I never really set out to get bit by the travel bug. After all, I applied to only English speaking countries when I applied for exchange in university. As a last option, I put down Sweden as my Dad went there a few times and spoke really highly of it. Guess where I ended up….Sweden! After spending six months there in an international residence with students from around the world, I was hooked.
I ended up meeting my future wife while on exchange and we continued to travel around the world together ever since. We’ve travelled on every mode of transportation with both multiple allergies and celiac disease, and have now been to 4 continents.
I get asked quite frequently “how do you manage travelling with food allergies”, so I thought I would write one comprehensive article that I can link to in the future versus short FB messages etc.
Disclaimer – These tips are coming from an allergic adult male. I don’t have children and my strategies work for me. If you are looking for more tips on how to travel with children with food allergies, I highly recommend looking at FARE’s resources as travelling with kids is an area I am not remotely familiar with. Thanks for understanding!
Tip # 1 – Plan Ahead
My trips literally just “pop up” and it’s rare that I am ever aware of a trip more than 6 months in advance. I don’t go overboard with advanced planning, but it is very important for me to get a sense of comfort for where I’m going.
What does this involve? Google. I Google allergy-friendly restaurants, places that serve gluten-free pizza for instance. I Google the local emergency number (911 is not worldwide). I Google what the local traditional recipes and dishes are so I’m already prepared when I encounter a menu with confusing items. Buy a travel book, ask on an online forum – just get a good overall feeling for the food and allergy scene in that country.
Tip # 2 – Purchase Insurance
This is a given, but still important on anyone’s list who is travelling with food allergies. I have heard horror stories about the costs incurred after seeking medical attention for a reaction. Personally, I would never want the thought to cross my mind that I simply can’t afford to get a serious anaphylactic reaction treated properly. Get insured! I use American Express travel insurance for every trip.
Tip # 3 – Accommodations – Home on the Road
I am flexible with this as I believe most places should be okay. I do prefer however having my own kitchen that I can cook my own food in. Not only does this help with budget (restaurants get pricey on vacation!), but I’m also a really hard person to feed for breakfast because of my serious egg allergy. I love breakfast at home. I really enjoy using www.airbnb.com to find accommodation in a more house/apartment style.
Tip # 4 – Allergy Translation Cards
If travelling to a foreign country with a foreign language, I strongly recommend getting an Allergy Translation Card made in advance. Do NOT get your translations through some free app or online tool. They are riddled with errors and I want to be taken seriously when I try to communicate my life-threatening allergies in a restaurant halfway across the world. I print a couple copies for my wallet as well as save the image on my smartphone. I then study these new words and become familiar with them and check for them on ingredient lists.
Tip # 5 – Bring Your Own Food
Does that mean bring a whole suitcase full of food? Well…sometimes yes! I travelled to China last summer and did exactly that. I had little confidence that I would find much to eat through my initial research (see tip 1!) so played it safe and brought a full suitcase full of food for a 3-week trip. When I arrived I was so glad that I did. The first day I bough a hot plate and cooked nearly all of my meals on the floor of my hotel room (a lot of rice and pasta). Doesn’t seem glamorous does it? That’s fine by me – travelling is not about food for me – it’s about culture, museums, landscapes, people and the local wines and beers 🙂 I also always have a lot of small portable snacks like granola bars that keep me going on day trips.
Tip # 6 – Be Adventurous, but Not with Food
I stick with what I know when travelling and usually take a step back to get back to basics. I visit the local supermarkets and purchase meats, fruits, veggies – things that you find on the outer ring of the grocery store. I speak with the people who make the bread on site and cut the meat. It’s comforting. For fast food, I’m a sucker for McDonald’s. I’ll admit it. It’s consistent and safe. I know there are healthier options, however I love their salads and treat myself now and then with some fries or a burger.
Tip # 7 – Airlines – Do What Your Comfortable With
This is different for everyone so it’s hard to give too much advice here. I will focus on the absolute musts – ALWAYS bring extra epinephrine and NEVER eat the airline food. I pack an amazing lunch/dinner for myself and don’t feel like I’m missing out at all. Don’t take the risk! There are many other things you can do in terms of requesting a buffer zone with some airlines, wiping down your tray table, sitting on a sheet and more. Check with your airline in advance to see if they have a specific policy. As an adult male who has flown dozens and dozens of times, I am okay with a more minimal approach. I have had passengers beside me bring out bags of peanuts, and I simply asked them to refrain and offered to buy them a drink. This happened on a couple occasions and they were more than happy to help, and didn’t even take me up on the drink offer! We ended up having great conversations about allergies afterwards during the flight.
Tip # 8 – Wear MedicAlert I.D.
I wear my allergies on my sleeve, literally. My MedicAlert bracelet is a staple on me when I travel. I like that it lets others know that I have a medical condition, but I especially love that paramedics are trained to look for this, and it has an international toll-free number where they can access my medical records. Isn’t that cool? And I love the different styles offered – I personally rotate through a dog tag necklace and a leather cuff. Check out www.medicalert.org or www.medicalert.ca.
Tip # 9 – Know the Food Labelling Laws/Guidelines
I would recommend this if you are planning on staying somewhere for an extended stay. Here is a really handy study that compares labelling guidelines around the world. I find it handy to know which countries call out all of my allergens on labels such as mustard (Canada & EU) and which ones aren’t mandated to (U.S., Asia). It’s also important to know the regulations (if any) regarding precautionary labelling (i.e. “may contain” statements). It can get very tricky, which is why I prefer fresh food when travelling compared to local pre-packaged food (see tip #6)
Tip # 10 – Have an Amazing Time!
The best part about really planning ahead and having all of your details figured out before you leave, is that you can really enjoy your trip once you’re there versus worrying all the time! Don’t let allergies slow you down! Don’t let food rule your trip. Eat unhealthy for a week if that’s what it takes – just don’t let allergies ruin your trip of a lifetime. Enjoy all of the amazing things that other countries and cultures have to offer – and remember to share how you did it to the food allergy community afterwards. The more we share, the smaller and more allergy-friendly this world becomes.
Do you have any additional allergy travel tips? Please feel free to leave as a comment below. I would love to hear from you!
Kyle in Shanghai, China