I’m really excited to write an article offering tips and strategies for navigating the gluten-free diet (and other food allergies) when going on a cruise vacation.
This is a MUST READ for anyone who wants to cruise and has special dietary needs. Please read this article top to bottom as it’s filled with everything you need to survive (food-wise) for your week at sea!
Before I give you some tips and strategies for surviving the seas as a gluten-free cruise passenger, I’d like to share my experience with you. I share it as an opportunity for you to learn from my mistakes, and the mistakes of Royal Caribbean, so you can cruise with confidence and follow your strict gluten-free diet while exploring the world.
My Cautionary Cruise Story
Last week I enjoyed a 7-day Royal Caribbean cruise with my husband’s parents, sister and his sister’s family whom we adore. We were celebrating his father’s 75th birthday, and my daughter happened to turn nine during our trip too. So much to celebrate and so many blessings in our wonderful life. We boarded the Freedom of the Seas and enjoyed ports throughout the caribbean.
My mother-in-law booked the trip and told our reservation agent about my gluten-free diet and that I had celiac disease. The agent assured her – and me – that it would be no problem to feed me on the cruise. Perfect!
When we boarded the ship, the first thing we did was change our dinner reservations to MyTime dining, a feature on Royal Carribean where you can choose what time you want to eat dinner in the main dining hall. We chose 6:00 pm. When we booked the reservation, my mother-in-law told her about my gluten-free diet. I was grateful as I stood there watching my mother-in-law care and advocate for me.
Then we decided it was lunch time. We just boarded the ship so the only dining option available was in the Windjammer, which is an enormous buffet of every food item imaginable. Of course, as someone with celiac disease, the buffet is a cross contamination nightmare.
While everyone hit the buffet, I opted, along with my husband who follows a sympathy gluten-free diet, to talk to someone on staff. I was quickly directed to one of the head waiters, who then got a chef for me to talk to. The chef was really kind and said he would make me something – anything I wanted – and suggested gluten-free noodles and chicken. My husband and I agreed. He retreated to the kitchen and said he would bring it to us when it was done.
Meanwhile my entire family had visited the buffet multiple times (the first day is very exciting after all) and they were all finished and anxious to explore the ship. They left and after about 25 minutes, my food arrived and my husband and I ate it alone, agreeing to meet our family when we were done. It was Day 1 – this was to be expected.
That night, when we visited the dining hall, I disclosed my gluten-free diet request to my waiter. He told me to tell him what I wanted – no problem. I reviewed the menu and there appeared to be lots of gluten-free options clearly marked on the menu. I ordered one of the options. A few minutes later, my waiter told me that wasn’t available gluten-free – even though it was marked GF on the menu – and offered me a steak and baked potato instead. I was okay with that – ho hum.
My waiter then brought me tomorrow’s menu and asked me what I wanted so that the chef could prepare my dinner ahead of time. I selected an item and was thrilled that I would be able to enjoy anything I wanted gluten-free.
The next day I dined in the dining hall for breakfast. I asked the waiter what was safe for me to eat and he said an omelet. I ordered an omelet with potatoes and veggies. It came in about 15 minutes – it wasn’t all that exciting of a breakfast, especially given the awesome food available on cruise ships today. Oh well. My belly felt satisfied. Onward to lunch.
While my family again filled their bellies in the Windjammer (it was a favorite spot for my kids and extended family), my husband joined me in the dining room. The dining room is open for lunch during days at sea. I was again handed a menu that had all sorts of items marked “gluten-free” on it. I told my new waiter about my strict gluten-free diet and ordered one of the marked items – a turkey burger.
He took my order, but came back five minutes later to tell me that it wasn’t gluten-free and that the only thing he could give me was a steak and baked potato. Oh man, was I going to have to have steak for every meal?!? I told him I didn’t want steak, and we went back and forth for awhile on this issue. I kept asking, “Why are things marked ‘gluten-free’ on the menu when you say I can’t have them?”
After he discussed my distress with the chef, he said he would make me a turkey burger after all. About 10 minutes later, a turkey burger showed up at my table. I was relieved that I didn’t have to have a steak again!
This waiter told me to talk to my head waiter in the dining room at dinner to pre-order my lunch the next day. Got it! I was slowly but surely learning the system – a system no one had told me about prior to this encounter.
At dinner that night, the meal I pre-ordered came with no problem. When it came time to pre-order my meal for the next day, I asked for the head waiter (Mihai) to discuss what I needed to do with breakfast and lunch. He told me to pre-order all meals with him, and he would make sure they were ready for me the next day. I ordered breakfast, lunch and dinner that night. Easy enough albeit I wish I knew this last night!
The next morning in the dining hall, I mentioned that I pre-ordered breakfast (omelet, fruit and GF pancakes). My meal arrived to me within 10-15 minutes as ordered. We then left the boat for the morning to explore Labadee, Haiti, an island that Royal Caribbean owns. The kids loved the water park and slide and I enjoyed watching them and lounging on the beach in the shade. As lunch-time approached, Royal Caribbean provided a BBQ meal on the island, but I had pre-ordered a meal inside. It was a 10 minute walk back to the boat, so I left my family and decided to go eat and then hit the gym until they came back. We had to be back on the boat by 3pm anyway.
I went to the Windjammer to pick up my pre-ordered meal. This is where I had my breakdown.
Remember, I pre-ordered my lunch and left my family on the island so I could eat – by myself, by the way. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.
I told the staff in the Windjammer that I had pre-ordered my meal with my head waiter the prior night. I gave him my name and room number and he said he would go check on it for me. Ten minutes later he comes back and says that they don’t have an order for me but that the chef can make me what I ordered. I told him I ordered a salad topped with grilled chicken and some fruit. He went to talk with the chef and came back 10 minutes later to tell me the chef is making it for me, but it’ll be another 10-20 minutes as he needs to get the chicken from the butcher and prepare it fresh for me.
While that sounded nice, I was fed up and frustrated with this process … and my emotions got the best of me. I was exhausted and tired of explaining my condition to people and navigating a broken system. I asked the waiter what was the point of pre-ordering my meal? Am I the first person to ever have a food allergy on this boat? Did he realize that I had to leave my family in order to eat? How hard is it to make a piece of grilled chicken and salad? Why am I still getting the run around on my seventh meal on the ship?
I told the waiter, as tears swelled in my eyes, that I didn’t want the food anymore and I was going back to my room. He said it would bring it to me there and I told him not to bother as I walked away.
I left the Windjammer, walking as fast as I could toward the exit. But I was stopped. Another waiter followed me out.
I stood in the hallway, in tears, rehashing the same questions, telling him that the staff has made me feel like such a bother and now I’m stuck here, captive to this broken system. It might seem silly to a lot of people to cry over food, but I felt stuck, I felt like I was bothering everyone with my food issues, and I felt out of place and unwanted. It wasn’t about food, it was about feeling completely defeated, angry about my celiac disease, and upset that I wasn’t with my family.
All the waiters kept telling me is to talk to my head waiter. Talk to my head waiter. Talk to my head waiter. I was so sick of hearing that!
I finished arguing with the waiter in the hallway and raced to my stateroom to cool down. As I was about to enter my room, the waiter stopped me and was carrying my lunch, bringing it to me. I accepted it, thanked him, and closed the door. I wasn’t even hungry anymore.
I went to the gym to cool down.
That night, I knew I was going to have to face my head waiter. I was still very emotional. I asked my husband to help me find the words to explain to him what happened. I suspected that all the waiters helping me at lunch had told him what happened. I suspected he heard an earful – about my frustrations, my tears and my emotional breakdown at lunch.
When we sat down, sure enough he came right over. Within seconds. He was anxious to talk to me and anxious to set things straight. He explained that while he pre-ordered my meal, something went awry and he feels terrible. He said that the entire staff has a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do. He said the communication between him and the kitchen staff had a disconnect, and he promised to make things better.
I was embarrassed by the whole mess. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to feel like I was such a bother to this busy staff.
However, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
My breakdown led to positive changes!
My head waiter went above and beyond to make the rest of my dining experiences amazing. Each night we discussed my meals for the next day, where I would eat, approximately what time they should be ready, etc. He also took note of how much I loved the chocolate souffle dessert and put in a standing order to make me one every night. Every time I walked in the dining room, he was there to greet me. It was as if I had a GPS attached to me and he knew the moment I was coming. Even if I didn’t sit in his section at breakfast, he was the one serving me and making sure I was happy.
The next day, I had to face the staff in the Windjammer. Again, when I walked in, one of the waiters (Rasit) would see me and take charge of the situation. He knew my room number (after all, he delivered my lunch the day prior) and he would bring my meal within 10 minutes. He would continually check in on me and make sure everything was good to go. Instead of feeling like a bother, I suddenly felt like royalty! Many other staff members had either seen my breakdown (or heard about it). I had so many people going out of their way to make sure my needs were met. It was impressive!
They say that “all’s well that ends well” and that is exactly what happened. I loved every bit of the food, the special attention from Mihai, Rasit and the entire staff, and I loved not having to cook or do dishes all week long. And of course the cruise was a blast too.
On top of it all, I felt great during the entire cruise. I know that everything I ate was safely prepared for me. No gluten ingested. Not even once!
Tips for Making Your 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:
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 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 – they are the ones charged with dealing with customer service issues and supervising the wait staff. Make sure you utilize this resource.
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 but advance preparation is required. You can pre-order anything. There is no set GF menu – so be prepared to ask for what sounds good. I simply looked around the Windjammer and picked off a few items I wanted – chicken pad thai, stir fry over brown rice, grilled chicken and salad, pasta with marinara, etc. The chicken pad thai they made me was so good I ordered it for lunch twice! Remember, the staff is HAPPY to make you anything you want – so don’t be shy!
Get to Know the 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 Windjammer – the self-serve buffet-style cafeteria. Ask for a head waiter at the Windjammer 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 alley in all dining areas will do you well.
Avoid the Buffet: As I mentioned, try to eat all your meals in the dining hall where it can be prepared for and served to you. Buffets are rampant with cross contamination and are unsafe for gluten-free dieters. However, for breakfast one morning, I decided to eat in the Windjammer – enjoying a banana, hard boiled eggs 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 there and felt great after I did. It was a risk, but it worked.
Advocate For Yourself: Sometimes I feel ashamed and embarrassed that I need a gluten-free meal. As much as celiac disease has been a blessing in my life and trajectory of my health, I can’t help but still feel frustrated and resentful that I have to deal with this my entire life. No one will understand how you feel unless they are in your shoes, so you must advocate for yourself at all times. You must be firm, thoughtful, and kind. You must take on a beginner mindset, knowing that not everyone understands celiac disease or why you eat a certain way. Speak up and be unafraid to ask for what you want. One example is that I wanted a chocolate dessert every night. The first two nights they served me some vanilla-like pudding desserts – which I didn’t want at all but that was all that safe for me to eat. 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. I just had to speak up and ask – that’s all!
Be Gracious: The cruise staff works hard. Very hard. I get it. They are feeding so many of us at the same time. The chefs and kitchen staff are moving at lightening 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 argue with them about 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 all goes a long way to making your experience top notch.
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 help 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 it was just from me and my husband, 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 Windjammer (and the one I cried to on Day 3 of the cruise). Showing a little gratefulness to those who cared for your most will go a long way. This is not time to be cheap – tip generously to anyone who helped you get the food you needed! I also included a thank you note to Mihai and Rasit to express my gratitude – the combination of words and money helped me best show my gratitude.
Bring Snacks: While the food on the ship is great, there were moments during traveling (airport, excursions) where snacks are great to have. Grab a banana from the dining hall, but also bring some of your own GF power bars and other snacks to hold you over. I call it emergency food and I carry a few things with me like seeds and trail mixes, power protein bars and dried beef.
How Cruise Lines Can Improve Handling of Special Diets (Gluten-Free Diets, and more)
I also have taken some time to reflect on what I think Royal Caribbean and the entire cruise industry can do better to accommodate guests with gluten-free or other special dietary needs. This extra attention to those of us most self-conscious and vulnerable can improve tremendously – especially as more and more people are diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten sensitivities and food allergies and intolerances. Here are my suggestions:
Menu Changes: One of the frustrating aspects of cruising involved the menus in the dining halls. They have items clearly marked “gluten-free” with a wheat asterisk next to them, but those items are not gluten-free unless pre-ordered. There is little point to marking your menu with gluten-free options if you can’t fulfill those needs upon ordering. Ironically, the menu provided to me in advance (I got to see the dining menu the night prior so I could pre-order) had NO gluten-free markings on it whatsoever. It was confusing to me. If a restaurant hands me a menu with things clearly labeled “gluten-free” that should mean I could order it on the spot. But not in the cruise industry – those markings are meaningless and your GF-safe meal is only provided if you pre-order.
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 somehow 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.
Gluten-Free Menus: It was hard to come up with pre-orders for lunch – as I had to make up whatever I wanted. While that was fun to do, I wasn’t sure what was possible. It would be awesome if there was a set gluten-free lunch menu that I could consult to help me focus on what can be made for me. For example, I had no idea they could make me gluten-free noodles until they suggested it to me! The reason I suggested pad thai is I saw a package of the pad thai rice noodles, so I knew they were gluten-free.
Improved Communications: While my head waiter placed my pre-orders, it somehow got lost in the shuffle. I get it. This ship staff is overworked and ultra busy at all times. But if you take a pre-order, you must deliver on that pre-order. Period. I think of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry reserves a rental car, but when he gets to the counter, they tell him they are out of cars. He says something like, “You can take the order, but you just can’t hold the order.” That is how it felt.
Timeliness: When my family ate in the Windjammer, they would gather their food and eat it right away. By the time they’ve all gone back for seconds and dessert, my order was still being prepared or just getting there at first (until I had my breakdown, then it came more quickly). If you pre-order your meal, they should have it ready within 10 minutes of your arrival. I don’t mean to ask the staff to drop everything for me, I just ask them to be prepared for me. I am captive on that ship – they know I’m there – and I would love to eat with my family and not spend more than I need in the dining hall. I’d rather be enjoying the ship – ice skating, swimming and enjoying my vacation.
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.
Designated Special Contacts: Perhaps there can be members of the staff who are trained to handle special orders – and I can be assigned to sit in their areas. This would be particularly helpful in the Windjammer. When I arrive and tell the staff I have a special allergy or food request, they know exactly who to send over to talk with me – someone who is prepared and trained to work with me on what is safe to eat and what isn’t, and a consistent person to help me at all meals in that particular dining venue.
Your Next Cruise
Overall, cruising is a great way to explore the world and not have to worry about getting glutened. You 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 is gluten-free or has a special allergy or meal request.
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… For that, I am humbled and most grateful.
A Note about the American Disabilities Act
I found this article about celiac disease, gluten-free diets and the American Disability Act (ADA) very interesting. The ADA does require, in some situations, that a gluten-free meal be provided for you – mainly in cases when you are in prison or where meals are not easily obtained, like on a cruise ship. 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 ADA on your side.