It's summer, which means many herbies will be packing their bags and hitting the road, sky, or sea (for travel tips and help, there's a huge (HUGE!) section in The Happy Herbivore Guide to Plant-Based Living).
Cruises are always a popular vacation choice, especially this time of year. Scott and I actually went on a cruise back in 2007. I made sure to contact the cruise ahead of our trip to tell them about our dietary restrictions and they said they would be happy to accommodate us.
While they DID have a vegetarian menu each night at dinner, we didn't do dairy, so it didn't really work. We were able to talk to the chef on our first night and he was able to come up with something (stuffed bell peppers with veggies and rice and sorbet for dessert). We ultimately found it more enjoyable to make use of the salad bar or the pizza station, which made pizzas on demand without cheese. They also permitted us to bring soy milk on board and there was a lot of fruit as well.
Seeing as my last cruise experience was nearly a decade ago (and dining options and accommodations have probably changed since then), I was very excited to come in contact with Stephanie, a herbie AND a travel agent who knows a thing or two about cruise ships.
I'll let Stephanie steer the ship from here ;)
My husband and I travel quite a bit because of my career as a travel agent, and because of that, we go on quite a bit of mainstream vacations such as visiting all-inclusives and sailing on cruise ships. We particularly enjoy cruises, and I have learned a few tips and tricks for those on board who only partake in plant-based eating like myself.
If you have a cruise vacation planned, hopefully I can bestow some of my knowledge upon you and give you some peace of mind pre-vacation. If you do not have a cruise vacation planned, or have been hesitant to cruise, perhaps my tips will make you more confident about possible future travel plans.
- Each cruise line and ship is very different in terms of accommodations, entertainment, itineraries, rates, and general atmosphere. Furthermore, on-board dining experiences can drastically differ from ship to ship and line to line. There are no industry standards when it comes to venue options, buffet and dining room offerings, and willingness to assist you with specialized meal preparations, but each line and its crew should do their best to help you…just some might do a better job of it than others. Do some research or work with a travel agent to find the best cruise fit for you and your traveling companions.
- Most cruise lines have a special needs department that will also work with dietary requests if they are submitted (generally) 45 or more days prior to departure. I recommend submitting your request and having your travel agent add it to your reservation, but most cruise lines will tell you that speaking to the head waiters in the main dining room once onboard is really the most important step for passengers with special dietary requirements (which for now, still includes us!)
- You really need to work with your head waiter in the main dining room to have special meals prepared for you at dinner time, even if it means simply adjusting the next evening’s vegetarian offerings to be vegan-friendly – this is really the key to having great plant-based meals on board. The chefs are creating thousands of meals for thousands of people each day, so they really need advanced notice and additional time for special food preparations.
- Get to know your head waiter, and be friendly! People are likely to be nicer and more helpful to, well, nice people! Work with him throughout the duration of your cruise to ensure that you are enjoying delicious plant-based/vegan food on a nightly basis.
- Cruise ships generally offer three dining options for passengers: traditional early seating (usually around 6:00pm) traditional late seating (usually around 8:30pm) and a version of flexible dining. For traditional seating, you will select the size of your table upon making your reservation and then sit with the same passengers and be served by the same crew members each night. For flexible dining, you can head to the main dining room when you would like to eat and wait for a table, not unlike going out to a local restaurant on a Friday evening. Generally wait times are short, if at all, but reservations can also be made within this option as well. Eating as a vegan on a cruise ship is much easier when you work with the same head waiter each night, so I recommend selecting a traditional seating option or asking to sit in the same head waiter’s section each night if you have selected the flexible option.
- Generally, soy milk is available on ships if you ask for it. I wouldn’t count on almond milk, or other non-dairy options.
- Each line differs in their policies regarding food and drink items you are permitted to bring on board; usually, pre-packaged and sealed dry items like snack foods are fine. Beverages are a little trickier, so have your travel agent consult with your specific cruise line to learn what is permissible. Some lines will allow you to bring pre-packaged and sealed beverages onboard if they are required for special dietary needs (like the mini almond milk boxes you can purchase at the grocery store), but for items like this you really must check with each cruise line. Please note that cruise ships will not store or prepare special foods and drinks brought on board by passengers, but many have cabins with small coolers for keeping things chilled.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The menus in the dining rooms are usually clearly labeled for dairy, nuts, gluten, meat, etc., but the description cards in the buffet often are not. Assume that vegetables are prepared with butter, but find a crew member and you will most likely score a plain serving made-to-order just for you.
- When in doubt, head for the fresh fruit buffet and salad bar. You will always find many options for produce in the buffets (breakfast/lunch/dinner).
Stephanie Nye is an Earth-loving, animal-loving, plant-loving, life-loving travel agent located in Cleveland, Ohio.
LEGAL DISCLOSURE: Even though Stephanie receives discounts as a travel agent, she did not receive any discounts or a free trip from Royal Caribbean in exchange for this blog post.
Have you been on a cruise while plant-based or vegan? Share your experiences (both good and bad) in the comments below!