All cruise lines, without exception, request that people who wish to cruise gluten-free contact them in advance of their sail date. (How far in advance of sailing varies by cruise line, but the earlier the better is always a good rule of thumb.) While not an absolute necessity for passengers who might not need to be entirely gluten-free, for those needing a celiac-friendly cruise dining experience, it's a must.
Once a cruise line knows there will be a gluten-free cruiser (or cruisers, as is more usually the case) onboard a particular sailing, it will order larger quantities of gluten-free ingredients it might only normally have a small amount of, and might also order items it wouldn't usually have on hand. Norwegian Cruise Line, as an example, can provide gluten-free baguettes, rolls and hamburger buns, as well as gluten-free pancake flour, three types of pasta and three cereal choices, but only if it has been notified ahead of a sailing. Similarly, Holland America can provide gluten-free waffles, muffins, hot dog and hamburger buns, pastas and premade desserts with advance notice.
Once onboard, gluten-free cruisers should report to the ship's maitre d. She or he will then set up nightly meetings between the passenger and either a waiter or a chef to go over the next day's main dining room menus to pick out what can be prepared in a gluten-free version. For the strictest gluten-free options on any mainstream ship, all meals will need to be eaten in the dining room (unless it's closed), and possibly select specialty restaurants. On upscale and luxury lines, you'll be able to get gluten-free meals in most of the specialty restaurants as well.
If you forget to let your cruise line know ahead of time, you can still have a gluten-free cruise experience, though the variety of foods and venues you'll be able to visits will vary by cruise line. The more upscale the cruise line, the more likely it will be able to cater to your special needs without advance notice. Oceania, for instance, keeps a variety of gluten-free items on hand, including rice-almond bread, breakfast pancakes, pizza dough and spaghetti.
Even with lines that don't keep a lot of gluten-free items in stock, waiters (or the chef) in the main dining room can help you pick out something on the menu that doesn't have gluten (there's always at least one dish that is gluten-free). Once they are aware of your needs, they'll try to work with you each night to make sure they can provide at least one gluten-free appetizer, main course and dessert option for the next night's dinner. A few lines, including Royal Caribbean and Seabourn, indicate which dishes, on any menu, are gluten-free; Holland America notes which items on its main dining room menus are gluten-free.
Bread Is Always Available
If there's one thing that gluten-free cruisers can count on, it's that every oceangoing cruise ship will have gluten-free bread (though we can't guarantee it'll taste great). Even at Royal Caribbean's Park Cafe, which mostly serves premade sandwiches, you can ask for a gluten-free version. (There is a specially designated panini press and microwave in each Park Cafe to avoid cross contamination.) Pastry and dessert venues are often a spot where getting something gluten-free is difficult, though some lines like Royal Caribbean and Princess do offer at least one gluten-free option.
Pizza is another food staple (yes, pizza is a staple!) that can usually be made gluten-free without advance notice. Mainstream lines, particularly Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises, all have dedicated pizza joints onboard many, if not all, of their ships. At all of these you can ask to have a gluten-free pie made fresh.
Gluten-free pasta is another item that is usually available in the main dining room, and possibly also in any onboard Italian restaurant.
Buffets Are Harder to Navigate
Buffets are the hardest dining venue on any cruise ship to do gluten-free. Other than at breakfast where it's a bit easier to pick out what doesn't have gluten (fruit, cheese, deli meats, etc.), it's much more difficult to identify the foods you need, especially among the hot selections, at lunch and dinner. All cruise lines do keep a maitre d' in the buffet during meal times and in most cases that person can help you find out what does and does not have gluten in it.
Beer Might Be a No-Go
As anyone who is gluten-free knows, beer is loaded with the stuff and finding a gluten-free beer isn't always that easy. It's even more difficult on a cruise ship, where the brew selection is pretty limited to begin with. Carnival and Royal Caribbean were the only cruise lines we found that offer a gluten-free beer (Estrella Daura for both) without any advance notice. With advance notice of no less than 30 days prior to sailing, cruisers sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line can preorder a case of Redbridge gluten-free beer.
Luxury Lines Offer the Most Gluten-Free Cruise Options
Designed around customized service, luxury cruise lines offer the most robust gluten-free options to passengers who have provided prior notice to their cruise lines (though as with any cruise line, it's not 100 percent essential to give the line a heads-up, just preferred). As an example of what a luxury line will do for a gluten-free passenger that a mainstream ship won't, at its Chocoholics high-tea service, Regent Seven Seas Cruises will provide an entire gluten-free menu, which might include gluten-free meringue, fruit tarts and finger sandwiches made with gluten-free bread.
Best Gluten-Free Cruise Lines
The closest thing you can get to a gluten-free cruise ship is sailing with just about any luxury line. You really can't go wrong because of the personalized service and time these lines can dedicate to catering to your needs. But other lines deserve praise too.
Carnival is known for its choice of gluten-free offerings. For instance, the line always has gluten-free pizza dough, pasta, deli bread and hamburger buns, as well as frozen desserts and yogurt on hand, and gluten-free cake is available upon request a day or two ahead of time.
Royal Caribbean is another mainstream line with an excellent system in place for gluten-free cruisers; gluten-free sandwiches and pastries are always available in coffee shops; the buffet always has a marked gluten-free dessert on offer; Sorrento's has a separate oven for making gluten-free pizza; and all menus have gluten-free items marked, as well as a guide to inform diners which items have gluten.
Seabourn: Of the luxury lines, we were particularly impressed with Seabourn's gluten-free cruise options. The line has a variety of gluten-free breads onboard, including hamburger buns, hot dog buns, breadsticks, baguettes and sandwich breads. There are signs on every restaurant menu identifying gluten-free dishes and the chefs can further customize many other dishes to make them gluten-free. Passengers can indicate their gluten-free needs online in their pre-cruise portal so they don't even need to make a phone call to the line.
Viking Ocean: Not strictly speaking a luxury cruise line -- it's more premium upscale -- we were, nevertheless impressed with the line's gluten-free offerings. All dining venues keep gluten-free bread and pasta on hand. Gluten-free scones are available in the Wintergarden during afternoon tea, and the World Cafe buffet always has gluten-free choices. Chefs will even modify menu items at its multicourse Chef's Table restaurant (though depending on the exact menu, not every dish can be modified).
Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Another luxury cruise line with an impressive ability to cater to gluten-free cruisers, Regent says it can create a gluten-free alternative for nearly everything. Once the maitre d' recognizes which cruisers are gluten-free, he or she will have gluten-free bread and desserts delivered each evening, even to those dining in the La Veranda buffet, a specialty restaurant or via room service. Waiters in all restaurants are also trained to offer several gluten-free suggestions on the spot.