Going on a cruise but have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or following the gluten-free diet for another reason? In this article, I’ll share strategies to ensure you get safe gluten-free meals while cruising around the world. A celiac cruise awaits you! Please see my disclosures.
I love cruising, but being on a gluten-free diet due to celiac disease, and going on a cruise, well, it can be a challenge.
In this article, I offer tips and strategies for navigating the gluten-free diet (and other food allergies) on a cruise vacation. This is a MUST READ for anyone who wants to cruise with special dietary needs.
Before I offer my tips and strategies for surviving the seas as a gluten-free cruise passenger, I’d like to briefly share my experience with you.
I enjoyed a 7-day Royal Caribbean cruise on the Freedom of the Seas. When I booked the trip, my reservation agent assured me that the ship would be able to accommodate my gluten-free diet. This tactic proved to be very unhelpful as nothing was ever truly communicated with the ship, and there were no protocols shared with me about how it would all work.
As a result, I struggled to get gluten-free food day after day, meal after meal. And it wasn’t until I cried did the staff begin taking me seriously.
You can learn from my experiences and mistakes, and take my tips to heart to ensure you have a successful celiac cruise for you and your family.
2022 UPDATE: Have you heard of Celiac Cruise? This company offers gluten-free cruises in partnership with Royal Caribbean International and AMAWaterways. Enjoy cruises to Alaska, Bahamas, Europe and the Caribbean with dedicated dining spaces for a limited number of gluten-free travelers. Sign me up!
Tips for Making Your Gluten-Free Cruise a Success
If you require gluten-free meals (or any allergy meal) on a cruise ship, here are some strategies for navigating the process successfully:
(1) Connect with Your Head Waiter Right Away
The first person you should talk to about your food requests is your head waiter. Don’t bother discussing it with the person making dinner reservations or guest relations. Either visit the dining room as soon as you get on the boat, or speak with him/her at your first dinner.
Have a firm discussion with him/her about your dietary needs and the special attention it deserves. The head waiters are very focused on customer service as they are the ones charged with dealing with customer service issues and supervising the wait staff. Make sure you utilize this important resource.
(2) Pre-Order All Food
Talk with your head waiter about pre-ordering all your meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert and snacks). Tell him/her where you’ll be eating (which dining venue), approximately what time, etc.
If you need to eat off the ship, ask him to prepare a brown bag meal you can take with you. They are more than happy to accommodate such requests but advance preparation is required.
Also, you can pre-order anything for any meal, but there is no set gluten-free menu or selection list. The staff is happy to make you anything you want, so don’t be shy asking for what you need and desire.
(3) Get to Know the Cruise Staff
My head waiter worked in the dining hall, so he was able to meet up with me as soon as I was seated for breakfast and dinner. However, for lunch, the dining hall is only open on days at sea. Days at port require meals to be served in the self-serve buffet-style cafeteria.
Ask for a head waiter at the buffet cafeteria and have a discussion with him/her too explaining that you pre-ordered your meals with your head waiter and ask if he can help you each and every time you eat in this dining area. Finding an ally in all dining areas will do you well.
(4) Eat at the Buffet with Caution
While you should try to eat all your meals in the dining hall where it can be safely prepared and served to you, you may find yourself at the buffet. Most gluten-free diners know that buffets are rampant with gluten cross contamination and are unsafe for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities.
However, the buffet may not be completely off limits. Some cruise ships label their foods for allergens, so you can cautiously select items from it.
For breakfast one morning, I decided to eat in the buffet area where I enjoyed a banana, a hard boiled egg, and some gluten-free pancakes. I noticed the gluten-free pancakes were clearly marked and covered on the buffet line so I felt confident eating them and felt great after I did. It was a risk, but it worked for me.
(5) Advocate For Yourself
Sometimes I feel embarrassed that I need a gluten-free meal. As much as celiac disease has been a blessing in my life, I can’t help but still feel frustrated and emotional that I have to deal with celiac disease even when I’m on vacation.
As much as you wish everyone understood what you’re going through and what you need, they don’t. This is why you must be firm but kind. You must speak up and be unafraid to ask for what you want.
One example is that I wanted a chocolate dessert every night like everyone else. The first two nights they served me some vanilla-like pudding, which I didn’t want at all. I asked my waiter if I could have any gluten-free chocolate dessert every night (a standing order) and he was elated to accommodate me. It turns out I just had to speak up and ask.
(6) Be Gracious
The cruise staff works hard feeding many people at the same time. The chefs and kitchen staff are moving at lightning speed. The waiters are under a lot of pressure. They are all working 12+ hours days and they work every day with few breaks. You are one of a few people on the ship with special meal requests.
While I say advocate for yourself so you are taken seriously, just remember to be gracious and kind to the staff at all times. I did cry to the staff and express my concerns with their procedures, but once we got through this rough patch, I was over the top smiles and gracious with them!
My husband and I shook their hands and I even got hugs from all of them on the last night. These are real people with real lives. A great way to show your graciousness is to ask them questions – get to know them – don’t make it all about you and your food, but take the time to get to know them on a friendly-level too. It goes a long way to making your experience top notch.
(7) Tip Generously
While gratuity is added to your cruise bill daily, make sure you leave extra tips for those who went above and beyond to help you. This will blaze the trail for those of us to come – the staff will know that treating you special will net them a bigger tip.
We tipped our head waiter the most, and then we tipped our waiter, assistant waiter (who always brought out gluten-free bread for me) and then we tracked down the waiter who kindly helped us in the buffet dining area (and the one I cried to on Day 3 of the cruise). Showing a little gratefulness to those who cared for you most will go a long way.
(8) Bring Snacks
While the food on the ship is great, there were moments during traveling (airport, excursions) where having your own safe gluten-free snacks would be nice. Bring bars, jerky and packaged items to enjoy as needed.
On top of that, I would always grab an apple or banana and boxed cereal from the dining hall to bring with me on excursions as snacks. Please read my comprehensive list of gluten-free snack ideas for inspiration.
(9) Eat Naturally Gluten Free Foods
If you’re stuck eating at the buffet, remember to pick up as many naturally gluten-free foods as possible. Fruits, packaged foods, hard boil eggs, salad bar, omelets, etc. all could be safe options in a pinch. I often pick food from the back of the serving container to ensure the least potential for cross contamination by other passengers.
How Cruise Lines Can Improve Handling of Special Diets
Over the years, I’ve taken time to reflect on what I think Royal Caribbean and the entire cruise industry can do better to accommodate guests with celiac disease or special dietary needs. Here are my suggestions for the perfect celiac cruise:
(1) Offer Gluten-Free Menu Items Always
Offer clearly labeled gluten-free meals every night in the dining hall. It’s so easy to make a meal gluten free and many people will enjoy it. Steak and potatoes, grilled chicken with rice, and stews, soups and so many things can and are easily made gluten free.
(2) Add Designated Gluten-Free Areas
As I understand it, Royal Caribbean has a special kitchen prep area that is dedicated gluten free. All my food was prepared safely for me, and for that, I am over-the-top grateful.
One thing that could be really nice is to have a buffet area that is 100% dedicated gluten free, and maybe have it in a secret spot that only gluten-free people know about. I could then grab whatever items were available that day and I wouldn’t have to pre-order a special meal. I love that there is now a Celiac Cruise available that offer this.
(3) Implement Standard Procedure Forms
The minute I disclosed my food issues I wish someone would have given me a standard procedure form. It took too many meals and too many incidents for me to understand how to pre-order all my meals, not just my dinner.
I also think Royal Caribbean needs a pre-order sheet. I wrote my pre-orders on a piece of paper, but a proper form might have been better and prevented some of the communication mishaps.
(4) Have Designated Special Contacts
Perhaps there can be members of the staff who are trained to handle special orders, and those of us with special diets could be assigned to sit in their areas. Then I could work with the same people each day, and those people would have been trained to work with me on what is safe to eat and what isn’t.
Your Next Celiac Cruise
Overall, cruising is a great way to explore the world and not have to worry about getting glutened. Your cruise ship will provide safe meals for you at all times – even meals you can take off the ship with you if you desire. It’s easier than taking your chances with restaurants and not knowing the language. I highly recommend cruising for anyone who eats gluten free, has a food allergy, or has special meal requests.
Obviously the industry has a long way to go to improving their communications and handling of special dietary needs, but overall, I do feel like once I advocated for myself, it was smooth sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. And for that, I feel quite grateful.
Please note that in 2020, a company called Celiac Cruise has helped make travel easier for gluten-free friends. The company partnered with Royal Caribbean to create dedicated gluten-free dining experiences on select cruises. I can’t wait to test drive Celiac Cruise on my next cruise vacation!
A Note about the American Disabilities Act
Of course, gluten-free meals were provided to me without question on Royal Caribbean, but if you are ever given a hard time about your dietary needs, and you’re in a captive-type situation, it’s good to know that you have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on your side. Read more about how celiac disease is classified as a disability and how this classification protects your civil liberties.
Good For You Gluten Free says
I absolutely love hearing this!
Maureen Kane says
I just returned from a river cruise through Viking. They were advised of my gluten intolerance as well as my being vegetarian. They were so very helpful and aware of needed intervention. The woman in charge of dining ( Rhia) Approached me daily and reviewed the menus with me. The chef made special gluten free bread, rolls and desserts. I could. To have asked for more.
Thank you for writing this article. I have been thinking about a cruise to Alaska and just decided it was out of the question because of Gluten Free diet restrictions. I recently cancelled a 3 day tour group trip because I didn’t want to pack and bring my own food to the catered events. I tried to make it work and just gave up and cancelled.
Jenny Finke, Integrative Nutrition Coach says
Thank you for sharing. Makes me feel less alone in my experience.
I just came back from a cruise on Liberty of the Seas and had much the same experience as you did. Although I am only gluten sensitive, I am also lactose intolerant so that added to the challenge. Almost everyday we went to the Windjammer for lunch and I’d have fruit, salad and rice- not exciting but filling. My dining room staff were also very kind and worked hard to get my food ordered the night before and actually found an amazing flourless chocolate cake that was so good that my husband ordered one too. I also brought a lot of GF snacks that really helped on shore excursions. I still thoroughly enjoyed my cruise but wish I had had a few more choices than fish and a baked potato every night. One positive thing is that I only gained 2 pounds on this cruise! ☺️
Thank you so much for this article. I booked a cruise prior to my diagnosis (10/2019) and since then have been stressing about this upcoming cruise. I called the company already and explained my dietary restrictions, but I still have been expecting a battle upon actually finding food. These tips will definitely help!
That was so refreshing to read. I also went on a cruise last year. As I everyone who asked it was a big Hunger Trip for me. Unless I ordered dinner in advance it was very basic and boring. We went with Carnival where promised there would be plenty of choices…… I did bring my own emergency snacks that saved me from turning into a witch. Also had a few meltdowns in the cabin feeling sorry for myself. Maybe by the time I am ready to brave an other cruise it will be easier.
Wish you well
Jenny Finke, Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach says
Good luck. I’m glad I could help!!
Im going a cruise next week and have developed a gluten intolerance this past year. I notified the cruise of my dietary restriction at the time of my booking. They e-mailed me within two days and suggested I contact the head waiter upon my boarding to help me slect my meals. After reading your article, I realize I may need to be more pro-active about ALL my meals. I love your suggestion of pre-ordering food for when I leave the ship at ports of call and also to bring my own snacks (just in case). Thank you for an excellent education of the steps I need to take to make my vacation stressfree and successful!
Thanks Shanna! Good luck and enjoy your cruise.
We are heading out on Liberty of the Seas this Sunday, and what a help to read this. I teared up as I read through your breakdown, as I have one of these at least every other month as a vegetarian with celiac disease. I knew about ordering ahead for dinner (filled out a disability request, both for mobility issues and this), but it wouldn’t have occured to me to do so for breakfast and lunch, nor to have ideas of what I want. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!
Thanks for your comment, Regina. Yes, definitely important to take charge of your own health and not be afraid to ask for what you need. XO, Jenny
Great article Jenny. It’s been a while since I took a cruise, and of course, I wasn’t gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and vegan at that time. I am now quite the pleasure to eat with! Your tips are a good reminder for how to take charge of your health (which I believe everyone should be) and how to get your needs met. In the world we live in today, with so many people sensitive to so many different things, it should come as no surprise to restaurants, cruise ships, etc.. I’m so glad your trip turned out to be a good experience, just sad that you had to go through so much turmoil before things got squared away.
Thank you so much for reading it and for your kind feedback, Karissa. It’s nice to know others can relate to these same emotions.
Karissa @WithOurBest (@withourbest) says
JENNY!! This is such a great article. I read every-last-word! You tell such a true and real story. I do hope you share this with the cruise line (Royal Caribbean) and many cruise outlets online – this is an article to be shared!
So many of us have allergies – it is important that ALL places know a good process on how to accommodate them! As you know, I travel A LOT A LOT and I am always struggling with the feelings you felt in this article – like you were an inconvenience, alone eating your meal, etc. It is real and you are not alone!
Thanks for the tips and the experience you had on your cruise.