when booking a cruise, is food included or do you have to pay for it as if you're at a real restaurant?
Depends on which cruiseship you go with. Most ships gives passengers meals that you have already paid for when you purchase your ticket, this include their buffet smorgasbord, you can go as often as you like during your trip but the only limitation is three times per day. Most passengers use their pass for breakfast, lunch and dinner and this is wonderful if you are travelling on a tight budget. Non-alcoholic drinks are included and you can drink as much as you like during your meals. Some cruiseships also allow you to attend two to four finer dining restaurants onboard without paying for the meals or drinks. The only limitation is you are only permitted to dine for free one dinner or lunch per journey. For example if you use one of your pass on the first night of the trip to eat at a fine dining restaurant, you will not be able to eat there for free another night unless you pay for the meals yourself. The first drink is on the house regardless if this is a soft drink or alcohol one.....Apart from the meals and drinks, I find the ship's cinema is superb as they run few movies every day. The cinema is free and passengers can watch as many movies as you want right through the night. I find it is perfect at nights when you do not want to sit in your cabin as the only view you have from there is a picture hanging up as your "window".
The only cruise I took was on Carnival and there the food was free. Buffets on the Lido deck were open throughout breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours. There was also a pizzeria that was open 24 hours (and was the best food on the ship IMHO) and 24 hour room service. We had one meal/day at a nicer sit-down restaurant that required reservations. Naturally tips are expected at the sit-down restaurant and for room service. Food is all you want (including the sit-down restaurant, just ask for another appetizer, entree, or desert) and I'd rate all the food as good but nothing was really great.
I did a little research and I haven't found any cruise line where food isn't included in the price of the cruise. But many cruise lines do charge you for certain specialty restaurants and special drinks and things like that. A lot of the time it will say on the cruise line's website... you just have to go to the cruise line's website, find your cruise ship, then go to the list of restaurants and it should indicate which restarants you have to pay extra for. I hope this helps! Have fun!
In general, most cruise packages do include meals which sometimes means buffets (breakfast, lunch or dinner buffets). However, most do not include specialty foods and meals such as alcohol or food on a separate menu. You should, however check with the particular cruise you are planning to book and check the specific packages because they all vary.