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This is Chapter 1 of the free online guide “Cruising with Special Diets”.

If you find this guide helpful, please consider buying the e-book version which helps support the site.

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Chapter 1

Why Cruise if you Follow a Special Diet?

Let’s face it, it’s not very often you see the words “cruise” and “diet” mentioned in the same breath.

If you follow any kind of special diet, or know someone who does, the thought of a cruise vacation probably seems equally ludicrous as going on a cruise to lose weight. Going to an unfamiliar restaurant can be stressful enough, and travelling in general usually means careful preparation, a good amount of your own cooking, and relatively bland “safe” meals when you’re out.

Trapping yourself in a floating hotel where you’ve got limited choices of where you’ll go to eat each and every day, and where the ship is preparing thousands of meals each day, and with your dietary restrictions…

Well, it’s probably not something you’ve even considered before. I know I hadn’t.

My wife and I both have extensive lists of food intolerances and a few other preferences. I’d been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for years, and then within a short period of time developed severe reactions to wheat and dairy. I still eat mostly vegetarian, but grudgingly added some seafood to my diet after that. My wife gets severe migraines from wheat, dairy, nuts and soy; some of these restrictions she’s had from childhood, some developed later. If we want to get back at someone, we threaten that they have to invite us over and cook us dinner.

We hadn’t really thought about doing a cruise, even before our entire set of dietary restrictions had developed; we just didn’t see ourselves as “cruise people”. But my wife, a physician, had an opportunity to take an interesting course held on a cruise. We thought we’d try it once, but had pretty low expectations.

It turned out far better than expected, and managing our special diets was far less challenging, worrisome, and time-consuming than we’d ever anticipated. We actually enjoyed the whole experience, including the food aspects. It was quite the revelation.

Even most people who are frequent cruisers are surprised to find out what a good fit cruises are for people with special diets. We’ve had so many conversations onboard with other passengers who have close friends or relatives with allergies who have never done a cruise only because of the food issue. When we share our experiences, our fellow passengers get so excited and can’t wait to invite their friends and relatives with special diets on their next trip!

Since that first time, my wife and I have done a number of cruise holidays. I can’t say that they’ve all been completely smooth when it came to the food aspects. Okay, none of them have been 100% smooth. The thing is, they’ve been better than other types of vacations we’d done or contemplated.

Eating away from home when you have a special diet is frustrating. But to have a vacation option that minimizes that frustration is pretty awesome. Most people who have special diets never consider a cruise because of that. I hope that with the help of this book, more do consider it.

A Cruise… Seriously?

Yes, absolutely. Talking about a modern ocean cruise ship as a floating hotel is not out of line. And like today’s high quality, large hotels, they have a professionally run food and beverage organization. Dining rooms are run by extremely qualified professional chefs, who strictly manage a large staff, all working to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all meals prepared for guests. No, they don’t always meet that goal, but if you’re comfortable dining at the restaurant of a good hotel, you can feel comfortable dining on a cruise ship.

And like any food and beverage organization, allergies and special diets are an increasingly common reality. As these become more prevalent in society, cruise lines, like every other organization feeding people, have had to adapt. Procedures are in place, and staff are trained about allergies and special diets.

To give you an idea, on a recent cruise we did, a tour of the galley (kitchen area of a ship) and discussion with the executive chef revealed that approximately 2-3% of the passengers had some kind of special dietary need. That may not seem like a lot, but consider this was a two week cruise in the middle of November (when most people are in school or working) on a fairly lazy itinerary on a cruise line that generally targets older, retired travellers. The average passenger age was certainly well over 65.

If you had 2-3% of passengers in that demographic dealing with special diets, imagine a more typical sailing with a higher percentage of ‘younger’ people and children, who have far more problems with food allergies. Anecdotal evidence suggests between 5-10% of passengers in an average voyage have some sort of dietary restriction.

The bottom line is that despite how few people think about it, cruise ships do deal with special diets and food allergies every day, and while not necessarily routine, it is an expected part of their work.

It’s Not That Simple

Close your eyes and just imagine… when booking your cruise, you tell your travel agent about your special diet. From then on, you never have to think about it again. Onboard, you are surrounded by amazing food choices, all which completely meet your dietary needs. It’s as if other food has been banished from the ship. Celiacs would never even see a loaf of wheat bread. Vegans would never encounter the aroma of a grilled steak in the air. Your every meal would be a majestic epicurean delight.

Okay, open your eyes. Sorry, not going to happen, unless of course you own your own private gold-plated luxury yacht.

The fact is, while cruise vacations can be done by people on special diets, you do have to be alert, persistent, patient and understanding. Knowing what to expect, how to prepare, the best options available to you, and the ways to resolve the inevitable issues that do arise go a long way to minimizing your frustration, and creating a more enjoyable vacation.

Unfortunately, that information is hard to come by. At best, you’ll find some brief mention of special diets in Frequently Asked Questions on cruise line websites. Do a bit more digging, and you’ll find scattered bits of advice in discussion forums on cruise-oriented websites. Maybe you know someone with a special diet who has cruised before, and really knew what they were doing.

If you go with just the information cruise lines give out, it can really be a gamble how well the food aspects will work out. And who wants to take a chance on having an awful holiday (or worse), especially with what you’re paying for the cruise vacation in the first place?

This book gathers together in one place everything you need to know to decide if a cruise vacation is for you, and if so, to make the most of it.

Is Cruising Right for You?

Putting aside the special diet for a moment, you might ask yourself if a cruise holiday is something you’d be interested in at all. If you know people who’ve been on cruises, and have sat through their exciting retelling of elegant formal evenings, exciting Vegas-style shows, the poolside limbo contest, the endless food and drink (oops), and non-stop shopping at every port, you may well already have your bags packed.

Or, you may be curled up in a ball in the corner, shuddering at the very thought of willingly spending your time like that. I’m more in that last category.

Suffice it to say, cruising on today’s ships offers you more than enough options to take part in the things you’d like to do (or nothing at all). There’s choices for the party crowd, the shopaholics, people who just want to settle into a chair or by the pool and read a book, the adventure seekers, exercise mavens, history and culture buffs, and more.

There’s lots you can read elsewhere about this, and while the choice of cruise line and itinerary can have a big impact on this, in general it’s not difficult to make a cruise vacation be what you want it to be.

What I like is being able to see a lot of different places in a relatively short period of time, and so am attracted to more port-intensive itineraries. A lot of people cruise for that reason, and like not having to pack-and-unpack each day, lug their bags around, etc.

When you have a special diet, there’s even a greater benefit: you don’t have to spend eight hours each day searching for meals that won’t kill you. In a place you don’t know, that may operate in a language you don’t speak. And then the next day start all over again, with a new place, language and customs. See the benefit of cruising now?

Important Medical Caveats

People have special diets for all kinds of reasons, sometimes to do with preferences or religion, sometimes because they feel better or are healthier on the diet, sometimes because they get sick from certain foods, sometimes from severe allergies, including those where contact with even the smallest amount of a certain food could possibly kill them.

A cruise ship holding 2000+ people is not a private bubble. You will certainly be around food that doesn’t comply with your special diet, and while ships generally have areas set aside for allergy-friendly food prep, it’s pretty difficult to avoid all cross-contamination. And mistakes do happen, so you can sometimes be served something that unintentionally does contain some ingredient you shouldn’t eat. I’ll explain how to minimize that risk, but it can’t be completely eliminated.

If something does happen, there is a good chance it will be when you are out in the middle of the ocean. Yes, ships do have medical facilities, and can handle many serious and emergency medical situations, but they do have very limited staff and equipment.

Only you know how you will react if you are exposed to foods that you shouldn’t have, and how badly you will react depending on the type and amount of exposure. You may well feel very comfortable that you could manage the risks of exposure, for example bringing along certain medications, or just resigning yourself to feeling gross for a day.

But if the consequences of any exposure can be severe, you’ll definitely want to think hard about whether or not a cruise vacation is right for you, and discuss it with your doctor or allergist.

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