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All pasta and no chocolate: What it’s like eating gluten-free on a cruise 

Aug. 06, 2022
11 min read
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“Will I be able to eat anything on this cruise ship?” is not a question you often hear about floating holidays known for 24/7 dining and enormous buffets. But if you have celiac disease, like my mom, it’s a logical concern.

I had invited my mom to join my kids and me on a seven-night Caribbean cruise aboard MSC Seashore from MSC Cruises, an under-the-radar line unknown to many Americans. In fact, though I’ve written about cruising for almost 20 years, I’d never sailed with that line. Its dining options were not familiar to me, so I couldn’t guarantee what gluten-free options we’d find on the line’s newest cruise ship.

Spoiler alert: My mom did not starve, but we couldn’t have foreseen that based on the limited information we were able to find before our sailing. Here’s the good, the bad and the glutenous we experienced on our sailing, so future gluten-free cruisers can decide if MSC is the line for them or not.

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Pre-cruise information was either lacking or not encouraging

Let’s start with the official word from MSC Cruises’ website:

(Screenshot from msccruiseusa.com)

We were pleased to find this information, but our ship – MSC Seashore – was not listed. Did it offer the gluten-free cuisine program and Bureau Veritas certification? The MSC phone reps could not give us a definitive answer.

Online reviews were decidedly mixed. One woman raved about the gluten-free menu at dinner, while another reviewer claimed, “MSC was the best GF experience I've had including Royal and Celebrity.” On the other hand, one Cruise Critic poster was forced to eat the same chicken with carrots and zucchini for meal after meal and concluded, “Frankly, I couldn't wait to get off this ship. It was singularly the worst gluten-free experience I've experienced on a ship. Carnival and Norwegian do 10 times better without even trying.”

So we looked for travel agents who specialized in gluten-free cruising to see what they knew. One gluten-free and celiac travel specialist at Travel Leaders told my mom flat out that she would not recommend going on an MSC cruise. Another recommended Celebrity Cruises. My mom’s trusted AAA travel agent didn’t even sell MSC Cruises.

Finally, I asked a public relations representative for MSC Cruises about MSC Seashore specifically, and she answered that the ship did have dedicated areas for handling gluten-free food. My mom was willing to take a leap of faith with that answer, and we booked.

My mom filled out the MSC special needs form, indicating that she had celiac disease and could not eat gluten. She got a generic response back that said to talk to the maitre d’ on board and that the line “cannot guarantee a 100% allergy-free zone.” No one contacted her to discuss dining options or ask if she had any special food requests.

With that lack of reassurance, we headed to our ship.

The main dining room was best — but there was no gluten-free menu

My mom in the Tribeca Dining Room on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

When we boarded the ship on the first day, the buffet was the only venue open for lunch. My mom flagged down someone on the restaurant staff, who basically said she couldn’t eat anything on the buffet and they’d make her some chicken with gluten-free pasta. The kids and I finished eating before she even got her meal. But she ate something, and it wasn’t horrible.

At dinner on the first night, one of the dining room managers came to discuss menu options with my mom. MSC Seashore does not have a separate gluten-free menu, as online reviewers reported from other ships, but he pointed out which regular menu items could be made gluten-free.

He also brought some pre-packaged rolls. At every meal for the rest of the cruise, a waiter would bring my mom pre-packaged, gluten-free bread products. At breakfast, it might be a packaged muffin or croissant. At dinner, it was one of two kinds of rolls. It was always a surprise, and variety was limited. (To be fair, the regular dinner rolls didn’t have much variety either.)

After the first night, we switched dining times and dining rooms, and our knight in shining gluten-free armor became Jason from South Africa. I swear he was the hardest working person on that cruise ship, assisting all the guests with allergies and dietary restrictions at dinner, supervising the buffet at lunch, even biking around Ocean Cay delivering ketchup from one food truck to another.

Every evening, he’d discuss with my mom what she could and couldn’t eat from the main menu, and even show us the next day’s menu so he could run any questions by the chef in advance. He told her about off-menu items she could order, such as gluten-free pancakes at breakfast and gluten-free pizza at lunch. We wondered if there were other off-menu items she should be considering, but no one could give us a good answer.

My mom was able to eat osso buco and lamb shank, gluten-free pasta dishes and French onion soup, among other dishes. She had a different meal each night at dinner – no endless chicken dinners. Her dining experience was not any worse than those of us eating off the regular menu. She probably had more choices than I did as someone who does not eat meat or shellfish.

Dessert was a bust

Affogatos and gelato at Venchi. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Dessert was a different story.

The gluten-free dessert in the main dining room was always some variation of a white cake with frosting — or she could order the cheese or fruit plate. But we are chocolate people.

When my mom asked if she could get a chocolate dessert, the manager responded that the line’s chocolate providers did not guarantee their products were gluten-free, so they couldn’t make her a chocolate cake or gluten-free cookies.

He also said none of the ice cream on board was marked gluten-free, so he couldn’t serve it to her. She ate it at the buffet and Venchi gelateria anyway and felt fine.

We were glad to see the restaurant staff taking the allergy situation seriously. The downside was that anything that was obviously gluten-free, like plain chocolate ice cream, still could not be served to my mom. You want to be able to have fun desserts on a cruise line, and flourless chocolate cake and ice cream are so simple to make gluten-free. It was disappointing that the line couldn’t bother to find suppliers for these items.

The buffet was mostly off-limits

Buffet on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

Nothing on the buffet was marked in any way. Not only could you not tell if a dish was gluten-free or vegetarian, but you also couldn’t find out what an unassuming dish contained without tasting it. Case in point: One day, there were two vats of mushy yellow-orange stuff side by side. I asked the server — one was polenta and the other a squash dish, but that was not obvious to anyone by sight.

My mom figured she could eat the salad, the fresh fruit or any made-to-order eggs. It wasn’t worth ordering a gluten-free meal that would take 20 minutes to arrive. So she avoided the buffet, meaning she took nearly all her meals in the dining room.

Luckily, my daughter and I weren’t big fans of the buffet either, and often came with my mom to breakfast in the main dining room. One day I had a leisurely lunch with her when the kids weren’t hungry and stayed behind to watch TV in the cabin.

Snacks and bagged lunches were tricky to acquire

One of the online reviews mentioned gluten-free snacks at an onboard bar, but we never came across those. (I did find a gluten-free drink list, including gluten-free beer, at the Brooklyn Café.) My mom asked her buddy Jason about snacks, and he gave her a few, including one that was essentially a gluten-free Twinkie.

My mom’s other concern was lunches off the ship. We had several excursions that took place over the midday mealtime, and she’d read that there wasn’t gluten-free food on Ocean Cay, which Jason confirmed.

She asked the first night about the possibility of getting a packed lunch and was told to ask Guest Services. They said they’d have to contact Shore Excursions, which reported back that they did not handle food nor could they ask the tour operators about their food offerings. It was like a wild goose chase just to find information.

Once again, Jason came to the rescue. I can order you packed lunches, he said, just tell me which days and remind me the night before. The lunches were great, packed with two sandwiches (usually turkey and/or tuna), fruit and several snacks. The downside was of the three days my mom ordered them, twice they weren’t ready and she had to wait 20 minutes before the lunch appeared.

Eating gluten-free, it turns out, involves a heck of a lot of waiting around.

There was no sliced bread

Packaged gluten-free breakfast pastries on MSC Seashore. (Photo by Erica Silverstein/The Points Guy)

My mom certainly ate her fill of carbs – rolls, cake, croissants, pasta and pizza. What the ship did not have on board? Gluten-free sliced bread.

Any time my mom got a sandwich, it was on one of the same pre-packaged rolls she got with dinner. She would have liked some sliced bread, either to eat as toast with eggs in the morning or as a sandwich base at lunch, but for whatever reason, the ship did not stock it.

Bottom line

Cruising gluten-free on MSC was not the horror story some online reviewers and travel agents made it out to be. My mom had plenty of different foods to eat, and she did not get sick.

Were her options limited? Yes. Were there foods, like ice cream and bread, that MSC could have provided but did not supply? Certainly. Were there extra hassles involved with making sure my mom got fed — and was her satisfaction with cruise dining dependent on us being assigned to Jason’s table and not a less helpful dining manager? You betcha.

Ultimately, I don’t think my mom will be cruising on MSC again, but that’s not entirely due to the gluten-free dining situation. My takeaway is that your experience eating gluten-free on MSC Cruises may vary based on the ship you’re sailing and the region of the world you’re traveling (since that could affect provisioning). The best tip I have for successful eating with a dietary restriction, and this applies to any cruise line, is to keep asking questions and advocate for yourself until you get what you need.

The squeaky wheel, in this case, gets the grease — ideally, in gluten-free pizza form.

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Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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