If you have dietary requirements, food allergies, or consider healthy eating a priority, the words holiday and vacation can be a little stressful. Whether you’ve gone gluten-free, paleo, vegan, are on a low sodium diet, or need to watch your sugar intake, finding accommodations to suit your preferences while on vacation can be difficult.
Fantastic news! Major travel destinations and companies have recognized our demands and are aiming to please—and this includes cruise lines. Cruising has changed over the years. Major cruise lines are delivering what travelers want—quality entertainment, five-star spa facilities and, thankfully, health-focused dining.
I recently went on a cruise through the Mediterranean and was pleasantly surprised (read: shocked) that the cruise line was able to accommodate my gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based diet. Here's exactly how you can make the most of a cruise vacation while meeting your dietary needs and personal preferences.
Choosing your cruise.
There are many different cruises to choose from, and each cruise line or ship has their own claim to fame. Some are more child-friendly whereas others cater to a vivacious, party atmosphere. Some are known for stellar entertainment and others for their high-end restaurants. It’s worth researching different cruise lines to make sure they will meet your expectations but also because many cruise lines cater to all sorts of dietary restrictions, preferences, and allergies.
Speak with a travel agent and read online reviews so you can decide what cruise is right for you. I also strongly suggest calling the cruise customer service line and verifying their abilities to accommodate. Double-check with the customer service agent that the particular cruise you’re considering offers the staples in your diet, and if they aren’t provided, ask if you can bring them yourself. Oftentimes the cruise will send you some forms to fill out so they can document and prepare for your arrival.
Preparing to go.
You have your cruise booked and you’re excited about your vacation itinerary! Is there anything else you can do to make sure you have a healthy cruise experience? Absolutely.
It’s always a great idea to pack nonperishable food items and snacks when going on a trip, especially if you have dietary restrictions. Even if cruises offer up gluten-free or vegan options, you won’t always be on the ship!
Cruises are ideal holiday options because they provide you with exotic and cultural experiences in the form of port excursions! You can go ziplining in the Bahamas or exploring ruins in Pompeii, but the likelihood of finding specific dining options is low. To prevent undue stress, pack nonperishable snacks that fit your dietary needs.
Once you're on board.
When you first board your cruise, also known as embarking, figure out where you will be dining and ask to speak with the head waiter or person responsible for food allergies/requests. You’ll be happy to know that there is usually designated staff to help people with food preferences. Their main job is to make sure that your needs are met and your dining experience is enjoyable.
Once you meet the head waiter, make your dietary needs and preferences very clear. If you are allergic to nuts or prefer dairy-free meals, explain this, and, to make it even clearer, give them some specific examples of the types of meals you can eat.
Cruises used to have formal dining organized into first and second seatings, but the majority of cruise lines now offer "anytime dining" in which you can show up when you want. Usually a waiter will ask you where you want to dine the night before, whether it is in the main dining room or in a specialty restaurant and will show you the following evening’s menu. They will ask you to indicate what interests you, and they’ll let you know if they can adjust this meal to meet your needs. Quite often you can also request a meal that’s not on the menu. After a couple of days, you’ll get to know the types of foods they can offer.
It’s important to be realistic here. For example, if you follow a gluten-free plant-based diet (as I do), it’s fair to expect rice, beans, stir-fries, soups, and salads. It’s unlikely you will be offered nut cheeses, spiralized zucchini, or chia puddings. However, I was served chocolate avocado pudding once and was very impressed!
If you don’t have allergies per se but just want healthy options, you’re also in luck. Many cruise lines now ensure that each menu highlights nutritional information (like low-sodium, sugar-free, etc.) and offers at least one vegetarian option for each course.
The buffet is usually synonymous with overindulgence, especially for deep-fried and junk foods, but you can also consider this a place where you have culinary freedom! You can pick and choose and make your own plate. These days cruise buffets provide many healthy options from salad bars to do-it-yourself pizzas and stir-fries.
Because of the high demand for allergy accommodation, many cruise lines also have the ingredients or allergens listed. Similar to when you eat in the main dining room, speak with the buffet staff if you have food intolerances and you’re likely to be guided to options that meet your needs.
Don't feel embarrassed or hesitant about explaining your health or dietary requirements. You might be surprised at how many other people have similar requests. In the same breath, however, show respect to the staff and be patient while they try to understand exactly how they can help you. Be sure to express gratitude and appreciation for their time and effort—cruise staff work long days and try their best to accommodate many different requests.
Cruising might be the answer to a stress-free, healthy holiday for you and your family. Remember to do some research, prepare for your excursions and, most importantly, sit back, relax, and enjoy!