I’ve been away for the past few weeks, which was kind of strange for me since I have gotten so used to my writing routine, but it was with good reason. We just took my son abroad for the first time ever, first on a family vacation to New York City (my favourite city in the world), and then he and I headed north of the border for a long overdue visit with my family in Canada, who had only seen him at infancy, if at all. It was an amazing trip. Really! Looking back, I wouldn’t change a single moment. So why did it take me nearly 5 years to make this happen? Because, the price of such a trip aside, the idea of travelling with my son’s food allergies and asthma was really (really) intimidating for me.
It’s enough that it’s a long 12 hour flight across the ocean for us, with a fidgety little boy in close quarters, excited and overwhelmed by his first trip on an airplane. Add to that the uncertainty of whether there will be food for him to eat on the plane and if the people eating their morning omelette in the nearby seats will cause him to break out in a rash or accidentally spill their yoghurt on him. And then, for fun, throw in the constant juggling of looking for places to eat/buy food that will cater to his allergies as well as the fact that we only eat kosher food. Now add the jet lag … and I could probably find another dozen reasons to add to the list, but you get the idea. Even now, having done it, that list still intimidates me! (Though I also want to do it again! Let’s fly!!)
But, all of that aside, now that my son is almost 5, and is more aware of his allergies (and because 5 years is a long time for me not to visit my family and friends!), we jumped to take advantage when a recent opportunity presented itself to turn my husband’s work trip to New York into a very memorable and allergy safe family holiday. Maybe we didn’t eat as well as we would at home, and yes I did compromise on my normal food choices in favour of simply making sure my son got his daily calories and protein, but we did it – two weeks abroad, two different countries, three cities, three flights – and we survived, incident-free, and are better for it.
So, for any of you who deal with food allergies/dietary restrictions and are thinking of taking the plunge and doing some travel (which I am sure is well-deserved), I wanted to take a few minutes to share what worked for us and tips that I learned along the way to hopefully help you have an allergy-safe, healthy, and stress-free trip yourself.
TEN TIPS FOR TRAVELLING WITH FOOD ALLERGIES
ORDER THE SPECIAL MEAL THAT MOST CLOSELY MEETS YOUR NEEDS
If the airline doesn’t offer a meal option that 100% meets your needs, order the next best thing. There will probably be some foods that do meet your needs and airlines are very good about packaging the different dishes individually, often in their original package. There is even a fruit meal, which I highly recommend (though it also has nuts in the platter. nothing is perfect). If you do order a special meal, be sure to double check prior to your flight that this IS in fact what is on file. We unfortunately boarded the plane thinking we were getting a vegan meal for my son, and in the end received the low-lactose meal. Luckily, we had a plan B.
PACK YOUR OWN FOOD/SNACKS
A.k.a. Plan B. Bring your own food, and lots of it. We brought a huge sandwich for my son for dinner as well as some jam sandwiches, crackers, fruit, granola bars, and homemade protein muffins and cookies for the flight and to eat on our trip. Don’t assume you will be allowed to board with beverages (even ones you purchased after security), but otherwise don’t be shy about stocking up reserves in case the airplane food lets you down.
GET A NOTE FROM YOUR DOCTOR
On our flight home I forgot that I had a couple of containers of applesauce in my bag that had not been eaten from our earlier snack. At the airport security check I explained that my son had allergies to milk and eggs, and that because of this I brought food for him. I was allowed to bring the applesauce with me after it had been scanned a second time, and was told simply to bring a doctor’s note with me next time. Conclusion – get the note because it will give you a lot more wiggle room in terms of what food you bring on the plane.
BRING YOUR MEDS AND EPI-PEN IN YOUR CARRY ON
This sounds like a given, but when I casually asked our pharmacist to put prescription labels on the epi-pen case itself and not the box since I wanted everything clearly marked for the trip, his response was to tell me I shouldn’t check my epi-pen because they don’t really control the temperature of the cargo hold. So, don’t take the conditions for granted and be sure to bring all medications with you as part of your carry-on.
LET THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS KNOW YOUR NEEDS
Don’t assume the flight staff know what you are allergic to or even that you are getting a special meal. I went out of my way to speak with the nearest flight attendant at the start of the flight to confirm the meal assigned to us (which is especially important if you switch seats, otherwise your meal will be give to whoever was in your old seat). When we found out on our first flight that the meal request had been made for the wrong meal option, the staff were really helpful in finding options that they could offer us (including pillaging fruit and veggie bowls from the business class meals), which was a great complement to the food we had brought on board ourselves.
I also requested that they not to leave food for us if we were asleep to avoid any accidental exposures.
STAKE OUT NEARBY GROCERY STORES/RESTAURANTS FOR FRIENDLY FOODS
Try to choose your accommodations based on proximity to safe food, especially for longer trips. We were able to buy staples like granola bars, fruits and vegetables, soy milk, etc at a nearby grocery store to cover us for breakfast, and had 3 good restaurant options within a reasonable walk from our hotel for the first part of the trip, including a favourite the Hummus Place which had delicious hummus platters, vegan patties, and quinoa salad. For the second part of the trip we stayed with friends, identified a staple grocery list and cooked mostly in foil packages on the BBQ to meet our dining needs.
When my husband and I traveled in Costa Rica a few years ago, a country where eating kosher is not an easy feat, we bought a rice cooker at the start of our trip to easily make rice, pasta and steamed veggies, and supplemented with food that we brought with us, thanks to some careful planning. This took the stress away and let us enjoy the amazing country we were visiting.
OPT FOR AN APARTMENT INSTEAD OF A HOTEL
Booking an apartment, or a hotel suite with a kitchenette is an easy way to safely navigate travelling with food allergies, especially when the local cuisine doesn’t match what’s on your safe list. Sites like Airbnb and Booking.com are great places to look for an apartment rental, allowing you to focus on planning an amazing itinerary and keep meal planning stress-free.
KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON FOOD LABELS
Allergy labeling varies by country, so be sure to research whether your food allergens need to be disclosed on the food labels in the country you will be visiting. Also, print out a list of alternate names for ingredients that may suggest your allergen (especially if you’ll be shopping in another language!) so that you can easily and safely shop for food while on vacation.
BE A CLEAN FREAK
What was the first thing my son did when he got to his seat on the airplane? Open the tray and lay down on it. It was of course covered in crumbs and who knows what and I died a little inside, since I hadn’t had a chance to pull out the wet wipes yet. Luckily, I had brought the fragrance-free wipes, so not only did I wipe down the tray, I wiped him down also to make sure the odds stayed in our favour.
One thing I have learned over the years is not to trust even a clean-looking surface. Two summers ago, after finishing a trail hike, we stopped and sat on a bench to eat ice lollies and cool down. Let me tell you that what looks like a clean bench is not necessarily a clean bench! Probably someone had spilled an ice cream and wiped it up, but my poor son’s legs were covered in huge angry welts from where his skin had been in contact with the bench. Not the sunny, sugar-dosed ending to a beautiful hike we were hoping for, and a reminder that stays with me of how careful we need to be at all times.
At the end of the day there is only so much that you can plan, and ultimately you have to just go with the flow. Be creative and be ready to lower your standards a little bit. My son got sick of muffins after day 2 of our trip, so I popped into the grocery store and picked up some CLIF bars to ensure that with what he was eating it worked out to enough nutrients and protein to keep him going. We snacked a lot. We planned for our days based on what food was available (or not available) near the points on our itinerary, and some days we snacked a lot, justified by looking at our average for the week rather than what we ate at a given meal. And it was fine. We had an insanely good trip that broadened my son’s view of the world and has finally got him speaking in English and not just understanding it (BIG success!), and we all made it home safe, healthy, and happy without having had a single allergic reaction during the entire two weeks.
Travelling with food allergies and dietary restrictions (and even more so a combination of the two) is a challenge. Anyone living with food allergies understands that. But the payoff of overcoming that challenge is so worth it, so don’t let it intimidate you out of taking that longed-after vacation or flying to visit family/friends. Just be smart and prepared and you’ll be planning your next before you know it!