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.