Travel can present dietary challenges for everyone, but can be very intimidating for people with serious allergies or dietary restrictions. One of the most common challenges that I see on the road is a gluten free diet. Gluten free travel is not impossible, it’s actually become very common and pretty easy to do with a little preparation.
As I mentioned in my previous article on dietary challenges, I’ve had clients with all kinds of limitations. Everything is possible to accommodate. Really, it is! You can really eat well, just think of it! Salads! Steak! All the cheese!
I recently had an assistant who has a particularly tricky situation. Stefanie Bielikova (www.postcardsfromstef.com) is a vegetarian by choice but gluten free by necessity. She can’t really eat any gluten, as it makes her have a bad reaction. She is always on the hunt in her travels to find good local dishes or restaurants that offer gluten free options.
We talked often on our tour together about the challenges she faces in travel. Having worked on cruise ships, she’s been all over the world. She’s a naturally positive person, and seemed to delight in tackling gluten free travel issues. On the days that she found new gluten free restaurants or bakeries, she would light up with excitement. That’s turning lemons into limoncello!
Her main message to share is that traveling the world is absolutely possible. Having a gluten free diet doesn’t mean that you should stay home and miss out on all that the world has to offer. You can make it work.
Stefanie and I sat down and brainstormed ideas on how we both handle gluten free travel. I am coming from a tour guide angle, and she from a gluten free traveler angle. These strategies are a good start, but remember that you must always be vigilant and double check food before you eat it.
Tips for Gluten Free Travel
- Prepare translations in advance. A good general tip for any allergy, print out a card in the local language that describes your allergy and the severity of it.
- Don’t assume that people will know what gluten is! Find out the how to communicate the word and concept ahead of time. Also, know the local words for wheat, barley and rye.
- Do some internet research for each city, looking for local food bloggers that cover dietary restrictions. Local food blogs will tell you where to eat and what’s on the menu.
- Don’t be shy about asking restaurants if they serve gluten free items. It may not be on the menu, but is often available. Italian restaurants, for example, almost all stock gluten free pasta these days, even if it isn’t on the menu.
- It’s a fact that bigger cities are better equipped to deal with gluten free travel. Pick up supplies to bring to the smaller cities.
- Health food stores will almost always carry gluten free products, even beer in Germany. Most larger grocery stores in Europe will have a small section of products.
- Staying in apartments rather than hotels is smart. Having your own kitchen will allow you to cook for yourself, so you can eat without concern. You also usually get a washing machine as a bonus!
- Bring snacks to avoid Hanger. If you have a favorite protein bar at home, bring a bunch. You can always pick up fruit at your destination.
- Notify the airline ahead of time that you need a special meal, reconfirm it at least 48 hours ahead of time. Telling them at the counter doesn’t work, they have to arrange gluten free meals ahead of time.
- Contact hotels ahead to request special gluten free items for breakfast. Most places will have yogurt and fruit. Large hotels will usually have gluten free items in stock, but smaller places will need to know in advance to buy it for you.
- Picnics are great because you can control whats in your food. Shopping at local markets is a fun adventure anyhow.
- Try to find out which local specialties that are typically gluten free, but also confirm when you order it.
- BYOB- Brong your own bread! OK, that sounds kind of dorky, but it’s a good strategy. Keep some in your bag for a quick substitution if needed.
Where to Travel
Most countries are doable, but a few are easier than others for gluten free travel. Some ideas from Stefanie’s travels about where is easiest…
Paradise: Most of Asia, particularly SE Asia. Rice and veggie diets abound in Japan, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China and India are trickier as they bread meats and add wheat flour to thicken sauces.
Great: Italy, France, England, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia. Even if these are places that are rife with pasta, bread, cakes and wheat-filled delights of all sorts, they are aware of the gluten issue. It is easy to get substitutions.
Tricky: Greece, Turkey, South America. These countries are not as aware of the issue and can’t cater to it easily outside of the big cities.
Even with preparations and precautions, it’s smart to have some meds on hand to deal with it if you happen to eat something that you’re allergic to.
Stefanie has traveled all over the place on a gluten free diet. Her advice is simple. “Don’t be afraid, travel anyway. Communication is the key, and bring snacks just in case.”
Have some strategies to add to the list? Found great gluten free restaurants in your travels? Leave a comment and we can compile a list!
Stefanie Bielikova is a travel advisor for Rick Steves Europe. She writes about her travels at www.postcardsfromstef.com.