A cruise ship buffet may be a casual dining venue, but that doesn't mean proper etiquette should be ignored.
You're on vacation, you're serving yourself at the buffet, it's easy to not think twice about what you shouldn't do at the Windjammer.
Pretty much all cruise ships have at least one all-you-can-eat buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
On Royal Caribbean ships, this buffet is a complimentary venue called the Windjammer. It is a popular choice for its convenience and variety, with long hours open and a constant spread of all different kinds of food. Icon of the Seas actually has two buffets with Surfside Eatery.
If you’re craving a simple salad, but someone else in your travel party wants a heartier meal—like beef stew or hamburgers—there’s something to satisfy everyone’s desire.
However, before you dive right into the smorgasbord of food, there are certain do’s and don’ts you need to understand.
From not washing your hands to bypassing the made-to-order stations, here are 11 things you should never do at a cruise ship buffet.
Forget to reserve a seat
Unlike the Main Dining Room, the Windjammer does not have assigned seating.
If you’re not alert, you might have trouble finding and saving your seat. I’ve even seen cruisers forced to eat while standing at countertops.
At busy times, like peak mealtimes, breakfast, and embarkation day, it can get crowded!
My strategy to save a seat is to look for a table when I first enter and leave an item like a water bottle, book, or jacket so others know I’ve reserved the spot.
Along these same lines, keep in mind that crew members are likely to clear your cups and plates away if you leave them unattended. To avoid their helpful hands, don’t leave the table until you’ve finished your serving.
Skip the handwashing station
Before you enter, make sure that you stop at the handwashing station.
If you’re not able to wash your hands, at least remember to use hand sanitizer found in dispensers located throughout the ship.
Since the Windjammer is a self-serve buffet, so many passengers will be grabbing the utensils. It’s easy for germs to spread, so remember to avoid touching your face and hair at the buffet.
Additionally, if you're not feeling well, you should avoid the buffet. Instead, consider ordering something from room service or having someone else in your travel party bring some food back to your stateroom. Not only will rest help you feel better quicker, but it's kindest to think about the safety of other guests, too.
If you eat multiple servings—finishing one plate and going back for more—be sure to sanitize your hands in between, as well.
You don’t want to lick your fingers and then return to the serving utensils with dirty hands.
Dive in before assessing all of your options
From salad bars to a variety of different hot dishes and desserts, cruise ship buffets have seemingly endless options for you to choose from.
Before making any decisions, you should walk through the entire buffet to see what's available.
While one of the first dishes you see might look appealing, you could also find something you'd rather try elsewhere.
If you fill up your plate too early, you'll likely end up wasting food. Moreover, options tend to change daily, especially for dinner.
Don’t get stuck to one option, but rather open up your tastebuds, and save room to try many types of dishes!
Evaluating your options before selecting what sounds the most delicious is smart to ensure that you don't waste food.
Even if you feel like you will eat everything that you put on your plate, it's smart to start with one plate of food and return to the buffet for seconds if you're still hungry.
Plus, you never know if your cravings will change. Maybe the pasta you grabbed will satisfy your need for carbohydrates and you'd rather get a side salad or vegetables.
Rather than assuming you'll want three pancakes, eggs, hashbrowns, and fruit for breakfast, start with what you know you'll eat and return for seconds.
Avoiding waste is the most polite thing to do, for the cruise line, crew members, and for other guests.
Reuse the same plate
Reusing your plate is a big no-no at all buffets, as it can lead to cross-contamination and the spread of germs.
If you are finished with your plate or food, or just unsatisfied with what you got, leave your dirty dishes at the table while you go grab something else to eat. There will be crew members walking around to clear tables, so you don't have to worry about removing the dishes yourself.
Even if you're returning for just a single dessert or small side, always grab a new plate.
You can reuse the same silverware, but only if you leave it at your table. Don’t bring it up to the self-serve stations and risk contamination.
Grab food with your bare hands
Serving utensils are available for a reason. Even if you just washed your hands and are sure that they're clean, it is still considered impolite to grab food from the cruise ship buffet with your hands.
If the roles were reversed, you would not want to eat food that someone else had touched.
Even if you want finger foods like chicken tenders and fries, there will be tongs available for you to place however much you want on your plate.
The only exception would be pre-packed items, such as a carton of milk or small yogurt.
Cut anyone in line
Everyone's in the buffet for the same reason: you all want to eat. It’s important to exercise patience while on a cruise ship, as there are thousands of other people onboard trying to enjoy their vacation, too.
Even if there aren't any defined lines, you should not cut people off who appear to be waiting for a specific station. Don't be afraid to ask if someone's in line!
If you interrupt the flow of traffic, you are being disrespectful to those who have been waiting longer.
Imagine if everyone thought that they had first dibs; chaos would ensue.
Skip the made-to-order stations
The buffet is a great option for quick meals, like before a shore excursion in the morning or an event in the afternoon.
But even if you’re looking for a quick bite, don’t be afraid to place an order at the made-to-order station. If you don't see something pre-made that sounds good, you can always construct your own fresh dish.
While the cuisine itself usually varies (i.e., you might find a pasta bar one night and stir fry the next), you can rest assured knowing that not everything in the buffet has been sitting under heat lamps for hours.
The made-to-order station is a good compromise for those who aren't in the mood to sit through a three-course meal after spending a long day ashore but don't want standard buffet food.
Eating dinner in the buffet is also great for those who don't want to adhere to traditional cruise ship dining times. Rather than having to stick to a specific time (like dinner assigned at 5:45 P.M. or 8:00 P.M.), you can simply show up at any point during operating hours.
Rush to the buffet on embarkation day
One of the first places people visit on the ship is the buffet. If you happen to have an arrival time that's in the middle of the boarding process, you'll want to avoid the buffet for a little bit.
People often board in the middle of the day, and then rush to the Windjammer for lunch. While it’s a good idea, it means that the buffet fills up quickly and sometimes defeats the purpose of showing up for a quicker meal.
Some cruise ships have other options, so you can eat without venturing into the buffet on the first day. On Oasis Class ships, for instance, you can visit Park Cafe in Central Park on embarkation day.
There, you’re able to get a custom salad and sandwich without dealing with the crowds that are present at the buffet.
Not speak up if you have food allergies
Food allergies can be life-threatening, and cruise lines know the importance of having allergen-free menus. If you don't see anything at first, don't be afraid to ask a crew member at the buffet. Some cruise lines recommend sending an email to their dining team ahead of time.
Royal Caribbean states, "Lactose-free/soy milk, ensure, and kosher meals are available at no extra charge. All you have to do is notify us at least 45 days prior to sailing (90 days for European/South American Itineraries)."
Even if you've discussed your dietary needs with the dining staff, also be sure that you keep your emergency medication, such as an EpiPen, on you at all times in case you're accidentally exposed.
Wear a swimsuit or go barefoot
The Windjammer is more casual than the Main Dining Room.
If you don't feel like dressing up on formal night, you can go to the buffet for dinner in a T-shirt and shorts without feeling underdressed.
However, even though the Windjammer is a more casual venue onboard, it still has a dress code that you must abide by.
For example, don’t waltz in from the lido deck in a wet swimsuit.
If hunger strikes while you’re swimming in the pool or lounging in the hot tub, you need to dry off and throw a cover-up on.
Shoes are required, too.