Travelling with a dietary restriction isn’t easy. Will you be able to find foods you can eat? How are you going to communicate your dietary needs? What will you do if you get sick? These are questions anyone with food sensitivities will ask themselves as they plan an upcoming trip. The world is becoming more aware of Celiac disease, but gluten-free travellers still have to be responsible for their own safety when abroad. These gluten-free travel tips I’ve learned through trial-and-error will help you plan your next trip and minimise your risk of getting sick.
As a celiac with severe sensitivities and reactions, knowing the food culture of where I am headed is a top priority. Some countries are easier than others to navigate on a gluten-free diet. Latin America, for instance, has a diet typically comprised of rice, beans, and corn. Countries in Asia however, where noodles and soy sauce are prevalent, are a minefield of dangers.
Preparation is key before setting out on a gluten-free adventure. Once you have an idea of what kind of foods will be available in the country you are visiting, you can assess how much food you need to take with you. We never leave home without packing at least some food we know is safe to eat. When we went to Japan, half of our luggage was food! Packing some simple foods will not only save you from getting sick, it will also save you some time and money.
Gluten-Free Travel Tips
Use translation cards. These are cards you can print off for free (or use as an app) and explain in detail what you can and can not eat in the language of your destination. Print off a couple of copies and take them everywhere with you.
Don’t be shy. Take your time communicating with restaurant staff and don’t be embarrassed to repeat yourself, ask questions, send food back, or use your translation card.
When unsure, don’t eat. Even after going through all the hassle of communicating your restrictions, something may have been lost in translation. Celiac disease is a new thing, and many countries are not familiar with the intricacies of a gluten-free diet. For me, even a tiny bit of flour in a sauce will have me vomiting all night. If you are served something that looks like it contains gluten, assess the risk you are taking by eating it.
Spend some time on the internet. Google gluten-free restaurants and bakeries in your destination. Save these places to your Google Maps for easy reference when wandering around. Consider joining a Facebook group or forum for suggestions and advice on gluten-free travel in general or for a specific region.
Book accommodation with a kitchen. Cooking for yourself when travelling can actually be a lot of fun! Peruse grocery stores for new and interesting foods. Use a communal kitchen to chat with fellow travellers and even share some of the food you have prepared. Look up some traditional recipes and see if you can recreate them.
Pack medication. Once you’ve ingested gluten, the symptoms hit quickly. I know I have about three hours before I start puking my guts out. When you’re sick, or about to be sick, the last thing you want to have to do is find a pharmacy that is both open and carries the medication you need. Always carry something in your day bag for emergencies (I use Gravol).
Bring Tupperware and re-usable food wraps. If you have a kitchen at your accommodation, you can prepare a healthy lunch to take with you when you’re out for the day. This will save stress, time, and money searching for a restaurant that can accommodate you. If the weather is good, find a park and have a picnic!
Pack your own flight meal. Even if your airline offers gluten-free meals and even if that meal actually makes it onto the plane, you’re pretty much going to end up with a plain rice cake and an apple. Pack something delicious and make the person sitting next to jealous as they choke down their microwaved and soggy burger.
Download Google Translate. This app can be a lifesaver when trying to read ingredients in a foreign language. You can download a language before you leave to use offline. However, I found the camera translation feature (where you take a picture of the words you want translated) only worked with an internet connection.
Suggestions for Travel Friendly Gluten-Free Foods
- Protein bars. Pick your favourite brand and toss a couple in your bag before you head out exploring. They might not be delicious, but at least you won’t go hungry when touring the ancient sites of Rome all day.
- Seasoned tuna in cans with pull tabs. Instant protein that doesn’t taste like cardboard and artificial sweetener!
- Instant oatmeal. You can make this even without a kitchen – we have even made oatmeal in a coffee machine! Add some dried fruit for variety and nutrition. Also consider using quinoa flakes or fonio – a highly nutritious grain from West Africa.
- Dried fruit and nuts. Get creative with your favourite items and make your own trail mix.
- Rice cakes. The thinner ones are better for saving space in your luggage. Pick up some jam and bananas at your destination to make a healthy snack.
- For your flight, take a sandwich or salad with cheese, tofu (or protein of your choice), bean sprouts, and lots of veggies. Note: you can not take fresh produce across borders. If you don’t finish your meal, toss it before going through customs. Add a sliced apple with peanut butter for dessert.
How do you manage dietary restrictions when you travel? Tell me your tips!
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