If you have done even a little bit of traveling you have no doubt come across the term continental breakfast. Even though the term is extremely common to see many travelers still don’t exactly know what a continental breakfast is at a hotel.
The confusion is understandable given how so many hotels do things differently when it comes to their breakfast but in this article I’ll aim to clear up all of the confusion and give you some clear ideas and lists of examples on what to expect.
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What is a continental breakfast?
A continental breakfast is traditionally a light breakfast consisting of bread, pastries, jams, fruits, and beverages such as coffee, tea, and juices. Many hotels serve different types of continental breakfasts which also offer hot food items such as eggs, sausage/bacon, potatoes, and even pancakes/waffles.
Occasionally, these breakfasts are complimentary, while in other instances, there may be a charge. Due to these variations, it is advisable to confirm the details of the hotel’s continental breakfast, especially if you plan to depend on it.
I’ll go over all of these different types of breakfast variations in this article, so be sure to keep reading!
“Continental breakfast” meaning (defined)
According to Oxford Languages (Google), a continental breakfast is “a light breakfast, typically consisting of coffee and rolls with butter and jam.”
That’s not a super helpful answer because it doesn’t tell you much about what a “light breakfast” is and hotels have all sorts of different ideas as to what constitutes the “light” portion of the term.
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Why is it called a “Continental” Breakfast?
The term “continental breakfast” reportedly originated in Britain in the mid-19th century. Its first recorded use dates back to 1896 in the book The Sanitarian, where “continent” referred to mainland Europe. Specifically, the term was meant to refer to the type of light breakfast common in countries like France and the Mediterranean.
In these countries, lunch was (and is still) much more important than breakfast and so a lot of people would prefer to just “get by” in the morning with a pastry and some coffee. When travelers from these regions started arriving in the US, American hotels wanted to cater to their breakfast preferences.
At the same time, a new middle class was emerging and the nature of labor was changing dramatically. Many people no longer needed a heavy breakfast before heading to plow the fields for hours on end and so a lighter, quicker breakfast started to make more sense.
Eventually, hotels started to realize that serving these light breakfasts was much more cost-effective than cooking up an entire breakfast spread and the idea eventually caught on across the country.
Continental Breakfast Confusion
There’s some confusion regarding continental breakfasts and I’ll explain why.
Continental breakfasts come in different forms
While there are certain staples you’ll find at a continental breakfast, hotels serve up their continental breakfasts in different ways with different food items.
Some offer many more options than others and some offer more much higher quality items than others. So just knowing that your hotel serves a continental breakfast is not really that helpful all the time — you may want to look into exactly what your options will be.
Quality continental breakfasts
Another thing to note is that a continental breakfast does not equal a crappy breakfast.
Yes, a lot of crummy motels and hotels may offer poor quality continental breakfasts but remember a continental breakfast is more or less just a light breakfast. A light breakfast can still be very solid with tasty pastries, juicy fruit slices, foamy cappuccinos, beautiful presentation, etc.
With that said, most of the high quality hotels I’ve stayed at over the years offer more than just a continental breakfast. If there is a continental breakfast available at a nice hotel, it may be just one item on the breakfast menu or the hotel will go all out on each staple item (e.g., huge fruit selection, tons of delightful pastries, etc.)
Some hotels actually undersell their breakfast by calling it a continental breakfast when they actually offer much more.
I’m not sure why or how it happens but on several occasions I’ve been told that the hotel offers a “continental breakfast” and when I get down in the breakfast area there is a full on buffet of hot breakfast items and sometimes even someone offering service.
Why do hotels love continental breakfasts?
Continental breakfasts are super efficient to run compared to a full-service breakfast. They don’t require a full staff to cook, servers to take orders, etc. and usually there are only one or two staff members tending to the breakfast area, depending on how busy it is.
The shelf life of some of the items served on a continental breakfast is also pretty long. For example, cereal can stay good for months past the date on the label. Ground coffee can last for three to five months when stored in a pantry at room temperature. The long shelf life of these means less wasted product, less inventory to manage, etc.
As mentioned, in some countries a heavy breakfast is just not common. So hotels offering continental breakfasts in these places are simply keeping up with the norms of that region.
Also, a lot of people at hotels are just more on the go now. They don’t want to sit down for breakfast and wait around for a server, their meal, the check, etc before a big business meeting or tour. For these people, a continental breakfast is often much better suited for their lifestyle.
What you can expect with a continental breakfast
A continental breakfast is usually served up buffet style. Sometimes it’s also served in a restaurant-style set up where you have a waiter that helps you but that is usually less common.
Often the buffet is set up in a lobby area or adjacent dining area on the main floor but it could also take place in a hotel restaurant or lounge. (If you are traveling with a dog, your pet won’t be allowed in this area so you’ll need to plan accordingly.)
There may be dining tables in the buffet area or you may be able to just find a table or seat in the lobby area or potentially even outside. Note that with coronavirus outbreaks some hotels may move to a grab and go lay out that is much more streamlined.
We always try to get to the breakfast area as early as possible when we can. Sometimes the lines can get pretty long in breakfast areas so we like to avoid that by showing up about 5 to 10 minutes after they open.
(If you show up right when breakfast begins all of the items may not be set up yet and you may have to end up waiting a few minutes anyway.)
Some hotels will limit you to a specific quantity of items at a continental breakfast (e.g., one cereal box). I’ve never actually seen these limits enforced and people always seem to exceed them but it’s still a good idea to be mindful of them.
Related: Should You Tip Hotel Housekeeping?
Common continental breakfast
Typically, you can expect to receive the following items for a standard continental breakfast:
I’ll give you some specific examples and some photos to show you how these items may be served.
Due to the lack of protein options, breads of different kinds are often the main “dish” served up for continental breakfasts and here are some you might snag:
- Bread slices/toast
Some hotels may only offer pre-packaged pastries and bread items but others may have a fresh inventory every morning. Because continental breakfasts are so light and bread-focused, a staple that goes along with the bread items is some type of jam or spread.
You might have the option to choose from grape or strawberry jam and other spreads like Nutella or peanut butter (sometimes in individual packs, sometimes jars/bottles). Butter is usually always found at a continental breakfast as well.
Every good hotel offering a continental breakfast should have a toaster, often a four slot machine. (If you are staying at an extended stay hotel, you might have a toaster in your room.)
Related: What Hotels Have Kitchens?
When it comes to donuts offered at a continental breakfast I’ve been mostly disappointed since they rarely compare to those offered at a donut shop.
Don’t be completely turned off if most of the pastries are prepackaged because some of those prepackaged snacks can actually still be edible (and I dare say enjoyable all things considered). When we are out and about on hiking trips I love to grab a couple of them for the road as they can be conveniently dropped into a pack.
However, sometimes the pastries or muffins might be tossed in a bag and begin to collect sweat which can be a pretty big turn off in the morning (or anytime).
Apples, oranges and bananas are extremely common to find with a continental breakfast. You might also find cantaloupe, melon, or grapes but that might be pushing it for a standard US hotel. The quality and freshness of the fruit can vary dramatically and sometimes you may not even want to go anywhere near it.
Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are usually a part of a more “sophisticated” breakfast. More extensive fruit selection containing fruits like passion fruit and other exotic fruits are usually only found in higher-end breakfast buffets, all-inclusive resorts, and international hotels in my experience.
Cereal is typically a staple of a continental breakfast.
A lot of times a continental breakfast will have a few miniature cereal boxes for you to choose from (Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, and Lucky Charms are common to find).
Other times you might find some breakfast cereal towers that allow you to dispense as much cereal as you want or that can fit in your bowl. The issue with the breakfast towers is that you don’t necessarily know if you were getting “Froot Loops” or “Tootie Fruties” and you always wonder how long some of the cereal remnants have been sitting in those towers.
As for milk, they may also set up small cartons of milk or have jugs/pitchers set out in ice. I usually see at least two types of milk with one being a whole milk and the other one being a “healthier variety.” This could be skim milk or a hotel could get crazy and offer something like almond milk.
At some of the lower-end hotels, there is always that rare (but dreaded) scenario where a hotel offers dry cereal with no milk.
- Orange Juice
- Coffee (decaf)
- Hot chocolate
Coffee and tea are an absolute must at a hotel’s continental breakfast. The coffee will hopefully be freshly brewed and you can usually find tea packets for green tea and maybe some other varieties like chamomile.
Orange juice is probably one of the most consistent items you’ll find in a continental breakfast. Sometimes you can just grab a container of something like Tropicana but other times they may have freshly squeezed juice. Apple juice is also relatively common in a continental breakfast.
Sometimes there may be a machine or pitchers offering more varieties of juices like cranberry juice or grapefruit juice but that’s a little less common.
Some continental breakfast may start to resemble an American breakfast when they offer additional hot items but as mentioned above they still somehow qualify as a “continental breakfast” for many hotels. Below are some items that may be included in something I call a “continental plus” breakfast.
Sliced meats and cheeses
You might find a spread of meats and cheeses at a continental breakfast. When offered, it’s common for there to be a mix of hard and soft cheeses like cheddar and brie cheese. As for meat slices, you may find ham, salami, and turkey. Smoked salmon may make an appearance as well.
I’m starting to see a lot more hotels offer hot options like reheatable Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches. Sometimes you can grab a cold one and take it to your room for heating in your microwave but other times they have them in the heated bins.
A lot of hotels offer you some type of oatmeal, which could be instant, steel-cut, or rolled. The oatmeal might be prepackaged like the packs you see below but it could also come in a large bin.
Yogurt sections seem very common in continental breakfasts. Often I’ll see plain yogurt along with some type of flavored options. These are usually offered in packaged containers but I’ve also seen yogurt served out of larger containers which didn’t seem as appetizing. You may also find some granola or other toppings for your yogurt set up at the buffet as well.
Waffle or pancakes
At a true continental style breakfast, the most you would probably get is a station where you can make your own waffles or pancakes.
So not only do you get to enjoy a nice waffle or fluffy chocolate chip pancake but you can revel in your own “cooking” skills (assuming you don’t eff it up that is). In addition to maple syrup you may find other toppings like whipped cream or chocolate sauce.
Pro tip: Make sure you use the no-stick spray so you don’t hold up the breakfast line trying to scrape off your waffle’s remnants!
Protein and potatoes
You might also get lucky and find breakfast sausages/bacon, eggs, and some form of potatoes such as hashbrowns.
Scrambled eggs that come in the heated bins are usually let’s say… short of desirable. Sausage can be pretty iffy as well (links or patties) but it’s pretty hard to mess up bacon and potatoes in my opinion.
If you truly are lucky, the breakfast may have an omelette station where you can get a fresh omelette cooked just to your liking. Again, this is not really a true continental breakfast item but sometimes you can be surprised.
A lot of hotels offer a free breakfast and you might be wondering what type of breakfast you get at those properties.
You can get a free breakfast in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways is to have a certain level of elite status. For example, if you have Hilton Gold you are entitled to a free breakfast at properties that offer it.
Whether you are getting a free breakfast from elite status or just getting a free breakfast offered by the hotel, a continental breakfast may be served up in both scenarios.
Something to be aware of is that just because a hotel offers a continental breakfast, that does not mean that the breakfast will be free. It is often the case that if a hotel only offers a continental breakfast it will be free but that is not always guaranteed.
Different breakfast types
You might be interested in seeing how a continental breakfast compares to other mainstream breakfasts that you can find at hotels. Below, I have a few examples of the types of breakfasts that we have tried out over the years in different regions of the world.
The English breakfast is pretty simple: bacon (not US bacon), sausages, eggs, black pudding, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and toast along with coffee and/or tea.
Having lived in the UK for a year I’ve had my fair share of true English breakfasts. I definitely miss the UK a lot but the breakfast? Not so much. Still, it’s fun to try every now again just to test if my taste buds have done a 180 (they haven’t).
As most readers are probably rare, the American breakfast usually consist of eggs, sausage/bacon, and potatoes. The eggs can come in the form of an omelette, scrambled, boiled, or fried. Potatoes could be home fries, hashbrowns, or some other variety. Waffles, pancakes, and French toast are also very American items for breakfast.
There are some additional items that you may be able to enjoy on a good American breakfast like English muffins/eggs Benedict, avocado toast, chicken and waffles, steak and eggs, breakfast tacos/burritos, biscuits and gravy, and of course breakfast sandwiches.
My experience in Italy with breakfast has been very sugary. Italian breakfasts offer an array of breads, cheeses, and deli meats but they usually hit pretty hard on the carbs with sugary pastries, cakes, cornettos, etc. If your experiences are like mine, you can expect a lot of filling and powdered sugar with your Italian breakfast.
Asia is a huge and diverse place so I don’t feel like you can really stay there is an “Asian breakfast” but the breakfast experience at hotels in Asia will be very different from what it’s like in the US.
Hotels in Asia will often have different soups (miso, noodle, udon, etc.), fish, rice, and other items that Americans don’t typically think of when it comes to breakfast.
A lot of major chain hotels in Asia will also serve up American items like pancakes and waffles, so if you are not feeling the Asian options you can go with something more Western. Sometimes the western options are just as good as you would find stateside but other times it’s a different type of play on your favorite breakfast menu items.
I seriously look forward to breakfast when staying at hotels in Mexico.
The prized Mexican breakfast items I’m usually looking for are: chilaquiles (tortilla chips with green salsa or red enchilada sauce), Huevos Rancheros, and migas.
And you can also expect to find some sweet Mexican pastries like pan dulce and possibly even sopapillas.
Continental breakfasts are extremely common to find in hotels all around the world. Basically, a continental breakfast is just a light breakfast but many hotels supplement their continental breakfast with additional proteins, cheeses, and hot items like waffles or pancakes. So your best bet is to check with the hotel to see what exactly their continental breakfast entails.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.