Are you thinking about going on a Carnival Cruise? Cruises can be a LOT of fun, but when you have a food allergy, it can be scary. The last thing you want to do is get stuck at sea with no safe food options! Here is a write up about Eating Gluten Free on a Carnival Cruise.
Our gluten free family went on a Carnival Cruise two years ago and we were pleasantly surprised at how careful the ship's crew was. Carnival has put a lot of time into making sure their gluten free passengers are taken care of.
If you are new to gluten free, be sure to check out my easy Gluten Free Living 101 Guide to help you navigate gluten free living.
I hope you find this Carnival Cruise review helpful so that you can learn how they handle gluten free dining on their ship.
Last April, our family decided to take a risk for spring break and go on a four day Carnival Cruise. I had heard from a couple of people that Carnival was very good at managing cross-contamination for gluten free guests, and we desperately needed a vacation.
Mr. Fearless Dining and I were not sure if our kids would like being on a cruise ship for four days, and we hoped this short four-day cruise would be a perfect way to test if we could handle a longer cruise in the future.
(I want to state up front that this is in NO way a sponsored post. We paid for our cruise, for everything that cost extra on the ship, and at the ports of call.)
Before the Cruise
When I booked this cruise, I opted to book the reservation through their Customer Service with a phone call instead of registering online. It was important to me and I needed to verify that Carnival could accommodate gluten free guests and that a special note was put on our reservation.
We traveled on the Carnival Inspiration ship. The cruise itinerary I chose started in Long Beach, CA with stopovers on Catalina Island, and Ensenada, Mexico. (<=The Catalina Island map comes in handy as you have a LOT of time to explore the island.)
Some people call this the Ensenada Carnival Cruise because this is the only international port. This cruise was definitely kid-friendly. It is probably one of the best Carnival cruises for kids because it is short. This cruise was only 4 days, making it a good test to see if our kids like cruising.
Our family purchased a Faster to the Fun pass for $49 because we read online that it is really worth the extra money. I have to agree this was money well spent. Our family had priority boarding, which allowed us to board much earlier than those who did not purchase this pass. Faster to the Fun also has other perks including priority boarding for the shuttle that takes you to Catalina Island and faster check out/debarkment.
The First Day of our Carnival Cruise
Boarding the boat was quick, considering hundreds of people had early boarding with the Faster to the Fun pass. We boarded around 12:00 and decided to find lunch before the rest of the passengers boarded.
We did not know where to go to talk to someone about gluten free offerings, so we went up to the Lido deck where the lunch buffet was being served. Carnival meals are something else!
I approached a dining staff member and they had the Executive Chef, Chef Russell, come talk to us. It was amazing that the Executive Chef had the time to come and talk to us. He was very friendly and easy to talk to. Chef Russell is from India and his daughter is gluten intolerant. After talking to him I felt he fully understood gluten free dining and safe gluten handling procedures.
The Gluten Free Buffet Options
The buffet had gluten free options at several stations, including the sandwich bar, salad bar, rotisserie bar, and one hot item on the buffet. All lunches on the boat were buffet lunches on the Lido Deck, so we had to ask a lot of questions to make sure what we chose was safe to eat.
- Outside near the pool, there were hamburgers and hot dogs. The meats were gluten free, but I felt it was harder for staff to manage cross-contamination at this part of the buffet.
- The rotisserie chicken section was gluten free. The chef cuts the chicken for you separately, so they keep it from becoming cross-contaminated. I felt the rotisserie chicken was really good.
- The pizza counter was open 24 hours a day and had gluten free pizza slices made to order. It took about 10 minutes for them to heat up a piece of gluten free pizza. Neither of my kids liked the pizza very much. The crust was thick and fluffy, like those old school hot lunch pizza squares we had when we were little.
- The frozen ice cream bar, also opens 24 hours a day, was gluten free. One machine had frozen yogurt and the other had ice cream.
The Gluten Free Dining Room Options
The chefs bake all of their own gluten free bread on the ship. (This bread is what is used in the buffet, sandwich station, and dining room.)
Chef Russell said the best way to ensure our foods would be safe was to pre-order our breakfast and dinner meals each day for the next day. Jelena, one of the dining room managers, came up to us each night at the end of dinner with a menu for the next day. She would walk us through the options on the Carnival Inspiration Dinner Menu and what she thought was good.
The kitchen was always willing to adapt anything on the menu for us."
We were seated at a table with two other families who ended up being wonderful. The first night our meal was not timed well. The kitchen pre-cooked all of our gluten free foods and the waiters brought it all out at once before anyone else at our table had the chance to order.
We just sat there with our appetizers, salads, and entrees piled all around us. It was a bit embarrassing. We didn't know how to handle this. If we waited for everyone to have food, ours would have been cold. We opted to eat and apologized profusely to everyone.
Our family spoke to the waiter and he assured us this wouldn't happen again. The kids ordered steak, my husband ordered a chicken dish, and I had brisket. The steaks were great, the chicken okay, and the brisket might as well have been dumped in the trash it was so bad.
I noticed later that other guests who ordered brisket couldn't eat theirs either. Highlights on our first night were the green beans and bacon side dish and the chocolate lava cake. The good news is we survived our first day with none of us getting sick from gluten.
Not wanting to bore you, I won't go into detail about every meal we had on the ship, the food was just not that exciting. Foods continued to be inconsistent the whole trip ranging from horrid to good. No meal, except for the chocolate lava cake, was spectacular.
The gluten free food was totally safe, but it wasn't great.
Carnival Inspiration gluten free foods that we really liked:
- The chocolate lava cake was the highlight of our food experience.
- Prime rib, pork chop, steaks, and lobster were good.
- Our kids really loved the gluten free chocolate chip pancakes and French toast.
- If you have a chance to try the Mexican coffee at the coffee shop, don't miss it. (Warning, they put enough Patrone tequila in it to give you quite the buzz!)
Gluten Free Sandwich Bar Options
I was curious about how the sandwich bar handled a gluten free order.
There are hot and cold sandwiches. The hot sandwiches are cooked on a panini machine. I ordered a hot ham and cheese sandwich. I then stepped aside to where they make the sandwich and watched.
The cook was amazing. He got a clean cutting board and knife. Then he went to a small side refrigerator and removed separate ham and cheese from a container and grabbed a loaf of gluten free bread from the same refrigerator. He sliced the bread with the clean knife on the clean board. I love that he also used fresh condiments, not the ones that are used for regular sandwich orders. The chef then got a clean rag and cleaned the panini machine twice. He assembled the sandwich and put it in the panini machine. After it cooked, he took the sandwich off and put it directly on a clean plate. Lastly, he used the same gluten free knife to cut my sandwich.
It was so impressive seeing how the sandwich station cook handled everything. He had no idea I was a blogger intent on watching for mistakes.
Carnival Inspiration Cruise Room Service
I look back at our vacation and I am shocked that we didn't order room service. I am sorry I won't be able to tell you much about this.
The Rest of the Cruise:
If you have preteens or teens, they are going to love to cruise. The older kids' clubs kept them happy until midnight with dancing, games, and scavenger hunts. The kids all become friends quickly on the boat, leaving more time for mom and dad. It was a little disconcerting that our kids were out so late, but the kids were always with friends. We found the ship environment to be very safe (and yes, that was us spying on our daughter behind a big column at 11:30 p.m.)
If you are a health nut like I am, you do have to be able to stay cool and not freak out when your kids tell you they ate ice cream at midnight 🙂 .
Our kids only used the onboard water park once. It looked like a lot of fun, but the weather was not warm enough. After going down one slide, they were freezing.
The Carnival Cruise Ports
We loved Catalina Island and if you go, we can highly recommend the torpedo sub tour and renting a golf cart and exploring the island. The weather was perfect. One big thing to note, there are no quick, casual restaurants that have "gluten free" on Catalina Island.
We did find a little Mexican stand called Eric's on the pier that had corn tortillas. The carnitas and fish tacos were very good and none of reacted to the food.
Ensenada, Mexico was a bit of a disappointment. We did not book an excursion. Our trip was the week before our daughter's foot surgery and she was still having pain if she walked much. Our family did walk around the city a little bit, but we didn't feel completely safe on our own.
We did find a tiny mission that was converted into a museum about local history that we enjoyed. I think the people who did the paid excursions had a good time in Mexico. We did not stay in Ensenada very long.
This is the kid-free section of the cruise ship. We had a lot of fun drinking our fancy drinks on the Serenity deck than Ensenada, Mexico. The Serenity deck is adult-only, and a nice quiet place to get away from the crowds and loud party atmosphere.
Cruise ship comedians
My husband and I didn't do much late-night dancing, but we LOVED the comedians the ship had. Each night they had an all-ages show and an adult-only show. These were some of the best times.
Fun Towel Animals
Carnival is well known for its towel animals. This elephant was greeting us when we got in from the comedy club on our first night.
Well, that is a quick summary of our gluten free Carnival Cruise. I feel confident recommending you will have a great time on this cruise line if you have a food allergy. Was this the best Carnival cruise? We have only been on Carnival this once, but I do think we will try cruising again.
The kitchen staff is very careful with the foods you order. Our family did not have a single reaction to gluten, which I feel is great considering we are all pretty sensitive.
Have you been on a cruise? How did they handle gluten free for you?
I was excited to try out this cruise, but after reading this I am definitely having second thoughts!! Thanks for the info!
Hi Sonia, we had a great time on our cruise. I wrote this a very long time ago and I would hope things have gotten even better.
Gail J Hammermeister
I just returned home from sailing on Carnival Horizon for a week. I am gluten free. Each evening meal I ate in the main dining room where the waiter brought me the menu for the next night and I picked out what I wanted to eat tomorrow night.
You can order anything you want but it's up to the chef if he needs to substitute something else for your order. The bread served was absolutely terrible and I finally asked the waiter to stop bringing it to the table.The chocolate molten cake was served but with no cake- so more like pudding. The apple pie had no crust, only apple pie filling with something awful crumbled on top. The chicken breast, lobster and prime rib was very good. They served broccoli with every meal! No other veggies offered. You can have ice cream. I ordered pizza with gluten free crust and it was so bad I couldn't eat it. The deli sandwich with gluten free roll was pretty good. You can eat fresh fruit and salad from the salad bar. I found almost everything made with flour was not good. I was hoping for delicious gf pastries, bread and desserts, but I was very disappointed. I make wonderful gf items at home so why can't a pastry chef?
I am so glad you came and gave us an update. Thank you so much Gail 🙂
We recently went on a Carnival Cruise out of Florida. We went on the Carnival Magic and brought with us the Nima. A gluten free tester. Many o the foods that they claimed were gluten free in the buffet were contaminated with gluten. Dinner was not a problem but breakfast and lunch ended up being gluten free bread and fruit as well as the rottiserie stations. Be careful of cross contamination and the claim that it is gluten free. We at breakfast at Southern lights dining and they said his meal was gluten free. The gluten free toast was put in a regular toaster and was contaminated with crumbs testing positive on the Nima. The salmon they claimed was prepared gluten free was positive for gluten. Just because they say it's gluten free doesn't mean that it is. The lava cake was great and my son had it every night and loved it. Dinner was ordered the night before and not a problem.
Thank you so much for your note Kara. Standards definitely seem to vary by boat and staff. I am going to need to try this Nima sensor. It really seems to help.
We cruised with Carnival last year, June 2016, on the Carnival Dream. I am gluten intolerant, so a bit of gluten is fine. In fact, I had a few bites of cake at Afternoon Tea each day. But that was the only gluten I was willing to eat.
For this trip, we chose Early Dining (because the dining room with wraparound windows isn't used for Anytime Dining). Our wait staff was great. They didn't know much about gluten starting out, but they educated themselves immediately.
After the first night, they had gluten free bread at the table when I arrived. Sadly, the gluten free bread was incredibly bland. The best night was Creole food (we sailed out of New Orleans). My entree had remoulade sauce, which was perfect as a dip for the bread! The gluten free options were very erratic. Some nights there was only one gluten free option; other nights, almost every entree and side was gluten free. The dessert options were likewise spotty—some nights, my only option was fresh fruit (which I love, but can have at other meals) or bowl of ice cream. And I'm not much of an ice cream person most of the time.
Breakfast was fine; I had eggs benedict sans English muffin a few times, which was actually delicious. Other days I simply asked for no bread. Plenty of options, since I didn't have to worry about cross contamination.
Still, everything (but the bland bread) was delicious. But I'm hoping they're a little better prepared this time; we're sailing again in June (our third cruise ever), so I guess I'll find out!
Thank you so much for posting this. I have only been gluten intolerant about 6 weeks and we just booked a Christmas cruise on the Carnival Sunshine. I was really nervous cause I don't want to be sick the entire cruise and ruin our fun. I have been on many cruises but first time not being able to eat gluten. I also was afraid I was just have to starve. Any other suggestions would really help as I am just learning how to manage this. Yes we did have our travel agent tell them when she made our reservations special diet of gluten free. Keeping my fingers crossed.
Hi Teresa, the best thing we did was find the head chef for our first meal. Talking to him really made us feel better. You get the same wait person if you eat in the sit down dining room and they will also be a great resource for you. The buffet is harder, but we found they will cook fish and other things for us separately in the large buffet dining hall. Also, there was a gluten free pizza station and the sandwich station had gluten free bread. Just make sure they change gloves, use clean knives, and a clean surface 🙂
Thank you so much for the information. It really helps ease my anxiety being informed. Thank you for responding so quickly.