Hey everyone! I know its been a little while since I’ve updated, but I’ve been working on a few posts in the interim that have all taken a lot longer than I’ve expected! This post is dedicated to my readers that have severe food allergies and want to travel. I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be hard to know where to start when you’re traveling with special, food-related problems, so I thought it would be a good idea to add a concise, all-in-one guide to planning your trips with a food allergy, specifically gluten intolerance.
Spontaneity and food are two of my favorite things about traveling, but when I found out that gluten doesn’t sit well with my body or my brain, I had rethink my eating strategy while traveling abroad. Having a food allergy in your day-to-day life can be frustrating, tough, isolating and confounding, and having to contend with your food allergy (or its icky symptoms) when you’re traveling can be ten times worse.
Constantly feeling like a pain when your friends want to try some snazzy new restaurant and, if you’re anything like me, having to plan your meals and snacks to avoid some pretty brutal hangries without being able to count on the convenience of fast food isn’t generally comfortable or easy. And while travel is a great experience, I like to think that its a little bit like life on steroids. You’re doing some things you’d usually do, but you never have a routine, rarely have a kitchen and, when you’re away, you don’t want to be wasting your time trying to figure out where and when you need to eat.
Before I went on my most recent big trip I had to completely reassess my eating situation. I had the whole traveling thing down by this point, but I definitely didn’t have the whole gluten-free thing under control just yet. I was great at home, but leaving the house and dining out was always a crapshoot. I was anxious about what my situation would be like when I would have to eat out all the time, when I wouldn’t always be able to pack my own lunch, nor would I want to.
Tasting the traditional dishes in a country is, to me, one of the top travel experiences that anyone can have, but what happens when you can’t eat some of the countries best foods— or worse still, their staples? Bread in France (and, shockingly, Laos), soy sauces in Asia, noodles in Japan and Pierogies in Poland are all off the menu for you, so what now? With a little pre-trip preparation, a lot of your potential food problems can be avoided while on the road. So yes, traveling with a food allergy can be tough, but its definitely not impossible! Read below for my best tips on traveling with food allergies.
Tip #1: Know your trip.
Trip length, destination and budget mean everything when you’re planning your travels, and that counts double for when you’re planning a trip with a food allergy. Depending on the severity of your allergy, knowing these things is a pretty crucial first step, especially if you’re going to need to buy any medications or supplements in advance. I’m going to break this down into three different sections for ease of reading and planning into, predictably, trip length, destination and budget.
Trip Length: Knowing how long you’re going to be gone for is the first step when it comes to planning a trip. If you’re only going to be gone for a week or two, then you’ve got it easy! I know it isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but trips that length tend to require a little more organization and planning than trips spanning, say, three to six months. Chances are you’ll only be in one or two locations, which will allow you to do some research into nearby supermarkets, restaurants and tourist locations. Doing a few preliminary google searches in the comfort of your own home will save you a lot of grief and stress while you’re abroad, so keep a couple of restaurants with gluten-free options on-hand. If you’re going to be out extensively during the day, pick one of your activities or sites and scope out a few places where you can eat in advance.
If you’re taking a longer trip we can segue conveniently into the know your destination category, and I’d advise you to do the above on a much vaguer scale. I know this sounds tedious, but my best advice to you is to write down a list of all of the foods that you know, for certain, that you’re allergic to. For most GF’ers, knowing these foods can become kind of second nature, but if you’re new to being gluten free or have recently found out that you have a dietary restriction it may not come so easily. Then, research traditional foods in your destination country or countries. Make a list of some things you think you’d like to try, then do a quick google search for recipes for said foods. Check to see if any of the ingredients are on your no-eat list, then write down some dishes that are naturally gluten free.
Know your budget: Are you going to be hoteling or hosteling? Will you rent an apartment on Air BNB or will you be staying with a friend (or surfing someone’s couch)? These details, while seeming minor, are actually pretty huge. If you’re in an upscale hotel that does breakfast, for example, make sure you e-mail them in advance to let them know about your dietary restrictions and to see what your options are. If you’re hosteling, make sure you get a hostel with a kitchen and be extra sure to re-wash any and everything you eat off of or cook with. Hostelers are well-known for being shitty dishwashers, and you don’t want to get any second-hand allergy contamination (or old food contamination, yuck) by eating off plates that haven’t been cleaned as well as they should.
Renting an apartment or a hotel suite with a kitchenette can also be a lifesaver (and a money-saver!) for higher-budget travelers (read: not backpackers). Preparing your own breakfast is extremely cost-effective and gives you much more choice when deciding what you want to eat. Even places like Thailand have Western-style supermarkets (usually ten times more expensive than local Asian markets, but sometimes necessary for people with dietary restrictions… or for travelers who are really, really craving some cheese), and can usually be found inside or near large shopping malls. Chiang Mai has an especially good supermarket in their “airport” mall (misleadingly not at all close to the airport, though also not in the walled city center).
Tip #2: Plan for the flight AND the airport.
I had the misfortune of dealing with the problem of plane food first-hand on a 23-hour long flight from New Zealand to Chicago this summer. Booking a specialty meal often needs to be done at the time that you book your ticket and can often not be changed. Flight attendants will tell you that you have until 48 hours before your flight to change your booking, but I have found this, more often than not, to be untrue. So definitely double/triple/quadruple check to make sure you’ve booked a gluten free meal for your flight!
Also, it never hurts to pack a meal for yourself just in case. Bring anything without liquids or gels— so that means no yogurts, sadly, unless they’re mini-sized (under 3oz)— and make sure its going to be enough to sustain you in the event of flight delay, long flight service and/or organizational issues that may come up upon your arrival at your destination. There’s nothing worse than being stuck, starving, at an airport at midnight local time with no place to eat only to find out that your airport pickup didn’t show! Plan ahead and you’ll thank yourself later.
Tip #3: Bring breakfast.
When you arrive at your destination you’re going to be jetlagged, tired, cranky and disoriented. Trying to find a place to eat breakfast or being unpleasantly surprised to find that your hotel doesn’t actually have any gluten free options is going to be a major pain in your ass and, if you’re like me, might lead to a hunger-induced crank-tastic meltdown. Prepare yourself for this in advance by bringing a few gluten free granola bars, a few little carry-on sized packages of nut butters (I highly recommend Justin’s Nut Butters— tasty on their own or on portable fruits like apples and bananas!) and, if allowed, a piece of fruit. Bringing a few tea bags never hurts, either— you’ve got to get your caffeine fix in somewhere!
Tip #4: Use your hotel.
After you arrive, go down to reception and have your receptionist write down the words “No gluten/soy/dairy/peanuts” or “gluten/soy/dairy/nut/food allergy” on a piece of paper in the local language. This way you’ll be able to enjoy street food, or at least be able to ask if some food has wheat/dairy/nuts/soy sauce in it without having to try and mime your illness to them and almost definitely get laughed at in the process without really accomplishing anything. And, even if your food vendor can’t read there’s bound to be someone around who can, so its always a good thing to keep on hand.
Learning the word for your problem food in the language of your destination can also save you a lot of trouble, so make sure to commit it to heart before you go!
Tip #5: Get to know the place.
After you’ve had breakfast take a stroll around your area. Peek into any little food places you find appealing, make sure you mark them down in your phone. Take a different route every time you leave the place you’re staying to find new hidden gems. Go to local markets and buy food to cook for yourself at the end of the day. Ask your hotel/hostel staff or host if they have any recommendations.
Tip #6: Make an allergy-response kit.
This is one of the most beneficial things that you can do to deal with any oopsies you may have during your trip. Make a list of your symptoms and then figure out what helps soothe them; common symptoms of gluten intolerance include skin rash, upset stomach, loose/frequent bowel movements, headache, fatigue, cramps, gas, bloating and cotton-headedness. My personal gluten-response kit includes non-drowsy Benadryl, probiotics, gluten-free antacids, anti-diarrheal, aspirin, caffeinated tea, ginger tea and anti-bloat/anti-gas medication. If you need an epipen, make sure you bring more than one with you! Learn what your particular problems are and pack for them accordingly. Pack at least enough supplies to take one packet a day in the event that you have the misfortunate of getting gluten’d on your first day there!
Tip #7: Take advantage of the global market (and the picnic!).
Buying food in a restaurant can be a great treat and an awesome way to get to know local culture better, but sometimes its just not an option or not worth the risk. Instead of cooking rice for dinner at your apartment every night, go out to the local market (check the area’s market listings online or in a guidebook before you head out for the day!) and pick up some food that you can turn into a meal later. When I was in Australia they even had gluten free pastas and breads in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, so I could make a great gluten-free gnocchi with locally produced sauce and fresh mozzarella! This goes double in places like Italy or Spain, where local cured meats and cheeses are enough to complete any meal while giving you some local flavor at the same time.
Gluten-free tips and warnings by region:
So obviously I haven’t travelled everywhere in the world just yet, but I can give you all a little bit of information on the places that I have been and what you can expect when traveling to those destinations! If you’re headed to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, The United States, or Southeast Asia or Europe, here’s a handy little guide for things you can and can’t expect when traveling:
The UK: I found it surprising that it was more difficult for me to eat gluten free in England when I was buying food from the grocery store than when I was eating out. Loads of restaurants have gluten-free options these days, so definitely don’t be afraid to eat out! Just make sure you tell your waitstaff that you’re gluten free and you shouldn’t really have any issues.
Australia: Australia has probably the best gluten-free options in the world. Most breakfast places will have gluten free toast (and toasters!), many dinner places will have a gluten-free option that isn’t just salad (yay!), and the grocery stores have plenty of gluten free yummies stocked fresh. Food labeling is especially thorough in Australia, so make sure you’re checking your labels and you should be fine.
New Zealand: Slightly less GF-friendly than Australia but still pretty good! When eating out I found a good number of places that had gluten free options, although eating out in New Zealand is crazy expensive. Still, NZ is the only place that I found that had GF naan, so that was a huge plus!
Europe: Europe is notoriously difficult when it comes to non-traditional diets. Vegetarians in particular have, for a long time, struggled with eating in Europe, and it definitely isn’t any easier for the gluten free! In central Europe it may be easier than in places like Eastern Europe, where wheat products make up a huge part of the diet and the language barriers become more complex.
Eating in central Europe can be done easily if you often get food from markets, but it is definitely a bummer when you have to miss out on some local, traditional yummies, for which there aren’t really any viable alternatives. Going for vegetable dishes is definitely going to be your best option in the East and going for meat (as long as its unbreaded!) is going to be your best bet in the West.
Southeast Asia: I have super mixed feelings about eating GF in Southeast Asia. I love love love SE-Asian food, especially Vietnamese and Thai. But you absolutely have to be careful about what you’re eating to make sure there’s no sneaky imported soy sauce! I’ve found that there’s two kinds of soy sauce available, the imported (adulterated with wheat) soy sauce and a local variety that did not cause any kind of gluten reaction for me, which was great. It is definitely close to impossible to know which kind you’re going to be getting, though, so it may be best to just avoid it altogether.
In Thailand, fish sauce is often used in place of soy sauce, which means that you’ll be able to nom on pad thai, noodle soup and tons of other delicacies! Curries are almost always gluten free, and the same goes for the infamous papaya salad. I have almost no problem eating GF in Thailand ever, with the exception of at the Elephant Nature Park, where they use meat-substitutes in lieu of meat, which are all made from flour.
Vietnam is similarly GF-friendly, and their spring rolls are absolutely to die for! If you can do a cooking class in either Thailand or Vietname I’d highly recommend it, because it allows you not only to get introduced to some local food favorites but also allows you to see exactly whats going into your food, so you know what will be safe for you to eat and what wont.
In Laos you may run into some problems when trying to grab a quick bite to eat during the day. French colonial influence is still heavy in Laos, and as a result the country is extremely bread-product heavy. Baguettes are everywhere and so are crepes (pancakes), which are all made with wheat flour. As yummy as they may look, definitely know that they are not gluten free! Nighttime food and textile markets are popular, though, and I’d always recommend stopping by one (especially in Luang Prabang, where the night market is amaaaaazing!) for dinner. You’ll almost always be able to find GF options there, so eat up!
Indonesia: I’ve decided to put Indo in a different category from SE-A because I found eating in Indonesia to be incredibly difficult. Access to local markets is limited (you’ll need a motorbike or a tuk-tuk driver that speaks really good English! Or a local guide, which is always helpful but not always an option for backpackers). For the most part, non-locals are kind of corralled into tourist districts, which means eating at overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants.
The only time I got a break when eating in Indonesia was when I had to go to a hotel because there weren’t any other options for food. I asked what options on the menu were gluten free (salad and more salad were my two choices, awesome), but the waitress amazingly brought me some gluten free bread, which at that point felt almost like a miracle. Finding authentic Indonesian food at a good price is almost impossible unless you venture out of your comfort zone (or ask your hotel staff for directions to a good, authentic market), so make sure you spend some extra time getting to enjoy the Indonesian cuisine outside of the tourist area. Just be ware of the noodles, as I’m pretty sure most of them are wheat based.
So yeah! Those are my best tips and tricks for eating gluten free when travelling abroad. Have any questions, comments, anecdotes or tips of your own? Do you know anything about what its like to eat gluten free in places like South America, Northern Europe, China, Japan, Africa or any other destinations that I don’t have experience with? Fire away in the comments section below!