Kimberly Button normally skips breakfast. But on vacation, the hotel breakfast buffet is a highlight.
She's drawn to the oatmeal bar, where she transforms bland grains with an array of toppings — chocolate chips, coconut flakes and berries. Sometimes she grabs fruit to take with her and nosh on throughout the day.
At Disney World, the star of breakfast is Mickey-shaped waffles. When dining at the cafe inside Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (which does not offer free breakfast), waffles cost $15 a pop. But for stays at non-Disney properties such as the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Kissimmee, you can indulge in as many Mickey-shaped waffles as you want as part of its complimentary breakfast buffet.
"I've eaten at hotel breakfasts around the world, but the breakfasts in Orlando hotels are the busiest I've ever seen," says Button, who runs the Wanderful World of Travel blog. "When you can get a Mickey-shaped waffle for free, wouldn't you?"
SAVING MONEY, TIME AND ENERGY
Complimentary breakfast is the most frequently used search filter on Hilton's website, according to the Hilton 2023 Trends Report.
Free breakfast can be a money-saver, especially for families or larger groups. A $100 room that includes food for four can feel practically free if you'd otherwise pay $25 per person at brunch.
And then there's the time savings and convenience. Gone is the anxiety of researching the perfect cafe, only to meet a waitlist after a pricey cab ride there. No debating which restaurant to patronize or which entree to order, as you can try it all at the buffet. And you won't starve while waiting for your jet-lagged companions to wake up, as you can munch on your own schedule.
WHEN FREE BREAKFAST ISN'T ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE
But at some hotels, free breakfast can be mediocre. At others, it's downright gross.
Vered DeLeeuw, who worked for seven years as a flight attendant and now runs a healthy recipes blog, has experienced many hotel buffets. She eats low-carb, so she skips pastries. And she's sworn off bland eggs and greasy sausages. But once she went for a hard-boiled egg, only to find fuzzy green mold all over the bottom.
"As you can imagine, that incident turned me off for good," she says.
But many big hotel brands are making changes to improve their breakfast appeal.
More hotels are doing away with breakfast buffets that have been sitting out too long. Instead, they're giving travelers credits toward made-to-order food.
That's the case for Hilton elite status members. As of last year, Hilton elites who were previously entitled to free breakfast now receive a food and beverage credit at some properties. Hilton says it has received positive feedback from customers who appreciate greater flexibility, choice and control of their food choices. Carb-free folks can swap a pastry for protein, and intermittent fasters can eat on their schedule.
"Plus, the quality is typically elevated," says Annie Jones , who owns luxury travel agency Telos Travel. "It also usually means multiple options such as sit-down or grab-and-go."
MORE OPTIONS FOR PEOPLE WITH DIETARY RESTRICTIONS
A 2023 Hilton trend survey cited increasing demand for healthier and animal-free options, such as alternative milks.
At the end of 2021, some Marriott brands that already offered free breakfast catered to trends like keto and gluten-free diets with new offerings such as a spinach-and-cheese crustless quiche.
It also started embracing customization, which makes it easier for people with certain diet restrictions. For example, some properties offer build-your-own breakfast bowls consisting of a base (yogurt, oatmeal or cereal) plus toppings, including granola, pumpkin seeds or coconut.
DISCOUNTS ON DINING
Hotel prices are significantly higher in 2023 than they were pre-pandemic. Travelers seeking savings on lodging may be able to look beyond sticker price and find deals that save on food — even at hotels that don't generally offer free breakfast.
For example, Walt Disney World is offering a rare deal where guests at Disney-owned hotels for certain dates this summer can receive credits ranging from $35 to $150 per room per night, for up to five nights (depending on the dates and room type). Travelers receive credits on a physical card that can be used at participating restaurants within the Walt Disney World Resort.
$35 could easily cover breakfast for two at a counter service-style restaurant. $150 just about covers a buffet meal for two at Ohana in Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. There, options include all-you-can-eat pineapple-coconut bread, Hawaiian-style ham with pineapple compote and, yes, Mickey-shaped waffles.