Gum in Your Hair

A blog for parents under the big sky.

Severe Food Allergies Meet International Travel

:: WRITTEN BY CARLY WYNN ::

How to Travel when the Only Safe Food is the Food you Prepare Yourself.

Let’s cut right to the chase- if your child has severe food allergies, travel poses difficulties. Especially international travel. The very things we may love about travel - getting out of the comfort zone, trying new things, being immersed in a different culture and language - are the things that create the most stress when it comes to mealtimes. 

In many cases of extreme food allergies (like mine), the safest thing is to eat, or feed your child, only the food you have prepared. If this is the case in your family, travel may seem like it is off the table. But it’s not. If your child has a severe food allergy, that’s no reason for them to not be able to travel. 

You can do this. Ready? Here we go.

Step 1) Choose your destination with food in mind.  

Research food trends and culinary culture in your destination. I am allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and coconut, so naturally many Asian destinations pose a more immediate threat for me than, say, Norway. If you or your child are allergic to fish and shellfish, Norway might not be your jam. Understanding the food culture of your destination will help you choose a place that will be manageable for you. 

Take into account whether food allergies are common in the area you plan to travel. If they are, you can expect hospitals and other emergency services to know how to treat an allergic reaction, should you have an emergency while abroad. You may also find locals to be helpful should you find yourself with questions once you are there.  

Consider how food is manufactured and processed. Some countries may not have the strict control standards that the U.S. does. If there are potential concerns about food being unsafe from a standpoint of cleanliness and health, expect allergens to be less controlled as well.

Some countries may import processed food from the United States. It can be helpful to know in advance whether you can find familiar brands in other countries. I found a lot of familiar U.S. brands in Costa Rica for example, and I have found familiar brands throughout Europe, which I safely use at home. 

Step 2) Book a safe airline. (This may not be applicable to everyone.) 

If, like me, you or your child is allergic to nuts, airlines can be a real pain. But that hasn’t stopped me from flying all over the world. Firstly, consult your doctor about the dangers of airborne or contact reactions. Consider whether you will need to pre-board to clean your seat area (I do) and whether you will wear a mask (I do - an N95 mask which blocks very tiny particles.) Be sure to read the airline’s official policy before you book, as well as reviews from fellow travelers with allergies. 

After you book, call the airline to add a note to your reservation informing the flight crew of your allergy. Remind the gate agent when you arrive at the airport, and then remind your flight crew. Always remember that your safety is your responsibility, and don’t imply that you need the airline to make a guarantee of your safety. They can and might deny you boarding if they fear you pose a liability threat. Some airlines may require a note from a doctor clearing you to fly. I also carry a note explaining my allergies in case my liquid Benadryl causes a holdup in security. And of course, bring your medications on board the plane. 

Step 3) Book accommodations with a kitchenette, full kitchen, or something that resembles a kitchen, depending on your style of travel. 

There are tons of ways to do this. Many chain hotels offer rooms with kitchenettes. Airbnb rentals often offer access to a kitchen, or a private kitchen depending on your booking. Even strict budget travelers have plenty of options. I’ve stayed in hostels that have kitchens. Hiking huts often have a basic kitchen, even if it’s just a single burner. I’ve used a camper-van rental service that provides a two burner camping stove, and of course you can up-size to an RV if you prefer. No matter your style of travel, you have options. As long as you have access to a heat source, you can cook enough food to survive. 

Step 4) Get allergy cards printed in the language of your destination. 

I use allergytranslation.com to print my allergy cards. Choose from over 40 languages and customize your message. You can even include pictures of your allergens. The cost is minimal, and the cards are available to you forever, to print as many as you like. These cards are particularly useful if you do want to eat out, but I always have some on hand wherever I go, particularly at the markets. 

Step 5) Get travel insurance.

It’s good practice to always buy travel insurance, but it’s especially important if you have reason to believe you may need medical assistance abroad. As with health insurance in the United States, pre-existing conditions can cause hang-ups when it comes to travel insurance as well. If you have had a reaction within a certain time frame (usually 180 days), some travel insurance companies may refuse to insure you. Read the small print, call an agent, and ask them for the written evidence that treating your medical emergency would be covered should it come to pass. If you have to pay extra, do. It’s worth it.

Step 6) Pack some food to bring with you.

Many international destinations won’t allow fresh produce, dairy or meat to cross their borders without considerable paperwork, and you can bet the dogs at airport customs will smell whatever you have in your bag. So bring some non-perishables that will tide you over in a hungry pinch. Energy bars, peanut butter, nut-free SunButter (pack it in your checked bag; it won’t clear security in a carry-on), crackers, bread, canned soups, homemade snacks, etc. It’s always a good idea to have such things on hand, no matter where you’re traveling. I like to bring a small selection of dried herbs as well. I eat pretty simply when I travel, and herbs go a long way to dress up a meal of veggies on rice, for example. I usually bring a tiny saucepan too, preferring to only let my food touch my personal utensils, but that is probably overkill for many folks. 

Step 7) Keep it simple! Buy basic, minimally processed ingredients. 

Yes! You’re on the ground in a new country. First thing first: head straight to a market and buy the least processed things you can find. I love foods that have a natural layer of protection (Think eggs. It’s hard to cross-contaminate an egg.) Fruits and veggies with peels are great too, although you can always wash other produce. Meats are often a good call, especially in countries with rigorous food safety standards. From your research (Step 1) you should already have a good idea of what other products you might be able to find that you know are safe. Remember, the goal is not a culinary experience. It’s to eat enough safe food to allow the rest of the vacation to be an awesome experience.

Step 8) Enjoy your trip.

You didn’t think that would be a step, now did you? It is. I know how hard it can be to relax, but trust yourself because you’ve got this. You have safe food, a safe place to prepare it, and a backup plan in case you need help. 

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If you want to talk further about travel and severe allergies, I encourage you to email me personally. I have led a support group for families with food allergies for a year, and now hope to lead by example as much as possible. I’d love to talk to you about living a full life, food allergies included. 

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Carly Wynn is a semi-pro Nordic skier and semi-nomadic adventurer. She works as a coach for endurance athletes of all levels, and as a personal cook for busy families. Find her at CarlyOutside.com.