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.