The Definitive “Which Cruise Line is Best For Gluten Free?” Post
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.
Never fear, I am now going to provide the definitive answer to that question. Ready? Here it is.
All of them. None of them.
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.
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.
January 30, 2014
Just my experience…
Have gone on two cruises, one as a diagnosed celiac and one pre-diognosis.
Holland America’s Eurodamm was a very good example of what you are talking about. On a 7 night cruise, we had waiters that were very knowledgeable and on one night, the waiter was pretty much an “also ran”.
The gluten free food was delicious. I’ve never had such good pasta. Getting the menu the night before was great and of course there were always the naturally gluten free choices such as steak, shrimp, salad available. This was only guaranteed in the dining rooms.
Lunch and breakfast were more of a challenge although the cook at one booth was gf aware and could always scare up some toast or a waffle. Lunch was basically salads/soup.
All in all, I was very satisfied with the level of knowledge and willingness to accommodate my dietary needs. My travel guide faxed info to the cruise line at least 2 months in advance and they were aware of my gf status when I checked in.
Very nice of you to make your book free. Thank you.
March 23, 2015
I just cruised on The Emerald Princess and had a great experience eating gluten free. I notified the cruise line at booking, confirmed 45 days prior and checked in with the dining room head the first night. I believe the reason behind the great experience was that we had traditional dining so we had the same waitstaff each night(actually after a mistake at 2 tables the first night, our waiter was switched to ensure no more problems). The dining room also sat all the tables who had special dietary needs in the same room we quickly realized as each table had one person who pre-ordered for the next day. On the first night the head waiter explained where to order when at the buffet as they have an area where made-to-order food is prepared. This way each morning I could get gluten free toast from a toaster that wasn’t cross contaminated and an omelette with all GF ingredients. I did my part is being careful, asking questions and at times was asked to put in an alternative order if something couldn’t be made gluten free (but this alternative was never used). Additionally the head waiter had all of us eating GF name our favorite dessert then each night one of these was served so we each got our favorite once (we could also get creme brûlée, ice cream, fruit or cheese if we wanted in addition or instead). Overall I had great gluten free food and was never sick-I can’t wait it cruise again!
June 16, 2016
I had a wonderful experience on the Viking cruise line sailing the Rhine. My travel agent had notified them upon my booking of my CD.
When I arrived on the ship, I met with the maitre d, they went above and beyond to make sure I did not get ill. They were very attentive to my needs, and accomodating. I would give them a score of an A+.
July 25, 2016
I am considering the same cruise you wrote about and also have CD. I am curious as to what kinds of meals they prepared for you? I’m hoping to be able to enjoy some wonderful European delights and not just plain meats and vegies with ice cream or fruit for dessert. If I may also ask, when on land, did you find the towns were familiar with gluten free as they are in England and Ireland?
February 19, 2018
We have been on two Viking cruises- they were gluten free aware- but both times the ship was unaware when we got there- the second time we had doubled checked a week before. It was similar to restaurant experience in the US .
However, on one of the group day trips to Paris, the word did not get out- I was given sautéed zucchini for lunch . period.
The Rhine was safer- a stop at a local dept store had a large gluten free section, so I had safety snacks.
Not horrible, not overwhelming
January 30, 2017
Went on the Regal Princess in 2015, the GF experience was amazing. They offered two rotating unique baked GF desserts each day – cake, tiramisu, tortes, you name it – not just ice cream! GF muffins, pancakes, toast, etc. all on demand in the Lido for breakfast. GF Pizza at the pizzeria – yum! Great GF service in the main dining room. And to confess, we would eat at the MDR for dinner, then go to the Lido because the food was just that good. Also, the specialty steak house was excellent, with a huge range of different foods to try, and well worth the extra cost. Had lobster there for dinner… and lobster for dessert.
Despite walking an extra mile or two on purpose, still gained a couple of pounds on the cruise…
May 5, 2017
Lucky you !We have just been on Caribbean Princess had the opposite experience NO choice of desert
jelly or tapioca most nights.. one night due to mix up we got NO food, muffins and scones hard and horrible only rice bread no GF pizza, pastry waiter was very sarcastic, waiters sighed when you asked for GF food
May 7, 2017
We just did our first on Princess (Star). Was decidedly a mixed bag, though on the plus side we’re not dessert people to begin with. Hope to do a post about it soon.
February 22, 2018
We have sailed with Holland American Nieuw Amsterdam with a true celiac. Passenger’s name even had a “C” posted on her room card. First lunch upon boarding was confusing, but a wait staff directed us to a chef. He spend 20 minutes taking the celiac around the entire buffet. We get a guaranteed dining table (with very aware staff) because of her, not so for insulin dependent passenger. Each night, a menu was given for the next day to make choices. The celiac was so excited to have such great food. They even created a yummy cheesecake for her birthday.
Next month, sailing through the Panama, and worried about lunches being served on excursions. HAL will check with each excursion and if they are not comfortable with the food served, will pack the celiac a picnic lunch to take along.
We found that if staff were not a 100% sure if something was GF, they quickly found someone who was.
Liike to read about other cruise lines