Cruising with dietary needs
This is a guest post by Vegan Cruiser busting myths about Vegan Cruising!
Going on a holiday is always a challenge when you or someone in the family has additional dietary needs. We tend to stick to known locations and familiar restaurant venues. It can be difficult to trust outside catering and their serving staff to get things right. But we all need a holiday and worry not – cruise ships are ideal holiday destinations to those of us who have dietary needs. The industry prides itself on offering the perfect holiday for every traveller, including those with allergies or food intolerances. Cruisers like myself and the parents of children with allergies share our successful cruise stories online – sharing useful information and giving evidence of the care we have received onboard various ships. Myself I am dairy intolerant and have cruised as a child with my parents and have continued my cruise habit into my adult life. In the last 18 months, I have been vegan and I have cruised and dined free of all animal products. It all has been surprisingly easy. Let me tell you how.
Research your options:
Perhaps you have seen some of the helpful family cruise reviews on this site and have decided to take yours on a cruise. But how to select the right company, ship & sailing for you? My Introduction to Cruising 101 post may have some helpful pointers for you. But how do you then pick the right cruise line for your family’s dietary needs? Do go online: cruise lines have information available on their website for those with dietary restrictions. Some will list plenty of information on their site, others will give you a contact telephone number or an e-mail to contact for relevant information. You can also find reviews online from other cruisers on how their needs have been catered for. There are various online forums but CruiseCritic is the largest one to start with.
Contact the special needs team pre-cruise:
Once you are booked, most other cruise lines will have a dietary or a special needs request team to handle your booking. Depending on the company and the cruise location, ships tend to ask for 45-90 days of notice to ensure dietary needs are catered for. You can naturally ask your travel agent to do this for you but personally, I prefer to take control of my dietary requirements rather than relying upon a middle-man.
Sometimes dietary requests can be notified via the online cruise personaliser, a booking service that allows you to add excursions and other extras to your holiday. At other times you will need to e-mail the relevant department to ensure a notice of your need is attached to your booking. Sometimes there only is a generic customer service e-mail whose service can be very non-descriptive and at times even unhelpful. In those occasions, it is always helpful to see online reviews from other cruisers with similar needs. The landside customer service teams may not be as knowledgeable as the staff onboard.
Organising meals onboard
When you board your cruise, some cruise lines will have a letter waiting for you in your cabin, detailing who to contact regarding your dining needs. Others will expect you to approach the head waiter in the restaurant to discuss your dining and to pre-order your meals. On most of my cruises, I have had my main dining room evening meals pre-arranged with the head waiter the night before. Each evening we would look at the existing menu options for the following day to see if they were adaptable or if something else could be served instead. But our last cruise, we were delivered the main dining room (MDR) menu to our cabin overnight and we could leave our amended order in the reception by mid-day if we had not dined in the MDR the previous evening.
Dining in the MDR is always the most straightforward choice as even if you choose to do anytime/my time dining instead of the traditional set dining times. Buffet dining can be daunting, with the risk of foodstuff cross-contamination from careless passengers or even staff, but if you ask to speak to supervisors in the buffet too and liaise with the chef, they can produce fresh portions of the same food – or special dishes too. On our last cruise, the chef was able to prepare vegetarian sausages on order at breakfast and at dinnertime could offer me dairy-free versions of some of the dishes, even dairy-free desserts. I only needed to ask.
Kids clubs with dietary and medical needs
If your kids have severe allergies and they plan to attend the kids club, contact the special needs department to find out about the individual cruise line’s policies as they vary. Some get around allergy issue by serving no food in the club rooms and only providing meals in the restaurants where the restaurant staff are allergen aware. Documentation needs to be filled in with kids club staff regarding allergies. If your child needs an epi-pen, please bring one with you. Do note, not all cruise lines have kids & youth staff trained to administer them. Some rely on alerting onboard nurse & medical staff, others will ensure a trained kids club worker is available as long as the special needs department is notified far enough in advance.
Disney resorts and cruises teamed up with an Epi-pen manufacturer back in 2014 to supply epi-pens on their premises but passengers are still advised to bring their own as the emergency stock is there for true emergencies and first presentations. as mentioned above, procedures vary with each cruise line, research your options to find one that you’re happy with. To get an idea what you may find, see this helpful post by mommytalkshow.com blogger Joyce about her experience booking her 5 yo son A.J. to Carnival kids club.
Pack your own medicines and snacks
Many ships allow passengers, depending on location/itinerary, to bring in some non-perishable foodstuffs with us. I always pack some dairy-free cookies (snack-pack kind) and cereal bars that can be had as sweet treats onboard. They are a great easy snack too when out on an excursion. Also, if you or your child has a severe allergy, do bring all prescribed medicines such as the epi-pen mentioned and antihistamines onboard with you. Ships have medical bays and medicines can be replaced in port but it is best to have your own with you. But none of that is new to those who manage severe allergies of family members – cruising with a dietary need isn’t really that different to what we do on any other day of our lives.
Living with a food intolerance or an allergy can be frustrating but it doesn’t mean you cannot and shouldn’t consider a cruise holiday. Go on, Treat yo’self. Ships can and do cater for needs. Some, like Celebrity Cruises, are leading the way with waiting & kitchen staff awareness training. In late 2016 they partnered with a US-based DineAware employee training & certification programme to improve the dining experience of those of us with special dietary needs. But even without such branded allergen awareness training, cruise ship restaurant staff across various ships and companies have always looked after me well. They haven’t let me down – unlike an airline once did.
In August 2016 Ovidiu the head waiter on Royal Princess made our cruise unforgettable with his knowledge and dedication to customer service – even delivering dairy-free and egg-free desserts to us when we dined at other venues and not in the main dining room. My allergen hero. I’m sure you’ll find yours if you book a cruise for your family.