leave the main dining room or sit-down specialty venue early, you can always ask your waiter to plate up the remainder of your meal to take with you.
Yes, you can bring your own food onboard -- including snack food you like to have on hand and items you pick up in port. You can't bring raw meat onboard, but pretty much anything else is fair game. However, there's so much food onboard that, unless you're very picky or have a dietary restriction, there's not much need to bring your own food.
You are technically not allowed to take food off a cruise ship, especially fruits and vegetables. However, if you bring your own pre-packaged snacks, you can take them off the ship for port-day snacking.
The main dining room and other sit-down cruise restaurants will have a children's menu (often with standards like pasta and chicken fingers), though your child is welcome to order off the main menu. You can always request a smaller portion of a regular dish for a young traveler. The buffet has such a variety of food that you are bound to find something a child can eat. There's often pizza, burgers, pasta and sandwich fixings, plus plenty of cookies and ice cream.
Baby food, however, is not as standard. Some cruise ships will puree food for your new eater, but you might need to request it in advance. Others will not. Check with your cruise line before you sail, as you might need to bring your own jarred baby food. You will also need to bring your own formula. Whole milk is often available, but for convenience, you might consider taking cartons from breakfast and storing them in your cabin's minifridge for later in the day.
Yes. Cruise ship restaurants pretty much always have vegetarian options; low-salt, low-carb, gluten-free and vegan food is either available and noted or can be prepared with advance notice. Kosher food must be pre-ordered before your cruise and is typically pre-made off the ship and frozen for use during the cruise. In general, if you have a strict diet or a severe allergy, it's best to alert your cruise line in advance, either through your travel agent or a cruise line's special needs department. You can then meet with the head chef on the first day of your cruise to make sure you get the meals you need. For more, see our tips for cruising with a dietary restriction.
You might like the following articles:
What to Expect on a Cruise: The Main Dining Room 8 Tips for the Best Main Dining Room Experience 10 Tips for Cruising with a Dietary Restriction -- and Eating Well Eat This, Not That: Tips for Eating Healthy on a Cruise What's Cooking in Onboard Cuisine Best Cruise Ship Alternative Restaurants Cruise Dining Superlatives: Our Cruise Ship Food Favorites Don't Move the Tongs: The 10 Commandments of Cruise Ship Buffet Etiquette
The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.