With much of the country reopening this summer, I can’t wait to start traveling again. But this will be my first time venturing out of New York City after being diagnosed with celiac disease, which complicates things. Because I can’t eat gluten, I’ll no longer be able to pop into a fast food chain for a quick lunch or spontaneously hit up a cute cafe or restaurant for dinner after a long day of sightseeing.
While the notion of traveling with a dietary restriction seemed pretty daunting to me at first, I’m confident I can make it work—without stressing out too much. That’s because I chatted with a bunch of pros—people who live with dietary restrictions of their own, as well as dietitians who treat people with food allergies and intolerances—for their tried-and-true advice.
Here are the best tips for traveling with dietary restrictions.
1. Choose a hotel that will accommodate you.
Katie Wilson, co-founder BelliWelli, a line of gut-friendly snack bars, who has IBS, says she always calls the hotel she’s staying at to see if they’re amenable to accommodating dietary restrictions.
One of the best things to ask the hotel is if you can get a room with a mini fridge in it when traveling with dietary restrictions. “When I book a hotel or place to stay, I like to make sure it’s somewhere that has a mini-fridge in the room,” says Zlata Faerman, who creates mostly low FODMAP recipes @lifeandthymez on Instagram and has been on a restrictive diet since 2014. “This way, whatever foods you pack with you can be used throughout your stay.”
If you’re planning an extended trip, consider booking a hotel with an in-room kitchen, suggests Rebecca Pytell, founder of Strength & Sunshine, who has celiac disease and a variety of food allergies. Airbnb is a particularly good option for long trips. “Thankfully, with the rise of Airbnb this last decade, you can book a place with a full kitchen you can stock with staple foods and meals even if you plan on eating out,” says Pytell.
Where your hotel is located matters too. “I would make sure you stay somewhere close to a grocery store so you can pick up dried goods like fruit, rice cakes, gluten-free oatmeal packs, protein bars, jerky, and more,” says Kayla King, co-founder and CEO of MacroMenu, a Denver-based app that lists restaurants that are safe for people with dietary restrictions, who has celiac disease.
2. Do plenty of restaurant research beforehand.
While it can be difficult to be spontaneous when you’re traveling with dietary restrictions, chances are, you’ll be able to find some place to eat. It’ll just take some sleuthing. While most restaurants around the world recognize common dietary restrictions like gluten-free and dairy-free, it’s always a good idea to call and check before you go, says Wilson.
“I do a lot of Instagram stalking based on menus,” adds Kiara Horwitz, corporate director of public relations for Arlo Hotels and founder of beRevolutionarie on-demand fitness platform, who has Crohn’s disease.
King says there are also plenty of apps, like MacroMenu, the one she created, that you can look at to find safe restaurants for people with celiac disease, other food intolerances, or food allergies. Other good apps include Find Me Gluten-Free, AllergyEats, and Spokin.
When you get to the restaurant, tell the waitstaff right away that you have a food allergy or if there are certain ingredients you just can’t eat, says Nancy Courduff, RD, clinical dietitian with Stella Maris, a long-term care facility in central Maryland affiliated with Mercy Health Services.
Booking a cruise? You should also alert the staff to find out what the procedure is for dealing with food allergies, saus Courduff. “If you’re not sure if a menu item is safe for you to consume, check with the cook,” she adds.
If you have celiac disease and are sensitive to cross contamination, ask the chef how the meal is prepared, advises King. For example, if you’re ordering grilled meat, ask if the grill sees bread, and if so, if they can clean it down or cook it in a separate pan. “Then always ask them to change gloves and use fresh utensils,” says King.
Your best bet may be to stick to simple meals when dining out. “Rather than starting with a meal on the menu and requesting a bunch of substitutions, I always ask if they are open to making items like plain pasta or a basic omelette and adding or modifying from there,” says Wilson. “Substitutions can get too complicated and sometimes things get lost in translation and you’ll end up with something you can’t eat.”
Pytell shares acronym “CALL” to make dining out with a dietary restriction a breeze:
- Call ahead to ask if the restaurant can accommodate you.
- Arrive on time to talk with the waitstaff and chef.
- Look at the menu so you can clearly identify the dish you want and any modifications you’d need.
- Look at your plate and make sure there are no hidden croutons, unnamed sauces, or anything else you can’t eat.
3. Find ways to communicate in other languages.
Headed to another country where they don’t speak your language? “Utilize Google Translate to help you navigate the area,” suggests Chelsea McCallum, dietitian and nutritionist in Brisbane, Australia, who specializes in IBS and the low FODMAP diet.
Using dining out cards can also be helpful, says King. A dining out card is a printable card that states your food allergies or intolerances, written in the language of the place you’re visiting. “I recommend using the company Equal Eats, especially when traveling abroad, because they have their cards translated in 50 different languages,” says King, who’s traveled to 32 countries.
4. Watch what you eat on a plane.
“Planning ahead is the key to successfully traveling with a dietary restriction,” says Wilson. “Many of us can fall into the trap of rushing around the airport to grab snacks before the flight, but if you can plan ahead and bring snacks from home, you’ll feel much more at ease while traveling.”
Wilson says you can call most airlines ahead of time and request a vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free option. It’s a good idea to do this at least a week before your flight since it’s usually not possible for airlines to accommodate last-minute requests.
If you have a food allergy, such as a peanut allergy, that can cause a severe allergic reaction, alert airline personnel immediately when you get on the plane, says Courduff. “Also alert the passengers around you of any allergies as well,” she says.
Those who have more complex diets typically find it’s easier to eat before a flight or bring their own food on the plane. “I prefer not to eat any food on the plane,” says Horwitz. “I typically try to eat at the airport before I go somewhere or bring my own food.”
Wilson always packs snacks because you can never guarantee the plane will have options for you. “A few snacks I love to bring are dark chocolate, dried fruit, BelliWelli, or granola bars,” she says. “I typically dedicate some space in my suitcase for snacks. It puts me at ease knowing I’ll have safe snacks while I’m away from home.”
Faerman shares this genius hack: She’ll freeze a loaf of Trader Joe’s gluten-free bread before she goes anywhere so it’s defrosted by the time she needs to eat it. She’ll put turkey and cheese between two frozen slices of bread, then wrap it tightly in tin foil. “By the time I get to my destination or on the plane, the bread is good to eat and the cheese is still fresh because it’s been in-between two frozen slices of bread,” she says.
As for drinks, McCallum recommends sticking with water on the plane because carbonated drinks, juices, and alcohol could upset your stomach.
5. Load your suitcase up with snacks—and meds.
One of the easiest things you can do to avoid getting “hangry” while traveling with dietary restrictions is to pack snacks and food with you. That way you can eat on-the-go without having to worry about finding a restaurant that will accommodate you.
These convenient snack bars came highly recommended from the people I interviewed (always check the label first to make sure these snacks are right for your dietary restriction):
If you’re road-tripping, consider bringing a cooler with you. “I always bring my Six Pack Fitness Backpack, with a cooler inside the backpack, or carry a little cooler on the side of my luggage with refrigerated goods like deli turkey, carrots, single-serve yogurt, and pre-cooked meat.”
Pytell adds that there are tons of super-easy meals and foods you can make yourself, whether out of choice or necessity. She shares a few travel-friendly recipes from her blog, including instant hot cereals that simply require hot water or a microwave, protein/energy bites, granola bars, and healthy crackers, chips, and roasted chickpeas.
Horwitz says she carries digestive bitters with her that she puts into her water 30 minutes before she eats or sometimes with her meal.
And of course, don’t forget to bring medications just in case. For example, if you have a food allergy, you should pack an Epi-Pen, says Courduff. Benadryl may also help with rashes caused by food allergies, she says. If you have IBS, consider bringing peppermint oil, Imodium, or fiber supplements to help with any discomfort, says McCallum.
6. Go easy on yourself when traveling with dietary restrictions
Traveling is supposed to be fun, so don’t beat yourself up about having to be a little high-maintenance when you’re away from home.
“For so many years, I was constantly apologizing to my husband for being ‘difficult’ or ‘high maintenance’ whenever we traveled,” says Wilson. “I felt like I was inconveniencing everyone with my dietary needs. I so badly wanted to be ‘go with the flow’ like everyone else. However, I’ve learned to make a real effort to get organized and prepared prior to the trip, so I no longer feel like I’m slowing anyone down.”