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Food. It’s the part of travel that helps us bridge linguistic gaps and makes us realize one thing. No matter what language we speak, the ability to bond over a good meal is universal. Unfortunately, in our modern world, the prevalence of allergies and food sensitivities has become all too common. This can add a layer of complexity to planning a trip, as my family has learned firsthand.
If you deal with food allergies, you’re not alone, since they affect approximately 32 million Americans. One of my kiddos has a peanut allergy. So over the past several years, we’ve learned through trial and error (and extensive food allergy research!) the best ways to make our trips fun while also maximizing his safety. It was initially challenging. But now I can confidently say that we’ve found what works for us. And we have been able to pull off epic getaways—both domestically and abroad without any incidents.
Don’t let severe food allergies hold you back from visiting the foreign country of which you’ve always dreamed. Whether you or a family member suffers from mild intolerances or full-blown allergic reactions, read on to learn my family’s top tips for traveling with food allergies. I know they’ll help your family, too.
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Do Your Research
While spontaneity has its place, it’s not always wise to “wing it” when considering food allergies. I make it a point to get a decent picture of what our travel location will look like. Will there be a lot of safe places to eat? Where are the pharmacies or local grocery stores? How is the public transportation system? Are we near local hospitals, in case we need medical help or immediate medical treatment? These are important questions and help immensely when cementing our travel plans, so I can make sure to choose the optimal location for us. And ultimately, it saves us the hassle of having to hunt things down when we’ve arrived.
I also keep this handy card on hand that explains various hidden names of peanuts. Food labels and ingredients can be sneaky. And an allergic reaction is the last thing I want for my son. If I’m unsure of something, I can always consult the card. The Kids With Food Allergies website has been really comprehensive and informative for us. There you can find info on your specific allergy, as well as cards like the one we use.
Additionally, I have found the AllergyEats cell phone app to be helpful. This allows you to search for restaurants in your area that have menus free of the top major allergens. With my son’s serious food allergy, this app has expanded our dining options immensely. And for those of you who need to avoid gluten, my friend with celiac disease swears by the comprehensive Find Me Gluten Free app. It amazes me how many resources are out there to make finding a safe meal easier!
Bring a Chef Card
With international travel, communication can be challenging when there are language barriers. And common allergens like peanut butter, tree nuts, and shellfish can stealthily show up in many dishes. But fear not. The Food Allergy Chef Card has been a tremendous lifeline for us. We’ve used it in Belgium, Singapore, and even here in the U.S. You can translate these cards into other languages either using the template on the website or through Google Translate. Then the translation cards can be given to the chef or manager directly, to eliminate the middlemen of restaurant staff and potential confusion. Chef cards have been the best way to try local cuisine without unnecessary stress.
Take Advantage of Accommodations
Accommodations will vary depending on air travel, cruise ships, or journeys by train. And also whether you’re traveling in the United States or abroad. We’ve had the most experience with planes, so I’ll focus on those here.
Depending on your airline, you can check the website or call ahead and determine what special accommodations can be made for your allergic travelers. We’ve been very lucky in some situations but shrugged off in others, so it really depends on the carrier and whether or not they have allergy policies in place. Certain airlines, like Delta, will let you board early and clean your seat. On many flights, we’ve been given buffer zones, so that my son won’t be sitting near anyone who can potentially expose him to peanuts. We’ve also found it helpful to notify the flight attendants of our son’s allergy. They can go over the emergency services and protocols with you.
Another thing that’s been helpful for us is TSA PreCheck (through the Transportation Security Administration). This has saved us a lot of time and the extra burden of having to wait in long lines, especially when we travel at peak times. Or notoriously busy airports. Children 12 and under can travel with a parent who’s signed up for TSA PreCheck, which has been convenient, as well. Even though it’s $85 and requires an appointment to sign up, we’ve found that it’s paid off.
Depending on your health insurance company’s coverage, it may be wise to invest in travel insurance. This can be useful for longer trips, or trips abroad, especially during the restrictions surrounding COVID-19. Travel insurance adds peace of mind.
Whether you or a family member suffers from mild intolerances or full-blown allergic reactions, read on to know my family’s top tips for traveling with food allergies.
Bring a doctor’s note. Gate agents, flight crew, and TSA agents have all asked us in the past about our epinephrine auto-injectors. They don’t always ask, but it’s best to be prepared in case they do. This will explain your medical condition and your need for allergy medication.
It’s important to make sure all of your medications are in your carry-on luggage with you. We almost had our epinephrine injectors get whisked away with our check-ins, and I went into full-blown panic mode. Thankfully it worked out, but I always triple-check now. Since auto-injectors need to be kept at room temperature, we also use an insulated container. Journeys can be long and faced with unpredictable weather, so this saves us from having to worry. Take precautions if your medications are sensitive to extreme temperatures.
Also, we have our son wear a Medic Alert bracelet. Though he’s too young to be off on his own, it gives us peace of mind. In case of an emergency situation, it would give medical professionals all they need to know about his medical needs. On the back of the bracelet, it states his allergy, his need for epinephrine, and his emergency contacts. Put emergency plans into place before you embark upon your trip!
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Whether it’s medication or allergy-free foods, we don’t leave home without extras. Though we (thankfully) have never needed the emergency medications, I feel good knowing that it’s there. Food, on the other hand, can go either way. We’ve stayed in cities where my son hardly dug into his stash of safe snacks because the food options were spectacular. Other times, like on longer road trips, his own safe food tied him over until we were able to find something that he could eat.
If you’re on a long flight, lean towards the side of caution. Though airlines may claim that your meal is free of allergens, it’s not a guarantee (especially considering cross-contamination). It’s a good idea to bring your own food for the flight. We learned this the hard way when our “special meals” on an overseas flight had peanut oil listed in the ingredients.
I also bring hand wipes to clean up the seats and tray table when we first enter the plane. When we’re on the first flight of the day, I’m not as concerned about allergen exposure. But if others have already sat in the plane, then I won’t hesitate to wipe down every possible surface.
Consider booking a room, apartment, condo, etc. with a kitchen. This is a good choice and forces us to get out of our comfort zone by trying local ingredients and new foods. And it allows us to save money for other activities. When we visited Hawaii, we loved using the fresh produce to whip up meals together. It gave us an additional bonding opportunity and my kids had fun trying new fruits and veggies that they normally wouldn’t get on the mainland.
Managing food allergies while on vacation doesn’t have to detract from your adventures. In fact, it’s made us more mindful and has turned us into savvier travelers. Initially, allergic living can be a learning experience. And traveling for the first time with food allergies can, understandably, be riddled with anxiety. But once you’re used to it, it’ll become second nature, and you’ll realize that it doesn’t have to keep you from visiting your dream destinations. There are many of us food allergy families who pull off all sorts of (previously unimaginable) adventures. Bon voyage and bon appétit!
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