Traveling with food allergies can be intimidating.
And while it’s true that we all have various inhibitions and challenges that leave us a bit unhinged when dealing with travel plans, anxiety and fear should never stop you from living out your dreams.
When we travel, it is my responsibility to ensure that my daughter has an amazing (and safe) time.
For us, the allergy in question is tree nuts and coconut. And there are specific steps I take with each trip to make our safety a priority, so that we can all focus on enjoying the adventure.
I will admit, it hasn’t always been easy. And while I have learned a lot along the way, there is still always so much more to learn. But the more we travel, the easier it gets.
The goal is to be comfortable and feel as stress-free as possible. After all, traveling should be about the (positive) memorable, learning experiences!
We have successfully flown and driven to multiple places over the years (all within the United States and Hawaii). While there were experiences early on in our travels that taught us where we needed to be more aware and cautious, we have been lucky enough to have wonderful vacations free from severe reactions.
In order to ease your anxiety and allow for wonderful experiences, here are some precautions you can take.
Chat with your doctor.
You know your body better than anyone, but your allergist can help guide you when discussing the safety of traveling abroad and where you might take some precautions. Your doctor also knows just how severe your symptoms can be (like, for example, whether you experience anaphylaxis, a rash, have trouble breathing, etc).
Schedule a visit to let your allergist know where you plan to travel. You should also be sure that all of your prescriptions are up to date. This is extremely important. And if you are planning to be gone for extended periods of time, you will want to be sure that you have extras for the future, or in the unfortunate event that you may need to use an auto injector.
While we want to think positively and be open to new experiences when traveling, food allergies are a real concern for those suffering, and can seriously affect your time away if you do not stay safe. Always be prepared for the “what ifs,” just in case.
Before our latest trip to Disney World, I was having some anxieties about traveling because it had been a while since we’d last flown. I was planning a mother-daughter trip and did not want to drive.
After doing some research and not feeling completely sure of our options, I called up my daughter’s allergist to see exactly what he thought of her flying. Things have changed for her, and her reactions are more severe now than they used to be.
He assured me it can be done safely. He had his nurse compile a list of to-dos for us that included things such as choosing the earliest flight out so the plane is clean, wearing long sleeves and pants on the plane, and wiping down the area we would be seated in. After that, he suggested to continue to use the same precautions in restaurants and at the grocery store that we do at home.
While not profound, he clearly knew I needed a reminder that I have taken all the right steps to prevent a serious reaction, and to continue doing those same things no matter where our travels take us. It left me feeling better prepared for our adventure.
My favorite part of prepping for travel is the research. I am resourceful and love learning about new places, even virtually.
To begin, you will want to make a decision about where you are staying: with friends, family, hotel, or a rental. When we travel, we stay either with family or choose a place with a kitchen or kitchenette.
There have been times where we have only had a microwave to work with, and would make tons of sweet potatoes, oatmeal with bananas and seeds, or even macaroni and cheese. Other times, we have been left with only a refrigerator. When we have only a refrigerator, we eat lots of yogurt (usually with some fresh berries and Gerb’s sunflower seeds for breakfast).
The number one goal is to find out beforehand what appliances will be readily available. If we are driving, I have been known to pack a steamer for veggies, crock pot to make soup, and a Vitamix to make protein-packed smoothies.
We recently visited St. Pete Beach, Florida and rented a cute cottage right on the water. The cottage was stocked full of anything you could need to make meals and margaritas. We even had a grill.
Typically, I avoid using someone else’s pots and pans and other dinnerware to avoid cross-contact with my daughter’s allergens. If we absolutely must use something, it gets washed in hot, soapy water and scrubbed down. Since we were able to drive, this time I brought plates, bowls, and cutlery.
Once you have a place to stay, it is important to check out the area. Research any restaurants in the hotel or city you are vacationing in. My favorite app/website for this is AllergyEats.com. Registered users are able to rate and review their visit to restaurants. When searching a specific location (within the US), you are also able to specify which allergens you have, in order to narrow the search. It helps immensely to hear quick stories about other’s experiences.
On a recent trip to Cape Cod, we found (through AllergyEats) an amazing ice cream parlor that stocked ice cream free of peanuts and tree nuts in a separate cooler from the other ice cream. It was also made in an area free from cross-contamination of nuts. When we ordered, they were so friendly and knew exactly what to do. It isn’t often that we get to experience dining out with such freedom. It warms my heart to see our daughter get to experience such a casual experience that most children take for granted.
If you are staying with family, it is important to ensure that they are on board with accommodating your allergies. If not, your stay can end up being stressful and leave everyone on edge.
My sister has lived in Maine, California, Pennsylvania, and now Hawaii. Whenever we visit her, she and her family make sure to hide or dispose of food containing allergens, and wash the kitchen thoroughly. They want us to relax and eat just like we would at home. That is a great help.
Research local grocery stores to ensure that you will have access to prepackaged, safe foods.
In the US, it is easy to find at least one familiar grocery store. If not, I look at labels and ingredient lists. If we have never used the product before, I do some more research on their website to ensure it is completely free of tree nuts and coconut and cross-contamination possibilities.
App it up.
FoodMaestro is a personalized app and website where you can put in any restriction in your diet and a list of safe foods will organize in alphabetical order. If you want a list of snacks that gets updated regularly, SnackSafely does just that. This would also be a great resource to give to family you might be visiting if they would like some ideas of foods you can eat.
Being able to locate nearby hospitals is helpful too. When we travel by car, I keep the app findERnow on my phone so that I can easily find a hospital nearby if I need to.
If you are traveling abroad and you aren’t fluent in the native language, food allergy translation cards will make communicating your allergy to restaurant servers easier.
To reiterate, just do your research. Most restaurants have websites with menus and allergens listed. If they aren’t willing to help you understand their food preparation processes, then it isn’t worth the risk.
Being your own advocate is important. My daughter is still young, but she is learning how to take the lead when discussing her allergies. When we go out to eat, she likes to tell the server about her allergies. It’s her (our) reality, and it’s important to us that she become fully self-reliant and assertive in those situations.
When we fly, I pack an absurd amount of food in our carryon.
Once, on our way to Hawaii to visit family, we were late for our flight, got put on standby twice, and then had to stay (unplanned) in a hotel before we were able to head to Maui and then Oahu (our final destination) only the next morning. Needless to say, having enough safe food available was a real problem. This was when my daughter was really young and her diagnosis was new. We ran out of food quickly, and learned a lot from this experience (and I will admit that I cried before picking my head up to take charge of the situation).
Now, I designate a suitcase for our belongings, and then one for just food. We pack large bags of oats, seeds, cereal (Gerb’s is great for bulk seeds and oats and can be found on Amazon). Anything dry and nonperishable.
Having familiar, accessible foods helps reduce any of the challenges regarding food we might face on vacation. This way, finding safe food for every meal isn’t a priority, enjoying the moment is.
It can be time-consuming finding safe food, so be prepared.
Check if you’re flying.
After making your flight reservation, call your airline to speak with someone specifically about your allergy.
Southwest only serves peanuts or pretzels, so their in-flight snacks aren’t a problem for us. We still let them know beforehand because their peanuts do have a “May contain tree nuts” statement on the ingredient list. They will serve only pretzels on the flight if they are given enough notice. Letting them know also ensures that we get to pre-board and wipe down the seating area (another perk is that we get to preboard, and so have first-choice seating!).
Speaking to those around you about your allergy can also help bring awareness if you are traveling alone and have to sit next to a few different people. Like I mentioned above, our daughter’s doctor suggests that she board the plane early to wipe down her seating area and those around her. We also use a seat cover just to be extra cautious.
When flying out of Boston on our last trip, across the aisle was a nice family who we had chatted with pre-flight. They were a large, extended family taking up many rows. Once we had reached cruising altitude, the grandmother and aunt of the family began passing around massive walnuts. We sat with our daughter in the window seat. Her allergist has informed us that there is greater risk of a reaction coming from residue left on the seat and entering her mouth through contact, than through dust particles in the air. So while seeing others eat nuts on the flight made us uneasy, it is reassuring to know that we took the precautions we needed in the advisement of her allergist.
For a breakdown of airlines (domestic and international), this chart from Allergic Living Magazine has helped me determine what airlines we do feel comfortable flying with and the ones we do not.
if you are traveling outside the US and need some help determining just how food allergy friendly the area you are visiting will be the International Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Alliance is a great first step to figuring out how you will need to prepare for your travels. IFAAA was formed in order to educate the public on the food allergy protocols in different countries.
Taking the steps to travel safely may seem like a heavy load, but they’re worth the added baggage.
The items we make sure not to leave home without (depending on our travel location) are:
- Medical ID jewelry
- Cleaning wipes
- Disposable dinnerware/cutlery
- Nonperishable foods and bulk items
- Plenty of snacks for the car or airplane ride
- Auto-injector cooling wallet (for hot climates)
- Floating waterproof pouch (for meds to stay dry if swimming, surfing, or boating)
- Airplane seat cover
- (Add anything else to this list that makes you more comfortable and keeps you safe while being away from home!)
I’ve discovered that the more time I take to organize and prepare for our trips, the more at ease I feel while on them, leaving anxiety at home. I leave for our vacation with lists of safe restaurants, grocery stores within walking or driving distance, and keep medications close by to help us stay focused on fun.
Setting the standard now for how you prepare will help when implementing the steps later on.
Get the important stuff out of the way first, then you can focus solely on your adventure!