Gluten Free on the Sea
How Cruising is Fast Becoming One of the Best Options for Gluten-Free Travelers
Between around-the-clock gourmet meals and midnight buffets, cruises have a way of revolving around food (at least when you’re not off enjoying one of the fabulous ports of call). But for gluten-free travelers, cruising is uncharted territory that requires navigating dangerous waters…at least until recently.
Fortunately, in the past few years, a significant effort has been made on the part of most cruise lines to accommodate gluten-free travelers. Whether this has been out of necessity in an overbuilt cruise industry seeking to fill their cabins, or a true desire to make their dining options more inclusive, most cruise lines have adopted formal policies for their gluten-free guests.
In fact, this past October, Royal Caribbean International launched a new culinary program across its fleet of 22 ships. According to Royal Caribbean, they have “enlisted a registered and licensed dietitian and nutrition consultant to evaluate existing menus, create new offerings for guests with dietary restrictions, and shape the cruise line’s current gluten-free and lactose free program into a more guest-friendly experience.” All gluten-free options— or those that can be modified to be gluten-free—will now be clearly identified on Royal Caribbean ships’ menus. In addition, new gluten-free bread offerings will be available upon request in all restaurants.
Another great example are Disney’s four family-friendly ships , one of which my own family had the pleasure to set sail on five years ago. Our younger son was four years old at the time and had been diagnosed with celiac disease only a few years prior. Up to that point, we hadn’t attempted much travel. Despite our initial hesitation, we figured we couldn’t go wrong with a Disney cruise, since Disney and its theme parks were already becoming the “gold standard” of gluten-free travel. As we learned even back then, the staff on the Disney Wonder cruise ship was well educated about preparing safe, gluten-free meals.
A chef escorted us around a lunch buffet that was open immediately upon boarding. He pointed out what was and wasn’t gluten-free and offered to serve our son certain things “fresh” from the kitchen, in case there was any cross contamination with the serving utensils at the buffet. This immediately made us feel we were in good hands. There were plenty of options for our son at each meal. The second night, the waiter even presented our son with a huge gluten free chocolate layer cake—so big that they offered to take what remained back to the kitchen to save for us for the next night! And as if the chocolate cake wasn’t enough, they also brought out a large platter of hand-dipped chocolate covered strawberries, which coincidentally happened to be one of our son’s favorite things!
Though we personally have not chosen to take another family cruise since that fantastic voyage on the Disney Wonder, I have to say I’m increasingly tempted as I read the mostly favorable reviews that are submitted to GlutenFreeTravelSite, the website I launched almost five years ago as a place for the gluten-free community to share dining and travel feedback. In fact, we have received so many cruise reviews that we recently decided to showcase many of them—along with the policies of each major US-based cruise line—on a new Cruise page on our website.
While most reviewers are quite pleased with their gluten-free experience on board today’s cruise ships, it’s important to note that there is still some inconsistency, even within the same cruise line. Perhaps it’s dependent on the particular ship, its executive chef, and how well he or she trains the staff. Read reviews carefully and communicate early and often with whichever cruise line you choose. At GlutenFreeTravelSite, we provide contact information and the “special dietary request” policies for each line on our Cruise page. Regardless of the written policy of each cruise line, however, I strongly suggest these tips:
- Call the cruise line directly, or have a trusted travel agent do this for you. Be sure to get as much information as possible before you book. Try to find out what gluten-free products and brands they keep on hand and if you can request a favorite item (i.e. gluten-free pancake mix, pizza, or rolls).
- Be sure to have the cruise line note your “medically necessary gluten-free diet” on your reservation. I recommend calling again a month before departure—which gives them time to order any special items, if needed—and once again about a week before your cruise.
- Determine how to best work with the chef and dining staff when on board. It’s typical to meet with the chef or maitre d’ on the first day of the cruise to discuss meal preferences and requirements. Many maitre d’s will often show guests with special dietary needs the menus for the next day and give them the opportunity to choose their meals or make any special requests the night before.
- Bring back-up snacks and favorite staples if allowed. Find out when you call if the cruise line will permit you to bring some gluten-free items of your own. Shelf-stable items, like your favorite pasta or sandwich bread, are easy to pack in your suitcase and can prevent you from feeling “left out” when similar items are being served to other guests. This can be the case with kids especially. A box of their favorite gluten-free mac-n-cheese may go a long way to helping them feel just like the other children on board!
Have fun! Many travelers who have reported less-than-ideal experiences with the gluten-free choices on board often choose to look on the bright side. Instead of focusing on the food, they enjoy the onboard entertainment, beautiful scenery, exciting ports, and shore excursions…and are often thankful they avoid putting on an extra 5-10 pounds from the endless gastronomical feasting!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.