Going on a cruise but have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or following a gluten-free diet for medical or health reasons? In this article, I share strategies to ensure you get safe gluten-free meals while cruising worldwide. A gluten-free 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 a 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 share my tips and strategies for surviving the seas as a gluten-free cruise passenger, I’d like to 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.
Such assurance proved useless as nothing I shared with my reservation agent was ever communicated with the cruise staff, and there were no protocols 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 – err, had a meltdown – 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 gluten-free cruise experience.
UPDATE: Have you heard of Celiac Cruise? They offer gluten-free cruises in partnership with Royal Caribbean International and AMAWaterways. Enjoy cruises to Alaska, Bahamas, Europe, and the Caribbean, all while eating in a dedicated dining space just for gluten-free travelers. Read about my experiences onboard a Celiac Cruise in my article, 22 Things to Consider Before Going on a Celiac Cruise.
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
Your head waiter is the first person you should talk to about your food requests. Don’t bother discussing it with the person making dinner reservations or guest relations. Either visit the dining room when you get on the boat or speak with him at your first dinner.
Have a firm discussion with your waiter about your dietary needs and the special attention it deserves. The head waiters are hyper-focused on customer service as they deal with customer service issues and supervise the wait staff. Make sure you utilize this vital resource from the start.
(2) Pre-Order All Meals
Talk with your head waiter about pre-ordering all your meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snacks). Tell him where you’ll eat (which dining venue), approximately what time, etc.
Also, you can pre-order any dish you like If there is no set gluten-free menu or selection list. The staff is happy to make you what you want, so don’t hesitate to ask for what you need and desire.
(3) Get to Know the Cruise Staff
My head waiter worked in the dining hall, so he could meet up with me when 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 discuss your needs with him, explaining that you pre-ordered your meals with your head waiter. Ask if he can help you whenever 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 they can be safely prepared and served, you may find yourself at the buffet occasionally.
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 and even keep gluten-free items at a separate, dedicated station.
I ate in the buffet for breakfast, where I enjoyed a banana, an omelet or hard-boiled eggs, and some gluten-free pancakes.
The gluten-free pancakes were clearly marked and covered with a napkin on the buffet line. 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. There is never a vacation from celiac disease.
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.
For example, I wanted a chocolate dessert every night like everyone else. They served me some vanilla-like pudding for the first two nights, which I didn’t like, and, well, vanilla pudding should never be considered dessert.
I asked my waiter if I could have a gluten-free chocolate dessert every night (a standing order), and he was glad to accommodate me. It turns out I just had to speak up and ask.
(6) Be Gracious
The cruise staff works hard to feed many people simultaneously. The chefs and kitchen staff are moving at lightning speed. The waiters are under a lot of pressure. They work 12+ hours per day with few breaks.
While I say advocate for yourself so you are taken seriously, always remember to be gracious and kind to the staff.
I did cry and exchange heated words with one of the waiters after feeling like a social pariah for the umpteenth time. But I was kind and gracious to them once we got through this rough patch and things started moving in the right direction. My hope is my tears will make it better for the next person.
My husband and I shook their hands, and I even got hugs from 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. Kindness goes a long way to making your experience top-notch.
(7) Tip Generously
While gratuity is added to your cruise bill daily, leave extra tips for those who went above and beyond to help you. This will blaze the trail for those of us to come as 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 and 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, etc.) where having your safe gluten-free snacks was nice. Bring bars, jerky, and packaged items to enjoy as needed.
On top of that, I would always grab an apple or banana and a box of Cheerios 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, pick up as many naturally gluten-free foods as possible. Fruits, packaged foods, hard boil eggs, salad, omelets, etc., all could be safe options in a pinch.
When “shopping” a buffet, I take 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 reflected on what Royal Caribbean and the entire cruise industry can do better to accommodate guests with celiac disease or special dietary needs.
Below are my suggestions for the perfect gluten-free cruise experience for all passengers. Of course, if you’re on a Celiac Cruise, you are already experiencing these benefits:
(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; many people who aren’t even on a gluten-free diet will enjoy it.
Steak and potatoes, grilled chicken with rice, baked fish, lobster, pad Thai, soups, and so many things can and are easily made gluten-free. Be sure to have 2-3 choices and not just steak and potatoes every night.
(2) Add Designated Gluten-Free Areas
As I understand it, Royal Caribbean has a special kitchen prep area that is dedicated gluten-free where all my meals were prepared safely for me.
This photo was taken by Kaylee Blumenfeld (and used with permission) and is of the main kitchen. You can see signage that says, “Gluten-Free Area Only.”
One improvement that would be nice is to have a buffet dining area that is 100% dedicated gluten-free on ALL cruises. This would mean I could go on vacation from my diet and not have to advocate for myself at every meal.
I love that Celiac Cruise offers this worry-free dining experience, but it’s only available on select cruises. Could you imagine if Royal Caribbean offered a dedicated gluten-free dining experience on ALL its cruises? I would never cruise with another brand again!
(3) Implement Standard Procedure Forms
When I disclosed my food issues, I wished someone on the cruise staff had given me a standard procedure form. It took too many meals and incidents 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 paper, but a proper form might have been better and prevented some of the communication mishaps.
(4) Have Designated Contacts
Perhaps staff members can be trained to handle special orders, and those of us with special diets could be assigned to sit in their areas.
This means I would work with the same people each day, and those people would have been specifically trained to work with people following medically necessary specialty diets.
Your Next Gluten-Free Cruise
Overall, cruising is a great way to explore the world without worrying about getting glutened. Your cruise ship will always provide safe meals for you, albeit it will take time and effort to make it happen.
The industry has a long way to go to improve its communications and handling of special dietary needs. Still, overall, I feel like it was smooth sailing in the Atlantic Ocean once I advocated for myself. And for that, I’m grateful.
PS: Read about my experience and what you need to know about Celiac Cruise in my article, 22 Things to Consider Before Going on a Celiac Cruise.
A Note about the Americans with Disabilities Act
Of course, gluten-free meals were provided to me without question on Royal Caribbean.
However, suppose you’re given a hard time about your dietary needs and are in a situation where food is not readily accessible outside what is provided.
In that case, it’s good to know that you have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on your side.
Read more about how and why celiac disease became classified as a disability and how this classification protects your civil liberties on cruise ships, in prisons, and in other scenarios when food is not readily accessible.