Carefully, I segregated the mysterious sauce from the rest of my food. Dipping one prong of my fork into it, I tasted, and waited.
Everything else on my plate was familiar: salad with tomatoes, french fries, chicken fingers.
Everything except this strange sauce lurking like a bad cowboy around the barroom fringes, hand resting on his pistol.
A few minutes later, my throat tightened. Whatever that sauce was, it had milk in it. I’m allergic to milk.
Quickly, I downed one glass of water. Then a second, and third; pushing the mysterious sauce across the table as far away from me as possible.
Welcome to traveling with food allergies — where any unknown food on your plate could spell disaster, or a hospital visit. Just because you might fall into the food allergy realm of the ability spectrum, doesn’t mean you can’t grab your passport — you can still travel.
Traveling abroad with food allergies is possible. Even to Paris with a milk allergy, or Italy with Celiac disease.
“Traveling on planes is one of my most nerve-wracking experiences,” says Megan Duggan. “Because I’m thousands of feet above the ground, away from immediate medical care and at the mercy of my fellow airplane travelers.”
Megan is deathly allergic to peanuts. If someone on the plane were to rip open a bag of trail mix, the particles in the air would give her an allergic reaction.
At baseball games, she’s changed seats when someone started eating peanuts in the row behind her.
But that hasn’t stopped her from traveling with a food allergy. She’s been to nine countries, and counting.
“I don’t want my allergy to limit my experiences. I want to enjoy new places — and I’m able to do that as long as I advocate for myself.”
Megan’s Safe Go-To Foods for a Peanut Allergy:
- House salads
- Pasta dishes
She avoids granola, desserts, ice cream, and Asian or Thai cuisine; as those typically involve peanuts or cooking with peanut oil.
Once, when she was in Ireland, she ordered a cheese plate — a usually safe food. But when the waiter delivered it, she had a surprise. The cheese was covered in peanuts. Something the menu didn’t mention.
“If I want to try a new food,” says Megan. “I’ll chat with the waiter to find out if there’s any possibility of peanuts being in the dish. If not, then I’ll go for it! I don’t want my peanut allergy to limit what I can experience, but I am realistic about being safe around new foods.”
Megan’s Allergy-Med Travel Kit:
- Epinephrine injector (Epi-Pen)
- Wears a medical ID bracelet: “severe peanut allergy – epinephrine required”
- When traveling abroad, she carries translated info about her peanut allergy and medication
So far, she hasn’t run into any issues with airport security and her Epi-Pen. If any questions do arise, her medical ID bracelet helps the security personnel understand.
How does Megan feel when boos echo around the plane after an announcement about a peanut allergy on board? She’s remarkably pragmatic.
“It helps not to get indignant. Instead, approach the situation from a place of empathy.”
She recommends explaining that her peanut allergy is severe and life-threatening. Do it in a friendly, calm manner. Toss in an apology for inconveniencing everyone, and people usually respond nicely.
If that doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to escalate the situation.
“No one else will stand up for your safety when you’ve got a food allergy. So you have to be comfortable advocating for yourself.”
Fly on an Allergy-Free Airline
Fly international with Swiss Air: the first airline to get an Allergy Free designation.
Request a Peanut-Free Flight
When you arrive at your gate, talk to the flight attendants to inform them of your peanut allergy. You can request an announcement to be made about your peanut allergy. Feel free to request priority boarding on your flight since your peanut allergy qualifies as a disability. Take advantage of the extra time in your seat to wipe it down if needed.
WestJet and Air Canada create peanut-free buffers around you.
Upon learning of a peanut allergy, Southwest Airlines will make an announcement and swap out their snacks for peanut-free alternatives. Think: pretzels and Chex mix.
Honestly, this section was the hardest part of this article to write.
Why? My milk allergy is part of my life, but it’s a facet I don’t often consider, or devote much thought to.
I’ve been allergic to milk for my entire life. (Yup, every part of milk: protein, fats, sugar.) Only when examining a menu for food options does my milk allergy cross my mind.
My allergy is woven so deeply into the fabric of my life that it’s hard to analyze how I think about it. It just is. I just am.
At home, as the main cook, swapping out milk or cheese in recipes is simple with tofu or eggs on hand. Think of soft, firm, and extra firm tofu as differing bonds of cheese. Then insert tofu in the place of cheese in recipes (i.e. lasagna, quiche) and experiment to get the consistency right. For a lot of dishes, just omit the cheese. You might never notice the difference.
When traveling in the United States, most restaurants have milk-free options on their menus. If we’re in town for more than a couple days, a vacation rental with a kitchen is my best friend. Not only do I get breakfast as soon as I wake up, but I can mess around in the kitchen, making dairy-free knock-offs of local cuisine.
Abroad it becomes a little trickier. But, I’ve eaten in Parisian bistros — infamous for their love of cream, milk, cheese — and lived to tell about it.
What’s my secret? Know which dishes typically have milk, cheese, or cream in them. Then avoid them. Order meals that are easy to tweak and make without cheese.
The easier a meal is to make, the greater your chances are of getting your meal delivered to your table correctly made and allergy-free. Make it simple on the rushed, crazy-busy restaurant cooks. Don’t ask them to remake an entire dish to accommodate your allergy. If you do, you probably won’t get a tasty meal.
Sometimes I just bite the bullet and order a pizza with cheese. Only to spend the first five minutes of my meal picking the cheese off and fishing out my toppings to remake my pizza. It’s easier than trying to explain, “No cheese, please” in Italian.
If the waiter delivers my salad with cheese sprinkled over it or my baked pasta dish slathered in melted cheese, I speak up. 9 times out of 10, it’s not your waiter’s fault that your dish came out wrong. More likely, it’s the cook’s fault.
Don’t, scream, or throw a fit at the person who could be your biggest ally.
Win the waiter over to your side. Done successfully, they’ll be happy to present your case to the cook and you’ll get a new, correctly-made, allergy-free meal — and maybe some free goodies thrown in. Occasionally, I’ve gotten half-off my meal, free desserts, and extra food.
In the high-end restaurants, waiters will likely cater to your allergy. If you’re having trouble finding a meal or dessert that you can eat, ask for their help and recommendations. Charm them on to your team. Make it about “together, we’ll find a solution” rather than “me and my food allergy versus you.”
Laura’s Safe Go-To Foods for Milk Allergy:
- Chicken fingers
- Burgers (ask for no cheese)
- Asian-inspired salads
- Spaghetti (ask for no cheese)
- Breakfast foods: eggs, bacon, dry toast
Laura’s Allergy-Med Travel Kit:
- Fingers crossed for good luck
- Water bottle
- No Epi-Pen
My decision to travel without an Epi-Pen is a personal one. As my allergy is only triggered by ingestion or skin contact, it’s controllable — unlike an airborne peanut allergy.
You’re the one with the best knowledge of your allergy: symptoms, reaction time, triggers. If your allergy allows you to, like mine does — maybe traveling without an Epi-Pen is a safe choice.
Learn How to Cook
Rachael Ray’s TV show and her cookbooks taught me how to cook. With an allergy, the benefit of knowing how to cook is two-fold.
- Knowing typical ingredients for recipes. For example, all pancakes — not just buttermilk — are made with milk.
- Cooking for yourself helps to avoid your allergy-triggering foods while traveling.
Get a Kitchen When Traveling
Airbnb saved me in Paris from dodging milk in every restaurant meal. Or attempting to communicate in rusty high-school French, “No cheese, s’il vous plait.” Instead, we saved a ton of money by cooking in our apartment and I didn’t worry about indirectly triggering a life-threatening allergy with every bite.
Translate Common Words for Your Allergy Before Dining Out
Know the words for milk, cream, or cheese in a foreign language, so you can spot them in a menu and avoid those dishes. Sometimes you might get foiled by a German sausage studded with cheese, but chalk up the experience to education and don’t stress out.
Pack Protein Bars & Snacks
Cliff Bars are my favorite. They’ve saved me many times from morphing into Hulk due to hunger. Also, packing your own snacks, for airplanes and days out helps reduce your dependency on questionable foods.
Wheat + Eggs Allergy
Ella, Missy Szymanski’s elementary-age daughter, is allergic to milk, peanuts, eggs, and wheat. But Missy doesn’t let Ella’s allergies keep their family from traveling and exploring the world.
“We know her allergies will prevent her from doing certain things in life. But we can take tons of precautions and keep her safe to create amazing memories.”
Due to Ella’s daunting mix of allergies, it’s easier to make their own meals versus eating out constantly while traveling. So, Missy ensures their accommodations have a kitchen to prepare safe food for Ella.
Missy’s Safe Go-To Roods for Wheat + Eggs Allergy
- Potato foods: hash browns, French fries, potato chips
- Rotisserie chicken
Missy’s Allergy-Med Travel Kit:
- Wal-dryl single dose packets of Benadryl
- Albuteral and steroid inhalers
- Epi-Pen (no documentation needed for airport security)
If someone endangers Ella’s life with their behavior, it’s upsetting but, “There’s not much else to be done.” You can only control so much. There’s a line where you can’t control others’ behaviors. If you go beyond that line and attempt to dictate their behavior, it’s a recipe for insanity.
“We wash down airline seats,” says Missy, “And ask that they make an announcement about the peanut allergy in hopes that people will be compassionate. That’s not always the case, but at least we’re doing what we can.”
Accept what you can control, advocate for yourself and your safety, and release the uncertainty.
Gluten Allergy or Celiac Disease
“People with gluten allergies have to watch out in other countries for gluten in things that don’t usually have gluten in them,” says Angela Rollins, concierge at Tortuga Backpacks.
Angela has 14 food allergies, including gluten, soy, dairy, and eggs. Over the past five years, she’s traveled abroad, usually solo for three or four months at a time.
When she eats at a restaurant, she peppers the wait staff with questions and takes their answers with a grain of salt.
Because sometimes people don’t know what they’re talking about and will tell you what they think you want to hear. Which could be that hamburger doesn’t have gluten in it. But it does. “You have to be wary of vague responses or incredulousness.”
“Most high-quality restaurants can accommodate me. That’s usually where my food sampling is done. On the last Tortuga retreat to Montreal, we went to Joe Beef. I gave them a list of my allergies and they changed their menu for me. They made new things that I could eat and told me what I could not eat.”
Angela’s Safe Go-To Foods for Gluten Allergy or Celiac Disease
- Fruit and nut bars (Lara Bars)
- EPIC jerky bars: “A great source of protein that isn’t sweet”
- Garbanzo scramble: saute canned garbanzo beans with typical omelette ingredients (mushrooms, bell peppers, potatoes, etc.)
- Breakfast: cooked brown rice with almond milk, add honey, cinnamon, and frozen or fresh fruit
She doesn’t eat anything at the airport or on her flights. She’s wary of hamburgers, sausages and other things made of ground meat that could contain fillers.
Angela’s Allergy-Med Travel Kit:
- Find probiotics in any form: kombucha, dairy-free yogurt, fresh pickles to restore a healthy digestive system
Google Translate App
Download the language of the country you’re traveling to, so when grocery shopping you can translate the ingredients. Or when you’re eating in a restaurant, use it to translate your allergies.
“When eating out, I carry index cards that have my food allergies written on them,” says Angela.
When you’re traveling abroad with food allergies, make sure those index cards have translations of your allergies in a couple different languages. Or use Legal Nomad’s Gluten Free Translation Cards.
Food Allergy Resources
- Food-info: Free dictionaries of 200+ allergy-related words in all European national languages and main world languages
- Allergy travel cards (or these free ones): Get your allergy translated into several different languages and printed on a translation card to make traveling abroad easier
- Learn how to cook: Take an online cooking class so you can prepare safe foods while traveling abroad with your allergy
Traveling abroad with a food allergy is not as daunting as it sounds. Remember:
- Advocate for yourself and your safety
- Ask lots of questions at restaurants
- Translate ingredients when grocery shopping
- Opt for places with kitchens to make allergy-safe foods
- Stay calm and assertive when getting push-back about your allergy
- Make memories and enjoy this life
Photo Credit: Food Shot Photo