Seeing the world is an enlightening experience, but it can also be a dangerous one if you’re allergic to things like nuts, gluten, soy, lactose, shellfish, and others foods. That doesn’t have to hold you back, though. Here are a few tips to help you travel and eat safely.
Do Extra Research and Plan Meals
Unfortunately, if you suffer a severe food allergy, you’ll have to do more planning than other travellers might. Eating at that cool-looking restaurant or street food vendor on a whim can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re getting into. Doing thorough research before you leave is imperative. Get to know the typical foods of the region, and look up recipes for popular dishes so you have an idea of what’s in what.
You should also prepare to break through language barriers if you’re travelling somewhere where nobody speaks English. Jeremy and Angie Jones of Living the Dream suggest you get comfortable using Google Translate or Microsoft Translator, then double-check those translations with a native speaker:
“I typically use Google translate to get a rough idea of how to say that I have a food allergy and what I’m allergic to. Then either before I go or once I’m in the country, I look for a bilingual person (at your hotel / hostel is a good place to start) to verify the Google translation, or ask them a better way to say it. If your allergy is serious, also make sure you know how to say that you’re having a medical emergency and need a hospital in case the worst happens.”
Don’t rely on those tools, though, and make sure you memorise some of the more important phrases. At least know the common words for your allergy and ingredients that are dangerous to you, and know how to ask for help in case of an emergency.
Your research should also include locating the nearest hospital to the areas you’re visiting, and looking for local doctors who may specialise in your allergy wherever you’re headed. They may be able to write or fill an emergency prescription.
If you can, plan your meals when you’ll be dining out ahead of time. You can go over the menus at restaurants and figure out what you can eat where. And if you’re not sure where to start, ask people for recommendations. Maybe your allergist has some suggestions, or maybe your hotel’s concierge can point you in the right way. A little homework goes a long way.
Pack an Easy-to-Access Medical Kit
Make sure you pack a kit that includes all of your medications, and bring extra EpiPens. Tell your doctor you’re travelling and may need more to bring along, see if they can write extra prescriptions for you to bring along, or ask if it’s possible for them to email or fax in prescriptions for additional EpiPens if you need them. Also, learn the generic brand names for your medications in the country you’re visiting.
Basically, assume bringing extra of everything won’t be enough and you’ll always have enough.
More importantly, make sure the people you’re travelling with knows where this kit is and how to administer medication in an emergency (it doesn’t hurt to let flight attendants know either). If you’re travelling alone, Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) suggests you bring extra, easy-to-find copies of your Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan.
If you’re deathly allergic to something, it’s not a bad idea to wear a medical ID bracelet that explains your situation. Here’s a helpful travel planning checklist from FARE.
Carry Restaurant Cards for the Country You’re Visiting
Sometimes your attempts at speaking the local language aren’t enough. In those cases, it’s better to be safe than sorry and use restaurant cards that say exactly what you can’t have along with a picture of the ingredient. Jodi Ettenberg at Legal Nomads, who has shared her travel eating advice with us before, has a collection of great Gluten Free Restaurant Cards available.
In fact, if you need to eat gluten-free, Ettenberg has loads of guides to eating in various countries, like this one that covers the cuisine of Japan. If you have a different allergy, it’s not too difficult to make your own with some index cards.
Pack Non-Perishable Food You Can Eat in an Emergency
Because it’s not easy to trust random street food vendors or small restaurant chefs with understanding the severity of your allergy, you should always have something you can for sure eat on hand. Pack a bunch of non-perishable, allergen-free snacks in your luggage, and bring it along in your day pack. In fact, pack more than you think you’ll need, and try to include a wide variety of snacks so you don’t get sick of them too fast.
Depending on what you’re planning to do on your trip, there’s a chance you’ll have to survive on what you bring with you for long periods of time.
Stay Somewhere With a Kitchen and Cook Your Own Food
If you’re really worried about the food situation at your destination, Laura Lopuch at Packsmith suggests you opt to stay somewhere you can cook your own meals.
Jeremy and Angie Jones of Living the Dream also recommend taking a cooking class while you’re travelling. The instructors can often accommodate food allergies better than a restaurant if you tell them ahead of time, which gives you an opportunity to try local cuisine without worrying. Plus, learning how to cook popular local dishes teaches you about typical ingredients found in the food of the area.
The more you know about what’s in local cuisine, the more safely you can navigate it.
When in Doubt, Don’t Take Any Risks
At the end of the day, your health and safety are what matters most. If you have a bad feeling about a dish, don’t risk it. Generally speaking, the easier a dish is to prepare, the easier it is to modify, and thus the safer for you to eat, but you should learn to sense for when restaurants and vendors take your requests seriously.
Sometimes cooks won’t understand you or blow you off as a picky eater. A quick nod and smile after you tell them about your allergy isn’t enough to risk your life over.
Also, be wary of possible cross contamination. For example, Natalie Deduck from the Love and Road travel blog has a bivalve allergy, but to be safe she avoids eating all fish and seafood when she travels:
“When we are travelling to different cultures and eating a lot of street food (we love street food) I avoid eating fish. In general, I even avoid eating meat because I know they might be stored in the same pot or in the same cooling box.”
Deduck says the easiest path for her is to sometimes just stick with vegetarian dishes for the peace of mind. After all, you want to spend your days enjoying the culture and scenery, not stressing over every single food you put in your mouth.