If you’ve read the full online guide, you already know that the first dinner tends to not go as smoothly as the remainder of the nights do, and that all the information you carefully told the cruise line long before you boarded somehow went missing or was garbled beyond belief. Thus, a bit of patience is required.

But now I really have to ask myself, why does it need to be this way?

This happened to us yet again on our current Alaska, and this time I’m going to name names. Yes, Holland America Zuiderdam, I’m talking to you.

On the first day, we get onboard fairly early, around 1:00pm, and immediately go see someone in the dining room to confirm our dietary requirements. Yes, everything was entered into our reservation profile, and yes, half of it was wrong. We correct that, making sure what was entered into the computer is precise and accurate. Took a bit of communicating (“allergic to dairy” vs. “lactose intolerant”) but ok. Politely listen to familiar advice about how meals will be handled in main dining room.

Go up to our assigned table in the dining room for dinner at 7:45pm (more than a few hours later). Waiter knows we have allergies (a good sign). Informs us that given this was the first night and they didn’t of course have time to prepare, the chef has decided we will be having plain chicken.

Three obvious things wrong with this are (1) this wasn’t presented as “given your allergies, the chef has suggested that the chicken would work well for you…”, (2) none of the information we long ago provided or that we had updated earlier that day had been communicated, and (3) I don’t eat meat or poultry.

It took us about five minutes before we finally saw someone a little higher up wander past and we snagged him to help us since then…

Honestly, must it be this much of a challenge every time people with special diets get on a cruise ship?

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When this site first launched, it was to promote my low cost e-book ‘Cruising with Special Diets’.

No more. Starting today, I’m giving away 95% of what was in the e-book for free. You can now read it online at this web site, for no charge. And you’ll find more free material posted in the weeks and months ahead.

Why the change? It was because I got very frustrated, knowing that the book could help a lot of people, people who were already reaching out for help. People who I know wouldn’t blink twice at spending five bucks to get the comprehensive information they desperately needed to enjoy their multi-thousand dollar holiday, practically handed to them on a silver platter. But I couldn’t tell them about the book.

The reason is that nowadays, people look for information online, and when it comes to travel information, it’s sites like the immensely popular Cruise Critic. But very understandably, given the huge number of people offering travel-related products and services for sale, they are very strict about anything that comes close to advertising on their discussion forums. Pointing to my e-book, whether I did it or someone else did, would certainly qualify.

My own decision to lock up that content was making it more difficult to help people deal with the frustration of traveling with special diets. Not exactly the reason I put together the e-book in the first place.

So now the vast majority of the e-book has been posted as a free online guide, the new centrepiece of the web site. I think this easily makes it the best “one stop” source of information for cruising with special diets, without the idealistic and ultimately self-defeating spin you’ll find on the cruise line sites. And now it’s a source of information that both myself and others will feel free to tell people about!

The e-book is still available for purchase on the site. It may be a bit more convenient for reading on-the-go, and it does contain a very small amount of material as a “bonus” not found in the free guide (I deliberately chose things that I don’t think are essential to know, but that may bring a deeper understanding). But I really see the e-book no as a sideline, primarily a way for people who found the guide useful to say “thank you”.

Why have it for sale at all? Certainly not to get rich from! But I find that having an inexpensive item for purchase is a good way of measuring the reach or impact that it is having, which is great feedback and a valuable motivator to me to continue improving it. (I have another e-book, on a niche technical topic, where the entire contents are free online, yet 50+ people a month buy it mostly to say it’s been useful to them.)

But I am going to ask for your help.

Please let people who have special diets know about the free online guide. Post a note on your blog, or tweet about it. Follow @cruisediet on Twitter.

When people are asking questions about cruising with special diets, whether on sites like Cruise Critic or elsewhere, please point them to cruisespecialdiet.com, so they can get a better understanding of what’s involved in the whole process.

I first wrote the book to share what I’d learned with people who generally have a difficult and frustrating time traveling, to turn them on to something they may not have considered before, and to help them have the best holiday they could. I hope the changes I’ve made today will help achieve that goal.

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For people who are on a gluten free diet and are considering a cruise, this is the question to ask.

And it has been asked, many, many times. The funny thing is, if you read the answers, they are all over the map. Pretty much every cruise line has been nominated as the best for gluten free. This is not helpful!

Let’s say that you’ve done a search for ‘best gluten free cruise line’, picked a post and decided that their choice (let’s call it Awesome Cruise Line) is the right one. You then second guess yourself, and do a quick confirmation by searching ‘Awesome Cruise Line gluten free’. What comes up but a list of food horror stories that people have had who tried to cruise on Awesome gluten free.

Help!

Never fear, I am now going to provide the definitive answer to that question. Ready? Here it is.

All of them. None of them.

You’re welcome.

I suppose if I’m criticizing other people for being unhelpful, I probably need to provide a bit of an explanation for that answer.

A Typical Claim

Let’s start by looking at a standard attempt to answer the ‘which is best?’ question, this one sent to me by email (line names changed of course):

I for example have tried many  - I think CruiseWoo is AMAZING with allergies (staff advised they get 3 months of training) whereas every other cruise line has been a serious challenge for me from CruiseFun to CruiseWhee to CruiseYay to CruiseYippee.

And the response I sent back:

Interestingly, by far our worst experience was on a CruiseWoo cruise. We had several times where the staff didn’t have a clue about the whole preordering thing in general, we had one day where literally three meals had to be sent back because they had wheat products in them, I had one guy trying to convince me that couscous was gluten free, and the head chef for the MDR eventually had to reassign one of the chefs who was working in the allergy prep area because they made so many mistakes. Our ‘goto’ Maitre d’, in a rare moment of candour, let us know how frustrated he was being on that ship, because despite how many times they train or talk to the staff, many of them just don’t give a shit.

We’ve had mostly good on CruiseFun, but still enough bad to be on our toes, though they tend to be the line we use the most. We haven’t done the super high end ones, but even on the somewhat higher end ones it’s been a mixed bag. Our one CruisePomp trip was mostly okay safety-wise but very boring (i.e. just removed offending ingredients), and one trip on CruiseFancy had overall good food, the most awesome Maitre d’ who totally went above and beyond for us, and a few great waiters, but also a few who were complete idiots.

When I was researching the book, I spent a lot of time searching through Cruise Critic forums and found a similar pattern, where you’d get both lots of very good and very bad experiences on pretty much every single line. That included most of the luxury lines too (e.g. CruiseStuffy, CruiseRigid).

A Quick Review

First, a brief reminder how pretty much all cruise lines deal with gluten free or other special diets.

You see on their website that the line handles gluten free diets. When you book, you or your travel agent lets them know about your diet, well ahead of time. When you first get onboard, you go find the Maitre d’ or restaurant manager, confirm your dietary needs with them (if they were even passed on to the ship at all), and find out about the onboard procedures and options available.

For your dinners, you’re given the menu for the next night at the end of the previous dinner. You then preorder your meal, which gives the galley staff time to prepare a suitable variation that deals with your particular special need.  If you use the buffet, you ask lots of questions and be very careful about cross-contamination.

Why the Cop-out?

I think ‘which cruise line is best?’ is the wrong question. If you think about it, you’re asking which organization has the best policies and procedures. And face it, on that front, most of them are more-or-less the same. You might quibble a bit about which one has the best fleet-wide recipes or sources your favourite brand of gluten free products, but that is all a bit subjective.

The reality is, it’s the staff onboard that you’ll encounter that make the real difference. Your particular waiter for example. They can be extremely knowledgable about gluten free dining, they can be extremely careful, accommodating, have a sixth sense about when mistakes were made, and unobtrusively predict your every need ahead of time. Or… well, the opposite of all those things.

The thing is, every line has both great and not-so-great staff. And even with extensive training, the not-so-great ones aren’t going to become great.

Most importantly, the differences in staff have a far greater impact than the differences in policies and procedures across different cruise lines. The best staff member on the cruise line with the worst procedures is going to provide you with a much better gluten free dining experience than the worst staff member on the ‘best’ line.

The real problem is, you can control what cruise line you can pick, but you can’t control the individual staff members you encounter. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on asking which cruise line is the best.

Now What?

You’re probably thinking I’m trying to win some kind of award for the most unhelpful post ever. Fear not. Here’s what I think you should do.

Pick the cruise that is the best fit for your schedule, desired itinerary, demographic and budget. Verify that the policy is that they can handle gluten free, and comply with any requests they make about letting them know in advance and when onboard. When onboard, know and follow their policies and procedures.

Practice defensive eating. Always be on the lookout for mistakes. Learn about the common types of mistakes that are made, and why they are made. Learn how to identify the staff members who really know what they’re doing. Learn the best techniques to resolve problems with staff when they do occur. Learn how best to communicate.

Raise mistakes and difficulties you encounter with supervisors, positively and constructively. Most will assume everything is fine until they’re told otherwise, and most people don’t bring problems to their attention. Give them the information they need to provide extra training or redistribute staff the best that they can.

The biggest section of my book, by far, is about working with staff, and that’s because that is the thing you can do well that makes the biggest difference. The reality is you have to see yourself as a partner to the staff in making sure you have a cruise full of successful gluten free dining experiences.

The idealistic corporate ‘just let us know in advance and everything will be taken care of’ just doesn’t fit with reality. It’s also about the worst thing they can say, because it raises your expectations to an unrealistic level.

I know that’s not as neat and tidy (or short) an answer as ‘CruiseSuperAwesome’. And it’s true, if I just told you one line, you might luck out and have a perfect experience. But you also might not. I’d much rather you went in with realistic expectations, prepared, and ready to put in a small amount of effort, and that way you’ll have a great chance of having a great experience.

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Someone asked recently why I wrote “Cruising with Special Diets”. It really came down to having what I think is an interesting story to tell, that could potentially benefit a lot of people.

My wife and I are both a nightmare when it comes to food… I was vegetarian for years and then about 10 years ago developed very bad gluten and dairy intolerances (and so reluctantly added some seafood). She gets bad migraines from wheat, dairy, soy and nuts. Travel was needless to say a royal pain.

We never thought of doing a cruise but a few years ago there was a course she wanted to do on a ship (she’s a doctor). Turned out way better than we thought food-wise, and now pretty much all our larger holidays are cruises.

Talking to many people over the last few years we found out that we really lucked out — most people don’t know that cruise lines can deal with food allergies etc. at all (including tons of people we met on cruises who had relatives with food allergies!).

Many others who tried a cruise ended up having horrible experiences. The info the cruise lines provide (especially “just let us know in advance and it’ll all be taken care of”) isn’t nearly enough to make things work, unless you really luck out with all the staff onboard. We regularly have food problems onboard, but now know exactly how to deal with them.

Given how hard it is for people to travel with special diets, that cruises can actually handle it, and that the info to do it safely is almost impossible to find, bringing it all together in one place just seemed like the right thing to do.

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