How To Eat Plant Based or Vegan on a Cruise
My husband and I have taken many cruises in our pre-vegan days. However, this past fall we took our first cruise as vegans, and even though we did a lot of planning up front, we learned a lot, and would like to share some tips with you. I am using our cruise as a reference, but the information and tips can apply to other cruise lines and ships as well.
The cruise line we sailed recently introduced touch screen tablets at restaurants to display ingredients. Guests or staff enter allergens or dietary restrictions, and the software displays which items are safe, which items can be modified, and which should be avoided. This would have been extremely helpful! One of the challenges we had was trusting the staff when they told us what ingredients were in things, as we often received different answers based on who/when we asked. So, this “ingredient” software is wonderful, yet it's not available on most cruise lines, and while it's newly available on this cruise line it’s only available in person while you're on the ship, not available online for planning purposes ahead of time.
You Can Certainly Eat Very Well on a Cruise as a Vegan, But it Does Take Some Planning
Tips for Pre-Cruise Planning
You can do some upfront planning to make your vegan cruise experience better – check menus online for restaurants on board and at port stops, research vegan alcohol options on board, plan to bring pre-packaged foods on board with you, and check your cruise line’s social media.
Some cruise lines post menus for their main dining room or specialty restaurants online, so look at those and see what’s offered. Some have a separate vegan menu, some include vegan options the menu, and some don’t have any vegan options listed but will make specialty items upon request. The latter is my least favorite, personally, because when I’m on vacation I don’t want to do meal planning. But if that’s what you’re left with, think about what things you could ask for, like a simple pasta primavera, or pasta with marinara sauce. Usually the first night, since they don’t know your dietary needs, will be more challenging and then they’ll have more time to prepare. And don’t forget to check restaurant options at the ports where the ship will stop, and the home port if you’re arriving before the sail date. HappyCow.com or the happy cow app is a great resource for this.
What about Alcohol?
If alcoholic beverages appeal to you, look at the offerings on each menu, then determine which ones are vegan. Using a website like Barnivore.com helps with this process. If you can’t find a particular drink on Barnivore, try googling the name and asking if it’s vegan. If nothing can be found confirming that it’s vegan, the safe bet is to assume it’s not. Most beers and many liquors are vegan but check your favorites if you haven’t already. Most wines are not vegan.
We found that some vegan wines were offered only at specific bars and restaurants, so either make a note of what’s available where or just have a master list and ask for any of those. Some vegan wines may only be offered by the bottle and not by the glass. And some may not be included in a drinks package. If you have internet access on the ship you can also do this on board. For more on vegan alcohol, check out episode 263: Your Ultimate Guide to Vegan Alcohol: How to Choose Vegan Beer, Wine and Spirits, linked in the show notes.
Bringing Food On Board
Most cruise lines will allow you to bring prepackaged food on board as long as it’s in the original sealed packaging. No fresh fruit or homemade items are allowed. But be sure to check with your cruise line to confirm their policies for bringing food on board.
Think about salad dressing, vegan mayo, cream cheese or butter for bagels, creamer for your coffee, or cheese slices for burgers. Many ships have a pizza station, so bring shredded vegan cheese and ask them to use it, after you confirm if their dough is dairy-free. Don’t forget Ziploc bags and containers to preserve items once they are opened, and small containers to take your salad dressing, mayo or other items with you to your meal. Most cruise lines have vegan milks, but they may not be readily available. You may see them at a coffee shop for an extra charge. But if you’re in the buffet area or at a restaurant, just ask and they should provide them.
If you’re flying in the night before, scope out a grocery store near the port … we had our taxi driver stop on the way to the ship while I ran in grabbed our items. We brought them on board in our carry-on luggage in case our checked luggage took a while to arrive and put them in the fridge as soon as we had access to our cabin. But check with the cruise line to see if they require the items to be in your checked luggage.
And lastly check social media. The cruise line we sailed with has a Facebook group for vegans with over 2,000 members. Look for a similar group and check for ship-specific information, ideas, if anyone else is going on the same cruise, etc. Also see if the cruise line itself has a social media presence with someone you can contact if necessary. The line we used has a brand ambassador on Facebook and is responsive to questions.
These are some of the items we brought onboard.
Tips for Onboard Planning
Once you’re onboard, one of your first stops should be the maître d' in the main dining room to discuss your dietary needs and table preferences. For dietary needs, explain that you’re vegan or plant-based, but, most importantly, specify what exactly that means – no dairy, no eggs, no meat, no fish, no honey, no lard, etc. We learned that most people don’t actually know what a vegan diet is, so by combining the term vegan with the specifics, you’ll be more likely to get vegan-safe meals. And you’ll be educating others on what foods are vegan. For table preferences, if you’re traveling with or meeting up with others, you can request a table together. I’ve taken the liberation pledge, so we requested to be moved to a table for just the two us, since we couldn’t eat with others eating meat, dairy or eggs. For more info on the liberation pledge, check out episode 100.
If you are planning to eat at the specialty restaurants, visit each of those as well, and speak with the staff about your needs. They may want you to book a reservation first and then they can add notes to the reservation. Even if the menu has no specific options listed, the staff can usually prepare a special meal for you given the advance notice.
We like having a late dinner while on a cruise and like to have a snack before getting ready for dinner. In addition to the snacks we brought on board, we also searched the ship for options. The sushi restaurant was happy to make us veggie rolls for takeaway. And we went to the sandwich shop and they could make us custom made sandwiches by pulling ingredients from various offerings. So, with all of that, our pre-dinner snack was not a problem.
Tips & Lessons Learned While Cruising
We preferred dinner in the main dining room rather than the buffet. And although there was no vegan menu, or vegan options on the men, we could either request something specific or opt for the “chef’s special creation”. We chose the chef’s special creation each night, so we didn’t have to think about it. We just reminded them of our dietary restrictions. The dinners were just “ok”, but the appetizers were usually very good. It was kind of fun because the servers were as intrigued as we were since we were getting unique things that they normally didn’t see.
We only went to one specialty restaurant, the Italian restaurant. We had stopped by the night before to speak with the host about our dietary needs and she made notes in the system along with our reservation. She said they always appreciate knowing ahead of time so the chef has time to prepare, and when we came in the next night, we had a wonderful multi-course meal featuring an eggplant entree that was adapted and expanded from the regular eggplant side dish. It was absolutely delicious!
For breakfast, we prefer the buffet over a sit-down meal. The buffet had vegan oatmeal, some vegan cereals, some vegan breads, and fruit. When breakfast potatoes were offered, we asked for confirmation that they were dairy-free as they’re sometimes cooked with butter. There were no plant milks sitting out near the cereals or coffee, but they did have them available upon request, so my husband asked each time and they brought him some for free. Soy and almond milk were also available for drinks at the specialty coffee shop, for an upcharge.
Lunch, however, is what needed the most research. The ship had several options for lunch. We didn’t want to do lunch in a sit-down restaurant, so we focused on the grab and go options which included the buffet, a burrito and taco place, a pizza place, a sandwich bar, and a burger place. On our first day we walked to each to see what they had. Vegan options at the buffet were hard to gauge as they changed each day. The burrito and taco place had rice and beans with several other toppings so that looked promising - but we had some questions. Like, did the refried beans have lard? If you ask a food server, they may or may not know. But if, when you ask, you mention you have a food allergy, they are very careful, and will double check. It turned out the refried beans had lard, the black beans did not, the veggies were not sauteed in butter, but the rice had butter in it - but they offered to make it without butter on subsequent days.
We didn’t have the pizza, but if you do, check that the crust is vegan. Specifically, ask if it’s dairy free as it sometimes contains whey.
The Only Way to Know for Sure? Look at the Ingredients
We then wanted to find the place that had vegan burgers. We read online they were offered at the buffet on our ship but couldn’t find them. So, we asked at Guest Services, and they directed us to the right place. We ordered vegan burgers, with no butter on the buns (we happened to see that they normally toast them with butter) and asked about the toppings - the mushrooms were sauteed with butter, the onions were not. We then added our vegan mayo and cheddar slices, and it was delicious! We had noticed the burger was a frozen patty they deep-fried, so after eating we went back and asked what brand the burgers were. The head cook brought the box out to us – Gardenburger Original. We looked it up online and, sadly, it’s not vegan- the patty has cheese in it! I hated that I ate that! Ugh. Gardenburger does show a vegan burger on their website – called the Black Bean Chipotle Vegan Burger, but that’s not what was on board.
After that disappointment we went to Guest Services to let them know that they, in fact, do NOT have a vegan burger so they could inform others properly. They immediately called the ship’s sous chef who said the burger was definitely vegan and he volunteered to meet us at the burger place. We were impressed that he dropped everything to meet with us right away. He explained that the burgers are specially ordered, and they are in fact vegan. He assured us many times, yet we gently pressed (because we’d just seen the packaging and knew they weren’t). We finally asked, without trying to offend him, if he minded showing us the package. They brought it out and because the packaging showed the product name but not the ingredients, we showed him the ingredients online, on Gardenburger’s website, and verified that they are, in fact, not vegan. He was visibly surprised, and I think embarrassed. If someone had a dairy allergy, this could be a serious issue. While it was unsettling to realize that the sous chef didn't know the ingredients in this burger, yet assured us repeatedly and incorrectly it was vegan, we realized he probably doesn’t do the purchasing, and he’d been assured by others above him that he had this “vegan” burger on board. Anyway, he then asked the head cook to not serve the Gardenburger anymore as a vegan burger, and to make homemade vegan bean burgers for us to have throughout the week. We confirmed that they would be dairy free and egg-free as bean burgers sometimes use eggs for binders. He also said he’d ensure there were vegan options on the buffet every day as well.
We thanked him and said we were surprised there were so few vegan options, but he said they hardly get any requests for vegan food. We took that opportunity to give our spiel that the plant-based food market is one of the fastest growing markets, and we were surprised this cruise line wasn’t taking advantage of the trend. And if they served plant-based alternatives that tasted like the real thing, many more flexitarians and environmentally conscious passengers would likely enjoy them. And since so many people like cruises specifically for the food, imagine if their cruise line was a front-runner on this healthier, more environmentally friendly trend! People could cruise and love the food, and not be any worse off for it afterwards! Not that he likely makes those decisions, but I couldn’t NOT say anything.
The rest of the week we had great lunch options with the homemade bean burgers, black bean burritos with butter-free rice, and there were options on the buffet like falafels and hummus.
They were incredibly accommodating, but we did have to reach out and request the special service.
Following the vegan Facebook group for this cruise line, we see things haven’t really changed much since our cruise in the fall. Cruising on a plant-based diet or as a vegan can be done, but it requires some effort. The key takeaways from our experience are:
If you're cruising on a line without a set vegan menu, or no ingredient software to check, you may not really know what you're getting. And I think this is unique to cruises compared to a typical restaurant because contracts end and new crew members come on board every week.
Plan ahead. Check food and alcohol menus on board and in port, check for social media resources, and bring packaged foods on board with you.
When on board, visit the maître de right away to record your dietary restrictions, and visit any specialty restaurants you plan on enjoying the night before to discuss options.
When speaking with staff use specific terms rather than vegan or plant-based. Say things like meat-free, fish-free, egg-free, honey-free, dairy free, no lard, no chicken broth, no beef broth. And if you say you have an allergy the staff take it seriously.
If they serve anything packaged that may not be vegan, ask to see the packaging to confirm the ingredients. Burgers can contain eggs or dairy, breads/bagels/buns sometimes contain dairy/honey, pizza dough often contains whey, etc. Or if they can’t show it to you, ask them to double check because of your “allergy.”
Guest Services staff are extremely responsive and can get you in touch with the right people.
All in all, we had a great time on the cruise, and certainly did not starve. My husband would have no problem going on this cruise again. I, however, found it pretty exhausting and frankly, surprising that it was so difficult, and the dinners were nothing to write home about. I’ll need to change my mindset and expectations before going on another non-vegan cruise. But now that we have all this information and experience behind us, it will be easier next time. And as cruise lines roll out software to allow viewing of ingredients, it will help as well.
Vegan Cruise Options
Our next cruise though, in March 2023, will be a vegan cruise! The Holistic Holiday at Sea! I took this cruise in February 2020, after I’d been WFPB for just over 6 months. It’s a conference focused on healthy plant-based eating with the famous plant-based doctors, dieticians, chefs, and experts, and the buffet and all meals are vegan. They even offer WFPB no-oil food as well. It’s funny though … I’d learned to cook amazing plant-based food and I honestly liked my own food better that most of what they offered, so I was a little disappointed. However, after the non-vegan cruise experience, I thought … wow, I didn't know how good I had it! And what I wouldn’t give to have that food again!
We’re excited for tickets to go on sale, hopefully soon. It’s going to be so nice to have fully vegan food options available on the buffet and at every meal … without having to think about it, and knowing I can trust it. And I may do an episode about it experience afterwards.
And speaking of vegan cruises, there is another option that we learned of and are interested in, vegan-cruises.com. They charter smaller cruises from operators around the world and then run the cruise as a fully vegan experience, from food and beverages to toiletries, to vegan recommendations in the cities they visit. We’d love to give this a try!