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Can You Take Food From a Complimentary Hotel Breakfast?

Hotel breakfast, with bread and fresh fruits.

If you are staying at a hotel with a free breakfast buffet, treat it as you would any other buffet restaurant.  While there are some limited exceptions, it’s generally considered to be poor form and bad manners to take food from the buffet to eat later.

Free breakfast has become a selling point for many hotel chains.  What started as an offering of a few pastries and coffee has now morphed into a full breakfast buffet in some hotels, with some providing amenities such as omlet stations.

With so much food on display, some people have taken advantage of the bounty and started to stuff their pockets and handbags with whatever they can grab.

There are several factors at play here.  For many years, buffets at hotels were not closely guarded, and it soon became an open secret that anyone could come in for a free breakfast. Even paying guests began to view the smorgasbord as a way to gather snacks for the rest of their trip.  But, if the buffet is advertised as free, is taking the food actually wrong?Hotel breakfast buffet, with fresh bread and fruits.

Breakfast buffets can be a relatively low-cost amenity in comparison with their perceived value by consumers, but that doesn’t mean they are free or cheap for a hotel.  In addition to the cost of the food, most hotels must hire extra staff to run the buffet.

Even a smaller hotel can easily run through over $1000 a day on food, paper goods and labor combined.  The recent economic troubles have nearly doubled all three of these costs in many areas.

While it may be possible to take as much food as you want from a buffet, it’s bad form to simply show up and start stuffing bags.  Ideally, take the food from the buffet and consume all of it there or in the adjacent lobby.  If you do want to take food to eat later, however, follow these rules.

Be a Paying Guest at the Hotel

A man eating breakfast on a hotel buffet.

If you’re going to take food from a breakfast buffet, make sure that you’re actually a paying guest at the hotel.  That means that you’ve actually paid money and stayed in a room overnight.  You do not qualify if:

  • You’re visiting a friend or family member who is staying at the hotel
  • You have stayed at the hotel before, but you’re not staying there right now
  • You’re staying at another property from the same hotel chain
  • You’re just coming in for the day (ie. to use the conference room), unless the contract for the room you’re renting specifically states that breakfast is included.
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If you really want to eat at the buffet and you don’t qualify, ask at the front desk if there is a fee you can pay to eat breakfast.  Many hotels will charge you a few dollars, and some may allow you to eat for free if you simply ask first.

Ask Before You Take Extra Food

Hotel staff assigned for hotel breakfast.

If you are staying at the hotel, it’s usually considered to be best form to eat anything you take from the buffet in the lobby itself.  Stuffing bags full of fruit and baked goods to eat later is considered to be crass, and in some cases, it’s grounds for security staff to accuse you of stealing.

There are exceptions, however.  If you are in a rush, it’s usually considered acceptable to grab a few items that can be eaten in your car or on your way to a meeting.  When selecting these items, consider what you will actually be able to eat while you travel.  For example, taking a prepackaged muffin and piece of fruit is fine, but trying to walk out with an overloaded plate of ham and eggs will probably get you a few stares.

If you have a need to take more food than a single person would eat, it’s generally a good idea to clear it with the hotel staff person assigned to run the breakfast area.  If you’re getting breakfast for several people in your travel party who are unable to eat downstairs, for example, just explain the situation to the staff.  Most will even offer to help you package up a few items.

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Wait Until the End of the Breakfast Session

A hotel staff serving hot coffee and breakfast.

If you are going to need to take more than a few items from a breakfast buffet, try to time it so that you’re picking items at the end of a serving session, or at least during a slower period.  If you go through a buffet line scooping up so much food that other people don’t get a chance to eat (or they have to wait while the hotel staff prepares more food), you’re going to earn the ire of both your fellow hotel guests and the hotel staff.

As a side note, if you know you’re going to need to bring a big group through the hotel buffet, let the staff know what time you plan on arriving when you check-in.  Hotels can often make sure that there is extra food available or even reserve a section of the dining area for your party.

If you absolutely feel the need to ask for extra food, wait until the hotel staff is packing up the buffet for the day.  Hot items such as scrambled eggs and sausage patties often cannot be saved for the next day, so many times they go to waste.  The same is true for baked goods and dairy products that are expiring.  Again, though, make sure you ask before taking large quantities.  It’s hard to determine the food storage capabilities of a hotel just by looking at the buffet, and leftovers are often promised to members of hotel staff.

Take a Reasonable Amount

Finally, be aware of how much food you take.  Loading all of your calories at the free hotel buffet is bad form; eat what you would eat for breakfast in your own home.

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