No matter where you go, you're sure to find plenty of hotels that offer some sort of continental breakfast. The complimentary morning meal is a familiar and often comforting part of life on the road. Upon waking up, you're greeted with an array of fruits, cereals, pastries, and, sometimes even pancakes, waffles, and omelettes, offering just enough fuel for the day ahead. The continental breakfast has been a popular part of traveling for over a hundred years. Here’s the quick history behind every early riser's favorite part of staying in a hotel.

What is a continental breakfast?

Assortment of foods in a continental breakfast, with coffee, pastries, and sliced fruits
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Before digging into the history, there's one question we have to ask: Where does the name “continental” come from?

The name has nothing to do with tectonic plates, but actually refers to the light morning meals preferred by the countries of mainland Europe — otherwise known as continental countries. While the people of Great Britain and the United States typically preferred a major meal in the morning involving several dishes—such as meats, pastries, beans, breads and jams—continental countries preferred smaller morning fare. Continental breakfasts became popular for being a more delicate alternative to the traditional heavy breakfasts of Great Britain and the United States.

The first American continental breakfasts

Breakfast items with knife scraping butter across a wedge of bread
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Continental breakfasts started gaining popularity in the United States toward the end of the 19th century. As overall industry developed, the country became more urbanized, and working hours became longer. People had less time to enjoy massive sit-down breakfasts. Continental breakfasts offered a way to grab a quick bite to eat in the morning without all the time-consuming effort.

The first known usage of the term “continental breakfast” appeared in a magazine called “The Sanitarian” in 1896, although by that time, continental breakfasts had already become rather popular. Early continental breakfasts were even smaller than what they are now. Sometimes it was as simple as a roll with your tea or coffee.

A hotel standard

Hotel room service showing breakfast items and silverware on a red tray
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Continental breakfasts and hotels seem to go together like bagels and cream cheese. It’s almost impossible to find a hotel that doesn’t offer some sort of complimentary breakfast. Hotels were one of the earliest adopters of the continental breakfast. They loved them for two reasons. First, they were much cheaper to prepare than a massive meal. Not only was there less food to buy, but the typical dishes served required less preparation and cook time. Second, continental breakfasts were appealing to European travelers who were visiting America.

Why are continental breakfasts usually free?

Classic hotel continental breakfast, with assorted pastries and fruit items on serving trays
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In most hotels, continental breakfasts are included in the cost of a room. While it might sound odd to offer a free meal with every purchase, it used to be the norm. In the 1800s and early 1900s, it was common for hotels to offer complimentary meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As travelers started to prefer more inexpensive, flexible accommodations, hotels stopped offering meals to bring down costs.

While people were happy to get lunch and dinner on their own terms, however, many missed the ease of getting up and having breakfast prepared for them. This led to the creation of continental model room pricing. If you purchased a “continental stay,” it was cheaper than the traditional full room and board with all meals included, but you still got to enjoy a complimentary breakfast every morning. Pretty soon, it became the standard model for hotels across the country.