1. Home
  2. Planning
  3. Cruise Tips and Advice
  4. 10 Tips for Cruising With a Dietary Restriction -- and Eating Well
Vegan Options Displayed on Table (Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)
Vegan Options Displayed on Table (Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock)

10 Tips for Cruising With a Dietary Restriction -- and Eating Well

Trying new cuisine and eating great food are highlights of taking a cruise, but travelers with special dietary requirements can find it challenging to eat well away from home. Still, cruise lines are doing a better job of adapting to passenger needs amid an ever-changing culinary landscape. For the best possible experience, these 10 tips can turn any sailing into a gourmet trip tailored around your needs.

Updated April 12, 2019

1. Alert the cruise line as early as possible.

Cruise lines can provide food for vegetarian, vegan, low-/no-fat, low-/no-salt, lactose-intolerant/dairy-free, gluten- or wheat-free (celiac), low-cholesterol, diabetic, kosher and halal diets. They can also address specific allergy needs.

As soon as you book, inform the travel agent or cruise line of your dietary needs. Cruise lines have limited supplies, which are only brought onboard in certain ports, so they need to procure special ingredients. Be specific. For example, if you are lactose-intolerant and prefer rice/oat/almond milk to soy milk, tell the line before you cruise.

Most lines require 45 to 90 days' advance notice for food requests; contact the line's accessible travel department. Kosher meals, which are often preprepared, must be ordered 90 days in advance.

If you're considering bringing your own food onboard, check with the cruise line to see what's allowed. Passengers cannot bring most food items onboard, except nonperishable snacks and food or formula for babies, so be careful not to pack perishable items thinking you can eat them onboard.

2. Contact the dining department on your first day aboard.

On embarkation day, seek out the restaurant manager or executive chef to confirm they have all the details of your dietary needs flagged in the dining room computer system and stateroom profile. If your needs are complicated, take a printout to give to the kitchen. Be sure to share any concerns over cross-contamination.

If there is a certain item you have requested (soy milk or gluten-free bread, for example), ask where it is stored and how you can access it. Make sure you can get your special foods when eating at the buffet or specialty restaurants.

Other crew members to alert on day one include the children's activities coordinator, if your child has an allergy or special diet, and the shore excursion department, should you be booked on all-day tours that include a meal. Tell your cabin steward, too, especially if you're in a suite where you might receive afternoon canapes or welcome chocolates.

3. Stay with the same dining room team.

Marina Dining

Sticking with the same waiter in the main dining room can make your life easier because you don't have to explain your dietary restrictions over again at every meal. If your ship has set-seating dining, choose that option. If you prefer open seating (or that's all your ship offers), ask to sit in the same section of the dining room each night to access the waiter who knows your dietary needs.

If you wish to try out other venues, chefs can prepare a meal for you with advance notice or you can preorder from the dining room menu and have it served there. Many cruise lines offer spa-inspired cuisine that uses simpler, healthier recipes, so check the spa cafe or main dining room spa selections to see if those dovetail with your requirements.

4. Preorder meals.

While many cruise lines designate menu items that are gluten-free, low-calorie, lactose-free, vegetarian or not suitable for certain allergies, the list might not be comprehensive and substitutions might not be available at a moment's notice. Instead, ask to see the following day's menu in advance to discuss choices and adaptations. This will give you plenty of time to inquire about hidden ingredients (such as dairy products in bread or wheat in sauces) and make sure you get a meal you enjoy.

If you do love a meal, don't be shy about requesting it again. Most kitchens have one chef who is in charge of preparing special meals and can handle requests with advance notice.

5. Be fastidious at the buffet.

Healthy Buffet Display (Photo: JGA/Shutterstock)

The buffet is the most treacherous restaurant for cruisers on special diets because ingredients are not always marked and passengers are not careful about mixing utensils or keeping food from falling into the next dish over. Ask the restaurant manager to accompany you around the buffet stations to identify which dishes are OK to eat.

Don't be shy about asking staff to use new gloves or serving utensils. If you're still concerned about cross-contamination, request food that has not been on display. Remember that you can ask to have food prepared a different way if ordering from an omelet or pasta station (prepared with olive oil instead of butter, for example).

If you see something you like, don't assume it will be available at every meal. It might be wise to grab a gluten-free muffin or mini-cereal box from the breakfast buffet to enjoy later in the day.

6. Watch out for in-cabin treats.

Be wary of turn-down chocolates, canapes, welcome gifts and room service bread baskets. They're probably standardized and not prepared especially for you.

Inform your cabin attendant when you board of any dietary restrictions, so he can remove welcome gifts containing nuts, dairy or other ingredients you can't have. If you're booked at a cabin level where you might get afternoon canapes or tea service, be clear about what you can and can't eat. It's OK to simply request that treats not be delivered at all.

Room service orders should be addressed to a manager in advance so that dietary concerns are noted.

7. Book a galley tour.

Chef Preparing a Meal (Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

Seeing where your food is prepared and cooked can allay your worries. You'll see how scrupulous the galley chefs are about special diets including how food is handled and stored. Although galley tours may be expensive (typically they're part of general behind-the-scenes tours), it might be money well spent for your peace of mind.

8. Prepare for dining ashore.

Notify the shore excursions desk early about your needs, so they can contact any restaurants you might visit on tour. If you're exploring on your own, ask about possible places to dine as staff often have a list of potential options or can scour the internet on your behalf (that will save a nice chunk of change if paying for internet onboard).

It's wise to research cultural norms in advance. For example, in Spain, many foods are cooked on the same grill or plancha, presenting a cross-contamination problem. You might want to print out a note in the local language explaining your dietary restriction to present at local restaurants.

If you plan to carry your own snacks ashore, be sure to check ship and local legislation before you take any food off the ship; fruit and vegetables are sometimes prohibited and subject to a fine. Packaged snacks are safer, but you'll need to bring your own from home.

9. Don't assume.

Healthy Salmon Meal (Photo: its_al_dente/Shutterstock)

With hundreds or thousands of passengers onboard, you can't assume that everyone everywhere knows your needs. Just because a chef at the buffet cooked correctly for you once, it doesn't mean he'll definitely remember the next time. Always remind wait staff and watch chefs cook lest they automatically add a prohibited ingredient without thinking.

10. Do your homework.

Not all cruise lines are created equal when it comes to catering to dietary restrictions. If you do your research, including reading Cruise Critic reviews and comments from past cruisers, you can select the appropriate ship for your needs.

A travel agent knowledgeable about traveling with dietary restrictions can be a good resource and can also direct you to charter sailings like vegan cruises and WW (previously Weight Watchers) cruises with menus that cater to specific food needs. This can go a long way in helping you to better enjoy your next sailing. Bon appetit!

Learn More About Cruising With a Dietary Restriction:

What to Know If You Want to Cruise Gluten-Free

Best Cruises for Vegetarians and Vegans

Cruising with Diabetes

4 Ways the Weight Watchers Cruise Makes Sure You Stay on Your Points

Jewish and Kosher Cruises

Popular on Cruise Critic

8 Best Luxury Cruise Ships
The moment you step aboard a luxury cruise ship, a hostess is at your arm proffering a glass of bubbly while a capable room steward offers to heft your carry-on as he escorts you to what will be your home-away-from-home for the next few days. You stow your things (likely in a walk-in closet) and then emerge from your suite to get the lay of the ship. As you walk the decks, friendly crew members greet you ... by name. How can that be? You just set foot onboard! First-class, personalized service is just one of the hallmarks of luxury cruise lines. You can also expect exotic itineraries, varying degrees of inclusivity in pricing, fine wines and gourmet cuisine as well as universally high crew-to-passenger ratios. That being the case, you might think any old luxury cruise ship will do, but that's not quite true. Like people, cruise ships have their own unique personalities -- and some will be more suited to your vacation style than others. Lines like SeaDream might not offer the most spacious suites, but their intimate yachts can stealthily visit ports that large ships can't manage. Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises are owned by the same parent company but Regent offers a completely inclusive vacation experience, while Oceania draws travelers with a more independent streak. Take a look at Cruise Critic's list of best luxury cruise lines and ships to see which one resonates with you.
6 Cruise Ship Cabins to Avoid
You might expect loud noises, close quarters and crazy maneuvers in the dance club onboard your cruise ship -- but not in your cabin. Even if you don't plan to spend much time there, it should be a restful and private place so you can maintain that much-needed vacation stamina. To help you do so, we've compiled a list of cabins you'll want to avoid booking if closet-like dimensions or scraping chair sounds overhead aren't appealing to you. Heed our advice, and you might be feeling a bit less claustrophobic and a tad more refreshed come disembarkation.
How To Choose a Cruise Ship Cabin: What You Need to Know
Your room on a cruise ship is called a cabin (or stateroom) and is akin to a hotel room, but typically much smaller. Choosing a cruise ship cabin can be fun and challenging at the same time, and not just a little bit frustrating on occasion. Cabins fall into different types or "categories," and some cruise lines will present as many as 20 or more categories per ship. Before you get overwhelmed, it's helpful to remember that there are essentially only four types of cabins on any cruise vessel: Inside: the smallest-sized room, with no window to the outside Outside: a room with a window or porthole (a round window) with a view to the outside, often similarly sized to an inside cabin or a bit larger; also known as oceanview Balcony: a room featuring a verandah that allows you to step outside without going up to a public deck Suite: a larger cabin, often with separate living and sleeping areas, and a wide variety of extra amenities and perks It's the permutations (size, view, location, amenities and price, for example) of the four basic cabin types that can make choosing difficult. In addition to knowing your cabin options, you need to know yourself: Do you tend to get seasick? Do you prefer to nest peaceably on your balcony rather than hanging with the crowd around the pool area? Conversely, is your idea of a stateroom simply a place to flop into bed at 1 a.m. -- no fancy notions necessary? Are there certain amenities you are willing to splurge on, or can you simply not justify paying for unnecessary perks? The answers will help guide you toward selecting the best stateroom for your money. If you're feeling overwhelmed by choice, we'll help you get started with this guide to choosing the best cruise cabins for you and your travel party.