A Guide to Traveling with Food Allergies

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guide to gluten-free travel

Travel is hard. Traveling with a special diet is especially hard. But it’s important to note that it’s possible and that it gets easier. Just like any new habit or skill, you will find traveling on the gluten-free diet easier the second and third and fourth time you do it. You will pick up skills along the way, find new resources, and learn from your (yes) mistakes.

As with anything new it’s important to remember to be patient with yourself. Eventually you will have your own gluten-free travel routine down, but until then here is a quick start guide to get you started.

Inside this guide:

  1. Preparing to go
  2. What to pack
  3. Transportation
  4. Accommodations
  5. Food!
  6. Additional advice & resources

preparing to go

Preparing to go

Research research research

Research is a normal part of any trip planning, and if you are already good at this then you have a little bit of a head start! Some of things that you should research are pretty obvious – we’ll dig down a little deeper into the how and why in their specific sections. Here are the big things you should research when planning your trip:

Transportation

Whether you’re planning to travel by boat, train, or plane, it’s important to research options that have gluten-free meals and/or systems in place to accommodate food allergies. (More about this in the transportation section of this guide).

Accommodations

Research places to stay that have a successful track record of accommodating folks who are gluten-free. This means they have clear information about the systems they have in place, and extensive reviews from past visitors who can confirm their competence. (More about this in the accommodation section of this guide).

Places to eat

Research places to eat that have gluten-free options on their menu, and have procedures in place to avoid cross contamination. It’s also good to know grocery stores near where you will be staying so you can pick up some snacks or quick bites if needed! (More about this in the food section of this guide).

Hospitals

You never want to be in a situation where you need a hospital while traveling, but it’s best to be prepared just in case. Make sure you are familiar with the local hospitals near where you’ll be staying in case of an emergency!

Key allergy phrases

If you’re traveling abroad, it’s a good idea to learn key phrases in the native language. If you’re gluten-free this may mean knowing how to say “is this gluten-free?”, “I have celiac disease and cannot eat gluten”, “I am allergic to gluten” (this last one is not technically correct but will get the point across). Of course, this can be a lot to figure out on your own so here are a few resources:

  • Have a translation app on your phone, just in case. Google Translate is a fairly good one that allows for spoken and written translation, plus it has a pretty handy “offline” setting that allows you to use the translator even if you don’t have access to wifi. You can download the app for either Android or Apple.

Gluten-free blogs

And if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed? Read some gluten-free blogs. There are many amazing gluten-free bloggers who write extensively about their travel. They talk about where they went, the research they did ahead of time, where they ate, and where they stayed. A lot of these folks have been living gluten-free for a while so they may have some great tips or advice that will make your trip planning easier. You can find some blog recommendations down in the resource section of this guide.

Talk with your support system

When planning your trip make sure you keep an open line of communication with your support system. This means talking to:

The people you’re traveling with

They can help you with research and planning! You don’t have to do it alone.

Your close friends or family

They may be willing to help you with research and planning, too. If not, they can provide you with emotional support and encouragement if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Also if you’re fairly new to the gluten-free diet it’s good to let your close friends / family see how much of a lifestyle change you’re going through so they can properly support you.

Your gluten-free community

Don’t be afraid to ask gluten-free folks (in person or online) for their recommendations! The gluten-free community is a powerful tool that can help relieve so much stress and help you plan the best trip possible.

Your doctor

She/he may have some additional specialized advice that you can’t easily get from researching yourself. They will also be the most candid with you about what is doable and what isn’t.

Get excited!

Cheesy, yes. But also true. In the flurry of all the research, conversations, and planning don’t forget to take a step back and remember why you’re going — to have fun! Taking short breaks from the tactical side of planning, and taking a minute to scroll through some gorgeous Instagram photos of where your headed will help renew your enthusiasm.

what to pack

What to pack

Snacks

It’s always a good idea to have snacks on you while your traveling in case you need a little boost of energy, or it’s taking you longer than expected to find food. However, it’s especially important to pack snacks when you’re planning a gluten-free trip in the event that a restaurant or airline doesn’t turn out to be as gluten-free as they promised. Your gluten-free snacks will be your savior in those moments…so even if you’re frustrated, you won’t go hungry.

Here are some snack recommendations from the Nima gluten-free community:

  • KIND Bars
  • Larabar
  • Gomacro
  • Vega
  • Kettle chips
  • Popchips
  • Beanfields Bean Chips
  • Fresh fruit
  • Nuts
  • Glutino pretzels
  • Gratify pretzels
  • Enjoy Life trail mix
  • SkinnyPop popcorn
  • Smartfood popcorn
  • Krave jerky

Medicine

In the unfortunate event you do get glutened, make sure that you carry some things to help you recover. Different things work for different people, but some of the common recommendations out there for treatment when you get glutened include: probiotics, digestive enzymes, activated charcoal, and lots and lots of water to flush your system. In addition to all of this, make sure that your plans are flexible enough to allow for a day or two of true rest so you can give your body the time it needs to heal.

If you have another food allergy that can cause anaphylaxis make sure you carry an Epipen, and appropriate medications. Double check the expiration dates of these medications to make sure they will still be good during your trip. And if you’re traveling abroad, make sure to learn generic and brand names of medication you may need.

Non food items

There are a few non food essentials that you should keep on you. Even if you do a good job of bringing gluten-free snacks and finding great gluten-free restaurants, you will most definitely be in spaces that also serve gluten filled food. In order to do your best to avoid cross contamination, here are a few things you should consider bringing:

Hand wipes and hand sanitizer

If you know that you’re very sensitive to cross contamination, you should be prepared to sanitize surfaces and items on the go. The hand wipes will help you make sure shared surfaces (like airplane tray tables) or restaurant table tops, and hand sanitizer will provide an extra layer of protection from anything you might have accidentally touched (including other people’s hands).

Cutlery, plates, and cookware

If traveling by car or going on a long trip where you’ll be doing a lot of your own cooking, it’s a good idea to bring your own cutlery, plates, toaster, knives, cutting boards, and cookware. This may sound like a lot, but it’s actually really necessary. If you’re staying in an apartment with a kitchen it’s likely that the cutlery, plates, and cookware have cooked food that contain gluten in them which means that you’re at a high risk for cross contamination.

Other resources

As mentioned above in the “preparing to go” section, there are extra allergy resources that will be incredibly helpful especially if you’re traveling abroad. These are listed above, but just in case we’ll provide them here too:

  • Have a translation app on your phone, just in case. Google Translate is a fairly good one that allows for spoken and written translation, plus it has a pretty handy “offline” setting that allows you to use the translator even if you don’t have access to wifi. You can download the app for either Android or Apple.

transportation

Transportation

It’s extremely important to pick transportation options that have gluten-free meals and/or systems in place to accommodate food allergies. Transportation can already be tricky or expensive, but we recommend you take extra care with what you select. The last thing you want is to get sick at the very beginning of your trip!

Unfortunately not all airlines (or boats or trains) have good gluten-free meal options or any gluten-free options at all. If you are celiac / highly sensitive to cross contamination you should make sure that whatever mode of transportation you pick at least have procedures in place to limit the risk of cross contamination.

A few tips:

  • Contact the airline before you book to confirm that they are able to provide a gluten-free meal on your flight.
  • When you purchase tickets let the airline know you need a gluten-free meal. Typically you do this by selecting an option at booking, or pre-ordering your meal online.
  • Take the earliest flight of the day when airplanes are typically cleanest.
  • Pack a gluten-free snack in your carry on. That way if the airline doesn’t have a gluten-free meal available for some reason, you won’t go hungry.
  • Before you board, inform your flight crew of your intolerance or allergy and ask if they allow pre-boarding for folks with food allergies.
  • When you board wipe down your airplane seats, arm rests, and trays with sanitary wipes.

Most of these tips can be applied to trains or boats that have meal options!

Airlines that say they have gluten-free meal options:

Please note that this information is offered as a starting point and is current as of the publish date of this article, you should still do your own research and fact finding on your own. There is always a risk of cross contamination, so please be careful!

Cruises that say they have gluten-free meal options:

Please note that this information is offered as a starting point, you should still do your own research and fact finding on your own. There is always a risk of cross contamination especially at buffets, so be careful!

accommodations

Accommodations

When you’re traveling the place you choose to stay will be your home base, and possibly one of your main places to eat. So the research you do and the conversations you have with the staff ahead of time is super important. Some hotels and resorts will have dedicated pages on their website detailing how they can serve folks with food allergies and intolerances. Others, won’t have any information online. But fear not! That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t accommodate for gluten-free folks. Give them a call or send them an email just to double check.

A few tips when looking for accommodations:

  • Before you book always, always, always have a conversation with staff. Even if they state on their website that they can accommodate gluten-free folks it’s best to talk with someone who works there and get an understanding of how they handle food allergies. Do they have separate prep stations? Do they clearly mark all gluten-free items on their menu? Are there only specific dining areas that have gluten-free options? All of these questions are a good way to gage the actual organization and capabilities of the hotel.
  • Book a room with microwaves and refrigerators so that you can safely warm up and store safe foods.
  • Consider renting a private home or condo so you can have full control of kitchen sanitation, and prepare homemade meals. You may be able to use services like Airbnb or VRBO for this.
  • When you arrive, perform a visual inspection of your room or kitchen and look for suspicious loose food or residue.
  • Use those handy sanitary wipes you brought to clean any surfaces (counter tops, fridge handles, etc) that are candidates for cross contamination hot spots.

Here are a few hotels and resorts that say they have gluten-free accommodations:

Please note that this information is offered as a starting point and is current as of the publish date of this article, you should still do your own research and fact finding on your own. There is always a risk of cross contamination, so please be careful!

food

Food!

Arguably the most important element of traveling gluten-free is food! Finding good food, being prepared with your own food, and discovering some new delicious eats are all part of the gluten-free travel game. Again, this can be intimidating when you first start but after a while you’ll develop a keen eye and honed skills for finding the best gluten-free food! Here are a few tips to get you started:

Restaurants

Research

Continuing the theme of extensive research and planning…it’s incredibly important to vet all of the restaurants you’re thinking of visiting. Just like with your transportation and accommodations, the research you do for restaurants should be a healthy combination of searching through their website/online menus, reading reviews, and talking with actual restaurant staff. You most definitely should call restaurants ahead and ask to speak with a manager about food handling policies. And, once you arrive make sure to clearly communicate to your waiter that you need your food to be gluten-free (if you’re celiac, you should tell them this too).

Overplan

Set yourself up with many options. What does that mean? Pick more restaurants than you’ll have time for. So if one spot doesn’t work out, you have a back up.

Understand local cuisine!

Sometimes a travel destination may have traditional cuisine that is naturally gluten-free. If that’s the case, you’re in luck! And won’t need to worry as much about finding gluten-free options (though you should still double check to make sure there’s not chance of cross contamination).

Ask for advice

Ask for recommendations and advice from the free-from community! Often times you’ll find at least one person who has travelled where you are going and has some good recommendations.

Other types of food

Supermarkets

Find out what supermarkets are located near where you’re staying. That way if you have bad luck with finding good restaurants, or just want an easy quick meal, you can find a cheap and easy way to have a gluten-free meal. If you’re traveling internationally, it might be a good idea to find out if there are any well known gluten-free brands in that country. That way you can go into a grocery store and feel confident about what you’re picking. Otherwise, stick to picking up naturally gluten-free foods.

Pre-packed food

As mentioned above in the transportation section, it’s always good to have some gluten-free snacks on hand. Whether it’s in your carry on, stashed in your hotel, or tucked away in your day pack, it’s always a good idea to have food on you that you’re confident is gluten-free. That way if you run into any dicey situations or don’t feel quite safe eating at a restaurant that was picked, you don’t have to go hungry.

For longer trips, or if you’re really unsure about the gluten-freeness of the restaurant options you have, you can always pack non perishable meals that you know are safe to eat. If that means you have to bring an extra bag on your trip? So be it. Your health (and your sanity) is worth it.

advice & resources

Advice & resources

Blogs

Services

Websites

Nima Dining Guides

To browse the whole list, click here.

Top 10 gluten-free dining guides:

  1. Disneyland
  2. Universal Orlando – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
  3. Los Angeles
  4. San Diego
  5. Portland
  6. Munich
  7. London
  8. Buenos Aires
  9. Chicago
  10. Denver

Advice from the Nima community:

“Pack things that don’t need refrigeration like rice cakes, apples, protein bars, etc. You can get a 4 pack of 8 fl oz almond milks that don’t need to be refrigerated to use with meal replacement powder. I always make sure whatever I pack has some protein in it to hold me over. Nut butters are the perfect way to get some protein. Gluten free jerky is also another option if you eat meat.”

“Pack a loaf of gluten-free bread, some cheese and gluten-free lunch meat or jars of peanut butter and jelly with a cutting board and knife to make sandwiches on the way. Lots of good GF popcorns and chips, too.”

“If you run out of packed food, convenient stores that sell fruit and veggie cups are great (just be careful of dressing), as well as GF cheese and pepperoni snack packs.”

“Take lots of snacks and pre-made meals if you can. Research safe restaurants ahead of time. Use Find me gluten-free app and your Nima!”

“Road trips mean you still have a lot of control over food preparation! Pack a large cooler w/ essentials for your trip including snacks, sandwich fixings, lots of water. Bring lots of zip lock baggies for snacking on the road and plan ahead!”

“Plan ahead, never eat the free breakfast! Except maybe the fruit. Pack fresh veggies cut and packed in serving size bags, remember fiber keeps you full! And of course bring your Nima .”

“When on the road, I tend to get food at a grocery store where I have less chance of getting a gluten contamination than at a fast food restaurant. If fast food is your only option, then I have had good success with Subway, especially when they have their GF bread option available.”

“Pack safe breakfast and lunch items you can eat on the road or make easily in a hotel room. Always pack lots of snacks. Stop at farm stands or produce markets for fresh fruits and veggies to eat on the go. Eat dinner at a safe place and stick to the basics without sauces or gravies.”