This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (2024)

Cruise ships are famous for the endless food choices onboard, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of a cruise ship buffet. My most recent cruise, however, left me questioning whether the convenience was worth the chaos.

Despite the latest and greatest ships offering nearly a dozen dining options, from the traditional main dining room to innovative food halls, many passengers—including myself—still prefer the laid-back atmosphere of a buffet.

Unlike a traditional, multi-course sit-down meal in the main dining room, the buffet is quick and casual. Whereas a sit-down meal may take around 90 minutes, guests can be in and out of the buffet in under 15 minutes. Plus, the variety of food at the buffet is hard to beat, and there’s no need to worry about pesky dress codes.

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (1)

Because of these advantages, I find myself dining at a cruise ship's buffet more often than not. Yet on my recent sailing—a Mediterranean cruise onboard the Costa Toscana—I was disappointed in the organization of the ship’s main buffet.

Despite the tasty offerings, I’d argue it was the worst buffet I’ve seen yet at sea, and here’s why.

Costa Toscana is a Costa Cruises ship, a cruise line known for poor reviews

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (2)

Costa Cruises is an Italian-based cruise line with a subpar reputation in the cruise industry. The line, owned by Carnival Corporation, made headlines after one of its vessels, Costa Concordia, ran aground off the coast of Italy in 2012, claiming over 30 lives.

The incident has had lasting impacts on the industry’s safety regulations. Fortunately, the cruise line has not had any major safety incidents since.

Even looking beyond the Costa Concordia disaster, though, Costa Cruises is not winning awards for its reputation. The cruise line has a 3.0-star rating on Cruise Critic—the lowest among the most popular mass-market cruise lines.

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (3)

Looking to try something new, I gave Costa Cruises the benefit of the doubt and booked a Mediterranean cruise on Costa Toscana, one of the line’s flagship vessels. The itinerary worked perfectly with my vacation schedule and, with a competitive price of $1,000 for the week, I figured I would give the line a fair chance.

Related: I survived 7 days on the world's worst-rated cruise line: Was Cruise Critic right about Costa Cruises?

I noticed many upcharge restaurants, but I was determined not to spend extra for food onboard

One of Costa Cruises' selling points is the line’s low cruise fares—but there’s a catch.

Like most mass-market cruise lines, Costa Cruises offers included and extra-charge venues. Although it’s possible to spend nothing extra once onboard by dining at complimentary venues, avoiding shore excursions, and steering clear of drinks, most passengers end up spending additional money on top of their cruise fare.

Once onboard, I immediately noticed a wide array of upcharge restaurants, from burgers at The Salty Beach to Hawaiian-inspired fare at KikiPoke.

For my weeklong cruise, I hoped to stick to a tight budget, and I did not plan to dine at any specialty restaurants while onboard. Because the ship had several main dining rooms, a buffet, and grab-and-go, bite-sized snacks at bars, I assumed my plan would work.

On embarkation day, I was surprised to find the main buffet was not self-service

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (5)

Eating lunch in the buffet on embarkation day is a staple cruise ship activity. It’s the first time passengers can sit down and relax after busy travel days and the embarkation process in the terminal.

Not knowing much about Costa Toscana before boarding, I searched for the buffet once I embarked. I quickly found La Sagra Dei Sapori, a buffet located in the center of the ship.

As soon as I entered, I realized the buffet was not self-service. Instead, passengers must line up at stations around the venue and indicate to a crew member what they would like to eat.

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (6)

Even though this style of buffet is more sanitary—far fewer hands are touching buffet tongs—it’s a slow method of serving on a ship with 6,000 passengers. If you wanted a salad, pasta, chicken breast, and dessert, you had to wait in a separate line for each dish.

Unsurprisingly, lines were long, and demand for the quick-service restaurant was high. I didn’t even dare wait for the meat and fish station, as all the food on my plate would surely be cold by the time I got to the front of the line.

The long wait times were, of course, not the fault of the crew members, who were clearly working diligently to serve guests as quickly as possible. A self-service buffet, or even having more staff available to serve guests, would have greatly reduced wait times.

The buffet’s dinner hours were extremely limited, leading to utter chaos

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (7)

Because Costa Cruises is a European cruise line, meal times can differ greatly compared to the most popular lines in North America like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Most Italians and Spaniards, for instance, do not eat dinner until 8, 9, or even 10 PM, a stark contrast to Americans who typically dine a few hours earlier.

The dining hours on Costa Toscana reflected this cultural difference. Dinner, for instance, was only open between 7:30 and 9 PM at the buffet, and main dining room seating times skewed later, too.

Despite the ship’s variety of dining rooms, the buffet still appeared to be a popular choice for dinner. Crowds of guests lined up outside the buffet’s closed doors, and when the doors opened at 7:30, a herd of passengers ran through the venue as if it were their last meal.

Related: 5 things I absolutely hated (and 4 I loved) about my cheap Costa Cruise

Limited hours meant there was never any downtime at the buffet, and finding a seat was nearly impossible if you didn’t enter with the crowd as soon as the doors opened.

Even the water refill machine took 45 seconds to fill a single cup

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After going through the struggle of grabbing a plate of food at Costa Toscana’s buffet, one more task remains: the water station. Filling up a glass of water on Costa Toscana was so slow it was almost laughable, and the experience added to my frustration with the ill-designed venue.

Dotted throughout the main buffet were several water refill stations, which also dispensed juice in the mornings. These stations are typical in any cruise ship buffet, but I’ve never experienced a dispenser as slow as the one on Costa Toscana.

Filling up a single glass of water took around 45 seconds, and while there were three dispensers at each station, they appeared to use the same water source. Filling up three glasses at once would just lengthen the time it took to fill each single glass.

The food tasted fine, but the same dishes were offered every day

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (10)

Despite my qualms about Costa Toscana’s buffet structure, I actually found the food to be quite good, both in quality and flavor.

I enjoyed the selection of croissants and bread each morning. I also appreciated the made-to-order omelet station, which, due to Italians’ preference for a sweet breakfast, rarely had a long line.

Lunch and dinner had a selection of pasta, with classic marinara and bolognese sauces offered each meal. Other pasta options changed daily, whether pesto rigatoni or squid ink spaghetti. Being an Italian cruise line, I found the pasta far better than North American-based lines.

Related: Here's what you should do with your dirty buffet plates

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Taking the food quality out of account, however, I felt the variety could have been much better. I noticed little variety in the dishes offered each evening. In general, you could find pasta, meats, Asian-style fried rice and noodles, cold cuts, and salads.

I bought a dining package to avoid the buffet for dinner

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (12)

On day two of my cruise, after yet another chaotic dinner at Costa Toscana’s buffet, I caved and spent €110 on a specialty dining package.

Normally when cruising, I eat dinner in the main dining room, but on Costa Toscana, I was cruising solo. As a solo cruiser, I tend to avoid the dining room—where I might have to sit with other passengers I don’t know—in favor of the more casual buffet.

Yet because Costa Toscana’s dinner buffet service was so disorderly, I decided to try my luck with a dining package instead. After tasting the ship’s teppanyaki restaurant, steakhouse, all-you-can-eat sushi, and pizzeria, it was the best money I spent onboard.

My specialty meals were among the highest quality I’ve ever had on a cruise ship, and I could finally enjoy a peaceful meal without long lines and a lack of seating.

Fortunately, I found another buffet option halfway through my cruise

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (13)

"Is this really the only buffet?"

Halfway through my Costa Toscana cruise, I was in disbelief that a ship with over 6,000 guests could have a buffet as poorly designed as La Sagra Dei Sapori.

Not wanting to face the crowds after a busy morning exploring Marseille, I decided to grab lunch in the main dining room, La Maremma, for a change.

It was my first time visiting the dining room, and I was surprised when I saw self-service buffet stations on both sides of the venue. As it turns out, Costa Toscana offers buffet service for breakfast and lunch in some of the ship’s main dining rooms.

Related: I paid $1,090 for an interior cabin on the worst-rated cruise line but got a balcony cabin for free

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La Maremma was a breath of fresh air compared to La Sagra Dei Sapori a few decks above. It appeared most guests, like myself, did not realize there was buffet service offered in the main dining room, and there were virtually no crowds to speak of. Even when there were people at each station, it moved quickly because passengers could serve themselves.

Discovering this buffet was a game changer for the rest of my itinerary. Instead of dreading mealtimes, I could enjoy a leisurely meal at La Maremma. Although the buffet did not offer made-to-order omelets and pasta stations, I found the selection of food just as diverse as the main buffet upstairs.

Finding the other buffet was not straightforward, and Costa Cruises could have provided better information

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This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (15)

My experience onboard Costa Toscana changed for the better after I found the ship’s other buffet options, yet even though I found the other buffet, I’m sure there were plenty of passengers who didn’t.

The ship's main dining rooms are located down a hallway far from the main flow of passenger traffic, whereas La Sagra Dei Sapori is directly in the center of the ship. Because of this, it would be easy to assume the main buffet was the only option onboard, especially if you didn’t read the daily program carefully.

Due to the crowding and overwhelming atmosphere at La Sagra Dei Sapori, I wish Costa Toscana would have promoted the other buffet options, too. A simple sign explaining there were other locations for breakfast and lunch may have steered passengers elsewhere, making the experience more pleasant for everyone.

Even still, as La Sagra Dei Sapori was the only buffet open in the evening, it was impossible to escape the crowds for dinner service. If you didn't want to eat in the main dining room or pay for specialty meals, you were stuck dealing with the chaos. For this reason, it’s definitely the worst buffet I’ve experienced on a cruise yet.

Related: Top 10 Biggest Cruise Ship Dining Mistakes

This cruise ship had the worst buffet I've ever seen. Luckily, there were other options (2024)

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