If you have a food allergy or intolerance and dread the idea of travel, I know your pain. Seven months ago, I moved to Southeast Asia for work. Since then, Iíve had to travel internationally several times for business…and with my gluten intolerance and various allergies, it hasnít been easy to stay healthy!
Here are the top 5 things Iíve learned in the past year about safely traveling with food allergies/intolerances:
1. Be prepared for any medical issues.
If you have to take any medications for your condition, make sure to have them on you at all times. This means antihistamines and epinephrine if you have a serious food allergy. (If youíre gluten sensitive, thereís not much you can do to stop a reaction, but I try to keep anti-nausea meds and antacids on hand to minimize the misery, just in case.)
Now, the first time I had to travel overseas with medications, I was worried about airport security. But as long as your medication is in its original packaging and is clearly labeled, you shouldnít have issues. If youíre concerned about carrying an Epipen on your flight, just ask your doctor for a note explaining what the medication is for and why you need it. (For the record, Iíve never been asked about my Epipen by airport security.)
If you have a serious reaction to any foods (like anaphylaxis), always research local hospitals and doctors ahead of time. Keep local emergency numbers on you at all times. Find out if your insurance will cover the costs of overseas or out-of-state medical care…and if not, consider investing in travel insurance for your trip.
2. Ensure a safe plane ride.
You may not realize it, but itís okay to bring your own food with you on a flight — even an international flight. As long as you donít pack any liquids or gels over 3 ounces, you wonít have issues with airport security. You can bring homemade meals, safe packaged foods, even fresh fruit and vegetables to snack on during your flight. (Just remember that customs usually prohibits bringing fresh produce into a foreign country, so youíll have to finish your treats during the flight or be prepared to toss them in the trash afterwards.)
Depending on the airline, they may offer gluten-free or allergy-friendly meals. If youíre not sure, call and ask. If you order a special meal when booking your tickets, you may want to call a day or two in advance just to verify that it will be available on your flight.
If you have serious reactions to any common allergens, youíll definitely want to verify that your flight will be safe. (Obviously, you canít be rushed to a hospital in the middle of an overseas flight.) If you have a peanut allergy, verify that peanut products will not be served on the flight. This is especially important if youíre flying with a smaller airline, which may not have policies for handling allergies. If youíre not 100%† sure youíll be safe, donít travel with that airline.
3. Find out where to eat ahead of time.
Save yourself the time and trouble of trying to figure out where to eat once you reach your destination. Find out what common allergens are in the local cuisines so that you can judge whether itís safe to eat out on your trip. Look online to find out if the city has allergy-friendly restaurants. But realize that just because a hotel or restaurant claims they can handle food allergies doesnít mean they can actually keep you safe. Talk to the waiter and chef about your meal and ask about potential sources of cross-contamination before you order, too.
I try to book my accommodation close to a local market or grocery store if I can, because if all else fails, Iíll be able to buy fresh fruits and veggies and make myself an allergy-friendly salad.† If youíre not sure what your options will be during your visit (if youíre traveling abroad, you simply may not be able to find information on stores and restaurants ahead of time), then try to pack enough safe packaged foods to last the first couple of days while you get to know your surroundings.
4. Book a room with access to a fridge. A full kitchen is even better!
Thereís a lot to be said for being able to prepare your own meals, especially if you have multiple allergies or intolerances. A hotel room with a small kitchen may be unaffordable, but oftentimes hostels and guesthouses will include a shared kitchen space. (And the good news is: most people who are traveling wonít bother to use the kitchen. Theyíll probably eat most of their meals out.) If you can bring your own cooking utensils, thatís great, but if youíre sharing cooking gear with other visitors, just be sure to clean everything thoroughly with lots of soap before preparing your meals. Your own sponge is a must-have — small peices of allergenic foods can become caught in a shared sponge and contaminate your dishes even if your meal is totally safe.
If all else fails, at least try to get a room with a fridge. It will make storing safe foods from the supermarket or safe leftovers that donít require cooking easier.
5. Find out how to talk about your allergies in the local language.
Thereís a lot of sites out there offering translations of allergen information into a variety of different languages. Some of them will send you laminated cards for a small fee, while others simply offer free translations for you to print out. Gluten Free Passport has gathered links to a number of different sites where you can find translations.
Insist that your card be passed to the chef so that they know exactly how your food should be prepared. And donít assume that just because the waitstaff has informed you they know how to deal with food allergies that your food will be safe. In Thailand, I told my server that I couldnít eat any wheat products but was still served bread with my meal. No one in the kitchen made the connection between wheat and the products that traditionally contain wheat.
You may have to specify in detail which foods you can or canít eat…even if that means listing off ďbread, pasta, pastries, flourĒ instead of just saying ďwheat.Ē If anything looks questionable or the waitstaff donít seem to understand, then stick with options you know are safe or find another restaurant.
For the most part, Iíve managed to travel without major issues, although Iíve had some missteps as well. The key is to do thorough research beforehand and always be prepared for your worst-case scenario.
These five steps are definitely extra work, but youíll enjoy your trip so much more if you donít have to constantly worry about being able to find safe meals. Happy travels!
Photo credit: Vox Efx via Flickr