6 tips for traveling with dietary restrictions

Vacation planning can be stressful and overwhelming for anyone: How much time do you need to get everything set? How much money should you save? Which airport security program should you apply for? Should you pay attention to that state department travel advisory? *Sigh.* But as if all of that wasn’t enough; the stress can be compounded when you have a dietary restriction that you need to consider as well. Whether you’re vegan, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, allergic to peanuts, or have another food sensitivity or allergy; here’s how to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of you enjoying your much-deserved vacation.

Research before you go

“Doing a bit of research before your trip will make your life much easier once you arrive,” said Wendy Werneth, creator of The Nomadic Vegan. Spend time learning about the local cuisine in general as well as specific restaurants, grocery stores and accommodations that can meet your dietary needs. Werneth uses the global, crowd-sourced vegan and vegetarian directory HappyCow; and there are plenty of apps and websites with similar information for various food sensitivities and allergies. Kim Koeller, founder and president of GlutenFree Passport, recommended the Find Me Gluten Free app for those with a gluten allergy. Allergy Eats offers an extensive guide based on several different allergies.

It’s also worthwhile to continue the research after you get where you’re going. “Once you reach your destination, speak with your hotel concierge or help desk to see which nearby restaurants and grocery stores carry the foods needed for your specific diet,” said Susan Okonkowski, a registered dietitian and health care manager with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “Though you’ve likely done your research ahead of time, they may have additional useful information about the area.”

Communicate your needs in advance

The more information you provide to those preparing or providing your food, the less likely you are to encounter issues. Start with the journey, and inform your airline or other transportation company of any dietary restrictions or allergies. Koeller recommended using standard airline codes (such as GFML for gluten free or NLML for non-lactose) to order meals; and re-confirm your order 24 to 72 hours in advance. “Even if special meals are ordered, always pack your snacks and light meals in case your airline meal isn’t available or is not correct,” she added.

Take similar steps for your destination. “If you’ll be eating breakfast or other meals at your hotel, it’s a good idea to let them know about your needs when booking,” Werneth said. “Many places will be happy to accommodate and will make special arrangements for you with a bit of advance notice.” As with the airline, Koeller recommended reconfirming closer to your trip (about one to two weeks in advance) to make sure everything is set.

If you have a dangerous allergy, Koeller noted, you can also call ahead to specific restaurants to inform them of your restrictions and ask about ingredients. “Even though more restaurants around the world are offering gluten free menus and/or food allergy charts, it is still critical to ask questions and confirm how food is prepared to ensure safe meals everywhere,” she said. And be as specific as possible: “Instead of simply asking, ‘Is this dish gluten free, dairy free or X allergen free?’, ask questions or confirm potential menu items based on ingredients and food preparation in restaurant language terms,’” Koeller noted. “[A] sample question for safe gluten-free meals may be, ‘Are your hamburgers made with bread crumbs and packaged seasonings?’ … [and a] sample question for a milk or dairy allergy may be, ‘Is your steak finished off with butter?’”

Learn key phrases in foreign languages

Communicating your needs is of course a larger challenge if you’re going to a country where you don’t speak the native language — but fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help you navigate that language barrier. “When you’re at a restaurant in a foreign country, it’s best to carry a food allergy translation card to accurately communicate any dietary restrictions,” Okonkowski said. “Websites like AllergyTranslation.com, DietaryCard.com or SelectWisely.com can all help print customizable translation cards that include dietary restrictions and other needs in the appropriate language.” GlutenFree Passport also offers English language dining cards and phrasebooks; Koeller also recommended the app iEatOut Gluten Free & Allergy Free for various restrictions, and Werneth recommended The Vegan Passport for vegan needs.

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Bring your own food

Regardless of how prepared you are for the local restaurants, stores and accommodations, it’s a good idea to bring your own food that you know you can eat. “Definitely pack an emergency stash of snacks, for peace of mind if nothing else,” Werneth said. “You may not need them, but you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your trip more knowing that, even in the worst-case scenario, you’re not going to starve.”

For your travel days, “carry enough food to get you to your location,” Koeller said. “For example, if you’re flying eight hours to Hawaii, take two to three meals worth of food in case of delays. Make sure your snacks are with you at all times for easy access even during turbulence.”

Koeller recommended things like energy bars, hard boiled eggs, single-serve protein mixes to add to water, vacuum-packed lunch meat, and single-serve packets of nut or nut-free butter for high-protein, gluten-free and allergy-friendly (for certain allergies) options; and dried fruit, fresh-cut vegetables, dried soup, and trail mix for additional snacks. Remember to pack any liquid foods (like nut butter or applesauce) in your quart-size bag if you’re flying; and be prepared to ditch any food that’s not pre-packaged before you go through customs, Koeller noted.

It also may be worthwhile, both Werneth and Okonkowski noted, to plan to stay in a vacation rental or other accommodation with a kitchen (or at least a refrigerator) so you can prepare and store your own food.

Prepare for emergencies

If you have a serious, life-threatening allergy, it’s important to prepare for emergencies. “Stock up on any medications or supplements to alleviate symptoms and bring along emergency epinephrine devices as needed,” Okonkowski said. “Don’t forget to check in with your health insurance provider to confirm what’s covered abroad and understand how to get care while away.” Make sure your travel companions and accommodations have your emergency contact information as well, just in case.

Let a professional plan your trip

“If the thought of doing all the planning and research yourself is overwhelming, you could always join a tour that caters specifically to your dietary needs,” Werneth noted. “The number of vegan tours has exploded in recent years, and you can find several options for gluten-free tours as well.” Indeed, companies like Gluten Free Travel-US offer gluten free travel-booking services; Green Earth Travel features vegan and vegan-friendly tours; and Food Allergy Concierge will work with your travel agent or with you directly to ensure an allergy-friendly vacation.