Traveling internationally with food allergies, especially traveling with kids with food allergies, can be extremely stressful. However, it can be done. And what I have found is that the more prepared I am, the less stressful I find it – it can even still be fun!
If this is your first trip after you’ve been diagnosed, or your first trip abroad with children who have allergies, things are probably going to have to look a little different than you’re used to. Food is a big part of any culture, and feeling like you can’t experience that is hard. But I can promise you that you will experience even less of the culture if you spend your trip in the local emergency department, or holed up in your hotel feeling miserable. The single thing that will make the biggest difference in traveling with food allergies is to accept your or your family’s limitations. Once you accept those, you can get to work and plan a vacation everyone can enjoy!
A little backstory to let you know where I am coming from: My family is dealing with a type of food allergy called FPIES (Food Protein Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome), which means that reactions happen within the digestive tract. So even though reactions are excruciatingly painful and debilitating, we have never dealt with life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. We also are dealing with multiple allergies and restrictions for those of us with FPIES (2 out of 4 of us, now that my oldest outgrew his allergies!) – I cannot eat dairy or eggs, and there is another handful of foods that I can only eat in extremely limited qualities. My youngest, at 18 months, can only eat wheat, rice, chicken, beef, olive oil, and apples. Every other food in the world he has either had reactions to, or we haven’t trialled yet. So if your family is dealing with different types of allergies, or allergies to only one or two foods, your strategies will probably look different. But for us, without further ado, here are my top tips for planning an international trip with food allergies:
- Research cultural preferences and diet: It’s not that you couldn’t visit say, Japan with a rice allergy, or northern Europe with a dairy allergy, but visiting cultures who tend to avoid your allergens will make life easier and give you more options, both in the grocery store and when eating out.
- Language facility: Especially if this is your first trip abroad with allergies, I would recommend sticking to countries where you speak the language. Even a little bit of familiarity can make a huge difference. I have a tiny bit of Spanish and an even smaller bit of French rattling around in my brain, and I was surprised at how much it helped with reading Portuguese food labels while in Brazil. Recognizing the base word (leite) as being similar to the Spanish (leche) and the French (lait) helped me a lot in grocery stores. We were staying with my parents, who were able to double check my off the cuff translation guesses. If you don’t speak the language, there are websites where you can get your allergens translated. Speaking of grocery stores, as with in your home country, the less processed food you get, the less likely you are to deal with cross contamination or hidden ingredients issues. For example: packaged cookies could have touched anything or have anything in them. But a banana is just a banana.
- Accommodation: Because both my youngest and myself are on limited diets, I always look for accommodations that have a kitchenette/kitchen. Not eating out, or even restricting your eating out, will save you time, stress, and money. And maybe I’m strange, but to me, wandering foreign grocery stores is one of the great joys in life. Especially if I can find some allergen-free sweets! Both grocery stores and farmers’ markets are wonderful cultural experiences not to be missed.
- Flying: If you’re flying, find out if there are any airlines who are able to accommodate your allergies during meals, or just plan on packing your own food. Research what exactly security will consider allowable (for Americans: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/prohibited-items ) and plan accordingly. For example, I believe that ice packs for coolers are allowed if the ice is frozen, but if it melts before you get through security, it’s a liquid and will be trashed. (You can also bring ziptop baggies and fill them up with ice from drinks machines once past security.) There are exceptions for medical foods and formula, so be sure to look into these and if you need an exception – say, a child who is no longer a baby but needs medical formula – make sure to have a letter from your doctor explaining the condition, the severity, and the medical need. When we took our oldest to Brazil at 8 months old, I packed a cooler full of his medical formula and had no problems. My trick for my very food-restricted toddler is to pack several applesauce pouches in a quart-sized ziplock with my other liquids.
- Medication: Whatever medication you use at home for allergy reactions, bring with you. But make sure to look up the rules for bringing that medication into your destination country, and for flying with it. If the prescription is not on the bottle, print out a copy to bring with you.
- Hospitals: If a reaction is going to land you in the emergency department, make sure you know what hospitals to go to, and whether or not they will take your insurance. Again, if you don’t speak the language, have a piece of paper or app that will explain what your allergies are, and what you need to have done. Doing a web search for allergy translations will bring up many options.
Those are my top tips for how to make your international trip a success before you even set foot out your door. Check back later for tips about flying and packing with food allergies (also known as Half My Suitcase is Food). What are your top tips for planning an international trip with food allergies?