Gluten-Free

8 Helpful Tips for Traveling While Gluten-Free

It’s much easier than you might think.

April  1, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

When I was first diagnosed with a gluten intolerance almost five years ago, I was worried about the prospect of giving up many of my staple foods—pasta, bread, and dumplings bought in bulk and kept in the freezer for emergencies. While the transition to a totally gluten-free diet was logistically easy for me—I live in New York City, where dietary restrictions are common and most grocery stores stock gluten-free staples—I realize that’s not the case for everyone, and emotionally, it took a while to get the hang of. And while I have my everyday routines down pat now, eating out while traveling, both domestically and abroad, is still something of a challenge. Awareness about allergies and food intolerance really varies, from city to city and even restaurant to restaurant, but I’ve learned it’s completely possible to travel and try new cuisines without getting sick. Here are some tips that really work for me.

Plan ahead as much as possible

Search for restaurants that other gluten-free travelers recommend (TripAdvisor and gluten-free travel blogs are particularly useful), and make reservations at a few places if you can. Also, keep a running list of accommodating cafes, markets, and grocery stores in the neighborhoods you plan to check out. I personally like to use a Google Maps list for this, but a text list or annotated paper map works just as well if you don’t have cell phone data access.

Research the local cuisine

Before going somewhere, I do a deep dive into traditional foods for that area and identify any common wheat-based ingredients like soy sauce, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce, flour tortillas, or stews made with a hearty roux. This gives me a good frame of reference for what to be cautious about. Sometimes these ingredients can be omitted from a dish or substituted, and knowing how chefs prepare these dishes can make it easier for you to communicate with them about your requests.

Pack backup options

I always allocate suitcase space for gluten-free protein bars, rice cakes and a jar of almond butter, and instant miso soup packets. That means I’m all set for breakfasts, travel snacks, and a couple of small meals in a pinch. Other travel-friendly ideas include pouches of tuna or salmon, and gluten-free jerky or granola. If I’m running low on snacks I look for options that tend to be safe like whole nuts, popcorn, and chocolate to restock my shelf-stable stash.

Look for accommodations with a microwave, fridge, or even a full kitchenette

If you have a way to store and heat perishables, you are way less likely to find yourself hungry and on the brink of eating something you feel iffy about. Preparing some meals for yourself is a nice way to sample local produce, like new types of vegetables and legumes, without worrying about gluten. Plus, exploring local supermarkets is one of life’s great joys—just remember to read those labels!

Make sure you have enough to eat in transit

If you’re on a flight offering food service, many airlines allow you to request a gluten-free meal. Bring a carry-on bag of snacks too, to ensure you aren’t staggeringly hungry when you arrive at your final destination—airport food can be unreliable, and you don’t want to kick off any leg of your trip feeling hangry or cranky.

Carry some information with you

You can look for downloadable restaurant cards that explain your food restrictions in multiple languages, along with phonetic phrases you can use. These aren’t foolproof, but communicating about your allergy can go a long way. Restaurant cards are particularly useful if your allergy or intolerance extends to cross-contamination.

Have supplies on hand in case you ingest gluten

I’ve found that everyone has their own specific “gluten protocol” if the worst should happen, depending on their symptoms. I travel with a “worst case scenario” ziploc bag with over-the-counter stomach medications, electrolyte tablets, and peppermint tea.

Phone apps can save the day

Before going on a trip, I like to download any apps that might be useful. Gluten-free restaurant apps like Find Me Gluten-Free, and language translation apps like Google Translate and Allergic Traveler Food Allergy Translator, have served me well—and there are new apps for travelers debuting all the time.

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Nina is a writer, editor, and enthusiastic home cook in New York City.

7 Comments

Julie M. April 7, 2019
I've found that airlines like Southwest are okay with my "extra" lunch bag when I explain that I have celiac disease, and I've never had a problem with GF meals on Norwegian. Also, in airports which have the Vino Volo cafes, they have always had some GF option for me.
 
Ann April 7, 2019
I carry these everywhere. They are filling, calorie controlled, gluten free, low sugar, and just enough of a treat to not be soul-killing:

TRAIL MIX COOKIES
4 eggs
2 cups creamy peanut butter
6 Tbsp banana
2 Tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
160 gm M&Ms
160 gm raisins
60 gm almond flour
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place parchment paper on a baking sheet and set sheet aside.
Using electric mixer, blend all ingredients together for 1 minute or so. Use a larger cookie scoop to portion tablespoon-sized balls of dough, and place them on parchment-lined baking sheet. Smash each ball a little. Bake for 11 minutes. Makes 40 cookies with large scoop
 
Lynn S. April 2, 2019
Dont assume that you will get a GF meal on an airplane even if you request one on booking and confirm it when you check in. And check anything you are given. BA cabin crew gave my coeliac brother a wrap which wasn't gluten free. He had one bite before they realised the mistake. He was ill for his entire holiday.
 
Ali L. April 3, 2019
Oh that's awful. I've had a few too many really rude flight attendants just about the peanuts and pretzels to ever trust a meal. I was on a flight where they only had seasoned peanuts that contained wheat and my mom said "is there any chance you have gluten free snacks?" When asked which she wanted....the woman scoffed, rolled her eyes, and said "We have pretzels and peanuts." As if we were a huge inconvenience. I was like "Neither, then" and she huffed off and told another flight attendant that we wanted something gluten free. I don't expect accommodation but I do expect common decency and politeness.
 
Author Comment
Nina B. April 4, 2019
Ahhh how terrible! Yes, it's always a good idea to double-check and reconfirm — both when you check in, and with the flight attendants on your flight! If you have time to chat with them before they begin meal service, they might be a bit less rushed in my experience.
 
Dana April 1, 2019
Great ideas! I especially like doing the list ahead of time for the areas you'll be visiting. The thought honestly never occurred to me! I just find myself searching for as restaurant over and over again.
 
Ali L. April 3, 2019
It's so helpful! I usually make a few pages in a notebook or bullet journal and scope places out on findmeglutenfree or TripAdvisor ahead of time in categories of breakfast lunch and dinner, and I write down the restaurant's website, address, and any particularly interesting looking dishes I can eat. Then when we're there and feeling spontaneous, we can choose off the list. 😊