Avoiding gluten while traveling requires preparation, but it can be done. It can be very scary to trust total strangers with your health — especially if you have celiac or a severe gluten intolerance. However, there are steps you can take to greatly reduce your chances of getting sick (or, of going hungry because you’re afraid to eat the food).
My husband and I love to travel and we haven’t let my gluten intolerance stop us. I’ve learned the hard way how to minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Whether or not that’s your issue, the following ideas will help you plan happy gluten free journeys.
Important Key: Research and ask questions in advance
After doing some internet research, it’s a good idea to follow-up with a phone call. This gives you the opportunity to ask questions and to make sure the restaurant is still open for business.
Good questions to ask:
“Do you have a gluten free menu?”
“What steps do you take to avoid cross-contamination?”
“Can someone with celiac eat safely at your restaurant?”
Smart Tip: Download the Find Me GF app. Type in your location or zip code and it shows you possible gluten free dining options, along with customer reviews of food quality and safety.
Important Key: Always travel with GF snacks & meal options
Whenever possible, I stay in a hotel room with a kitchenette. If that’s not an option, I ask to have a mini-fridge and/or microwave in the room. Then I bring my own food to re-heat and supplement it with a trip to a local grocery. If I’m flying to my destination, I use a hard sided cooler as a checked bag.
For airplane flights my husband arranges a gluten free meal, if that’s an option. However, even then I always pack extra food and snacks, just in case. Sometimes people make mistakes and your GF meal doesn’t make it on board. (One time we missed a connecting flight and my GF meal flew to Rome without me.) In addition to GF protein bars and nuts, I have a mini-cooler that fits into my carry on. I fill it with GF sandwiches and snacks. If it’s a long flight, I also carry a GF freeze dried camping meal. Just add hot water and you won’t go hungry. I’ve never had to actually use that option, but it makes me feel better to have it.
Smart Tip: Use frozen food as a freezer brick. Since cold packs aren’t allowed through airport security, I freeze some extra GF cold cuts to keep things cold in my mini-cooler. As they thaw, I have extra food if I need it. Also, when sending a cooler as a checked bag, I’ll freeze one or more of the entrees to keep the contents colder longer, just in case there are flight delays.
Important Key: Communicate clearly with your server
I used to be shy about describing my needs to wait staff. I didn’t want to be a “problem” customer. Getting sick a couple of times cured me of that shyness. I let them know that I have a strong gluten allergy and that I could get very sick. I also ask them a few questions. (For example, asking what they do to avoid cross-contamination.) Even if the restaurant was notified of my allergy when the reservation was made, I never assume that everyone who touches my food understands what my situation is.
Smart Tip: Visit celiactravel.com for free foreign language restaurant cards. They are currently available in 63 languages. You can print them out and hand them to your server to let them know what you can’t eat. Even if you don’t have Celiac, the cards will help you to get a true gluten free meal.
Important Key: Ask for special arrangements when needed
Don’t be afraid to politely ask people for help. For example, on one cruise we signed up for a full day excursion. The country we were visiting would not allow passengers to take food on shore, other than pre-packaged snacks. The ship arranged to have a crew member walk my box lunch off the ship and have it waiting for me on the tour bus — but only after my husband asked in advance (several times). It took some creative thinking by the guest relations staff to figure out how to feed me that day.
At the excursion’s lunch stop I overheard another woman asking the hostess if there were any gluten free meal options — there were not. Fortunately the ship had given me more than enough food for two people, so I happily shared my lunch with her. Being gluten intolerant, she was prepared to eat protein bars all day, if necessary. That’s always a smart back-up precaution. However, she didn’t think to ask for special arrangements to be made in advance. If you don’t ask, it won’t happen.
Smart Tip: Ask your hotel concierge for help. Whether you want a recommendation for a great gluten free meal, or you need to make special arrangements for an outing — they are there to help you. If your hotel doesn’t have a concierge, you might consider calling or visiting a hotel that does. They can be a great resource both before and during your trip.
Important Key: Be educated about where you are staying
When traveling internationally, it’s important to know what kind of food your allowed to bring with you. Restrictions vary and some countries have sniffer dogs & steep fines — so do your homework. (Because of restrictions, I don’t check a cooler on international flights.)
Also, don’t assume that you’ll be able to get gluten free options at your hotel. While many hotels and cruise ships are equipped to handle food allergies, some may be better at it than others. To be on the safe side, it’s best to do some investigating before making reservations. To find out more about a hotel’s ability to meet your needs, don’t call the chain’s 800 number. Instead call the hotel directly and ask to speak with the food and beverage manager.
With cruise ships it’s a bit trickier. They have more gatekeepers in place to prevent you from speaking with the people who might be able to give you clear answers. With some persistence you might be able to do some sleuthing on your own, starting with the 800 line. However, this is a good moment to be working with a travel agent. They may be able to get past the firewalls the cruise line has set up. Arm them with the information and questions that they need to take good care of you.
Smart Tip: Be cautious the first night on a cruise ship, especially if you have celiac. It’s the busiest day for the crew and they haven’t gotten to know you yet. To play it safe, ask to speak to the food and beverage manager as soon as you board the ship. It’s also a good idea to follow this up by speaking to the Maitre D and your waiter. In my experience, they’ll do their best to take care of you, once everyone is fully aware of your needs.
I hope these tips help you to safely and happily see the world. Having to do extra planning may not feel very spontaneous. However, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom to visit loved ones, explore new places, and savor relaxing vacations.
In addition to being a travel enthusiast, Kim McIntyre is a Certified Stress Reduction Specialist. Her mission is to help people to live with less stress and more joy. She offers a free stress reduction program called The Joyful Being Experience which gives tools, inspiration and support to shed stress fast. You can learn more about it here: https://joyfulbeing.com/free/