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Once you’ve decided to try a cruise vacation, the fun part begins. Again, there is lots of general advice you can find out there about cruising in general, but if you want to save time and frustration, there is just one thing you absolutely need to know.
Particularly if this is your first cruise, good travel agents can be worth their weight in hypoallergenic gold. And nowadays, there are many that specialize in cruise vacations. They can help narrow down the type of trip, pick a cruise line, help you navigate the myriad of choices available when it comes to booking, deal with associated travel (flights, hotels, transfers, shore excursions, etc.) and provide you with more options than you’d get if you booked through the cruise line directly, often at substantial savings.
And in general, working with a travel agent for your cruise shouldn’t cost you anything. Due to the complexity, most cruises are still booked through travel agents. Unlike what happened with airlines, the cruise lines still pay out decent travel agent commissions. If you book with cruise lines directly, you usually don’t get a better price, the cruise line just pockets what would have been a commission as extra profit.
You should certainly inform your travel agent of your dietary needs. Often, they’ll already be familiar with any special requirements imposed by each cruise line.
I can’t help you too much when it comes to deciding where you want to spend your holiday, or when you want to go. The only advice I’d offer is that if this is going to be your first cruise with a special diet, you’re likely better off booking a shorter trip (e.g. 7 days) than a longer one (a 30+ day segment of a world cruise).
With the time and place roughly narrowed down, you’ll then be able to look up what cruise lines offer itineraries that match. There’s a lot that can be said about cruise lines, but very little I’m going to add to the information and opinions that are generally available. People who cruise a lot definitely have their own favourites, and will happily engage in arguments touting its superiority over a (virtually identical) competitor.
Keep in mind things like target audience geography (e.g. North American vs. French vs. British passengers), demographics (e.g. some lines cater to families with children, while others have no facilities for children), and… well, not to be snooty, but price makes a big difference in the type of experience you’ll have. Generally speaking, you’ll find better quality food (and better food that you don’t have to pay extra for) on the pricier lines. The pricier lines also generally use smaller ships carrying fewer passengers and have a higher crew:passenger ratio, which may be an advantage when it comes to special needs, including dietary.
You’re probably looking for recommendations on what cruise line is best for people with special diets. There’s no real good answer for that, and here’s why: the specific dining room and culinary staff that you encounter on the ship you sail on will have a far greater impact than what cruise line you’re on. Their skills, knowledge, care, discipline and attitude are what really can make or break your dining experiences. We’ve had good and bad experiences on every trip we’ve taken, regardless of the cruise line.
Having said that, read the websites for the cruise lines you’re considering, including their policies, sample menus if they have them, note if they seem to have lots of options for your specific needs, etc. Call or email them and ask if they would be able to accommodate your special diet.
Most people’s sense of time when on vacations can get a bit distorted, and cruises are no different. Onboard, many people tell time by breakfast, lunch and dinner (and morning snack, afternoon tea, midnight buffet, plus intervening bar trips to pass the lengthy time between meals). The major daily event for most is their dinner, and for most people, most of the time, that will take place in the ship’s elegant but cavernous main dining room.
When you make your booking you’ll be asked to choose your evening dining arrangements. For most of the mainstream contemporary or premium lines, that will include who you’re dining with if you’re traveling with other parties, and dining time. You’ll be assigned to one particular table and dining time (early or late) for the entire trip. If you are a small group, you’ll generally be combined with others in tables of ten people, but most ships also let you request smaller tables when booking (though there may be few available).
Another option you may have is so-called “anytime” dining, where you go down to the dining room when you want to eat and get seated more or less at random. This is generally the only option available for the smaller deluxe or luxury lines, but is a relatively new addition to most of the larger lines.
If you have the choice, pick the fixed dining option. With this, you’ll have the same waiter (and table mates) every day, so you won’t have to explain your special diet to new people every single day. It makes a huge difference.
If you’re on one of the smaller lines which only offer anytime dining, I’ll have some hints in the next chapter on how to make this work.
You’ll also typically book most of your shore excursions ahead of time. These are the tours or other activities you’ll pay extra to take part in while docked at a particular port.
Read the descriptions of each excursion you’re considering with an eye to your special diet. Is the whole thing centred around food (“visit a local village where you’ll spend the day learning to cook local delicacies”)? That’s a tour to skip. Is it more like “see A, B, C and D and then enjoy a rum punch”? That’s probably okay. Some tours include meals, and you may be able to just bring your own or graze on snacks instead.
Of course, if it’s really something you want to do, go for it! During a Baltic cruise, a stop in St. Petersburg offered an excursion where we flew to Moscow early in the morning, spent the entire day touring the main sites there, and flew back late at night. Sure it included a couple of restaurant meals as a small part of it, but we weren’t going to skip the tour just because of that.
Most cruise lines ask that you notify them of any special dietary restrictions (or other special needs) well ahead of time. The specific lead times, and often particular forms they’d like you to fill out, can be found via their websites or your travel agent. Some lines will even go so far as to ask you to “pre-order” special items so they have enough on board, e.g. how many pieces of gluten free bread for celiacs. If you want to make special requests for certain items (e.g. rice milk), do it far ahead of time.
The theory is that once you’re onboard, all of this information will be in the computers, and all the dining staff informed about you and your special needs. It’s a nice theory, but it never happens that way. Fill out the forms anyway. When you get onboard and find out the information wasn’t passed along to the ship, act surprised and reaffirm that you sent it far in advance.
Regardless, make sure either you or your travel agent send the information to the cruise line’s special needs department, and make sure you get a confirmation it was received. Respecting the documented lead times for when they need this; don’t think you can just tell your travel agent a week or two before your trip. And if you just show up onboard and have anything but the most common and simple special diet, you’re asking for trouble, and I’m not the only one who won’t have much sympathy for you.
Depending on your own needs, you may find it helpful to bring some food with you from home, to supplement what you know will be available to you on the ship.
While this isn’t usually necessary, it can be both convenient, and well, comforting. In my case, it’s mainly small snacks to take on shore excursions, things like allergy-friendly cereal bars that are easy to throw in the small shoulder bag I usually carry.
A wide variety of portable snacks in particular (outside of fruit, which is plentiful) are often hard to find on ships. Think of the small assortment of chips and chocolate bars you’re likely to find in a small hotel gift shop, and that will give you an idea of what would be available.
If for example you’re diabetic or for some other reason may need to eat frequently, it’s probably better to be prepared by bringing some of your own things than scrambling later.
As well, if you have particular favourite foods you like to have, it’s often better to bring them along than hope they’ll be available.
You should be able to figure out, based on your own preferences, itinerary, shore excursions, etc. how much and what kinds of your own food you’d like to bring along.
One drawback in bringing your own food from home is that it takes up valuable space in your luggage. With most people flying to their departure port, and all the restrictions on airline luggage, this can present a challenge. One way to look at things is that the room you’re using for food on the way there will be needed for all those “must have” gifts and souvenirs on the way back home.
An alternative is purchasing food at a local store after you fly into your departure city but before you board your ship. While you’re not likely to find a Whole Foods next to the cruise terminal, with a bit of internet research ahead of time (or just asking the local cabbie), you should be able to find the type of stores that cater to your needs in most places.
Similarly, depending on how much time you have at different ports and what your own plans are on shore, you may be able to check out some of the local stores midway through your cruise to replenish your supply.
Keep in mind that depending on your destination, you may not find the brands and types of foods you’re familiar with from home, and language barriers can amplify this. If you’re the type who is already frustrated grocery shopping at home, going grocery shopping somewhere with a completely different culture and language is going to take that frustration to a whole new level.
There may be other restrictions on what you can bring or purchase before going onboard.
If your departure port is in a different country than where you live, there may be customs restrictions that prevent you from bringing certain types of products (or possibly any food) into the country.
You need to find out about restrictions in any ports you’re visiting, as you may not be able to bring foods ashore with you from the ship; this usually applies to just fresh food, but in some places (like Australia) even pre-packaged foods are not permitted to be brought ashore from the ship. These rules are set by the local government, not the cruise line. Keep this in mind when planning, as it could impact the shore excursions you choose.
When it comes to the ship itself, you can’t bring any of your own appliances (coffee makers, hot plates, etc.) due to the risk of fires onboard. In-room mini-fridges are there for drinks, and may not be suitable for storing your own food.
While most ships are relatively lax about you bringing solid food onboard, they’re usually not so laissez faire when it comes to liquids. This is mostly to prevent people from bringing their own alcohol, which might cut into the over-priced drinks sold to a captive audience in every corner of the ship (word to the wise, on the last night of the cruise when you get your statement of all the extras you purchased, sit down before you look at it).
The cruise security people aren’t generally too hard-nosed, and will probably be sensitive to you bringing things because of a special diet. However, I have yet to see “but I need it, I’m allergic to poor quality vodka” work…