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Cruising with Celiac Disease: What to Know Before You Go

One out of every 141 people in the U.S. suffers from Celiac Disease, a genetic disorder that requires a gluten free diet. And for those afflicted, cruise travel is one of the greatest challenges. With endless buffets and sometimes questionable offerings, here are five tips to planning a gluten-free cruise.

Recently one of our readers, emailed us about a lackluster experience she had when she booked a Carnival Cruise to the Caribbean Islands in the fall.   Her sole apprehension upon reservation was whether they could accommodate her gluten-free diet due to her Celiac Disease.  Once assured that she would be satisfied with the service she happily booked her trip.  However, upon embarkation, she was surprised with the specific procedures that took place due to her dietary specifications, such as having to pre-order meals one day in advance.  Lack of communication between passengers and kitchen staff left her dissatisfied with the voyage.

With 1 in every 141 people in the United States afflicted with Celiac Disease, a genetic disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from certain food, it is alarming to hear a story about a commercial cruise line with a kitchen staff unprepared.  However, Karen Broussard, founder and president of GlutenFreeTravelSite, tells us that these types of stories are a lot more common than one would believe.

Broussard states that, “Although the cruise line industry as a whole has become educated about Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity, there is still a lot of inconsistency within each cruise line.  It can vary from ship to ship, region to region –and may have a lot to do with the knowledge of the particular executive chef in charge.”

Due to the fact that there is no way you can tell beforehand how experienced the chef and kitchen staff are, you are caught in a bit of a dilemma. However, all hope is not lost for those with dietary restrictions that wish to travel.  Broussard divulges some essential tips to implement when planning your vacation to avoid a disastrous situation:

1.    Word of mouth is vital

After researching the policies of each cruise line, you’ll want to read other peoples’ personal gluten-free cruise reviews on websites such as GlutenFreeTravelSite. This lets you eliminate some cruise lines that may have bad ratings across the board. It can also be helpful to work with a travel agent or trip-planning company that specializes in the gluten-free market and will be able to align you with a cruise line that is experienced in accommodating your special needs.

2.    Be persistent

Don’t be afraid to be meticulous when it comes to alerting everyone on staff about your dietary needs, particularly when it concerns your health.  Whether booking on your own or through a travel agent, be sure to have the cruise line note your gluten free needs at the time the reservation is made and ask what their typical daily procedure is for gluten free travelers.  Upon arrival, it is also a good idea to meet with the maitre d’ to establish a steady stream of communication.

3.    Bring your own snacks

When traveling with Celiac Disease, always be prepared, and in this case we’re talking snacks.  Some cruise lines have a policy to not bring food onboard, but if you call and alert them of your situation, they should let you bring some non-perishables along.

4.    It’s never too late to educate someone

When encountering a member of the kitchen staff that is inexperienced with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity, think of it as an opportunity for you to educate them.  Broussard advises getting some gluten free dining cards, which are available free or for a nominal fee on several websites. She likes Triumph Dining’s cards, laminated bilingual wallet-sized dining cards in various languages that explain what gluten is, how to avoid cross-contact in the kitchen, and hidden sources of gluten in each type of cuisine — so there’s never any misunderstanding no matter what country you’re in.  Never leave home without them!

5.    Be patient

When boarding a cruise, it always helps to befriend the staff in order to have them be understanding of your situation.  Remaining calm and helping the staff understand the circumstances will enable them to better accommodate you.

By Collete Torunyan for