In honor of World Vegan Day and Gluten-Free Awareness Day today, we’re writing a post packed full of tips for traveling with dietary restrictions. While many people are vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free by choice, many people have religious dietary restrictions or medically necessitated dietary restrictions- including those with Ceiliac’s, allergies, Eosinophilic Esophagitis and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. Even without a medical diagnosis, others have food sensitivities that they know would ruin a vacation so they have to stay away from certain things.
I hate to admit I’m a bit of an expert on this topic. Normally our family travels with only the restrictions of eating gluten-free and tomato free. Our youngest twin is medically gluten free, but our whole family went gluten-free with him nearly seven years ago because we just couldn’t tell our six year old that he had to eat different food than the rest of us. At my worst, thanks to what we thought were allergies but is apparently shaping up to be some super rare autoimmune disease, I took a six week cross country road trip where I was limited to eating nothing but plain meat, nuts, rice, oats and milk. In case you are wondering, I give that experience 0 out of 5 stars and strongly do NOT recommend taking a six week road trip when you can’t eat road trip snacks! But- for everyone else with more common limitations let’s take a look at some top tips for traveling with dietary restrictions!
Travel with Dietary Restrictions: EATING OUT
When we went gluten-free for our son, we thought we made a pretty smooth transition… here at home! Once we hit the road for the first time, we realized this would forever change the way we traveled. Gone were the days of just figuring out where to eat by looking around for whatever restaurant was closest when someone inevitably said, “I’m hungry!” Traveling with dietary restrictions requires a lot of planning ahead. Do as much research as possible on restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and even grocery stores in your destination that have safe food for you. I’ll be honest- these days we plan around gluten-free restaurants. I’ll pick out a handful of places that are safe for us to eat, then build our trip around the locations of those restaurants. It takes some extra time, but we’ve come to really enjoy planning our trips this way- and we’ve found some amazing food all over the country!
If you’re looking for ways to find restaurants that cater to your dietary needs, here are a few resources for you:
- Find Me Gluten Free is a great resource for locating GF eateries. Be sure to check the comments on each place because people leave detailed comments about things like shared friers, separate food prep space, how staff handled their orders and whether or not they got “glutened.” They have a website at Find Me Gluten Free and also an app for when you’re on the go and both are international sites so you can use this resource the world over.
- Celiac Travel isn’t specifically a restaurant finder- but it’s got a fantastic section called Celiac Stories that features blogs from Celiac travelers and their experiences in the cities and countries they’ve visited around the world. If you’re looking for info on eating GF, search here for blogs that often include specific restaurant and grocery store recommendations.
- The Vegetarian Resource Group primarily covers the US and Canada with a guide of vegetarian restaurants organized by state or province. It’s a great resource for popular states like California, New York and Texas while some smaller, less frequented states like Idaho have slim pickin’s- but there are still a few restaurants listed for every state!
- Happy Cow is a website that allows you to search not only restaurants but hotels, resorts, and AirBnB’s that honor the vegan diet. It even has a great travel section titled “Top Vegan Friendly Cities” with a curated list of vegan friendly restaurants on those locations.
- The Vegetarian Resource Group (listed above) also lists vegan options so this is another great resource for locating vegan food was well.
- The Nut Free Network keeps a list of nut-free restaurants and bakeries that can be useful for those avidly avoiding peanuts and tree nuts. The comment section is also incredibly helpful so be sure to scroll through the comments where users add personal experiences as well as locations not yet on the actual list.
- Allergy Eats (more below) is also a great resource for locating peanut-free and tree nut-free options. Just enter your specific nut allergy.
Top 8 Allergen Free
- Allergy Eats is a fantastic website and app that allows you to customize your search for restaurants based on your specific allergies- so you can get all top 8 in your search if you need to! Allergy Eats also includes user reviews which can be incredibly helpful in determining whether you trust a restaurant to handle your allergies safely or not.
- Kosher Without Borders is both a website and an app that can help you find kosher food in just about every international location.
- Yeah That’s Kosher is another great international resource for locating kosher food around the world.
- Zabihah is a great international resource for finding halal restaurants all over the world.
- Crave Halal is limited to the US, Canada and UK but has a super handy app for finding halal food while traveling.
Another resource that can really help when planning ahead is personal travel blogs. By doing a simple Google search for your dietary restriction + your location (for example “Gluten-free in Portland, OR”), you can pull up a ton of personal travel blogs specific to your needs. We’ve found many of our favorite restaurants this way- recommended by other travel bloggers who share our dietary needs.
Yet another resource that can be incredibly helpful is Facebook groups. If you have a medical condition that limits your diet, look for a Facebook group for that condition in your destination. For example, there are nut allergy groups and EoE groups all over the US and even the world. Join a group in your destination and ask those who live locally where they feel safe eating out! We’ve had a lot of success using this method with my tomato allergy because a tomato allergy is not super common in the general population- but it’s incredibly common in people with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (hello histamine!) So while it’s not likely I’ll find travel blogs specific to pizza joints in Los Angeles with gluten-free and tomato-free pizza options, a southern California MCAS group on FB helped me find plenty of safe options!
If you’re traveling internationally, make sure you have translation cards if you are in a country that speaks another language. Celiac Travels makes gluten-free translation cards in dozens of languages that you can give to restaurants when ordering. They contain all the information you need, in the language you need, to communicate your dietary restrictions to a restaurant or chef. AllergyUK offers translation cards for over 70 allergens in over 35 languages and Vegan Cards offers an app that translates to over 100 languages.
Once you have a list of safe places to eat, always call ahead to confirm they can accommodate you. This is especially important for those with food allergies because while a restaurant may serve gluten-free or nut-free food, you’ll want to call to check on how that food is prepared. Cross-contamination in the preparation or cooking process could be a total disaster- and no one wants that! Call ahead and ask to speak with a chef (chances are they’ll have to call you back when they’re not in the kitchen) to discuss cross-contamination and any other concerns you may have. If you’re not comfortable with the conversation, scratch that restaurant off your list. If it sounds like they can accommodate you safely, be sure to write down the name of the chef you spoke to so you can ask for them or at least reference them when you arrive!
Ask to Talk to the Chef
Even if you called ahead and spoke to a chef, ask to talk to the chef when you arrive at a restaurant. Unfortunately many waiters and waitresses don’t have a great understanding of food restrictions. Some do- which is always amazing- but we’ve had too many experiences where despite promising us that they understand what gluten-free means, we then get served a salad with bread sticks on top. Ask to speak directly to the chef who is preparing your food to make sure they understand your needs. If you know you’re eating at a super popular restaurant at their busiest time, call earlier in the day to ask to speak with a chef while they’re not slammed. But in most cases, chefs have no problem taking an extra few minutes to come out and speak with you. They want you to enjoy your food safely!
Traveling with Dietary Restrictions: ACCOMMODATIONS
Many hotels serve breakfasts that cater to special dietary needs, and if breakfast is included in your room- this can be huge in terms of saving money and finding safe food to eat! Search specifically for hotels that can accommodate your needs or find a couple of hotels you’d like to stay at and call to ask if they can make you something safe. Searching personal travel blogs is another great way to find hotels that serve safe food. We’re currently planning a trip through Europe and happily discovered it’s quite common for European travel bloggers to list hotels that have gluten-free breakfast options! Score!
Book a Place with a Kitchen
One of the easiest ways to ensure you can eat safely while traveling is to book accommodations with a kitchen so you can prepare most of your own food. Some hotels have suites with small kitchenettes (especially extended stay hotels) but using AirBnB to find apartments or even entire houses that have full kitchens is probably your best bet. This way you can go grocery shopping and get foods (or bring foods) you know are safe, then you can prepare meals without any fear of cross-contamination. In the case of a severe allergy, you may want to consider packing a few of your own cooking utensils if cross-contamination at any level could be life threatening.
Traveling with Dietary Restrictions: TRANSPORTATION
Flying with Allergies
It can be scary to fly with a severe allergy, especially a peanut allergy. If you are flying with a peanut allergy, check your airline’s peanut policy. Many airlines no longer serve peanuts or peanut products on their flights, though most do serve other nut products. Most airlines will cease serving nuts and make an announcement stating that a flight is peanut-free if you call and make this arrangement ahead of time. This article on peanut-free flights covers the major US airlines and their nut policies (as well accommodations for other allergens) as well as contact information for each airline if you need to ask questions or alert them to an allergy. Kids With Food Allergies offers another great resource on the legal and medical concerns of flying with food allergies.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher or halal, call your airline ahead of time for longer flights that would offer a meal on board. Most airlines can accommodate these dietary restrictions with advanced notice.
Pack Your Own Food
This is probably the single most important tip we can share for traveling with dietary restrictions- pack your own food! This is especially important for travel days as airports and airplanes may not have a ton of safe options, but we’ve been known to pack a few days worth of food for a trip- especially things we know might be hard to find. If you’ve ever seen a crazy lady who boarded an airplane with a bag full, and I mean full, of gluten-free hamburger buns and loaves of gluten-free bread… that was me!
We also never travel without safe protein bars, fresh fruit, and bags of mini carrots because we know those are things our kids will eat if we can’t find a full gluten-free meal. However, if you’re traveling internationally, be aware of restrictions on fresh fruits and veggies as some countries (or even states like Hawaii) restrict these items from crossing their borders.
Traveling with Dietary Restrictions: MEDICAL TIPS
Pack Your Medications
If you take any medications related to your dietary restrictions or if you carry a rescue medication like an Epi Pen, be sure to pack all of these medications in your CARRY-ON BAG. Checked bags can get lost and may not arrive at your destination at the same time you do- and if your meds are in your checked bags you could be in serious trouble! Keep medications in their original prescription bottles and if possible, pack a few extra doses in case of an emergency. Epi Pens are allowed through airport security, just be sure to declare them and remove them from your bag when going through.
Locate Nearby Hospitals
If your food restrictions are due to a medical issue, it’s wise to locate hospitals close to your hotel in your destination- just in case of an emergency. When your child is accidentally exposed to an allergen is not the time you want to be searching for the nearest emergency room!
Bring Important Paperwork- Translated if Necessary!
If you’re traveling with a rare disease that comes with severe dietary restrictions such as EoE or MCAS, it’s wise to travel with some paperwork and documentation from your specialist that explains your conditions and how to manage a medical emergency. The Mast Cell Disease Society actually offers paperwork that your doctor can fill out and sign with your specific treatment protocol should you accidentally ingest or be exposed to a mast cell trigger while traveling. It’s saved my life on more than one occasion and in most cases, I’ve found that ER doctors appreciate the guidance.
If you’re traveling internationally, it’s wise to have any documentation or paper work translated ahead of time. You can check with your local hospital or university to see if anyone is able to translate your documents into the language you need. It’s also possible to contact a hospital or university in your destination to see if they have someone who is able to do this for you. If possible, find someone who also has experience in a medical setting as some medical terms or phrases may not make for easy translation!