13+ Tips for Cruising With Food Allergies, Special Dietary Needs + More
Let me start by saying, don’t let food allergies or dietary restrictions stop you from cruising, going on adventures and seeing the world. If you can do it safely, do it!
Whether you are gluten free, dairy free, nut free, soy free, have any of the top 8 or 14 food allergens, are paleo, or eating Whole30 or Keto this blog is for you. You will be able to take some valuable information away from this blog post, and I truly hope it helps you on your next adventure!
I want to start out by saying that I personally do not have any food allergies that require epinephrine or medical attention. I do, however, have multiple food intolerances and avoid many foods due to P.C.O.S. (polycystic ovarian syndrome). If I do come into contact with one of my food intolerances or the foods that I avoid, depending on the amount, I can tell and can suffer with anything from a few minor breakouts to a lot of breakouts, stomach aches and terrible stomach cramping.
Cruising - either you love it or you hate it! I love the idea of it, because I love waking up in a new city every day, but I hate the food. Most people love all the food, but, no shade to them, perhaps they aren’t eating as high quality of food at home and love the idea of the never ending buffets, 24 hour pizza and free flowing jello. I hate cruise food, for the most part!
AHOY! This was my 4th cruise, and I learn a little bit more each time we set sail about what I could do better, and perhaps how I can educate people on the ship with my words, my questions and observations. If you don’t know, many of the people who work on cruise ships are foreign. I say that so you understand that there is always the potential of a language barrier or misunderstanding.
FAST FACTS FROM ROYAL CARIBBEAN:
272 Food Staff
8 Restaurant Managers
11 Head Waiters
119 million + meals to over 32 million guests per year
800 thousand pounds of lobster per year
10 million pounds of potatoes per year
15 million pounds of beef per year
18 million pounds of chicken per year
They serve 500 thousand pounds of coffee per year
Their ovens can cook up to 580 chicken breasts in 8 minutes.
They go through 18 thousand dozen eggs per ship per week.
They serve 500 thousand pounds of coffee
There are 14800 cooks across the entire Royal Caribbean Fleet
I brought a TON of stuff with me, (photos down below) and it was a little bit of a hassle, but guess what? It was worth it! It was worth every stress and dime making sure that Instacart delivered my groceries the morning of the cruise to our hotel before we checked out and taking an extra trip to get a few more items and lugging it all on the ship and finding room in our small stateroom for it. It was worth calling for ice a few times a day to fill up the ice bucket to keep my second Malk Organics Almond Milk cold since it didn’t fit in the fridge. Why was it worth it? Because I knew that I could safely enjoy my morning lattes, dessert and even have breakfast in a pinch if we missed the dining room times. I would do it all again in a heartbeat! If there is anything I can do to make sure that I have a safe and happy cruise when it comes to food, I will do it over and over again. (Photo: this isn't all my luggage, but it is what 3 of us brought on our cruise).
For my tips and tricks, scroll to the bottom, thought there is some helpful and juicy details in the sections you might skip. Skim it all! You’re probably in the bathroom reading this right now anyway, so I know you have time and it may help you! You can play Candy Crush or watch Snapchat videos later.
My cruise history + a few things about my past cruises:
First Cruise - Holland America to Alaska (5 days) 2014
I didn’t bring any food on this cruise because I was new to cruising, didn’t know I could and didn’t do any research. I also trusted the cruise ship when I said I had food allergies and intolerances that they would take care of me, and, for the most part, they did, but it was a mess. I told them I couldn’t eat corn (among other things), yet they served me a gluten free corn pasta. I asked if it was corn based and they said no. I took that answer, ate the pasta and my whole face broke out terrible. I have since learned.
Second Cruise - Carnival to Mexico (3 days) 2015
I brought my own snacks and learned from the first cruise to trust my gut. If I didn’t think the food was safe for me to eat, I didn’t eat it and ordered something else. The food on this cruise wasn’t that great at all, but it was only three days, and two of them were on land (Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico), so we were able to find yummy food I could eat on those days.
Third Cruise - Carnival to Caribbean (12 days) 2016
This was a LONG cruise, so I really brought a ton of food, snacks, my own dairy free milk and protein powder. I was determined to make sure that I could eat good food even if I had to bring much of it myself. We left from New Orleans, and the morning of the cruise I went to Whole Foods to stock up on lots of foods to take with me. This cruise also had the best food in the dining room, understood what I could and couldn’t have and it was a breeze.
Fourth Cruise - Royal Caribbean to New England & Canada (7 days) 2019
Ahhh yes. The cruise we just got off. The first day of the cruise we were very worried that the food would stink… and it did until the last two days of the cruise. I will say this, after speaking to the restaurant manager of the entire ship, as well as a few head managers of individual restaurants on the ship, I felt a bit better because they seemed to understand food allergies. It was the people under them or the people who were taking my order and handling the food that didn’t always understand, which once again had me worried. The food was really pretty great the last two nights of the cruise — not sure why the first few days were’t that great, but we enjoyed lobster tails (three each!) and filet mignon that were really good. All in all, I did learn a lot this time around, and I am really glad I asked so many questions, spoke out, challenged them and even made a BIG CHANGE for the buffet display.
Here’s what happened and what I learned on this last cruise.
The first day, I asked the people at the buffet if I could know the ingredients in the potato leek soup. They replied, “Potato and leeks, ma’am.” Not satisfied with the answer, I asked again “So it’s just potato and leeks? Is there broth or dairy?” They said “I don’t know.” I then asked for the chef.
The chef came out and said, “The soup is just potato and leeks.” I said, “Wow! Just potato and leeks!? Thats amazing!” He said, “yes!” I replied “So, there is no dairy and it’s vegan, too!” He said, “No, ma’am, there is cream and chicken broth and other things in it, too.”
I felt defeated already and we had just left the dock. I was already thinking that I should have spent even more money at Whole Foods to bring more food on this cruise ship. I like to over prepare, always.
Later in the cruise, my mom really wanted to try their pizza because it had just come out of the oven at the little pizza restaurant on the ship. I tasted the tiniest bite (despite the fact that I don’t eat any of the ingredients on this pizza), and we all laughed because it was the best food we had had up to this point on the ship! I knew that if I ate this pizza I would get sick, but the rest of the food sucked and didn’t taste that great — I was contemplating for a hot second about eating pizza the rest of the trip and sacrificing my health and all the sick feels, but I knew that wasn’t a good idea. Don’t do that, people! It’s not worth it!
The GOOD NEWS is that I did notice that they had gluten free pizza! Hooray! (My hopes were up!) I was about to order some and wanted to know the ingredients before I did. They couldn’t tell me. All they could say was “it’s gluten free, ma’am.” I passed on it, but still wanted to know more about it and if it was cooked in the same oven as the regular pizza.
The BAD NEWS is that not only was it cooked in the same oven as the regular pizza, but that they assured me that I would be fine eating it because other people had eaten it and the lady snarkily said “no one has ever gotten sick from eating it, ma’am, and we have served it to many people with a gluten allergen!” (Crumbles into a ball and feels so bad for all the people who had possibly gotten sick after the cruise because of being glutened). I felt defeated to be honest.
Here’s the deal - it’s way cool that they had gluten free pizza, and things are changing now where people are starting to realize that many people have food allergies. So, while the people who choose to be on a gluten free diet or who are okay with cross contamination CAN in fact eat this pizza, I can’t help but feel equally as defeated that there is so much to do with educating others on food allergies. I wanted to yell at this lady and say so many things like “don’t put a big ‘gluten free’ sign here if it’s not really gluten free” and “you don’t understand how this works” and “whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.” Okay so I am a bit dramatic, but it’s true!
This takes me to my first point:
NEVER EAT AT THE BUFFET: I knew that already, but thought perhaps someone behind the counter could perhaps make me a meal in the kitchen. They can and, depending on your dietary restrictions and food allergies, it can work, but it takes a long time (and I will tell you more about that later) and perhaps isn’t worth it.
ALWAYS: Please eat in the dining room or on land. Why? For one, it’s less chaotic, the waiters are there to take your order and make sure you are safe, and I feel like they understand food allergies the best. If you would prefer to eat in your room, bring along some safe breakfast bars and muffins for the cruise - that’s totally cool, too. We also always look for good local restaurants when we are docked and love eating local food — it’s way better than cruise food! Just be careful when eating in other countries that may not fully understand food allergies or cross contamination.
Here’s what I love about the dining room for dinnertime. You sit at the same table every night at the same time, with the same people (you are seated at a small table of 4, 8, or 10), you have the same waiter and wait staff and after the first night they pretty much know everything about you. They remember your name, how you like your water (with or without ice, with a paper straw, etc). They know your food allergies ahead of time and are very particular — this is my experience on every cruise (even the crappy one where they served me corn pasta, even knew I couldn’t have corn... they served it anyway but whatever).
I finally learned why it takes so dang long to order your food with special instructions… there is only one person who prepares all the allergy-friendly meals in each restaurant. This is why is so important to order your food the night before. After your dinner, your waiter will bring you the menu for the following night so you can eat with everyone else and not have to wait too long.
I did something really cool, and it made me so incredibly happy because I know that it could save someone from a lot of sickness and getting glutened. I noticed they had a gluten free dessert section at the buffet with about 4 options plus some gluten free bread. I was pretty excited — and the macaroons were really yummy, too!
BUT, there was something that was really wrong with the setup. It was right next to the regular cookies and the rest of the desserts. There were black tongs in front of every dessert on display but there was a problem. How easy would it be to use the same tongs for the gluten and non gluten items? How incredibly easy would it be for someone to get glutened because some person (kid or adult) wanted a cookie and a macaroon and used the “gluten free” tongs to do so — without even thinking about it or knowing what they were doing. I didn’t just sit there and let it happen. I asked for the manager, and right away they saw the flaw and put some apples in-between the gluten and gluten free items. It was a start. But what happened next was pretty cool! I popped in there the next day and they had totally rearranged it so that all the fruit that didn’t need tongs (apples, oranges, etc.) was in between the gluten and gluten free items! Hooray! I was so excited and took a selfie with the gluten free set up! hah!
But... then I saw a woman eating a roll in one hand, carrying her plate in the other and touching the tongs with her bread hand and serving herself some gluten free macaroons…. It’s like what can you do? (face plant)
ANSWER: You can ask for the gluten free desserts from the kitchen and/or you could eat in the dining room. Or you can bring your own cookies and chocolate bars and desserts and not even stress about that!
We took a tour of the kitchen and met with one of the restaurant managers and one of the chefs. This was really exciting and made me really appreciate all that they do in the kitchen. It’s easy to complain that the food sucks, but to be honest, most of it is the food quality. I am used to eating high quality meats, fruits, vegetables, desserts and super clean ingredients. They really do a great job serving so many people and the presentation is always 100%, plus they do it in a short amount of time. They work 10 hours days for 7 months on the ship with no vacation time. They are super hard working, and you can’t be mad at that. You can, however, bring your own food and appreciate them from afar!
Kids with food allergies on a cruise ship:
Cruise ships often have amazing kids clubs on board with lots of fun games, activities and also food. While the majority of them have trained staff to handle food allergies, I would say proceed with caution — this is my personal opinion. Check with your cruise line to see what their procedures are, how they handle food allergies within the children’s programs. Some cruises have staff that are even trained to administer epinephrine and other’s aren’t. Do some research on your cruise line, and your specific cruise ship to see what they do. Ask a lot of questions. Make the best decision for you and your family.
PASSPORTS: Do you need them and do your kids need them?
Are you taking a “closed loop” cruise (You are leaving from a U.S. port and returning to a U.S. port) or an “open loop” cruise (You are leaving from a U.S. port and returning to a different port)? Most closed loop cruises allow just an original or certified copy of a government issued birth certificate with a raised seal or even a holographic image. The best thing you can do here is ASK YOUR CRUISE LINE what you need. Why is this important and what does this have to do with food allergies?
If you have a medical emergency on the ship or on land and need to be transferred to a hospital at one of the ports, you will need a passport to re-enter the U.S. after you are cleared for travel. If you or your child does not have a passport, you will need to contact the U.S. Embassy or Consulate at the port to help you get back to the U.S. This can take a lot of time and will be a pain. It’s easier, safer and smarter to bring passports for the whole family, even if only a birth certificate is required to board the ship.
I highly recommend that you get passports or passport cards for the whole family if you are traveling out of the country.
13 tips for cruising with food allergies and dietary restrictions.
Tell the ship ahead of time what you can & can’t have, your food allergies & any dietary restrictions. They are more likely to be prepared this way and have it noted in your reservation.
Please, please, please bring your epinephrine injectors and anything you might need in case you get glutened or get sick. Please, please, please carry your epinephrine injector with you at all times on the ship and on land! Make sure you have any and all emergency medicine, asthma medicine and anything you might need or use on a regular basis. Pack any and all medications in their original packaging and containers with them.
Ask them what you can and can’t bring aboard and challenge them if need be. Each ship has been different, but it could be because they were all different cruise lengths or cruise lines. I don’t know that part of the logistics yet. Ask them what exactly you can bring with you: drinks, snacks, foods, etc. They will more than likely tell you only packaged items that are shelf stable and, of course, water bottles and booze (I think just wine and beer). I challenged that and told them (which is true) I can’t eat a ton of packaged items that are also shelf stable and told them that I was planning on bringing some baked goods from HUKitchen (a paleo restaurant in NYC) with me. At first they said no. I once again challenged them on it (politely), and then they said I could. I also knew that they would have dairy free milk aboard the ship but that there was a 100% chance I couldn’t have it because of the added fillers, gums and sugars in it. They said I could bring my own milk. I asked for a fridge (there was a fridge already in our room which I hadn’t had on previous ships), which made it much easier. You can say that you need a fridge for medical purposes, but you must request one way in advance and perhaps follow up on it a week before your cruise.
Ask for the Food & Beverage Director’s name and ask to speak to them if you have any problems bringing your food through security at the cruise ship terminal. Do not take "NO" for an answer, but within reason. You can't bring opened bottles or opened drinks (dairy free milks etc.) through and make sure that all of your packaged food is sealed.
If you aren’t sure if something is SAFE on the ship ASK! DOUBLE CHECK AND RECHECK! Ask for the chef & ask for ingredients! Don’t feel bad! It’s your health and you do not want to get sick, and I don’t want you to get sick.
Are you going on any offshore excursions? Bring your passport and any medication that you might need in case you get sick. Make sure that any and all medication is in their original packaging — especially when on land and when going through security checkpoints at each port. Other countries may or may not have any specific food allergy polices. Make sure you eat a nice big breakfast on the ship and even plan to get back early or make a pit stop back on the ship if the ship is close to eat.
While they are generally pretty good on cruise ships, there still are people who are uneducated about food allergies, intolerances and food ingredients in general, which you read above. So be prepared to explain it over and over again to different people, and, again, don’t eat something if you aren’t 100% certain that your food is safe to eat.
If you’re flying somewhere to board a ship, allow enough time to stop at the store on the way to the cruise ship or use services like Instacart which will deliver your groceries and what you need the morning of. I used Instacart to have cases of water delivered, last minute snacks, some Soozy’s Grain Free paleo muffins and a few other things sent to the hotel about an hour before checkout.
Request a fridge in your room weeks in advance! You need it for medical and dietary restrictions. This will help keep your cold stuff cold.
Print a handful of index cards with your name (or child’s name) along with all of the foods you cannot have, or are allergic to. This way, if there is any kind of language or pronunciation barrier, they can see the word GLUTEN or CANOLA or DAIRY or ALMOND or SHELLFISH and recognize it. Once aboard your ship, perhaps write your stateroom number on the card as well so there is zero confusion. I should have done this and will do this on my next cruise. Google “ALERGY ALERT CARD” and look at the best option for you.
Don’t forget to bring dessert items and treats, kombucha, green juice, chips and even cereals. You can bring protein powder and a shake bottle or a little milk frother to make a shake in the morning. Bring whatever will make you feel comfortable on your trip. If that means extra cookies or chips, bring it! If that means, tea bags or your own coffee, bring it! If that means candy … the list goes on. If you are unsure if it’s an item you can bring on board, ask your cruise line.
You will NOT have any access to microwaves, so don’t bring anything that need to be heated up. You will also have a very tiny fridge, so go easy on bringing stuff that NEEDS refrigeration.
Make sure all your food is with you when you go through security at the cruise ship terminal. They will check your bag, and you won’t see it until later that evening. If they are unaware that you have permission to bring food aboard, they could possibly remove it from your luggage. Every cruise line is different, so it’s best to err on the side of caution and have it all with you in a carryon roller bag so you can personally bring it to your stateroom.
Here are a few things that might make your trip a little easier:
Nima Sensor: This is a nifty little gadget you can bring on board and actually test a tiny bit of your food to see if it contains any gluten.
How does it work? “Nima uses anti-body based chemistry to test samples of food for the proteins found in gluten. Just place a small amount of food in one of the disposable test capsules, insert the capsule into the sensor, push a button, wait a few minutes, and see the result!
How accurate is it? “Current testing shows the sensor to be accurate at 20 ppm and above between 96.9% - 97.2% of the time for foods as quantified by a lab test (excludes foods not recommended for testing). You can see the full test results, as well as third party validation, on the Nima science page.”
You can learn more about the Nima Sensor, here. They also have one specifically for peanuts.
Gluten Detective Urine Test: OH NO! Think you were accidentally glutened? There is a test you can do with the Gluten Detective Urine Test from Glutenostics. You can bring them aboard and use them if you think you ate something containing gluten. It’s a simple at-home test that takes about 15 minutes. You can learn more about it, here.
Do you still have questions? Leave a comment below and also don’t forget to check out this link https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html for any other travel related information.
Here are some of the meals that I enjoyed on the cruise. You will notice that it's pretty much the same thing every night: a protein and vegetables. Remember to ask for a plate of veggies on the side as well. Normally they serve you 2 pieces of broccoli on your dinner plate. If you'd like more, ask for a plate of broccoli or veggies.