The Challenges of Traveling with Food Allergies

Heeeeeey, it’s been awhile since I’ve been motivated to write some narrative about my travels, sorry about that!

I was recently at a travel conference in Milwaukee (holla Milwaukee!!) and I was bluntly reminded of why I started a travel blog in the first place, so I wanted to share the story and then some gluten free travel tips or well, traveling with allergies pain in the ass things I’ve noticed.

It all started when this really special soul, Erin, ran up to me in a networking event. Mind you, I had no idea who she was, which was always some kind of terrifying when a person walks up to you knowing your first and last name.

Panic stricken, I tried to channel my best inner Shakespearean actor and feign recognition. Trust me, I’m not nearly cool enough for people to come up to me that know my name without me knowing who they are.

As the kind, incredible soul that she is, she went on to explain exactly how she knew me and how I helped to shape her life.

The story goes that we met 3 years prior at my very first travel blogging conference ever, the Women in Travel Summit in Boston, MA in 2015. I’ve pretty much blacked out that whole conference because I was a hot mess of a networker but it was also incredible and the people I met have really changed and shaped my life since, cough cough Steph, I just had no idea I did that for anyone else.

Erin shared the touching story of meeting me and hearing about me talk about starting a travel blog to showcase my travels with food allergies and celiac disease. She has a debilitating peanut allergy and had always dreamed of going to Thailand but feared it for the sheer magnitude of peanut use.

The next thing she said quite literally made me tear up.

She said after talking to me and reading my blog for awhile and seeing how I was managing with my allergies, she wound up booking that ticket.

Now, I’m not going to start booking motivational speaking engagements anytime soon, but that’s pretty freaking cool.

Thank you Erin, for being vulnerable and for reigniting the spark inside me to continue my mission that I initially worked so hard to spread. PS. Yes, for those of you who are closet fairytale lovers, Erin and I are now two peas in a pod, and I think we will have a friendship that lasts a lifetime 🙂

Anyways…..

It’s been a long time since I’ve shared personal anecdotes and struggles about traveling with celiac disease and food allergies and I figured today was a great day to do so!

I’ve realized that most of my accounts of GF or food allergy travel have been fairly light hearted, I even documented a pooping incident that one time. But it’s not all fine and dandy all the time. I’m not perfect and people telling me “no” really gets to me, so I struggle with limited diets. But after 8 years being gluten free and 6 years with death food allergies, I’ve found ways to cope.

I wanted to share with you some of the pain in the ass things that plague travelers who have food limitations and hopefully some advice to help combat them.

Anxiety

This is going to be a little vulnerable for a few here, bear with me. Over the last year or so, I’ve had to come to terms with an ever-growing level of anxiety surrounding my food allergies. Unlike most millennials, I’ve actually never struggled with anxiety. I’ve always been pretty fearless and I often just let things slide off my back without much worry.

Ever since I went to the hospital two years ago for an anaphylaxis response to something, I’ve found myself over analyzing the size of lips and the scratchiness of my tongue and whether a red mark is the beginning of hives. I’ve actually almost sent myself to the hospital by overreacting to some absent minded scratching. Constantly being anonymous in new cities has always been the draw of traveling for me. I love not having a clue what a city holds and exploring and figuring things out. Now, I get anxiety going in subways, or long bus or train rides, or even into a bathroom by myself if there’s even a glimmer that I may have eaten something I was allergic to.

It’s something I’m working on, but it’s definitely a work in progress. I’ve taught myself things I can do to take my mind off of overanalyzing my bodily reactions and I know when I need to stop talking about my allergies with people. Anxiety is something that may plague you if you start traveling a lot with food allergies.

Not Having Anything To Eat

This is my biggest challenge. I’m a food fiend. I’d probably eat a box of nails if someone told me they were edible and it was the only thing available. So when I’m in a situation with very limited or no options, it seriously upsets me. This typically revolved around the gluten thing or the breakfast meal.

On-the-go food in the Western world is a pain in the ass for celiacs. Yes, we can eat a salad, but news flash, I don’t actually want to eat a fucking piece of wet lettuce while you eat a cheeseburger and fries.

I hate drawing attention to the fact that I can’t eat a lot of shit, so when there isn’t an easy option, I really take it personally and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been overcome with flowing tears and had to run to a bathroom to hide the fact that I was literally crying over not being able to eat a breakfast sandwich.

No matter how much you prepare, how many phone calls or emails you send before you arrive somewhere, if you’re traveling, there will be an instance where you don’t have a viable food option. Don’t be afraid to cry. It sucks when it feels like your body is fighting you back, believe me. People get it. If they don’t kick them in the shin until the do.

I also get hungry like every 2 hours, and apparently 95% of humanity doesn’t need solid food every two hours, so there are often times when I don’t have access to food when I’m hungry. I try to travel with approximately 35 granola bars now to be prepared should I find myself in a “No food for you” scenario. But I do still cry, you’re not alone.

Getting Stupid Drunk

This may seem funny to most of you but when you’re gluten free, beer is off limits. In the US or London or most parts of Europe, this isn’t an issue really. But in Nicaragua or Thailand or other developing country, it’s a pain in the ass. These places don’t have good wine, don’t even know what cider is half the time, and so I get stuck with rum or some other kind of hard liquor infused with speed.

I’m not great with liquor when it comes to drinking and I always find myself having a drink for every beer my friends are drinking, newsflash: this doesn’t end well. It’s also a stupid pain in the ass for day drinking. Sorry if you feel differently but gin and tonics are just not meant to be drank prior to noon. And forget drinking all day and all night, if I have a cocktail at 10am I’ll be lucky to have my eyes open at 5pm.

The other fun thing with celiac is that if I have consumed gluten accidentally and then I try to drink within a few days of that, I’m done. Gluten, if you didn’t know, actually destroys the intestines of people with celiac disease. So if I’ve eaten gluten it makes it 10x easier for alcohol to get into my blood system and things don’t end well.

Spending Way More $$

This goes hand in hand with my alcohol point above. A $0.50 beer from a bodega in Vietnam is much cheaper than a $3 cocktail. Food as well often gets significantly more expensive on the road at times. I was at a restaurant the other day where my friend could get a $12 sandwich but literally the cheapest thing I was able to eat on the menu other than a salad was a $28 steak.

Breakfast is a super pain in the ass meal for me, I can’t eat eggs and I’m gluten free so bye pancakes, waffles, eggs, omelettes, granola, english muffin, bagel, should I go on? So I end up concocting things with sides a lot and believe it or not some bacon and homefries and fruit often ends up costing more than an omelette!

 

Above all, the best thing you can do is to be as prepared as possible. Bring plenty of granola bars or snacks that travel well, research your destination and have a couple dishes that you’ll know you can eat practically anywhere, even scope out a couple restaurants in advance, and above all else be prepared with the tools to combat reactions.

For gluten, I always travel with Papaya Enzyme. It has helped my digestion and especially helps me bounce back after gluten.

For allergies, I carry my epipen everywhere I go, literally. If you’re American and the epipen costs are outrageous, scoot over to Canada where you can get one over the counter for $100 or do some research where you’re going, most places in Europe will sell them to you over the counter. If I’m eating something sketchy that I don’t know about, I let someone know who I’m with that I have an epipen on me and where to stick it should I turn blue. It’s extreme but it helps my anxiety. 

Above all, find ways of coping with the challenges of traveling gluten free or with food allergies, and don’t let it stop you from seeing the world! 

Article by

Megan is a girl that shouldn’t travel. She’s gluten free, allergic to everything else, falls off motorcycles, poops her pants, gets bit by stray dogs and yet she’s still been traveling the world. She's the co-founder and editor of Why Wait. Read More About Megan here.
  1. Travelling with celiac disease must be so hard sometimes. Great that you are showing it’s possible nevertheless and it shouldn’t keep you from exploring! I think the good thing is that there in general is more and more awareness regarding food allergies (at least in Europe there clearly is more choice in supermarkets and restaurants now for celiacs).

    I remember I was quite anxious when travelling to South East Asia for the first time because of my peanut allergy, but after three successful month-long trips, I don’t worry that much anymore. If you are reading this and are also allergic to peanuts, and worried about travelling to Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia (both mainland and Borneo): please don’t worry, bring your epi-pen, antihistamins and a translation in the local language(s), and just book the ticket! While Thai food is known for peanuts, there are plenty of dishes that do not contain them, and if there are peanuts in there, they are easy to spot because they generally don’t crush them but leave them whole. Indonesia and Malaysia were a bit more risky in that sense I found, with multiple brown-colored sauces accompanying dishes that could contain peanuts but you are never really sure, but still offer lots of choice so you don’t have to starve. It is helpful to have a non-allergic travelling partner though who can taste your food in case of doubt and when you notice the cook/waiter really doesn’t have a clue.

  2. Yes!!!! I have ulcerative colitis, which is a digestive disease that affects my colon. Over the past few years, I’ve done tons of experimenting with food to figure out what works & what doesn’t. I’ve found that I do much better when I don’t eat gluten (I seriously thought it was normal to feel bloated after eating until I eliminated gluten), I found out I’m lactose intolerant, & I can’t eat eggs or beans because of how my gut reacts. I also have to limit things like alcohol & corn. Since I’m not celiac, I can be a little more flexible on the gluten but I definitely can’t handle sandwiches, & like you said, on the go travel food is often sandwiches. I have cried many times about food! Oh, and breakfast? Yeah totally stressful when you can’t eat gluten, dairy, or eggs. I love when I can find a place that’ll get me fruit, bacon & some form of potatoes. I also travel with granola bars & I make it my mission to find smoothie places wherever I go. And sometimes I just resign myself to eating the same chicken & rice/potato meal several times in a row. I’ve been hospitalized a few times because of my disease & they always look at me like I’m crazy when I list all the things I can’t eat. One time they were able to get me applesauce for breakfast but another time they were just like, sorry we don’t have anything for you. Fun times. But I do my best to not let all of this stop me from traveling!

  3. Thank you for an interesting article. I empathize with your food issues when traveling and being around friends. I think people who go dairy-free also have challenges when travelling and dairy gets hidden in foods sometimes. I guess I have dealt with things by not eating out much, I go to vegetable and fruit markets. I choose to travel more and have my own food issues but in a different direction. I am a live plant-based eater (aka vegan). I require raw fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Not an issue when it is Summer and everything is plentiful or if you can get to a fruit market or wholesale supplier. I guess going to a tropical climate insures things will be available year-round?. When I went to Belize years ago for 11 days I was not live, so I got rice and beans in simple restaurants. I was on an adventure trip and brought almonds and a large bag of quinoa to keep me going as the trip leaders bought cans of vegetables for me. Others on the trip gorged on fish and conch and to be honest with you I wished it was a trip with only vegans. I got quite uncomfortable at times and wanted like-minded people. There were plenty of fruits but I missed the salads i was used to. At an rate it taught me a lot.
    Can you bring gluten-free crackers, bread and cereal with you into countries you travel in? i guess that would be weighty. There must be some gluten free groups in countries where you are visiting and perhaps they know the resources for that area. Is it possible some organized trips are gluten-free? Luckily as there are more and more people and restaurants who understand how to cater to people with allergies things will improve, who knows. Happy travels! namaste’, rachel

  4. Todra Payne says:

    I’m going to send this post to my a dear friend who has gluten intolerance and other food allergies! He’s always concerned about how he’ll manage when he travels abroad. It’s good to see you addressing it.

  5. Amanda Y says:

    It’s so good to read these facts and know I’m not alone. The expensive meals, the restrictions, wanting to cry, and carrying a million granola bars (seriously, half my luggage at any time seems to be food not clothing), it’s all so relatable! Breakfast is definitely the worst–I’m celiac PLUS pork and peanut allergies.

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