How to master the perfect hotel breakfast strategy
Breakfast buffets are one of the many pleasures of staying in a nice hotel. While on a normal weekday at home breakfast might consist of a piece of toast as you run out of the door, when you are on vacation it can be a real event.
I’ve witnessed some truly spectacular breakfast buffets, especially in Asia and the Middle East, with more options than you'd be able to finish. With so many options there’s a certain art to conquering a breakfast buffet.
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Leave your strict diet plan at the door and perfect the breakfast buffet strategy with these tips.
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Know what’s included
Before you even take the first sip of coffee, know your rights. Some hotels offer free breakfast to all guests, while others will provide it with certain room rates or packages.
Elite status in hotel programs may include breakfast. If your breakfast is included at no extra cost, make sure you’re not charged for it accidentally.
There’s a bit of a gray area with some status breakfasts — I love my free Hilton Honors Gold and Diamond breakfasts. Technically each is only supposed to include a continental (i.e., not hot) breakfast but I’ve never had any issue receiving the full offering at no extra cost.
If you are entitled to an a la carte item at no extra cost, make sure you are aware of this when you sit down.
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Decide if it’s worth it
Just because it's free doesn’t mean you should eat it.
The buffet at a Conrad hotel in Bangkok was spectacular. The buffet at the Hilton New York Fashion District was absolutely vile.
If you don’t like the look of anything on offer, skip it completely. You will likely find something decent at a nearby coffee shop. "Orange drink" instead of orange juice is pretty unappetizing, as are those croissants with a "best before" date of next year.
If the buffet isn’t complimentary, don’t waste stomach space on the food you don’t want to eat.
Similarly, there are some foods you may want to skip.
A cooked-to-order omelet or crepe is a safe choice, but if ceviche or oysters are offered and there are flies buzzing around and it smells a little funky, skip it. You don’t want your sightseeing at a new destination to mostly be spent searching for the nearest toilet.
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Pick your arrival time
Hotels will usually offer breakfast over several hours — this may be from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays, and slightly later on weekends.
Think about when other guests are likely to be eating. At a city hotel with business travelers, the busy time may be early, while on a Sunday at a resort on a tropical island guests may sleep in and eat later.
The trick here is to try and avoid the peak dining periods. This is because you may have to queue for a table, the service may be very slow and that made-to-order omelet may not be worth the wait. Hotels may have signs regarding peak times and how to avoid them, or you can ask at check-in.
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If I wake up early on a weekend I’ll usually try and head down to breakfast as soon as possible to beat the crowd. Even if I’m not ravenous, it’s usually worth the effort for a relaxing start to the day.
I find the food is generally fresher earlier in the day. However, if you can’t beat the rush the last 30-60 minutes of the dining period is a good plan B because it will be quieter and you can dine at your leisure. I rarely find the hotels pack everything up right on closing time.
Bring an item to guard your table
I’ve had a few situations where I’m at the buffet and upon returning to my table have discovered either the cutlery and condiments have been cleared away or other guests are seated at it.
This was because the staff (and other guests) did not know the table was occupied while I was getting food as I didn’t leave anything at the table to indicate it was still being used. When I remember, I now take an item such as a hat, light jacket or beach bag with me so I can sling it over my chair and others know I still need the table.
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I wouldn’t recommend leaving a phone, laptop or wallet on the table to reserve your spot as it could be gone by the time you get back. And just leaving your hotel keycard on the table may not be obvious enough to reserve the spot.
Make yourself known to the staff when you arrive
Some guests breeze into breakfast, seat themselves and hit the buffet immediately. I prefer to wait to be seated by the floor staff for a few reasons:
- If your breakfast is included with your rate or status it is the right thing to do to have your name crossed off the list.
- Tables may be reserved so you could be taking someone else’s table by just plonking yourself down wherever you feel like it. It’s also very embarrassing if you’ve chosen someone else's table and they arrive at the table a few minutes later with a croissant and a confused look on their face.
- Whether your coffee or juice needs to be ordered from or poured by the staff, you will usually be served quicker if they can see you are a new arrival after being seated properly.
I prefer a table close to the food so I don’t have to walk too far but if you would rather be somewhere quiet overlooking the pool, make sure you request it when you arrive.
Get your bearings
After being seated, I like to do a full lap of the breakfast food area so I know exactly what is on offer. You don’t want to fill up on toast to only later discover an amazing charcuterie station hidden around the corner (this has, unfortunately, happened to me in Spain).
Open the odd pot lid to see what’s underneath, note what looks fresh and what looks unappetizing, and see where the longest queues are. See if the coffee machines are self-serve, or whether you order a coffee from the staff.
Then it’s time to eat.
You only have a certain amount of stomach space and you don’t want to fill up on just a few items and be too full to try everything you want.
I generally keep carbs to a minimum. While some fresh bread might be delicious it could cut short your buffet experience. Unless the pastries look especially fresh, I usually skip them as a secluded resort on an island in Asia is unlikely to have a classically trained French pastry chef on-site to ensure perfect croissants each morning.
It’s a personal choice but I usually go for savory, then sweet. No matter how good an item looks, be it the sausages, pancakes, crispy bacon or fruit tarts, I only put one of each on my plate each time.
If it’s tasty you can always go back and grab more. However, if you load four sausages onto your plate you may either eat all of them, wasting valuable stomach space, or throw them out, which is a waste.
Omelet stations are always a winner in my travel — but I allow several minutes for preparation time after ordering. I tell the chef what I would like (everything, except mushrooms) and then head to the toast machine. It’s usually one of those roller ones where you have to feed it through at least four times but this timing usually means my toast and omelet are ready at exactly the same time.
Pay your bill
Always check with the staff if you need to sign anything before leaving. Even if it’s free, you may need to charge the complimentary breakfast to your room.
It makes the staff members' lives easier if you ask about this before leaving. After all, if you are returning the next day you don’t want the same staff to give you the worst table in the place because you skipped out on the bill the morning before.
It’s also a good way to check you’re being charged properly. If your breakfast is free, make sure the bill says so. It’s easier to resolve any issues then rather than at checkout and it will help you understand what you are entitled to for future buffet visits.
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A posh buffet breakfast is one of my favorite parts of the hotel experience. I do try and eat healthy when I’m traveling for work, but for a vacation I’m happy to push the boat (and the waistband) out a bit.
There’s an art to eating the right amount of the right food and not being overcharged for it. If you're staying at the same property for a week, you’ll want to make sure you get it right on the first day so you can wake up each morning with an excellent breakfast experience ahead of you.