Royal Caribbean Cruise Gluten Free?

23 Comments 26 January 2012

Royal Caribbean Cruise Gluten Free?

Everyone says that cruising is all about the food.  With cruise lines that boast of 24-hour buffets and five-star dining, it’s easy to see why.  I had been on cruises before, and gained the predicted 5 pounds in a week that took a month to take off, but that was before going gluten-free.  Recently, I took a Thanksgiving cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Sea, and I had high hopes that they would provide delightful dining experiences.  After all, gluten-free dining is nothing new.  We’ve been at this for a while now.

In the dining room, eating gluten-free was fairly easy.  Although I had requested gluten-free dining on my cruise registration, there was no indication that the waitstaff or chef had been made aware of my need.  In fact, our waiter didn’t seem to know what gluten was and quickly excused himself to find out.  Since English was clearly a second language for most of dining room staff, communication about gluten was difficult at first.  But after the first night, it got easier.

There was usually one appetizer, salad, or soup that was naturally gluten-free to choose from each evening.  Of course, having gluten-free choices is a luxury at any restaurant.  Here are a few starters that I enjoyed.

Scallops and Risotto

Caprese Salad

Mango Gaspacho

Shrimp Cocktail

Walnut Pear Salad

And there was always fresh fruit available.

I think if I could have eaten appetizers and desserts for every meal of the cruise I would have been very happy.  The entrees were usually fish or chicken with a side or rice or potato and some vegetables. They were all naturally gluten-free, and very good.  I inquired about the vegetarian dishes each night, and all of them contained gluten.

I was very concerned about Thanksgiving Dinner.  Thanksgiving Dinner is my favorite meal of the entire year.  It’s not about the turkey for me.  It’s about the stuffing.  I am a huge bread stuffing fan, and I’ve learned to make delicious gluten-free versions.  But I only eat it at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Our waiter brought us the Thanksgiving menu the evening before and asked what we would like.  I told him that he would make my Thanksgiving if he could come up with a gluten-free stuffing and a crustless pumpkin pie.

He was able to produce a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, including gravy, but there was no stuffing or pie.

The desserts were incredible.  If there wasn’t a naturally gluten-free dessert one evening, there was always ice cream.  Here are two of my favorite desserts that were served.

Chocolate Souflee


Outside the safely of the dining room, the rest of the ship was a gluteny disaster.

The language barrier made it very difficult to communicate with the servers.  On day one, we barely made it to the ship before the 4:00 pm departure because of airport delays.  We boarded just moments before disembarking and moments before the food lines closed for the mandatory safety presentation.  I was famished.

I walked up to the pizza counter with hopes that Royal Caribbean had gluten-free pizza. After all, gluten-free is nothing new!  Here’s the exchange I had with the worker:

Me:  Do you have gluten-free pizza?

Server:  Oh, yes!

Me:  You do???  Gluten-free?

Server:  Yes, it’s free.

Me:  But is it gluten-free?

Server:  Yes, all free, cheese, pepperoni…

Thankfully, I figured out pretty quickly that he didn’t know what I was asking.  There was no other option other than the cheese or pepperoni slices behind the glass, but he was dead set on telling me that the price of pizza was included in my cruise fare.

Even hungrier and more frustrated, I turned to the buffet line.  The only thing I could find that was naturally gluten free was white rice and green beans.  I was stunned that in this day and age, on a cruise ship, I could only find two items to eat.  But I realized that the line was closing because of the safety meeting, and I hoped that things would improve.

The buffet line continued to be horrendous throughout the rest of the trip.  First of all, it was a mess, and where there’s a mess, there’s the possibility of cross contamination. But then there were signage issues.  I was excited to see that there were signs labeling gluten-free items.  But these signs could not be relied upon.

Gluten-Free Waffles?  Really?  I was excited for about a half a second.

They look like omelets to me.  And I’m sure the omelets were gluten-free.  But with such inattentiveness to signage, would you be willing to take the chance?

There were a few gluten-free entree options, but most were meats.  If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll find little more than salad and fruit. unless you want mushrooms and onions.

Or mashed potatoes.  Yes, the mashed potatoes were gluten-free.

But this close to the glutenous gravy, I wasn’t taking a chance.

Now, we all make mistakes.  But this mistake just threw me for a loop.  I don’t read Spanish, German, or French, but I’m pretty sure that “Banana Bread” is not an ingredient in these gluten-free sauteed mushrooms and onions.

Steak and onions were also labeled “gluten-free”, but again it was right next to gravy.

There was very little attention to the gluten-free signs that were placed above gluten-free dishes.  When trays of food were replaced from behind the buffet line, it appeared that the gluten-free signs in front were left up, even if the next item was not gluten-free.  That is a dangerous situation for any gluten-intolerant diner.  Thankfully, I realized quickly that the signs were not to be relied upon.

So my daily meals consisted of this:

  • Breakfast – yogurt and fruit
  • Lunch – salad and white rice
  • Snacks – Lara Bars brought from home, fruit, and soft serve ice cream
  • Dinner – a very nice three-course meal in the dining room

Royal Caribbean has a long way to go in terms of gluten-free service.  Hats off to the chef in the dining room for providing lovely, safe meals complete with desserts.  But with the prevalence of quality gluten-free products in restaurants these days, there is no reason why a cruise ship can’t offer something as simple as gluten-free breads, muffins, and snacks.  And the buffet needs a serious overhauling with a separate gluten-free line and about ten times more gluten-free options.

Reader questions:

  • Have you eaten gluten-free on a cruise?
  • How was your experience?

Your Comments

23 Comments so far

  1. Mom says:

    You need to send this post to the cruise line! It would be fun to go on a dedicated gluten free cruise if there is such a thing.

  2. Bev Johnson says:

    Mom I think you have a fabulous idea there. I’m a Travel Agent and it’s something I am definately going to look into doing.

  3. How interesting and kinda depressing. I went on a Royal Carribean cruise this last summer and had a somewhat better experience. My wait staff was very aware and I ate like a queen (they even made me my own gf cheese cake!). They helped me navigate breakfast and I was able to order a fruit and cheese plate from room service. Now, my buffet exp was somewhat similar to yours, but I was able to find some tacos I could eat. The language barrier did make some things difficult, but overall I ate well and when all else failed, soft serve saved the day! 😉 It would be great to have a safer & clearer buffet.

  4. Johnna says:

    Just when I think I’ve got this gluten-free thing figured out, I have a scary travel experience. I dream of the day when we can all vacation without a stash of food in our bags and can instead use that space for souvenirs. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  5. Stephanie says:

    The last time I cruised was before going gluten & dairy free. I am afraid of going on a cruise now. Your review makes me even more fearful :(

  6. Pat says:

    You went with the wrong cruise line. Try Holland America. They ask you to complete a request form after your reservation is made and offer anything and everything gluten free….from muffins and breads to waffles. Kinnikinick was their supplier when I last sailed with them. They also have a dedicated buffet supervisor who will escort you through their buffets and bring gluten free breads(toasted if you wish).. or buns to your table.
    Order ANYthing off their dinner menu and they will adapt it to gluten free.
    I had a bad experience similar to the one you had when I sailed with Carnival.
    Needless to say, my choice of a cruise line these days is a no brainer. lol.

  7. Aunt Pat says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your less than satisfactory gluten free cruise. We had a delightful cruise on the Equinox (Celebrity). We only needed gf bars from home for excursions and flights. We returned home with a lot of uneaten gf bars. Yeah! Also, our kids had a fantastic honeymoon this summer from which they raved about the gluten free attention on their cruise. I’ll find out the name of that cruise for you. I do think it is necessary to compare cruise lines and specific ships in an open forum so people can make aware, educated choices on which line to use.

  8. Sue says:

    I had a pretty good experience on Royal Caribean. We had already booked just before I was diagnosed, so I called the company and they told me to fax the cuise line 6 weeks before departure advising them of my needs, I did that. Then I had to make myself known to the head waiter in the dining room once on board, which I did. He was very good and each night would go through the menu with me to choose the next night´s dinner. He was very careful, the waitress on our table was an idiot and only thought of ingratiating herself with everyone in order to get a bigger tip. She was totally inept, not only in not understanding the gluten issue but she was not a good waitress in any sense, but I digress.. I was told only to eat in the dining room never from the buffet because of cross contamination. There was one occasion when the dining room was closed and we had to go up to the buffet cafeteria and there was no way I could eat any of the food on offer there. So I managed to get through to a waiter there that I needed to talk to the chef. The chef came out of the kitchen, I explained my problem, he said, “what would you like to eat” I asked for some fish with vegetables. He said wait here, I did and 15 mins later he himself came out with a lovely plate of food for me, cooked by him alone and covered so that it wouldn´t be contaminated. I was very thankfull and very impressed!

  9. Sue says:

    Someone said there should be dedicated GF buffet lines, but how would they be controlled, would only certified celiacs be able to use them? No, that wouldn´t work, what would likely happen is that people would get there food from the other buffet then stroll over to see what the GF one has to offer, then proceed to help themselves not worrying one iota that they might be contaminating everything with the food they are carrying around on the plate they are holding over the GF food. I would not take a chance on eating there.

  10. Oh geez, you’re a brave girl. That is not an experience I would want to duplicate. I can only imagine the challenges. It sounds like you took it all in stride. Good for you.

  11. That had to be really frustrating, Heather. The banana bread ingredient was bizarre! Glad that dinner was not a problem though.

    There actually is a gluten-free travel club called Bob and Ruth’s. Folks love their trips from what I hear, but they can be pricey. They have a gluten-free cruise in the Med this year: Note that I do not know if Bob and Ruth have just set up all gluten-free meals for their guests only. Again I’ve heard their trips are very good. Dr. Fasano went on one of them to Italy with them and gave a presentation during the cruise.


  12. Angie says:

    I have taken two cruises on Carnival in the past two years and they have been AMAZING when it came to GF dining! They had someone take my breakfast, lunch (if it were a sea day) and dinner order for the next day every night and they had GF pizza, waffles, bread- you name it! One night I left the dining room before dessert and they brought it to my room! We also did the chef’s table on the most recent cruise and the chef made a seven course meal GF, including calamari! I was in heaven! Lunch can be the hardest part of a cruise but with breakfast and dinner being perfect, I couldn’t complain.

  13. Stephanie says:

    That sounds like such a frustrating experience! Funny, I had done a lot of research on GF crusing a couple years ago, and heard a lot of good things about RC. Sad to see they failed to perform for you.

    I went on my first GF cruise 2 years ago w/ Carnival, and was TERRIFIED based on all that research I’d done. I brought a lot of food w/ me on the boat, but was really worried I’d be starving the whole week (or reduced to eating canned tuna w/ crackers meal after meal).

    I was VERY pleasantly surprised. The girl who ran the dining room took such good care of me. We ate all our meals in the main hall, and she sat down w/ me the day before, going over the menu, and taking my order for each meal. I felt so spoiled! I had so much amazing food! I only used my emergency stash for our excursion meals.

    We’re anticipating our next Carnival cruise this spring, and I’m so excited for the food!

    I hope your next cruise is better!!!

  14. Heather says:

    Thank you ALL for your comments. I’m hoping that they help readers choose a much better cruise than we did. We did find out that the Royal Caribbean ship we were on, Monarch of the Seas, is being retired, and that other RC ships had much more positive gf reviews.

    Happy vacationing!!

  15. Donna says:

    I has a so so experience on the ALlure but htey did have GF pizza available. It was prepared fresh so you had to wait a bit. The GF bread was dreadful. Very few desserts other than ice cream and fruit. No snacks to speak of. I did get GF pancakes one morning which were OK. GF Pasta in specialty restaurant awful.

    On Carnival Dream, the Head waiter took my dinner order each night for the next night. They also had GF pizza available and a GF pasta in the Pasta bar area of the buffet. Made to order. They did bring me choc dipped strawberries for my birthday which was nice since I couldn’t have any other desserts.

    In general I’m also disappointed that no rolls or other things available on these cruiseline when so much on market that can even be frozen.

    HAL sounds like they handle it well. I love Kinnikinnick!

    • Heather says:

      Sounds like a mediocre experience, but at least they had some options for you. GF pizza, bread, and pasta? Wow! I didn’t have any of that on RC. Now they just need to get some good brands, right? Thanks so much for sharing, Donna!

  16. Bill Critchfield says:

    Just got off the Mariner trans Atlantic. The dining room was always good and never got sick. They did however insist on night that the vanilla ice cream had gluten in it although I had been eating it most nights. The Buffett had Indian food which always worked but it was the same every day. One day the risotto was “gluten free” then the next day it wasn’t. Never did I see a gluten free sign in the buffet. Staff seemed to try to help but was never sure I was getting the right story. One day I was told there was no gluten free pasta ever on the ship even though I had the night before and for lunch the previous day. Ordered gluten free bacon and eggs one morning and was served a plate with hash browns. I was only sick 2 of the 16 days so I guess it was good.

  17. Randy Brendia says:

    9.14. to 10.5.12, on the “Vision of the Sea”, aka gluten nightmare of the sea. Your story sounds like a remake of our 21 day “back to back” cruise.
    The first week, dining room staff offered only the nightly minute steak, shrimp cocktail, and never a special that was GF, or “could even be made GF”.
    Once they realized that we where continuing with them for the next two weeks, things never offered, where suddenly available. My wife, a couple of days before my birthday, pleaded for a flourless chocolate cake, that appeared on my birthday (latter we descovered the cake was a regular menu item as listed in “recipes found in the RC cookbook”).
    I have traveled with Norwegion Cruise Line, and they actually assigned a staff manager to see to my GF menu daily for all 28 days of the cruise.
    I will be traveling July 14th on the “Pacific Princess”, a small ship with an interesting itinerary….I have emailed everybody at Princess I could, to alert them of my GF issue, now we’ll see if they will follow through, as I am running out of cruise lines in my challenge to find interesting places to visit.

    • Heather says:

      Oh, Randy. That sounds like a disaster! I’ve heard many wonderful reports about how cruise ships are getting with the gluten-free times. But there are still those that are seriously lacking. Glad you’ve done your legwork for your next cruise. Good LUCK and pack plenty of your own gf bread and snacks!

  18. Lisa says:

    I have just returned from a Royal Caribbean cruise and sad to say not much has changed,but my experience might have been worse than the “norm” to be fair.
    Breakfast is limited: fruit, boiled egg, steamed rice in the buffet area; bread, bread products like pancakes or french toast in the dining room. They really need to step up their game with other options like omelettes,bacon, ham, etc. for those of us who do not want bland bread, bread, bread all the time.
    Lunch was downright scary..the only option was the buffet, which the cruise line says to avoid but then they do not offer any options. So your choices are once again plain, steamed rice, fresh fruit, and just the lettuce. Finding anyone who knew anything about what was safe outside the dining room was never achieved and by day 2 I simply gave up and had fruit and rice cakes with peanut butter (from home) every lunch or grabbed and extra boiled egg in the morning (there are fridges in the room to keep them in) to save for lunch.
    Dinner was a little bit better…however TWICE (out of the four evening meals) I was served the gluten version of the meal with only ONE time the waiter figuring it out and saving me. The last night I was out and out glutened with pita bread that was hidden under my chicken (sadly,not something that would have made it “worth” the pain, etc.).

    Snacks:Options in the coffee bar was a single wrapped Udi’s cookie. They had gluten free beer on the list, but none available (and as we all know, you can’t bring your own). I never tried the gf pizza as I only found it late the last day. I was never able to find out if the soft serve was safe or not so even that was not available as a back up.
    My advice: be very, very careful even in the dining room. You are only as safe as your servers are aware. Do NOT change your pre-order from the night before.. food is made ahead of time and changes are not really do-able for the staff. The chefs are great that they will fix you another meal, but it won’t be what is on the menu and will be chef’s choice.
    Bring protein options for lunch and pack your snacks. Bring grain options such as granola or Chex if you want any whole grain foods. Bring your own salad dressing.
    Mentally prepare yourself for a boring week of nothing but the same thing over and over and over and over for two meals every day.

    Was the cruise/ship experience itself fun? Of course!
    Did I feel that I able to eat well and safely? Absolutely not.
    Personally, I will never go on RC again, but might try a different cruise line if other people have had luck and I have done lots and lots of research before hand!
    Good luck to everyone thinking about this vacation option.

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A Curious Girl in the Gluten-Free World

I'm a curious girl, wife, teacher, fitness fanatic, gluten-free foodie, high-raw vegan, and Mama Cat living in NYC. I've made the transition from baking and cooking gluten-free to creating raw vegan recipes that are naturally gluten free. My gluten intolerance opened up my diet to a whole new world of nutritious plant-based foods. While I'm not 100% vegan, it's my favorite way to eat, and making and sharing raw foods makes me giddy. Living in the City has its joys and challenges, and I enjoy sharing my experiences with you.

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