Going on holiday generally poses two big challenges for me. The first is managing my chronic illness, and the second is managing my food allergies. Living with dietary requirements including allergies at all levels of severity is tricky enough day-to-day, let alone when you’re travelling somewhere new.
Before now, I had no idea how to manage food allergies on cruise ships. I’ve cruised before with some of my food allergies, but never with as many as I contend with now. However, in December 2022 I boarded P&O Azura for a 7-night cruise around the Canary Islands, and had one of the best experiences of dining with food allergies that I’ve ever had.
My Food Allergies
To briefly give you some background about me, I’m a fairly allergic human being. I have a severe allergy to peanuts, and a ‘normal’ allergy to tree nuts. I have a milk and egg intolerance, and avoid these completely as a way of managing the chronic pain that comes with my long-term condition. These four allergens, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and egg, are the ones I avoid meticulously.
I also have something called Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS), meaning I’m allergic to the birch pollen found in lots of raw fruit and vegetables. However, these reactions are mild and treatable with antihistamines, so I don’t avoid these foods quite as meticulously as the others. I try and eat vegan where I can, but I really don’t beat myself up when I can’t. Quite frankly I think any restaurant staff member would pass out on the spot if I approached them on a whim with 14+ dietary requirements, so I do what I can to make it work.
In this post, I’m going to talk about my experiences and share my own tips. I really hope it’s helpful to others, but the obvious caveat here is that you know your own allergy situation better than anybody. Please make sure you do what works for you and prioritise your own needs, rather than leave anything to chance. It’s always best to double-check, and if in doubt, don’t take risks – not even for the most delicious-looking dessert.
If you’re interested, you may like to watch my cruise holiday vlog (including lots of info about my experiences of navigating chronic illness and food allergies). I didn’t manage to snap as many pics of the food as I would have liked to since I was vlogging and managing my condition, but regardless, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of managing food allergies on cruise ships…
Food Allergies On Cruise Ships – What To Do, Step By Step
- Inform staff of your allergies or dietary requirements when booking your holiday, whether this is directly through the cruise line or through a travel agent.
- Once you’re on board, ask to speak to a member of the chef team and reiterate your allergies. The staff should be able to make a note of these on your guest profile (associated with your cabin number) so that this information follows you around no matter where onboard you choose to dine.
- If you have less severe allergies and you’re not at risk from cross-contamination, you may like to use the buffet. It was amazing to see on P&O Azura that directly underneath each label for each dish, the allergens were detailed too. This is an amazing adjustment that I’d love to see implemented more in the UK!
- If you have multiple or severe allergies, you may be asked to pre-order your lunch and dinner meals. Whenever or wherever you’re dining in the evening, you will be presented with the next day’s menu so that you can make your choices. This way, the kitchen will have a heads-up and be able to prepare your meal separately.
- You may also be asked to pre-order breakfast, or this may just be done in real-time – we had mixed information on this one. Either way, ensure that staff are always informed about your allergies as you order. Sometimes you’ll be seated at tables in the same area of a dining room, looked after by the same team, and over the days they’ll get to know you and not need to be prompted about your allergies. However, if you’re uncertain, it’s always better to share a reminder – I visibly put my EpiPens next to me on the table while I sat down and ordered, just as a little visual prompt to them that also gave me some peace of mind.
Breakfast Tips & Tricks
- One of my favourite things about cruise ships is that they normalise the glorious idea of having breakfast with multiple courses, and anybody who knows me will tell you this is my idea of heaven. There are fruit options everyday, and P&O have various Kelloggs UK cereal on board too – these make a great ‘starter’ if you can’t enjoy a pastry.
- Alternative milk is available. I only asked for soya, but having watched vlogs from other P&O ships, I suspect that oat milk is available too. Ensure you ask for this at the same time you’re ordering, so that you’re not delayed in waiting for it when your food arrives. The same goes for soya/alternative butter.
- Toast is brought around to every table after they’ve finished their ‘main’ breakfast. If you’d like to have some, ensure you ask for this right at the beginning when you order your other dishes (rather than waiting until it comes around) so that they have time to source bread that’s suitable for you. It was great to know they had dairy and egg free bread, and we saw some great gluten-free options being enjoyed by others too.
For breakfast, I would usually start with Rice Krispies and soya milk, then have a P&O Breakfast (similar to full English) with no egg, or on some days, avocado on ‘toast’ – usually a breakfast muffin of some kind. After, I’d finish with ‘free from’ toast with soya butter and a lovely bit of jam.
Here’s to normalising a three-course breakfast. Greatest meal of the day, in my humble opinion…
Lunch/Dinner Tips & Tricks
- It’s sometimes possible to customise dishes on the menu to make them more suitable for you. Often, they would remove ingredients from the dishes I chose so they would look different, but be safe for me. If it isn’t possible to do the specific dish you ordered, they will just bring you something else instead.
- If you have a great member of staff looking after you like we did, they’ll sometimes ask what you want to eat, what you’d like to eat rather than simply what’s an option. Don’t be afraid to ask for bread and suitable butter at the start of the meal and if you’re stuck for what to order for a particular course, just ask for the chef’s choice/recommendation. I usually did this for dessert, and being surprised with safe treats every night was the best thing ever.
- Don’t forget to pre-order your food for the following day, while you’re still at the table. If you finish a night’s meal and nobody has brought you tomorrow’s menu, don’t forget to ask a member of staff for it.
Examples of starters I had included tomato soup with a bread roll, a prawn cocktail, sourdough crackers and dip, and seafood salad. Examples of mains included chicken and steamed vegetables, fillet steak and fries, and roasted vegetables with edamame and balsamic. Desserts were the real star of the show for me – I enjoyed sticky toffee pudding, strawberry ice cream, meringue made out of chickpeas, and even thick, fluffy American pancakes. I genuinely could have cried with happiness when I saw the waiter bring those out.
It’s so rare that I can indulge in special treats like these, and the allergy processes onboard meant that I felt really safe in doing so. One of the best things about this experience was knowing how seriously the staff would take travellers’ food allergies and therefore feeling relaxed and confident enough to try new things. Being able to enjoy and experiment with food like this is such a rarity for me, and it was one of the ultimate highlights of my trip.
General Tips & Tricks
- Print out an allergy translation card (sometimes known as a Chef Card) before you travel. This is a customisable card where you can translate your allergies and dietary requirements into another language, and show this card whenever you need to communicate your needs. Mine came in very handy during the travel day and when first embarking on the ship, and it may be useful if you’re dining in offshore destinations during your trip too. Many organisations now charge for these cards (I swear they all used to be free), but after some serious digging, I found free ones on the FARE website.
- When your dishes are being prepared separately, it can take significantly longer for your food to arrive. Knowing this, we usually tried to dine early when the restaurants were just opening and the kitchen was less busy, and to ensure we still had plenty of time for other activities in the evening. It can also be a good idea to take a few safe snacks in your suitcase so that if you’re starving or craving something specific, you have access to it regardless of when you’re dining or how long the food prep takes.
- If you’re going to an onboard restaurant for lunch or dinner, you’ll first queue and be welcomed by staff who’ll take your cabin number, and then you’ll be seated at a table. On bigger ships, you’ll sometimes be grouped on a bigger table with others and served at the same time. If your allergies are airborne or you’re worried about holding up other travellers if your food takes longer to prepare, you may want to avoid this. If you’d rather have a table to yourself, make sure you voice this when you’re first greeted so that staff can try and accommodate this before you’re allocated seating. In the future, I think I would try and communicate this as an access need when initially booking the cruise, to see if it can be recorded with my passenger information and other accessibility requirements.
If you’re going to be managing food allergies on cruise ships or considering booking a trip, I really hope you found this post helpful! Overall, I was really impressed with how food allergies were handled onboard P&O Azura, and we made sure that we provided positive feedback for all the staff who went out of their way to make the experience a good one.
If you have any recommendations for other cruise liners or holiday resorts that are great with multiple food allergies, please do share – for research purposes, of course…