You may have heard me discuss how cruises have become one of the best options for gluten free travel. Providing you enjoy the idea of cruising, it can be a wonderful experience that typically allows you to have ample choices for gluten free meals -- while limiting the amount of time you'll have to take to explain your diet each day of your trip!
Most major cruise lines now have policies for gluten free travelers whereby they request that you note your dietary needs at the time of booking. You can do this yourself or through a travel agent. Some of the cruise lines will even have you fill out a questionnaire with your dietary needs and/or preferences prior to your trip. This should all be done as far in advance as possible, so that the cruise ship has time to order any special items you may require. Most cruise lines stock various gluten free staples (in addition to being able to prepare many meals that are naturally gluten free), and you may even be able to request specific items or brands (again, your chances of getting them to stock something special depend on which cruise line you're traveling on, how far in advance you put in your request, and many other variables).
Even 6 1/2 years ago when our own family traveled on the Disney Wonder, we were impressed with their knowledge and ability to offer a wide range of delicious gluten free meals. In fact, they surprised our Celiac son Ryan (only 4 years old at the time) with a HUGE gluten free chocolate ganache cake one night -- along with a platter of hand-dipped chocolate strawberries (coincidentally, our son's favorite!). The cake was so big that even our extended family couldn't finish it all, so our server had the kitchen keep it in the refrigerator for us to enjoy again the next night. Although we've had every intention of taking another cruise, we just haven't gotten around to it (other travel opportunities have beckoned...).
I'll say that when we ARE ready to take another family cruise, it will be hard to decide on which cruise line. Certainly, we've received many favorable reviews for virtually all the major cruise lines on our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite. Two cruise lines that really stand out, in addition to Disney, are Royal Caribbean and Celebrity (which is owned by Royal Caribbean). This likely has to do with the fact that a couple years ago, Royal Caribbean worked with a registered dietician and nutritional consultant to shape the cruise line's gluten free program into a more guest-friendly experience. All gluten free options are now clearly marked on their menus. You can view a video about their new program on their website.
Reviews of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity that we've received bear this out. In fact, just this month, we've showcased a review of one family's gluten free experience aboard the Celebrity Summit on our Featured Review page. At the end of the review, we also link to a recent review of a Royal Caribbean European cruise.
To learn more about what the various cruise lines offer, their policies for noting your gluten free needs, and their specific contact information, I'd recommend you check out the Cruise page of our website. There, you can also link to a sampling of some of the reviews we've received for each cruise line.
Don't get me wrong...not all cruise reviews we receive are positive, and no one cruise line is infallible. Sometimes we receive a negative review about a cruise line that otherwise seems out of line with their reputation. I believe it has a lot to do with the particular ship and its Executive Chef (and perhaps the area of the world it's operating in, which may help determine availability of gluten free staples).
So stay vigilant every step of the way -- from booking to arrival on board the ship. Typically, you'll have the ability to meet with the maitre d' at the first meal to discuss procedures and dining options for your meals throughout the cruise. The maitre d' or a chef may even walk you through a buffet, pointing out what is safe to eat (or not). You can typically request "fresh" (uncontaminated) items from the kitchen, if you're concerned about the proximity of an otherwise gluten free item to a gluten-containing one on the buffet.
While some gluten free cruisers rave about the buffets and some of the new ways they're working to avoid cross-contamination (by having every item already apportioned on small, individual plates or bowls), others feel most comfortable when ordering off the menu in the main dining room or one of the specialty restaurants. A common practice is for your server in the main dining room to share the next evening's menu with you so you can pre-select your meal in advance (and it's a great way for the others in your party to get a "sneak peak" at the next evening's selections, too!). If dining in a specialty restaurant, be sure to talk with them ahead of time (when reserving your table) to ensure there will be gluten free options for you. You'll have a different set of servers in these restaurants who will not yet be aware of your dietary needs.
So read some of the reviews on our website (in addition to the Cruise page, many cruise reviews can be found on our Caribbean page). Then, maybe you'll want to talk about options with a travel agent like Lesley Hayden (who knows the ins and outs of various cruise lines and whom we've used ourselves for many trips -- 800-487-6110). After all, this is one type of trip you have no excuse NOT to take. With a bit of research and planning, you're sure to find a cruise line and itinerary that's a good match for you. And when you do, please share YOUR cruise experience with us by submitting a review to GlutenFreeTravelSite. Future gluten free cruisers will thank you for your honest feedback!