I know this firsthand because my own dietary needs -- lactose-free, no meat and only kosher species of fish -- have frequently proved impossibly challenging.
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In general, cruise lines can provide food for vegetarian, vegan, low/no fat, low/no salt, lactose intolerant/dairy free, gluten- or wheat-free (celiac), low cholesterol, diabetic, Kosher and Halal diets, and also for allergies. While some diets can simply be accommodated by the extensive menu choices onboard -- for example, vegetarian options are nearly always present in all dining venues -- most require that the cruise line gets a heads up in order to stock the right food items (soy milk, gluten-free bread, etc.) and alert the ship's dining staff.
But, while cruise lines are trying hard to accommodate everyone, you don't want to let your guard down. Although cruise lines indicate that they are training and educating their staff on handling dietary restrictions, the information doesn't always filter down to less senior chefs, waiters and bar staff. The maitre d' will certainly take note of your particular needs, but I've found the people actually making and serving your food don't always understand the two major issues -- ingredients and cross-contamination. I've ordered dairy-free omelets that come to the table with cheese inside, or asked the sommelier about vegetarian wine, only to be told that "all wine is vegetarian" (which isn't true if you're very strict about ingredients and processing agents).
If this happens, show that you're serious by reporting the incident to the maitre d' or hotel director as a matter of importance. Emphasize to the staff that even a trace of prohibited food may be detrimental and is unacceptable. Where applicable, you could even bring a letter from your physician or dietician to show to ship staff.
But don't let the occasional snafu scare you off. Most cruise staff do want to help, and cruise lines are increasingly responding to their passengers' differing dietary needs with enhanced options. Royal Caribbean recently began highlighting menu items that are gluten-free, low-calorie, lactose-free or vegetarian, and have introduced gluten-free foods in all onboard dining venues. Holland America now offers a separate vegetarian menu in its main dining rooms, and Seabourn's The Restaurant has a separate spot on every menu to list vegetarian starters and mains.
Don't let your diet's quirks keep you rooted in your home town when you long to see the world. Book a cruise, and follow these 10 tips for cruising with a dietary restriction. You might be surprised just how well you can eat onboard.
Alert the cruise line as early as possible.
As soon as you book, inform the travel agent or cruise line of your needs. Cruise lines carry certain limited supplies aboard, but you still need to make your requests as early as possible before sailing. Be specific. For example, if you are lactose intolerant and prefer rice/oat/almond milk to soy milk, then send the details to them. Take a dietary printout with you for the head chef. And if you're still concerned, take nonperishable foods from home for snacks or supplemental eating.
Make contact on your first day aboard.
See the restaurant manager or the executive chef to confirm they have all your details and that they'll be passed to managers in other venues. Remember to tell the children's activities coordinator, if applicable. Check that your special food/drinks are onboard, and find out where they are. On one sailing, I discovered my rice milk was stored at the smoothie bar! Day one is the time to make any additional requests. Also, ask about general foods to avoid or special signs or symbols to look for on menus and buffet labels. For example, on Celebrity ships, bread often contains butter. The chef's solution was to deliver a day's worth of personalized bread to my stateroom each morning.
Stay with the same dining room team ...
If you get a good assigned table with excellent waiters, try to stay there. Open dining can be more problematic, as you may have to explain everything to a new team at every meal. But I've found most managers and waiters to be knowledgeable and respectful. The restaurant manager (or someone from his team) should also show you the following day's menu to discuss choices and adaptations. And if you love a meal, you can request it again ... and again ... and again.
... But don't be afraid to branch out.
If you wish to try out other venues, your pre-ordered meal can be served at the specialty restaurants, or their chefs will prepare a meal for you there. For example, in Azamara's Aqualina, a chef prepared a special vegan meal for me. This meal, the best Indian food we've eaten on a cruise, was so sensational that we took him up on his offer to cook for us again. While fellow passengers enjoyed a Scandinavian buffet on deck while berthed in Stockholm, we enjoyed papadum cones, rice mounds, dhal and spiced vegetables, served with a flourish. Celebrity's Qsine scored highly for adaptation; paprika bread accompanied my cream-free soups and tuna sushi lollipops.
Be fastidious at the buffet.
On your first visit, ask the restaurant manager to accompany you 'round the stations, so you can pre-empt problems. Get to know the chefs, and don't be embarrassed about asking them to use new gloves and cooking or serving utensils. If you're still concerned about cross-contamination, request food that has not been on display. If you're uncomfortable with making these requests, or frustrated by the lack of labeling, it may be better to avoid the buffets altogether.
Watch out for chocolates on your pillow.
Be wary of turn-down chocolates, canapes and bread baskets. They're probably standardized and not prepared especially for you. If you decide to eat in your stateroom, and there's nothing suitable on the room service menu, don't despair. Speak to the room service manager in advance, so staff can prepare alternatives for you.
Book a galley tour.
Seeing where your food is prepared and cooked can allay your worries. You'll see how scrupulous the galley chefs are about special diets. You'll also be able to see exclusive, segregated areas where food is prepared -- hopefully even a gluten-free toaster. Although galley tours may be expensive (typically they're part of general behind-the-scenes tours), it might be money well spent for your peace of mind. However, you could try requesting a complimentary tour, citing your dietary concerns.
Prepare for excursions.
Notify the staff at the shore excursions desk early about your needs, so they can contact any restaurants you might visit on tour. On a Northern Europe cruise, I enjoyed borscht and vegetable casserole in St. Petersburg, as well as scrumptious herring and fried fish in Copenhagen -- prepared especially for me on tour. However, I still double-checked with restaurants on arrival to make sure my requests had been noted.
It's up to you whether you feel comfortable independently dining off the ship, where language problems and cultural differences might make it difficult to access dishes that meet your needs. If you're determined, try to go with someone who can interpret for you, and print cards that describe your diet in the local language. Also, it's wise to research cultural norms in advance. For example, in Spain, many foods are cooked on the same grill or plancha, presenting a cross-contamination problem. On the other hand, Italy is known for being especially sensitive to gluten-free diets, so travelers there may have fewer problems finding acceptable meals than at home. If you plan to carry your own snacks ashore, be sure to check ship and local legislation before you take any food off the ship.
With hundreds or thousands of passengers onboard, you can't assume that everyone everywhere knows your needs. Check and double check. Be cautious. Because a chef at the buffet cooked correctly for you once, it doesn't follow he'll remember the next time. Remind and watch him each time; human error may mean he automatically adds a prohibited ingredient.
Enjoy the experience.
If you do your research, including reading Cruise Critic reviews and comments, you can select the appropriate ship for your needs. Cruise lines take special diets and allergies seriously and will try their best to accommodate your needs. They can't afford to make mistakes, as your health and enjoyment depend on their being meticulous and stringent. A competent food and beverage team will work cohesively and unnoticed. So don't fret too much. You may have to ask some questions and give some reminders, but at the end of the day, you should be able to relax and enjoy your food.