Anyone who has food allergies or follows a special diet (such as kosher or vegan) knows that sticking to your food regimen can sometimes be tricky — especially when you're traveling overseas and struggling to explain exactly what ovo-vegetarianism is to a waiter who only speaks a dozen words of English. But your dietary restrictions don't have to keep you stuck at home and chained to your own kitchen.
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People on special diets travel all the time — including members of our own staff (IndependentTraveler.com is home to several vegetarians, a Webmaster with celiac disease and an editor with a wide variety of food sensitivities). Traveling with dietary restrictions takes careful planning and a willingness to communicate your needs clearly ... and sometimes repeatedly. The following tips will help you overcome language barriers, find restaurants that fit your diet and stay safe in the case of an allergic reaction.
Research your destination and be prepared for any food-related challenges you may face with regard to local eating customs. For example, nearly a third of India's population is vegetarian, so it's easy to find meatless dishes there. But vegetarianism is a foreign concept in most of South America. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't visit South America if you're a vegetarian or a vegan; however, you can expect to spend a lot of time explaining to befuddled waiters exactly what you're able to eat (and why vegetable soup made with beef stock doesn't qualify).
Call ahead. Most travel outfitters can make arrangements to meet your dietary needs if they're given plenty of notice. In fact, we recommend multiple calls — one as far in advance as possible to make preliminary arrangements, and another a few days before your trip to confirm your request.
You can avoid the hassle of making your own arrangements by booking a trip with a specialty outfitter that caters to your particular dietary needs — like a kosher cruise with Kosherica or a vegetarian biking trip to England with Bicycle Beano.
Look up informational Web sites for your particular condition and see what resources they have for travelers. Many offer useful tips, restaurant and accommodation directories and links to local support groups in your destination. Contacting local groups is one of the best ways to get information about your destination; they'll be able to recommend the best restaurants, health food stores and even doctors (in case of a medical emergency).
Food allergy translation cards
If you're traveling to a country where you don't speak the local language, food allergy translation cards can be a lifesaver (literally!). Several companies offer these wallet-size cards, which explain your allergy or other dietary restriction in the local language of wherever you're going. They usually can be customized to include multiple allergies and food restrictions. Be sure to order multiple copies of your travel cards in case you lose one or leave one at a restaurant.
The following companies offer food allergy translation cards:
You may also be able to make your own cards. Some travelers print out photos of the foods they can't eat and draw a large X (or a circle with a slash) over them to indicate that these items are prohibited. The International Vegetarian Union offers a directory of vegetarian phrases in a variety of world languages, while CeliacTravel.com has printable gluten-free cardsin 42 different languages.
Whether you buy cards or make your own, it's a good idea to research how to read and pronounce the word(s) for your particular dietary condition — this will help you decipher menus and nutrition information labels, and enable you to communicate with anyone you encounter, regardless of their level of literacy. The tourist board for your destination should be able to help you with translation and pronunciation.
Talk to your innkeeper or hotel concierge about which nearby restaurants or grocery stores would be suitable for your needs. (Calling ahead of time will give them time to do a little research on your behalf.) You may also be able to find restaurant recommendations online; in particular, there are a number of sites that offer directories of vegetarian restaurants and health food stores.
When traveling within your own home country, it's often useful to seek out chain restaurants where you've eaten in the past — that way you'll already be familiar with the menu and know which items you can eat without a problem.
At restaurants, address your dietary needs with your waiter or, better yet, the chef (who may be the only person who knows exactly what ingredients are in each dish). Show your food allergy card if you have one; if you don't, and you don't speak the local language, see if you can find another diner at the restaurant to help you translate. Don't be afraid to ask the kitchen to modify a dish or to prepare something that isn't on the menu — most restaurants can quickly throw together a veggie-only salad or another simple dish. (Note that this is easiest if the kitchen isn't too busy, so you may want to eat at non-peak times.)
The best way to control your diet on the road is to book accommodations where you can cook for yourself. Vacation rentals are a good choice, as are home exchanges — or look for a hotel with a kitchen. You can stock your pantry with food from local grocery or health food stores; just be sure you know enough of the local language to read the nutrition labels.
Another option to consider is a bed and breakfast. The owners of these small properties can often take more time to accommodate their guests' special needs — and in some cases they may grant you access to their kitchen.
Trains, planes, cars and boats
When possible, bring your own food with you onto the plane or train. Just be sure to follow all pertinent airport security rules for liquids and gels if you're flying — and if you're traveling to another country, check its customs regulations to be sure your food is permitted to cross the border. (Many countries do not allow travelers to bring animal products or fresh fruits and vegetables from other nations.) Packing your own grub is even easier if you're traveling by car — you can stow your goodies in a cooler for longer freshness.
Most airlines can accommodate a wide variety of special diets as long as they have advance notice. You must usually request a special meal at least 24 hours before your flight. The day of your trip, speak with the gate agent or a flight attendant to confirm that your special meal has made it onto your plane.
Cruise lines have grown increasingly accommodating of special diets and should be able to handle most common allergies and dietary restrictions. Vegetarians in particular will find at least one option in most onboard restaurants, while travelers with other diets should call ahead of time to make arrangements. For more information, see Cruising with Dietary Restrictions.
Peanuts on planes
For fliers who are sensitive to peanuts, air travel can be a source of worry. Check your airline's Web site for its policy on snacks with nuts. Many airlines no longer serve peanuts on flights, while others will refrain from serving them if they know a passenger has a severe allergy. You can also ask your flight attendant to make an announcement on your behalf, requesting that other passengers not eat peanut products during the flight.
No airline can guarantee a peanut-free plane because it's impossible to control what passengers bring with them on a flight. However, you can take more control over your situation by explaining your allergy to passengers around you. You may even wish to bring your own alternative snack to share with your neighbors.
Pack sanitary wipes to rub down your tray table, arm rests and other surfaces before eating. And consider taking a morning flight — most planes are at their cleanest then.
Make sure you have adequate medical insurance in the case of an allergic reaction. If your health insurance policy at home doesn't cover you in a foreign country, purchase a travel insurance policy that will. (Just be sure to inquire about the terms and conditions affecting pre-existing conditions, such as allergies.)
Be prepared by researching hospitals, doctors or other medical providers where you're going, particularly if you have strong reactions to particular foods. (For help with this, see Health Care Abroad.)
Have your doctor write up an explanation of your condition, your medical history and how you should be treated in the case of an allergic reaction; carry this document, as well as your doctor's contact information, with you at all times. You may also want to consider wearing a medical ID bracelet.
Bring a full supply of antihistamines, epinephrine needles or any other medications for dealing with an allergic reaction. Pack enough to last for a few days beyond the scheduled end of your trip, just in case. If you're flying, always put these items in your carry-on luggage (so it doesn't get lost if your checked bag does) and be prepared to present them at the airport security checkpoint, particularly if any of them are in liquid, gel or needle form. (The TSA will allow medically necessary items through the checkpoint, but additional screening may be required.)