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This is Chapter 7 of the free online guide “Cruising with Special Diets”.

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Chapter 7

Ensure the Best Experience

The previous chapters have covered all the general things you need to know about how to eat safely on a cruise ship with your special diet. From planning, to specific venues, to staff, to how to resolve mistakes—you’re good to go.

But to ensure the absolute best experience, you need to take things further. To understand why some problems seem to keep happening, why they’re often hard to fix, and why they can be so frustrating.

We’re now going to take a deep dive into the root causes behind most big problems. By better understanding these causes, you’re not only better equipped to solve problems if they do happen, but far more likely to detect and even completely avoid them happening in the first place.

"Get it Right" vs. "Get it Right Now"

One significant aspect of cruise staff training and performance that can work against you is the emphasis on getting things done quickly. For staff, cruise ships are a very fast-paced work environment, particularly in the dining rooms. And when problems do arise, the instinct is to do whatever it takes to correct the problems as soon as possible. I assume this is because in general, guests who have to wait longer for things are less happy than those who don’t have to wait.

The downside is that, as everyone knows, more mistakes happen when people are in a rush. Particularly when you’re dealing with food safety issues that could result in you getting sick, you need to work against this instinct for the staff to go fast. You need to take away the fear that you’ll be upset if things take a bit longer.

When discussing your dietary needs with servers or others, make it very clear that you’re okay if things take a little bit longer so that you’re sure it’s done correctly. Your standard for happiness is a meal that fits your special needs and that you can eat safely, not one that is ready in a hurry. Remind them of that if necessary, particularly if a mistake is made and something needs to be changed. Remember, you’re fighting against their training here.

And not only say that you want things safe not fast, but mean it. This may be difficult (I usually hate waiting for things), but it comes down to what is most important. And following through on what you say is an important part of being respectful and a good partner to the staff.

"No, I Insist"

Another issue related to staff training and work environment is the need to be helpful. Now, don’t get me wrong, helpful is not a bad thing! But sometimes even helpful can be taken too far. Here are a few examples, all from within a single 24 hour period, on a cruise we did just before this book was finalized.

One day, we had a short lunch break between two scheduled activities, so headed to the buffet. The Maître d’ had mentioned there were gluten free pizza crusts available, so we asked the cook manning the pizza station if he could make us one. He was hesitant, and it was pretty clear he didn’t have everything at hand right then and there. That was fine with us, and we told him so. He then got very insistent that he would make us a pizza, it would just take a bit more time, and would we be able to come back in half an hour? We told him we were perfectly happy having something else, but he remained insistent. We eventually agreed.

Of course, things couldn’t get done. We didn’t have time to find anything else to eat before our activity. What seemed to be a fear of not accommodating a guest’s request—which was a complete non-issue from our perspective— resulted in us completely missing lunch before a long activity, which was definitely a source of discomfort and frustration.

That evening at dinner, a relatively minor and innocuous mistake was made. The waiter apologized, and then kept apologizing. We said it was fine. More apologizing. We made the mistake of saying we were just a bit more frustrated than usual because of a screwup at lunch. Which the waiter insisted on knowing about (and we had told the assistant Maître d’ about already), so that he could make sure it was dealt with (and apologize some more). We asked him to stop, that it was dealt with to our satisfaction, but he wanted more than anything to resolve any problem he could, and apologize for the trouble it caused.

The next day at lunch, we were at the buffet again, and had chosen some food. The assistant Maître d’ spotted us, and insisted on getting us a pizza, and, you guessed it, would not take "no" for an answer, despite objections. The same waiter and assistant Maître d’ also seemed insistent that they provide desserts for us that met our dietary restrictions. I’m not much of a dessert person to begin with, and when I am, tend to eat just fruit. But the first couple of nights, a dessert would just appear even after saying I didn’t want dessert.

The point of course is not the pizza or the dessert. I also know the staff were doing all of this out of a genuine desire to be as helpful as they could be to us. Unfortunately, the one thing they didn’t do is ask us what we thought would be helpful. Like many people with special diets, we value having control and choice in what we eat, particularly in the face of all the times we don’t have any control or choice. The staff were unintentionally removing that control and choice, which just served to make things worse.

Yes, I’d rather have this problem than being food poisoned. And it’s hard to criticize, as I know the staff have the very best of intentions. They really want to be helpful and provide a great experience to their guests. Objections are often interpreted as "we don’t want to be a bother", which just escalates their desire to "help".

To solve this, you need to again slow things down, and possibly defer the discussion to another time, when you can fully explain your priorities, and that if you’re saying "no" to something, they have to trust you. I’m very appreciative when I am offered choices, or when staff offer to go out of their way to help, but I need them to know that sometimes what they think is helpful may not be to me, and that choice itself is valuable to me, including the choice to say no.

In a good partnership, each partner needs to be a good listener.

Communicating Clearly

As the previous sections suggest, communicating clearly about your needs is extremely important. If you aren’t getting your point across, there are a number of things that might be going wrong.

The first is language barriers. Cruise ships are staffed by a wonderful collection of people from all over the world. For many of them, English (on an English-centric cruise ship) may not be their first language, and their competency in it may be less than stellar. Large differences in regional dialects or strong accents can also cause the same difficulty. This may apply to you as well, even though you don’t think you speak with an accent!

Using unfamiliar terminology for a particular food or concept can also be a cause of communication problems. As of course can limitations in knowledge about certain subjects, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Different words can also have subtly or grossly varying meanings to different people. There’s no better example in this context than the word "allergy".

While the word allergy has a specific meaning related to the immune system, when it comes to food, it is commonly used by people to describe any kind of negative reaction caused by particular foods. This may be anything from something quite benign such as a mildly upset stomach, to hives, headaches, extreme gastrointestinal distress (enough said), or life-threatening anaphylaxis.

The culinary staff have heard all sorts of reactions referred to as allergies, so if you have a severe reaction to certain foods, you need to make that very clear, and not just say you have an allergy. You should make clear how severe it is (e.g. "if I eat nuts, I’m going to swell up and stop breathing within two minutes") and how sensitive you are (e.g. "it’s okay if something with that bad food has touched it, just as long as it’s not actually an ingredient of the meal").

It’s the same reason we tend to initially refer to our food reactions as allergies, rather than intolerances. Allergies will cause staff to pay attention, whereas intolerance may be heard as "they just don’t like it", despite in many cases being quite severe reactions. I know that people with true allergies (e.g. severe anaphylaxis from nuts) or who are extremely sensitive (e.g. even the smallest amount of gluten affects celiacs) hate the terms "allergy" and "intolerance" being diluted in this way. But that is the unfortunate reality of how the terms are commonly used, and underlines the need for further explanation about severity and sensitivity. In the end, clear communication, even if not technically correct, is what’s important.

If things aren’t coming across right, how might you try to correct that? Make sure you’re speaking in a clear, reasonably paced, and audible voice, keeping in mind dining rooms can be noisy places. If the other person hears you but doesn’t quite understand, try to rephrase what you’re saying, using different vocabulary. Get the other person to repeat back what you said to ensure they understood. And if things still aren’t working, very politely state that there seems to be some sort of communication problem, that nobody is at fault, and you’re not upset, but ask to speak to someone else.

And assuming you’re speaking loud enough to be heard in the first place, please, please, do not just repeat exactly the same thing multiple times, each time louder and louder, and expect that somehow that will help matters.

Most importantly, remember that communication is a two way street. The communication problem is just as likely to be with you. Yes, you know your own dietary needs better than anyone, but in an unfamiliar environment, possibly suffering from "holiday brain" or too many cocktails, your brain may think you said one thing, when your mouth said something entirely different.

Staff Knowledge

The level of knowledge you will find amongst the staff when it comes to special diets varies quite considerably from individual to individual. You need to take this into account to make sure you’re able to communicate clearly, and aren’t making assumptions you shouldn’t be. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, like with any group of people, basic intelligence (knowledge, reasoning, memory, etc.) can vary. However, please don’t assume that if people are waiting tables, they must not be highly educated. Ships hire from all over the world, including many countries where the average wage for engineers, teachers, managers, etc. is still much lower than people get paid for service jobs on the ships. It’s one of the reasons so many people are willing to be away from their families for six months or a year at a time.

Another thing that can affect recall memory and reasoning is the frankly insane hours that most crew members work when onboard. Many culinary staff are up to prepare for breakfast and finish after cleaning up the last dinner service, and don’t always have naps in between. Exhaustion can turn the smartest person’s brain pretty fuzzy.

When it comes to knowledge of specific food and dietary issues, you’ll find that most people know about certain things quite well. Say the word "wheat" to any waiter and they are quick to automatically repeat back "gluten free" and scribble it in their notepad. So if your dietary restrictions includes only today’s "trendy allergies" you’re more likely in good hands, whereas you’ll more likely get a blank stare if you mention something like nightshades. Plus, like anyone else, sometimes they’ll just be wrong about something. I once had a waiter swear up and down that couscous was not wheat (it is), and no matter what I said I wasn’t going to change his mind on that.

You may even find servers who are unfamiliar with the ship’s own procedures when it comes to special diets. On multiple trips, we’ve been seated in the dining room, offered a menu, explained that we have food allergies so we’ve preordered and the menu isn’t necessary, only to be met with a puzzled look, and the menu offered again. And yes, on further inquiry they really didn’t know how things worked, though were happy when we explained it to them further!

But there are definitely broad gaps in knowledge, and no consistency about those gaps from individual to individual. We also haven’t noticed a huge difference between the cruise lines we’ve sailed on, even between the mainstream contemporary lines and the slightly higher end ones. My guess is that poor or inconsistent training is an issue industry-wide, that perhaps doesn’t get the attention it should. More than once a senior staff member has expressed their frustration to us about this in a moment of candour.

Remember also that most people want to learn about things they don’t currently know, both out of personal curiosity and because it will help them do their job better in future.

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