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What is a Continental Breakfast?

By Deborah Ng
Updated May 16, 2024
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A continental breakfast is a light morning meal that is provided by many hotels and motels. It traditionally includes bread products, fruit juice and hot beverages. Some lodging facilities also include other types of food, such as cereal, fruit, meat and eggs. The meal typically is presented in a buffet, from which guests can help themselves, rather than being served to the guests like it would be in a restaurant. The quality and amount of food that is provided can vary widely and often depends on the quality of the establishment, with high-end hotels that attract business travelers typically providing better continental breakfast food than roadside motels that attract families who are vacationing on tight budgets.

Origin of the Term

The term "continental breakfast" refers to the continent of Europe and distinguishes this simple breakfast from an English breakfast, which typically consists of more food and often includes meats, cereals, fruits and even vegetables in addition to bread products, juice and hot beverages. Light breakfasts such as those often enjoyed by people in Europe, especially France, are considered easier, cheaper and quicker for hotels to provide to their guests. It also is convenient for travelers who might not have time for a sit-down meal in the morning before needing to continue on their journey.

Serving Procedure

A continental breakfast usually is provided in the hotel or motel lobby, or in a room near the lobby, for a specified period of time during the morning. The food typically is placed on a large table or counter, and amenities such as plates, bowls, forks, spoons and knives are made available. There might be tables and chairs where guests can sit and eat, or they could take their breakfast back to their rooms or elsewhere.


The bread products that are included in a continental breakfast might include toast, doughnuts, pastries, croissants and rolls. Pancakes or waffles are less likely to be included, although toaster waffles might be offered. Butter, assorted jams and jellies or other toppings, such as syrup for waffles, usually are available.


Juices and hot beverages are almost always included in a continental breakfast. Orange juice, apple juice and grapefruit juice are common. Various types of coffee and tea usually are provided. Hot chocolate might be available for children or for guests who do not drink coffee or tea. Milk also is available sometimes.

Fruits and Cereals

The other foods that are included in a continental breakfast can vary widely. Some hotels provide fruit such as bananas, apples, oranges and grapefruits. Cold breakfast cereal and milk are often provided. Hot cereal, such as instant oatmeal, is sometimes available as well.

Rare Fare

It is more rare for cooked meats or eggs to be included in a continental breakfast, but it does happen. For example, large containers full of scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage links might be placed out for guests. Hash browns — fried shredded potatoes — are another cooked breakfast item that is sometimes available.

Tips for Guests

Most hotels that offer continental breakfasts will tell guests the time period when the food will be available. Many times, a limited amount of food will be provided each day. For this reason, guests who wait until near the end of the availability time period should expect that the supply of some items might be gone. Also, it is considered to be poor etiquette for a guest to take very large portions of the food that is provided. This type of breakfast is meant to be quick and light, not a full meal that will satiate a person's hunger for many hours.

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Discussion Comments
By anon992118 — On Aug 15, 2015

Yes, they really shouldn't use the name "Continental" when the Motel/Hotel offers as much food as a full blown breakfast. Meaning coffee, juice, hot and cold cereals, fruit, pastries, bagels or muffins, eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles. You don't need any more than this for a complete breakfast. If you do, you have an eating disorder.

Continental in the past meant coffee or juice and either toast , pastry, muffin or bagel -- one or the other. Somehow, they added more food items but kept the name Continental. So I always call the place directly and ask what's included in their breakfast, no matter what name they use.

By anon964633 — On Aug 06, 2014

To the people complaining about others eating too much food: If you're going to be sitting on a bus all day and not eating until 3 in the afternoon, you're going to grab a larger portion of biscuits and gravy and a second piece of toast.

By anon961462 — On Jul 17, 2014

I stayed at a hotel once that offered as its continental breakfast one cinnamon roll (you weren't allowed more than one per person) and coffee.

As for being "greedy", when you're on the run and want to do a lot of things that day, you may end up skipping or delaying a later meal time so wanting a big breakfast is not out of the question.

By anon958061 — On Jun 24, 2014

The funny thing is, that on the continent (assuming that means the western European countries) many hotels offer a breakfast which is included in the room fee and consists of coffee/tea, juice, different kinds of bread (varies with the country), cheese, sausage, spreads, egg (boiled as well as scrambled), ham, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cereals, sweets, etc.

By the way, donuts aren't continental at all. Being continental myself, I experience the "continental breakfast" as being very strange.

By anon934630 — On Feb 21, 2014

I suppose it depends on the continent you are on, but continental breakfast originally meant coffee and pastries or breads. Because of competition for hotel rooms, properties are consistently trying to outdo each other. But it's breakfast, not continental breakfast anymore.

By anon329584 — On Apr 10, 2013

It varies by the hotel chain. Parts of the Choice network offer the hot breakfasts and call it continental, while other part of the chain are not required to offer anything for breakfast at all.

I manage a smaller branded hotel. We customize the breakfast to the price being paid. During the slower months when the business is down, I offer toast, muffins, danishes, honey buns, cereal, etc. But for major events when we rent for 200 per night, they have more options, like bagels, eggs, etc.

By anon301759 — On Nov 05, 2012

*Raises eyebrow.* It's sad when a breakfast menu turns political. No matter what administration or political affiliation, I can't imagine the breakfast that is being served at a hotel has anything to do with the White House.

By anon184370 — On Jun 08, 2011

If you're going to criticize the current administration then criticize them for things they've actually done. Hotel breakfast offerings as well as everything else a hotel does or does not do boils down to profit - period.

By anon183129 — On Jun 03, 2011

Blame it on the United States federal government and Michelle Obama's obsession with telling us what we can and can't eat. Hotels couldn't serve bacon and eggs if they wanted to, because Michelle Obama wants to control what we eat. Oh well, 2012 is right around the corner!

By anon174604 — On May 10, 2011

A continental breakfast for no charge is a minor convenience offered by most economy priced hotels today. It was never intended to be confused with a full hot breakfast that people actually pay for at a restaurant. If a hotel advertises a continental breakfast, people should not be disappointed if they aren't served bacon and eggs. Most hotels can't afford to offer a free full breakfast because people are just too greedy. Ever see anyone at a salad bar or buffet without food piled high on their plate?

A hotel is not a free, all you can eat restaurant, but some people think it should be after they shop around to save $10 off the room. If you expect to have an all you can eat buffet for breakfast, then don't expect to get the lowest priced room in town. Nothing is really free.

By amypollick — On Sep 30, 2010

@Anon115058: It's something called cultural differences. Most Americans do not eat boiled eggs for breakfast. They eat them scrambled, fried, poached or in something else, but rarely boiled. I never eat boiled eggs if I can help it. I don't like them. Many Americans (including me) also appreciate fresh fruit and/or muffins for breakfast.

When I was in Aruba, our hotel offered a variety of items for breakfast, in keeping with the visitors they have from all over the world. There was a hot buffet, cold meats and cheeses, muesli, various breads, and an omelette station, as well as fruit.

I am a Southerner, but I don't expect to find biscuits (the hot bread) everywhere when I am not in the South. That's OK. Part of the travel experience for me is to discover new foods and ways of living that I have not seen before.

I do, however, know that in France, a continental breakfast often consists of a croissant, butter, jam and a hot beverage -- and that's it.

Just because you wouldn't eat it for breakfast doesn't mean others don't enjoy it. I don't like lox and cream cheese on bagels for breakfast, but it's a common meal in New York. And that's as it should be.

Enjoy what's going on around you and the travel experience.

By krusper — On Sep 30, 2010

What does a muffin have to do with a continental breakfast? What does a continental breakfast served in USA have to do with a real continental breakfast? - nothing!

By anon115058 — On Sep 30, 2010

I do not understand why a continental breakfast is considered to include only coffee/tea, fruit and croissant in USA (and even muffins). In Europe we are used to eating (and it is always available in hotels) for breakfast: bread/toast/croissant, ham, salami, cheese, marmalade, boiled egg, bagels, pastries, cakes, cookies, yogurt, milk, coffee, juice, tea, oatmeal, cereal ... and you got as much as you wish.

Here, in the Washington in hotel Madera, for the continental breakfast i got to choose between tea and coffee, croissant and muffin, and I got fruit. Crazy combination. The other kinds of breakfast (I suppose American?) contained always egg in any kind but boiled.

By elfi64 — On Jul 11, 2010

The two hotels I stayed in Italy this summer had both excellent breakfast offers. The Hilton hotel in Rome had such a wide variety of foods that could please almost any guest. They even included oatmeal, by request, my favorite breakfast food.

Another hotel in southern Italy, near Sorento had similarly generous breakfast foods. It is really nice to get up in the morning and have a good breakfast waiting for you.

By anon92543 — On Jun 28, 2010

The last time i stayed at a hotel which was about two months ago in new jersey they served omelets, bagels, cereal, bacon, ham, coffee, juice, granola bars and fruits and yogurt. i was quite surprised. i would have thought it would have been cereal and milk and juice but it was much better.

I'm going to Kissimmee, florida this upcoming friday and I'm praying and hoping to God that the hotel i will be staying at for two weeks will come with the same friendly and hospitable service that the Howard johnson hotel had. Hope this comment helped or at least give you an idea of which hotel is clean affordable and has a scrumptious choice of cuisine God bless you all! Janny

By anon88924 — On Jun 07, 2010

There is also the option to use a toaster, microwave, and not forgetting fruits: apples, bananas, oranges (in Florida), etc.

By samiamb34 — On May 31, 2010

I've found that, too - the "continental breakfast" is getting fancier. The last hotel I stayed at that had a free continental breakfast had an omelet chef for a couple hours. Otherwise it was just cereal and muffins, and scrambled eggs in a pan, buffet style. I'll definitely remember that when I need to stay in a hotel again, though!

By somerset — On Feb 01, 2008

Some hotels offer a bit more substantial continental breakfast, where they might include such things as smoked salmon, hard boiled eggs, a variety of cheeses and cold cuts. Seasonal fresh fruit might also be included, and all of that can make for a well rounded breakfast.

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