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Tips for travelling with special dietary requirements

If you suffer from a food allergy or lead a gluten-free diet, here's how to stay healthy and safe while on the road

How to keep healthy on the road (dreamstime)

Safely travelling while managing special diets is very doable and highly rewarding. You can discover new places and experience safe gluten and allergen-friendly journeys with careful planning and a little extra effort.

The best way to expand your own personal comfort and reduce the stress associated with travelling is threefold: education, preparation and communication. Educate yourself on your travel and eating out options based upon what you can and cannot eat. Be prepared with snacks, medications and back-up plans in the event of a mistake, accident or emergency. Communicate your special dietary requirements effectively with airline, hotel, cruise line, restaurant and hospitality professionals as needed.

These “how-to” guidelines and checklists are designed to assist you throughout your planning efforts, and while you're travelling, to enjoy safe and comfortable experiences.

Tips for carry-on snacks & airport security:

Your first step, and your safest option, is to bring your own snacks to eat during your flight. You need to ensure that your snacks are portable and tasty as well as allowable based upon the respective airport security regulations for each departing and arriving country.

For example, when travelling within some countries, you may need to understand requirements such as:

  • If you are bringing packaged salad dressings or sauces, ensure that it falls within the liquid carry-on requirement.
  • Remember to have liquid items available for inspection in an approved, re-sealable package.
  • Products such as canned fruit may be considered liquid and may be confiscated at security.
  • It is recommended that you do not bring cooling packs, as they are typically filled with chemical liquids or gels, and will likely be confiscated at security check points.
  • Purchase your beverages for the flight after you have cleared security.
  • Fill up your re-sealable baggy or travel-size cooler with ice, if needed, AFTER you go through security either at a food stand or on the aeroplane.

Ordering special airline meals checklist:

Different types of special meals are offered by specific airlines based on flight duration, destination and meal availability. Airlines typically require 24–96 hour advance notification to ensure that your designated meal is ready for the time of your departure. Meal selection and quality varies significantly from airline to airline.

The following checklist is designed to guide you while ordering and eating special meals on board your flight.

  • Review the airline’s website or call customer service before you book your flight to determine what foods are served and/or sold on board.
  • If you are booking directly through an airline carrier that offers special meals, request your special meal arrangements.
  • When booking your flight with a travel agent or through an online travel service, call the airline directly to request your special meal.
  • Re-confirm your meal request directly with the airline a minimum of one day prior to departure.
  • Remember that if you change flights, the special meal request does not necessarily remain in effect. In this case, you need to call the airline to request another special meal.
  • As a precautionary measure, pack snacks equivalent to at least one travel meal or enough food to get you to your destination just in case your plane is delayed, plans change or a mistake happens.
  • If a special meal was ordered, notify the flight attendant of your request at the beginning of the meal service.
  • Once you receive your airline meal during your flight, review it to ensure that the food is safe to eat based upon your allergen concern.
  • Provide feedback to the flight attendant about your meal, as appropriate.

Hotel and accommodation checklist:

If you decide to stay on land, you need to ensure that you and your family are safe at your destination of choice. Your comfort level with managing your gluten and allergen-free lifestyle, the severity of your food allergies and your personal preferences are all key influencers in your choice of accommodation. Various lodging alternatives may include hotels, resorts, bed and breakfasts, hostels, villas, apartments, cottages and even castles.

If you are looking to stay on land away from home, it is recommended that you:

  • Research your options to determine the best fit for your dietary needs and travel destinations.
  • Determine if you need a refrigerator and/or kitchen to prepare some of your meals.
  • If desired, request a small refrigerator, which may result in an extra fee.
  • Contact the customer service department to address any unanswered questions prior to booking your reservation.
  • Inform the accommodation when making reservations of your allergen concerns.
  • Educate yourself on ingredients, food preparation techniques and hidden allergens to determine appropriate meals and restaurants, if applicable.
  • Discuss meal alternatives with the culinary specialists and order your allergen and gluten-free meals in advance, if appropriate.
  • Ideally, obtain in writing a mutually agreed upon meal plan and approach to ensure safe eating, especially if your accommodation is at an all-inclusive resort.
  • Determine what safe snacks you need to pack for excursions away from your accommodation.
  • Confirm your gluten and allergen-free meals with your accommodation three to five days prior to your departure, if appropriate.
  • Prepare an emergency plan with medicine, location of closest medical facilities and instructions for others, if needed.
  • Research grocery stores and supermarkets close to your accommodation for some basic foods, if desired.
  • Check with your accommodation about restaurants nearby and contact them prior to your departure, if appropriate.
  • Stay within close proximity of the nearest hospital, if at risk to anaphylaxis.
  • When you arrive, communicate your dietary concerns to the accommodation wait staff as required for safe eating.

Cruise line meals checklist:

Many cruise lines cater to guests with special dietary concerns, even identifying gluten and allergen-free meals as specific offerings in their promotional efforts. If you are looking to enjoy a cruise and explore various new destinations by sea, it is recommended that you:

  • Research cruise lines to determine the best fit for your dietary needs and desired travel plans.
  • Review the emergency medical facilities, medicines on board and procedures for life threatening reactions in the case of anaphylaxis.
  • Contact the customer service department of your preferred cruise line to address any unanswered questions prior to booking your reservation.
  • Inform the cruise line at the time of your reservation of your gluten and allergen concerns.
  • Educate yourself on ingredients, food preparation techniques and hidden allergens.
  • Determine appropriate meals and restaurants in your port cities, if desired.
  • Discuss meal alternatives with the culinary specialists from the cruise line.
  • Order your gluten and allergen-free meals in advance, if appropriate.
  • Ideally, obtain in writing a mutually agreed upon meal plan and approach to ensure safe eating on the cruise ship.
  • Determine if designated wait staff will serve each of your meals throughout the cruise.
  • Determine what safe snacks you need to pack for excursions away from the cruise ship.
  • Confirm your special meals with the cruise line three to five days prior to your departure.
  • Meet with the Hotel Director (yes – on a cruise ship!), manager of the dining room, staff and/or chef once you have boarded the ship to reiterate your needs.
  • Communicate your dietary concerns to your designated wait staff and cabin crew, as required.

International travel tips:

When venturing overseas, following these travel guidelines will help to make your journey more enjoyable and increase your comfort level while staying in both English and foreign-language speaking destinations.

  • Research online global databases and resources about eating out and travelling overseas.
  • Contact the local celiac / coeliac or food allergy associations for suggestions on eating gluten and allergen-free in that specific country.
  • Understand country specific regulations regarding standards on allowable products packed in carry-on luggage.
  • Review food product labelling regulations for your destination, which may differ from your home country.
  • Determine the availability of safe gluten and allergen free snacks for future purchase during your travels.
  • For those visiting foreign-speaking countries, it is also important to communicate your needs in the native language.
  • Ensure any medical documentation that may be needed has been translated into the language of each country included in your travels.
  • Carry pocket-size gluten and allergen-free translation cards which identify your special dietary requirements by allergen, key ingredients and critical food preparation techniques.
  • Pack a foreign language phrase guide such as the Multi-Lingual Phrase Passport for additional phrases including common ingredients, dining requests, breakfast meals, health considerations and products.

These top travel food safety tips have been reprinted with the permission of Demos Health Publishers from Kim Koeller and Robert La France's new book Let's Eat Out Around the World: Gluten-free and Allergy-free – a timeless reference for special diets, perfect for those on the road. 

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