Traveling Abroad with Food Allergies: The Secret is in How You Pack

Angela Rollins

I’m writing this from 30,000 feet snacking on avocado toast and fresh fruit. I’ve got a thermos of warm quinoa pilaf at my feet for later. I feel a bit of snobbishness looking at the TV dinner trays of my fellow travelers — but most importantly, I feel calm and collected. I’m eating real food that’s delicious and nourishing and I didn’t have to check any ingredient labels.

I have so many food sensitivities (16 to be exact) that there’s an entire “Angela” category of food intolerance jokes at Tortuga. Before I traveled abroad, I thought I would never be able to leave the country because of my food sensitivities — traveling with food sensitivities presents additional challenges that other people don’t have to think about. It’s been a long journey (not the flight, just going from New York to Seattle at the moment) but after 7 years of frequent international travel and plenty of mess ups and reactions, I’ve got systems in place that work for me

I’ve done everything from bringing a duffle bag full of just food, to packing a blender to make smoothies on the go — I still don’t know how I got through security with that. Food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are highly variable, and therefore highly personal. There’s no one system that will work for everybody. Use this guide to overplan — It’s a lot harder to deal if you underplan — and then pare down as you learn what works for you.

With the right preparation, no matter your relationship with various foods, you too can plan a worry-free trip.

Packing for Food Allergies

If you’ve got food allergies, packing is harder. Here’s what you need to consider:

Allergy Translation Cards

Before you go, translate your allergens into the local language. Include translations of common ingredients that have your allergen in it (such as “flour”, “bread”, or “soy sauce” for people who are gluten intolerant). Bring at least 3 allergy cards and a few blank index cards just in case. Don’t expect to get these back.

Bonus points: Laminate your allergy cards with packing tape. They’ll be in a kitchen afterall.

Pre-made allergy translation cards

Allergy Translation offers the most comprehensive allergy translation service that we’ve found. You can order allergy translation cards from a selection of 203 allergens in 43 languages.

For gluten intolerance, you can get free allergy translation cards from Celiac Travel in 63 languages. These are nice because they offer in-depth explanations. Legal Nomads offers a few for gluten-intolerance that are country-specific and include local dish names.

Water Bottle

It’s important to stay hydrated while traveling. If you do have a reaction, water will help any accidentally ingested allergens pass through your system more quickly. I always travel with a water purifier bottle because I don’t want to confuse a food reaction with a reaction to local water — I have enough to deal with. Two good options are the GRAYL and the LARQ bottle. The GRAYL will filter out any sediment and heavy metals as well as remove viruses and bacteria. The LARQ bottle will kill bacteria and viruses but won’t get rid of any sediment or heavy metals which can block the UV light from reaching all the water molecules. If you’re going to be in a place with sediment in the water, I recommend the GRAYL.

Thermos

Traveling with a Thermos has been a game changer. I can have a hot meal on my flight and can bring something warm to eat during a day of exploring or working from a coworking place. It helps me feel a little more human and a little more nourished without relying solely on trail mix.

Utensils

Utensils come in handy for the plane ride or a long bus ride, but also come in handy if you want to bring salad or soup for your day of exploring. I use this all-in-one utensil. It doesn’t take up much room and is easy to clean, plus the serrated fork edge won’t get confused for a weapon when going through airport security.

Tupperware

I typically pack 2 tupperware containers. On my flight, one is usually holding tuna salad — I know I’m the absolute worst, but I usually eat this at the gate before boarding. The other contains fruit — a mix of peaches and berries is my favorite. Once you get to your destination, you can use those for leftovers or to bring snacks with you during the day.

Collapsible Dishes

I don’t pack these anymore because my travel style has changed, but when I was on regular 5-hour bus rides and was frequently changing accommodations, I packed a collapsible bowl & mug. The bowl doubles as a cutting board and is large enough for a salad. Both of them have measuring marks, are microwave-safe, and easy to clean. They come in handy when you don’t have guaranteed kitchen access.

Probiotics

Taking probiotics regularly can lessen certain reactions when you do have them, or at least make it easier for your body to recover afterwards. If your travels are bringing you somewhere a little more adventurous, probiotics can help you adapt to the local food.

Bring What Helps When You Have a Reaction

If you’re prepared, reactions will be infrequent, but it’s worth being prepared; especially if you have reactions that require medications. By now, you probably know what helps you the most when a reaction comes on. Our Editor, Jenn, carries 2-3 epipens in case she can’t get medical attention quickly. I always carry salt, water, and toothpaste. Salt stimulates saliva production, water keeps things moving, and toothpaste rids my mouth of any unwanted tastes that make me feel worse. Pack what helps you.

Snacks

For your flight, pack foods with a balanced macronutrient content. Don’t depend on dried foods or snacks like potato chips and crackers. If your door-to-door journey is over 12 hours, you really don’t want to be eating trail mix the whole way. You’ll feel lethargic, bloated, and so desperate for real food that you might take a risk on airplane food when you shouldn’t. Pack foods with enough protein and fat to keep your blood sugar stable and enough non-dehydrated foods to keep you from feeling bloated.

Research the customs regulations of your country of your departure and arrival in regards to food. When you come into the US, you can’t bring fresh produce. When you leave Australia, you can’t take produce with you. Plan accordingly. Coming to the US, I plan to eat my produce on the flight and on the rare occasion that I haven’t eaten everything, I throw it out upon arrival. No big deal.

Here are the snacks I frequently take with me on a travel day:

  • Quinoa pilaf
  • Tuna salad
  • Green salad — consider adding tuna, chicken, chickpeas, almonds, pumpkin seeds, or avocado to increase your calorie, protein, and fat intake
  • Epic bars — these are similar to jerky and are pretty clean ingredient-wise. They don’t use soy sauce like typical jerky.
  • Larabars (or similar)
  • Chips — I try to go for something with beans in it (like Beanfields or Beanitos) to up my calorie and protein intake
  • Fresh cut fruit & veggies (like peaches, berries, carrots, cucumbers)
  • Bananas
  • An apple
  • Crunchy chickpeas
  • Hummus, nut butter, or avocado on gluten-free toast (This is an easy way to sneak something that might otherwise be considered a liquid through security. Cut a toast-sized square of parchment paper to lay on top, then wrap in plastic to avoid any mess and keep your toppings in place.)

Choosing Luggage to Pack for Food Allergies

Outbreaker Duffle

The Outbreaker Duffle is a maximum-sized personal item. Aside from a couple flat pockets on the side, you have one big empty space to fill with your snacks for the plane.

Pair this with a carry on backpack and you’ve got the perfect carry on only set up so you don’t have to check a bag.

Setout Duo Bundle

If you want access to a lot of other things on your trip and want a bit more organization, I recommend the Setout Duo Bundle. You can pack your snacks in the main compartment of the Setout Laptop Backpack and keep your laptop and notebook safely separated from your food. Pack the rest of the stuff you’ll need at your destination in the Setout Duffle Bag and toss it in the overhead bin.

Sh*t You Can Probably Get Away With

Frozen Items

Gels are considered a liquid, so you probably can’t get yogurt or chia pudding on the plane unless… you freeze them! I tried this with chia pudding once in my thermos. They questioned me about it, but looked at it and said, “Well… it looks mostly solid so I guess it’s okay.”

Ice packs can keep things from smelling and help your fresher food last your trip. Also great if you have probiotic pills that need to stay refrigerated. I’ve never been questioned about frozen ice packs. If it’s frozen solid when you bring it through security, you’re good to go.

A Third Cabin Bag

“WHAT?” You say. Yes of course there’s a catch. It has to be one of those plastic grocery bags. Most airlines actually allow an extra disposable bag if purchased after security (such as for duty-free items or snacks) — this is the loophole I take advantage of. I’ve gotten away with this every time I tried, budget airline or not — in addition to my carry on and personal item. I’ve never tested a brown paper bag because it seems less like something you’d actually purchase after going through security. So if you’ve already got a full carry on and personal item, try sticking your snacks in a grocery bag. I recommend reviewing your airline’s carry on requirements to verify this before traveling so you can pack accordingly.

Eating Out

I have a lot of food sensitivities, so I pretty much avoid eating out unless it’s a sushi restaurant, I’ve done research in advance, or the restaurant is already very clear about ingredients without me having to ask. No matter where I am, I avoid street food because the cooking surfaces are typically shared among all the food they serve and they’re typically less knowledgeable about individual ingredients and food sensitivities.

Seek Out Familiar Cuisines & Chain Restaurants

It can be a good strategy to seek out cuisines that you know typically work for you, or even American chain restaurants that you know you can eat at. (I know. It’s pretty blasphemous to eat American fast food abroad, but, “Have allergies, will travel!”)

If you seek out a typically reliable cuisine, also expect that things may be different than they are at home. For example, I seek out sushi when I travel. Some things I’ve learned are: traditional sushi restaurants put wasabi between the bed of rice and slice of fish (most wasabi is made with corn starch), many sushi restaurants in Portugal put cream cheese in absolutely every roll, and in the UK, they use mayonnaise.

Be conscious of flour added to burger meat and an orzo-rice blend instead of pure rice (easy to identify by the different “grain” shapes — usually listed as rice pilaf on a menu).

Email Ahead 

Email or call a restaurant ahead of time to explain your allergies — they’ll be less stressed and able to take more time to ask the chef and tell you if they think they can successfully accommodate you.

Ask the Right Questions

A lot of times, it’s not enough to ask if something is gluten-free or contains wheat. Sometimes if you ask if contains wheat, they’ll say no, then you ask if it contains flour, they say yes. WHOOPS. You know how specific you need to get with your questions.  A lot of people have no idea about gluten-intolerance, so I try to ask questions to establish the risk…

  • Is it marinated?
  • Does it have any sauces?
  • Does it contain soy sauce?
  • Does it contain flour?
  • Is it breaded?
  • Was it cooked in oil that was used for other things (like deep-frying anything breaded)?
  • Was it cooked in a pan that cooked X ingredient in it without washing it in between?
  • How is the rice/quinoa cooked? Is it cooked in broth? Are there any other ingredients added?

If anything seems unclear and you can’t get clarity on it, move on to a different dish or a different restaurant.

Cooking Abroad for Food Allergies

Grocery Shopping

Bring your allergy cards with you to the grocery store. Look up translations of additional ingredients that you normally know to look for (such as high fructose corn syrup — which, by the way, in Europe is called “glucose fructose syrup” in its various translations). Download the language of the country you’re going to on the Google Translate app so if you don’t have internet service you’ll still be able to look up translations of specific ingredients.

Easy Recipes

I have some go-to recipes that are easy to make anywhere. Be flexible and creative. You might not be able to find the exact ingredients you’re looking for. Do your best and go by taste until you get it right. Here are some of my go-to recipes that I make on the road and some of the edits I make for ease and allergy-safety — just to show you how easy it is to make edits.

Stovetop Meals

Lamb with Spinach Recipe

    • Use coriander powder instead of coriander seeds
    • Substitute unsweetened coconut-based dairy-free yogurt or canned coconut milk for regular yogurt
    • Skip the ginger, turmeric, and dairy-free yogurt if unavailable or too lazy
    • Use green onions which are easier to cut with dull Airbnb knives
    • Skip the fresh chili pepper and add more chili powder if needed
    • Leave the spinach whole.
    • Don’t marinate the meat, just throw the spices in at the same time as the meat.
    • Don’t remove one-third of the onions. Who’s got time for garnish?

      That recipe just got a lot easier didn’t it?

Sweet Potato Chili Recipe

The first time I made this recipe was on a hot plate in Tel Aviv. It was a bullshit way to cook, but it was one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever made.

    • Roast the potatoes in the oven while you prep everything else to save you time so you don’t have to wait for them to soften
    • Use whatever kind of beans you can find. I’ve used black beans, white beans, kidney beans…
    • Don’t mince the garlic or, just use garlic powder
    • Skip the chipotle chile, just stick with the chili powder
    • Skip the tomatoes, add a little more water and a little lime juice to make up for the lost acidity

Lentil Soup Recipe

    • Sub broth for additional water, salt, and spices
    • Sub fresh thyme for dried
    • Skip the balsamic vinegar

See, it’s easy to edit recipes. Don’t get precious about it. You’ll do fine if you have basic cooking skills down.

Low Prep Meals & Snacks (only requires a microwave or toaster)

No Cook Options

  • Rice crackers with nut butter or avocado
  • Vegetables with hummus
  • Banana/apple with nut butter
  • Tuna salad
  • Green salad – add a can of tuna (make sure it has a pull top if you don’t have access to a can opener), chickpeas, avocado, nuts, or seeds for a more substantial meal. Top with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or lemon & salt. If you need a punch of flavor, dried cranberries or fresh strawberries can add a flavor kick to an otherwise boring salad.

This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, but it should get your wheels turning.

Avoiding and Managing Reactions

Never depend on eating out. We all want to experience the local cuisine when we travel, but you need a back up plan. Bring several snacks to hold you over. If you get desperately hungry, you’ll probably justify eating something that might be unsafe for you to eat. I’ve been there too many times.

If you ever need medical attention for your allergies, research your options before your trip and discuss with a doctor. Our Editor, Jenn, carries 3 epipens with her so that she has enough to last if she can’t get to a hospital easily. Research where the hospitals are and save them in your phone or write them down. Save the local emergency contact numbers in your phone too. 

For people who don’t require medical attention or medications, figure out what helps you when you have a reaction. For me, that’s salt, lemons, water, and toothpaste. Salt and lemon help to stimulate the production of saliva and water keeps things moving through. When I’m having a reaction, any taste in my mouth only makes me feel worse, so I brush my teeth — or if I’m out, I stick toothpaste on my tongue. Maybe ginger chews are your thing. Find what works for you and be prepared.

I always recommend talking to your doctor before you travel for additional suggestions they have for your circumstances.

TL;DR

Planning Your Trip

    • Choose major cities for your destination to make for an easier vacation
    • Opt for accommodations that have a kitchen

Packing

    • Bring allergy translation cards and a water bottle
    • Also consider a thermos, utensils, tupperware, collapsible dishes, and probiotics
    • Bring what helps you when you have an attack
    • Pack balanced snacks to keep yourself satiated on the flight
    • Choose a personal item that will be able to contain your snacks and anything else you might need for the flight

Eating Out

    • When eating out, consider seeking out familiar cuisines
    • Email restaurants in advance of your arrival
    • Ask the right questions

Cooking

    • Download the local language in the Google translate app so you can translate ingredients on food labels
    • Have go-to recipes that are easy to make

Avoiding & Managing Reactions

    • Bring snacks as you explore a new city so you don’t make potentially harmful decisions based on desperation
    • Do any research you might need to manage a reaction — such as emergency contact numbers and hospitals — before you leave
    • Bring what helps you when you have an attack

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