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A penny-pincher’s guide to hotel breakfast buffets — how to get your money’s worth and save your bank balance at the same time

hotel breakfast buffet
Milk that pastry and cereal selection for all it’s got (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Ah, the hotel breakfast buffet.

A smorgasbord of all-you-can-eat delights ranging from savoury to sweet that caters to every literal taste. Easily one of the purest pleasures of the hotel experience, this ‘free’ feeding frenzy is reason enough alone to get up in the morning.

And for anyone on a bit of a tight holiday budget it’s also a great way to save some pennies. Believe me, I know.

It was as a cash-strapped student backpacker that I first discovered the untapped potential of the hotel breakfast buffet, both as a means of providing fuel for a hectic morning of sightseeing, but also as a way to prepare a cheeky packed lunch for later in the day. After all, everything tastes better when it’s free, right? Plus the feeling of victory when you offset your lunch savings against a holiday souvenir, or a few beers, is unbeatable.

While Covid was a temporary kiss of death for the all-you-can-eat institution, thankfully in the post-pandemic world, the breakfast buffet has made a comeback (hooray!) and is back on the (literal) table.

To celebrate, here are a few expert buffet scavenging tips that will satisfy both hunger pangs, and your bank balance.

Do a hot lap

The allure of the breakfast buffet can transform otherwise polite and civilised functioning members of society into gluttonous pigs at the feeding trough.

Confronted with a myriad of options the urge to push your fellow diners out of the way and revert to a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality may be strong, but stop and breathe.

Being strategic is not only the secret to a successful breakfast, it’s also how you’ll be able to create the most appetising packed lunch too.

Where’s the fresh omelette station? Where are the pastries? How about the pricey proteins? Get to know the lay of the land before committing to anything, especially if the stations are spread out.

How often have you settled early on only to realise something that something way better was hidden at the other end of the room?

Prepared food in warming dishes on buffet
Scope out the situation (Picture: Getty Images/PhotoAlto)

Divide and conquer

Think beans and dim sum go together? How about sliced watermelon with hash browns? Nope? Thought not. So why are you piling the oddest of food combinations together on one big plate?

It may require more legwork, but make sure you use fresh plates for each course, or at least divide into sweet and savoury.

Be forward-thinking

If you really indulge you may end up so stuffed that the prospect of ever eating again is hard to fathom, so it’s important to be forward thinking about lunch before you fill up. Believe me, when noon rolls around, your tummy will know it.

Work out what you want to eat for lunch during your recce above and then assemble before you’ve maxed out on breakfast.

Also, be mindful of the ingredients you use — they will need to travel well.

Anything too ‘leaky’ is out, so go easy on the sauces when you make a sarnie, and take only backpack-friendly snacks, such as an apple or banana, or a well-wrapped muffin.

Use your imagination

Getting the most out of any buffet requires imagination, and an ability to mix and match ingredients successfully, which means that those not blessed with a natural instinct for what works well together on a plate, may struggle.

Often this creativity can turn what is — on the surface last least — a pretty lacklustre buffet, into something incredibly tasty.

Breakfast Buffet in the Restaurant
Get creative (Picture: Getty Images)

Up-sell

Look for extras. For example, are there flaked almonds and blueberries at the pancake station that would go down a treat as a topper for your granola? Is there a wedge of lemon somewhere to squeeze over your salmon to jazz it up?

Up-selling what’s on offer is especially important when it comes to that DIY sandwich you’ll enjoy later in the day.

Look for appetising cold meats, salad, and perhaps some decent brie. Throw in a few grilled tomatoes, add a bit of sauce or relish, and you’re good to go.

Wrap and wrap again

To ensure that your lunch survives intact — and that your daypack remains unsullied — make sure to wrap appropriately.

While some 5-star hotels go as far as offering actually cardboard takeaways for pastries and the like (I’ve encountered two such establishments in Singapore), most hotels will only have paper-thin napkins available. With these you’ll need to double or triple wrap at least.

Be discreet

Lastly, discretion is important. Though very few hotels will object to a mild bit of squirrelling, no one wants to look like a cheapskate.

So, don’t be (too) greedy and keep your lunchtime takeaway to a minimum.

At the same time, do everything you can to ensure that no one knows what you’re up to.

Top tip: I’ve found that a newspaper is the perfect way to mask that telltale serviette package in your hand as you stride confidently towards the door.

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