Five Best Tips for People with Food Allergies to Travel

Five Best Tips for People With Food Allergies To Travel

Picture of a beautiful beach with ocean waves lapping a sandy beach.
Traveling? Worried about how you are going to eat along the way? The destination is the reward, but how will you enjoy it? Read my five tips.

Since I am on vacation in Maui, HI,  I’ll keep this post brief, but I promise, you’ll still find it entertaining. I am ever the Sensible Celiac, and I am all about making food fun again!

This post is focused mainly on point-to-point travel by airplane and car versus a long road trip or relying on public transportation in rural areas. One of these days, I’ll post more about how I navigated two weeks at Burning Man! But I digress.

Here are my top five tips to traveling as a person with both multiple food allergies AND Celiac Disease. I totally know it’s not always easy or convenient, but as a triathlete who lives to play hard and eat well, I can’t bear the loss of even a few hours because of tummy trouble, let alone the horror of having to make an emergency room visit. So, let’s get on with it.

Tip 1: Travel Light. Well, Sort Of.

A stack of three matching suitcases piled high on top of a bike box, and a colorful backpack on top of the entire pile, all balanced on a tiny airport luggage cart
Sometime, you can’t really travel light because you have a lot of gear and food. Learn what to bring and what to leave behind.’

Even though I’m flying to a town that has grocery stores close by, they don’t always have the things I’m looking for. Case in point: they didn’t have rice milk without emulsifiers, and they did not carry goat yoghurt. You want to think about how much dried food you can pack in your luggage (I had one checked bag and one backpack for a carry on).

On my list: Tinkyada brown rice pasta, Trader Joe’s gluten free flour mix (makes great crepes), spices, brown rice crackers, wakame, coconut oil, Primal gf oat free granola, Jules Paleo Wraps, dried beef jerky, brown rice ramen.

Always keep a meal in a thermos stored in your carry on. We were told mid-flight that the gluten free meal my husband had selected for me was a “mistake”; meaning, our airline’s web portal should not have even offered special meals in the first place. Fortunately for me, I had a dried meal in a thermos ready for hot water, and a meal in four minutes. I have no idea what the vegans and people needing kosher or diabetic meals were doing for food on the flight.  The man next to us was feeding off a continuous supply of Coors beer.  Hmm. Well, that’s one way to do it, but not the way for me.

So, travel light… but only sort of. It is what it is, folks. Make room in your bag for food, and leave out a couple of snazzy outfits or dressy shoes. The underwear, however, is essential!

Tip 2:  Plan Ahead and Scout Out the Grocery Store

If it is possible, book lodging in condo rentals or Residence Inn style lodging with kitchens or at least a kitchenette. This will allow you to do your own food preparation and cooking, and save you the heartache of being glutened or having an unpleasant encounter with a food allergen when going out.

Do not use the toaster or toaster oven in the place, even if you think it is clean. Sorry folks, you can turn that baby upside down as many times as you want, and it will always have gluten-y crumbs in it. Always, unless it is brand, spanking new toaster coming out of the manufacturer’s box.

A week before your trip, find out where the nearest grocery stores are to your destination lodging. If you have trouble, call the hotel; they will often have a listing and can give you an idea of how much time it takes to travel to them. Buffer time into your schedule for meal preparation and cooking, and keep your recipes simple.

I know that when I travel, I usually try to get some meat dishes in, so I’ll pack some spices that do well with those dishes. Nothing like some dried chillies without alliums to spice up my breakfast omelet.

Tip 3: Buffer Extra Time For Meals Out

Two feet in red sandals on a sandy beach, with ocean waves about 50 yards away, and the sun is shining.
Buffer extra time for getting meals done right when going out. The reward: extra time to relax and feel great! Toes up at Napili Beach Bay near Kapalua.

There is no such thing as a “quick meal” for me when I go out to a restaurant. Instead, I buffer extra time for meals, so I can have a relaxed conversation with the restaurant manager and server about my meal, and I can ask questions about how the food is prepared. That includes time to make a decision to not eat a certain place at all, and find another restaurant. If you go into a restaurant starving and in a hurry, you make decisions like a person who is starving and in a hurry, right?

It’s OK to change your mind. Better safe than sorry.

I know that some people create a prohibitory food card which lists all the foods that you cannot eat, and then has the card translated when traveling abroad. If you have a just a couple of food allergies or intolerances I can see how this would work really well for you. For me, I’d have to change those cards every few months! I’m  discovering new food allergies as I go, and what I found that works well instead of listing out all 300+ individual foods and Celiac Disease is to put the foods in seven categories: gluten, alliums, dairy, soy, nuts, beans, and corn. As the server helps me select individual options, such as a vegetable, fruit, or cooking oil, I can further tailor the choices. No need for a card, and I can watch the server write each down to ensure it gets properly communicated to the chef.

Additionally, it’s OK to eat your meals in stages. Does a place you sat down in do a good job with preparing salads? Then order a salad, and consider going elsewhere later for a main dish. Or, cook that main dish at home. There is nothing in the rule book that says you need to eat your appetizer, main dish, and dessert in the same place at the same time. Just consider it one of those moveable feasts!

Tip 4: BYOF and Don’t Skip the Social Stuff

Tonight and tomorrow night, the host company Xterra has two lovely buffet dinners and social time for all the athletes, and we have tickets to attend. I am not going to be eating at the buffet, as they are notorious for cross-contamination problems (who can ever keep track of what spoon went in what container, right?).

Instead, I’ll be eating my meal early at the condo, and then walking with my husband to the buffet so I can enjoy the social time with him. Eating is a social custom as much as it is a nutritional necessity. Which brings me to my last tip, Tip Five.

Update: The Ritz-Carlton offered me a simple plate of Mahi-Mahi and vegetables with a fruit plate when they learned that I could not eat from their buffet table. They had created a number of pre-fixe gluten-free plates separate from the buffet line, but these did not work for me. The head chef laughed when he heard I ate before I arrived. “We serve thousands of people every year who have food allergies and intolerances.” Well, I’m tickled pink!

Tip 5:  Be Creative, and Don’t Fall Prey to Pity

Race T-shirt, race bib with number, race brochure, and X-terra swag bag with Body Glide container arranged together.
We travel for race-cations: vacation destinations while completing a race! This is a perfect example of not feeling sorry for yourself. Consider what you DO get to do, and don’t focus on what you can’t do (like eat that Hula Pie).

Perhaps of all five tips, this one is both the hardest, and the one that delivers the most ROI for the heart and mind. What does your heart desire regarding food, health, and connection with others? It is up to you to create this for yourself. Not your host, not your family members, not your spouse. Just you. 

You can choose to feel sorry for yourself because it is truly so tiring, inconvenient, and sometimes burdensome. Or you can feel empowered, get creative about your meals (spice it up!), and smile like the Cheshire Cat because you have a little secret: good health is a gift. But it also something we can cultivate through our own initiative and actions, which often differ from the “normal people” who can (and sometimes do!) eat whatever they want. 

I have learned very quickly that my body simply rejects just about anything that isn’t considered clean eating. I say just about anything, because for whatever reasons,the gods decided to take pity on me, I can eat bacon like there’s no tomorrow, and my blood panels come up normal. But everything else will lay me out like a helpless virgin at the mercy of an erupting volcano, Grumpy Tummy, or massive GI distress with a plummeting blood pressure after projectile vomiting.

So, do I feel sorry for myself?

Well, OK. I did, at first. But I don’t feel sorry for myself now. I feel more sorry for the people staying in the neighboring hotel, which happens to be the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua (not because their food isn’t pretty). They have to eat out every meal that isn’t cold, crunchy cereal and fruit. And looking around, most of the places serve beautiful looking food that isn’t necessarily healthy or well-balanced. Much of it is fried, the vegetables are scarce, and the amount of white flour in the form of breads and pastas is appalling. Can you say, “Diabetes Type II on a platter?”

Finally, I don’t pity myself because gee, look what I get to do — race in one of the toughest trail running races on private land. It’s beautiful here! And I’m not sick: I am healthy, strong, and able to do what I love. Sure, so do these other athletes who don’t have food allergies nor Celiac Disease. Yet, I am here. And I do. And I say, “Let’s race!

I don’t know what my life would be like if I couldn’t travel. London, Essouria, Taipei, Beijing, Paris, Cancun, Costa Rica, Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Tel Aviv, Jordan. These are just some of the places I would have never been able to go to if I hadn’t learned that it is possible to travel and not become ill due to food allergies and Celiac Disease.

Surf’s up!

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