(An abbreviated version of this post, as featured on the Happy Herbivore website, can be viewed here.)
The summer travel season is upon us, and many of you are anxiously awaiting your time away for fun in the sun. Maybe some of you are still working on making a vacation happen by trying to bring plans to life. I bet there are even a few of you who have your suitcases out and packed…for an August vacation. Regardless of which situation describes you, as herbivores, eating plant-based while traveling is probably something that has crossed your mind at least once or twice!
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… some just 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 advance 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 food on a nightly basis. I recommend extra gratuity for great service – the cruise ship staff works very hard, and my husband and I both feel it is important to reward those who go the extra mile to make our vacation memorable.
- 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. Don’t forget to put liquids in your checked luggage or they won’t make it through security, and I recommend sealing them in plastic in the event of a leak…unless you want your clothing to smell of almond milk in the Caribbean sun. 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.
- Be creative with the meals with which you must fend for yourself – concoct amazing salads, create veggie subs, experiment with oatmeal topping combinations, etc. (If you even want to indulge in a few French fries, I won’t tell!) I especially like this trick for the lunch buffets when your options might seem more limited at times.
- 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.
- Don’t judge the ship’s food based on the first buffet before setting sail and the first meal in the main dining room. It is a crazy day for crew members because of so many passengers coming and going, and that meal should not be indicative of the next days of your voyage. My first meal on my most recent cruise? A plate of white rice and a heaping pile of steamed green beans (prepared just for me) and a side salad. Good, yes. But not what I was hoping to eat for a week! (It got much better!)
- Try to get out of the typical vacation mindset, which unfortunately seems to be centered quite a bit around quantities of food and general indulging for days on end. Focus on the memories you’re making and the sights you’re seeing – this is what I think traveling is all about. Enjoy an active, healthy, and fun vacation full of nutritious food and you will come home feeling amazingly refreshed…I guarantee it!
- Some will shame me on this one, but I always pack some vegan snacks that are more of the “treat variety”. When I went plant-based, I eliminated a lot of sugar and treats from my diet (I still visit the local vegan bakery weekly for something delicious) but I still have the occasional craving. And because of the “vacation mindset” I still can’t always shut it off. When we travel, I pack a vegan chocolate bar and some gummy bears from the aforementioned vegan bakery to tame my sweet tooth.
- Feeding your mini-herbivores out of the house can be challenging, but if you get creative, meals on the ship shouldn’t be an issue. Here are some ideas for your plant-powered kiddos…
Breakfast: cereal with soy milk, oatmeal, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly, toast, breakfast potatoes
Lunch: veggie burgers, French fries, loaded nachos, mini veggie subs, rice and vegetables, pizza without cheese, stir fry, peanut butter and jelly
Dinner: work with your head waiter for options – this is your best chance for variety
Snacks: fresh fruit, raw vegetables, vegetable sushi, nachos, French fries, crackers and peanut butter, sorbet
- 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), so go ahead and be that passenger eating a giant plate of colors.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to travel mainstream! The travel industry is becoming more and more accommodating all the time, and I am pleased to report that I have only had very good to great experiences…I look forward to sharing more with you, and also hearing about your positive and negative dining experiences while traveling.
Don't be afraid of mainstream travel!