Traveling with Allergies

I have pretty severe food allergies, and carry an Epipen with me wherever I go. My allergies were diagnosed when I was a toddler, so it’s something I’ve long grown accustomed to. I’m used to carefully reading ingredients lists, asking waiters about food items at restaurants, and politely declining homemade goods at social gatherings. I won’t lie – having to be so vigilant and missing out on so many gastronomic experiences can be bothersome at times, but it certainly beats the alternative…

Now, this isn’t a bookish topic, but I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on traveling with food allergies in the off chance that any of my readers might be facing similar challenges. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can simply eat anything that’s placed in front of you without having to give it a second thought, well, this post might not be for you. But if you have allergies or love someone who does, follow me!

Travel can be extremely stressful for someone with food allergies, especially when you don’t speak or read the local language. How can you read ingredients lists, or know what dishes are safe to eat? While travel, like most things in life, will always carry some risk, with a bit of research and a can-do attitude you can travel the world while still staying safe and healthy. Side note – all pictures are from my last trip to Japan, a true foodie destination.

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Do your Homework

Research the local cuisines in the place(s) you’ll be visiting. What are some popular dishes, and what kinds of ingredients are commonly used? Are there types of food that seem safer than others? If you have a peanut allergy, for example, Thailand might be a difficult country to eat your way through because of the extensive use of peanuts in many dishes, while Japan could be challenging for people with seafood allergies due to the extensive use of fish, including fish stock. Having a general idea of what ingredients typically go into which dishes can help make it a bit easier to choose dishes or restaurants. Forewarned is forearmed!

Learn the language

Or at least enough to explain your allergies. There are a number of websites that provide translations of allergy-related phrases into various languages that you can save to your phone or print out and show to waiters at restaurants, or even staff at grocery stores to help you read ingredients. I relied heavily on these during our recent trip, and got into the habit of showing them to restaurant hosts the moment I stepped through the door. There’s no sense sitting down at a fried food place only to find out that all the food is cooked in peanut oil! Learning the different words or characters for your allergies, like the symbols for eggs or wheat, can help make deciphering allergy lists and communicating with chefs and waiters much easier. 

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Be your own Champion

No one understands your allergies better than you do, and no one will suffer more from an incident than you will. Being the good Canadian I am, I’m notoriously reluctant to “cause trouble” or “make a scene”, and I’ve spent much of my life being deeply embarrassed by my allergies and worried about being perceived as “difficult” or “picky”. But if you don’t ask questions and let people know about your allergies, how can they help you? This isn’t about being picky or difficult, it’s about being safe, and in some cases staying alive.  I found that by and large people were more than happy to help me, and that a smile and many “thank you”s went a long way to showing my appreciation.

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B.Y.O.F

If you anticipate having trouble finding safe food at your destination, consider packing small, nutritious snacks in your luggage, just in case. On my recent trip I packed protein bars in my backpack, and they came in very handy as emergency fuel in more remote areas where finding safe food was more challenging. Depending on your destination and any travel regulations, protein bars, dried meat or fruit, meal replacement drinks or powders, even dehydrated camping food can help tide you ever if you think finding safe food might be difficult. 

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Make it Yourself

If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen, consider preparing your own meals. We stayed in several apartments while in Japan, and took advantage of stoves and microwaves wherever we could. Not only can you control what goes into your food when you cook for yourself, it’s often nice to have a change from constantly having to eat out! Buying whole ingredients like fruit and vegetables and limiting the use of processed foods can help you avoid food ingredients you don’t want.

Stick to What You Know

I’ll admit it – while in Japan I did occasionally eat at McDonalds and Subways. There were times when trying to find safe food just got a bit too tiring, and I craved food I recognized, knew was safe, and didn’t have to worry about.  Depending on your surroundings, don’t be afraid to seek out familiar restaurants, but do remember to check websites for ingredients, just in case – it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Fly Safe

Flying with an allergy can be stressful, but depending on the severity of your allergies here are a few tips that might help:

  • Tell the airline – I notified Japan Airlines about my allergies, and they bent over backwards to help make my experience as safe and positive as possible. I ordered an allergen-friendly meal, and staff gave my seating area an extra-thorough clean to limit potential allergies. I was also originally seated separately from my partner, and they moved our seats so that I wouldn’t have to sit beside someone who could potentially bring a snack on board that had allergens in it.

  • Bring a meal and/or snacks – being miles and miles up in the air over the middle of the ocean might not the best time to take chances with what you eat!

  • Make sure to bring extra medication with you on the plane, just in case! I always make sure to have a clear prescription label printed on my Epipen, lest any security agents take umbrage at me bringing a needle on a plane…

Be informed, be prepared, be confident, and be safe, wherever your wanderlust takes you! The world is full of so many amazing things to do, see, experience and explore, so get out there and taste it!

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40 Comments

  • Reply Kathleen Burkinshaw

    This is a great, informative post. When I went to Japan I had my Epipen in case of a bee sting. I’m also allergic to shellfish (it’s the extreme,severe stomach pain type, not the severe type that could kill you, although it has been so bad I wished someone would just knock me unconscious). So I also had my allergy written in Japanese and would show it every time we ate out. The staff were so helpful with this. We also had a unit with a kitchen so did a lot of meals that way,too.

    April 9, 2017 at 5:07 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Travelling with allergies can be super stressful, no matter how severe your allergies are, it’s never fun to be sick, especially in a foreign country, far away from home! I’m glad to hear you found ways to make sure your trip to Japan was safe! I definitely felt well taken care of wherever we went, people were so helpful!

      April 11, 2017 at 2:32 am
  • Reply Tabatha

    Great advice!

    April 9, 2017 at 10:39 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Thank you!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:14 am
  • Reply Beth F

    Wow awesome advice. I have late-in-life allergies (like in the last 3 or 4 years) so I am still trying to get used to dealing with the new me. I’m bookmarking this post for next time I travel outside of North America.

    April 10, 2017 at 9:41 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      That must be a challenge! I can’t imagine having to adapt to allergies, I’m lucky in that I’ve never been without them, so it’s just second-nature by now. 🙂

      April 13, 2017 at 3:14 am
  • Reply Claire at Tin Box Traveller

    These are great tips. I’m sure the majority of people with allergies worry about being seen as fussy and you are right, it’s better to ask questions and make people aware. They would much prefer that than having to help you into an ambulance or worse! Thanks for linking up with #MondayEscapes

    April 10, 2017 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Sometimes you just have to be your own advocate when you have a health condition – it’s definitely not easy, but it gets easier with time! Well, somewhat easier – it can get pretty tiring to always have to be worrying and checking and asking, but thankfully my partner is even more of an advocate than I am, so I’m well taken care when we travel. 🙂

      April 11, 2017 at 4:26 am
  • Reply Cristin

    What a fantastic article! My daughter was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a food allergy and it truly changes everything in your day to day routine. We very rarely eat out when at home. Because we love to travel I have to do so much prep work to find places that I think will be able to accommodate her food allergy. These tips are great. Thank you for sharing these tips! #MondayEscapes

    April 10, 2017 at 11:15 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Allergies can truly send your world spinning upside down – neither of my parents have allergies, so they were totally out of their element when I was diagnosed with my allergies! There’s been a lot of worry and a lot of angst, but eventually you get the hang of things – mostly! It’s not easy, but you can make it work! 🙂

      April 11, 2017 at 4:23 am
  • Reply Bryna | Dotted Line Travels

    Great advice! I’m fortunate that I don’t have any allergies, but I can see how it could be especially difficult in a foreign country if you don’t know the language.

    April 11, 2017 at 1:48 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      My allergies are definitely one of the most stressful aspects of travel for people with food allergies, and it definitely got on my nerves on my last trip, but there are always things you can do to make things smoother and safer!

      April 11, 2017 at 4:22 am
  • Reply Amanda @ To Read or Not To Read?

    Great tips, Jane! I don’t have allergies myself, but I do eat Kosher, so a lot of the same stuff applies. My sister, however, on top of eating Kosher, has a pretty bad corn allergy, which is probably one of the most difficult allergies to plan around. From corn starch to corn syrup, there’s very little she can eat at restaurants or pre-packaged. 😛
    Also, now I’m starving, because these photos are fantastic. Japan just moved up a little higher on my Place to Visit list. 😉

    April 11, 2017 at 5:27 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Having any kind of dietary restriction can definitely be a challenge! I’m lucky in that I have one of the more common food allergies, so most places are usually familiar with people with nut allergies, or have good labels marking nut ingredients. But corn would be such a hard allergy to eat around! 🙁

      Japan is pretty much just amazing, especially when it comes to food. 🙂

      April 13, 2017 at 3:16 am
  • Reply Rajesh

    Extremely very good analysis.

    April 11, 2017 at 9:19 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Thank you!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:17 am
  • Reply Trish @ Mum's Gone To

    My son, who is 21 now, has a peanut allergy, diagnosed in his early teens. He seems to deal with it extremely well, it’s me that frets about it. Great advice here – particularly the one about being your own champion. You’re so right, it’s only the person with the allergy who might suffer, so best be up front instead of worrying about making a fuss.
    #mondayescapes

    April 11, 2017 at 12:57 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I’ve actually become much more careful about my allergies now that I’m older – when I was a teen or in my twenties I felt pretty invincible, and when I look back on the risks I used to take, I shudder! My husband definitely worries about my allergies even more than I do!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:19 am
  • Reply Dragonfly @ Our Familiarium

    My kids are very allergic to nuts & peanuts so I have to carry an Epipen with us wherever we go. ad yes, Traveling is very stressful with kids with food allergies! So I usually stick to Mc Donalds or simple fruits and veggies whenever I can . Great tips! thanks for sharing!

    April 11, 2017 at 6:41 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      That sounds just like me! Tree nuts and peanuts are my allergies. :'( I ate so much McDonalds when I was a kid, and I even ate there a few times in Japan!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:20 am
  • Reply Christine Keane

    Great advice! I know I’m lucky that I don’t have any major food allergies but my mom is allergic to shellfish (and so are a few of my cousins) so I know how hard it can be. It sounds like you’re very careful and don’t let it stop you from enjoying the local cuisine 🙂

    April 11, 2017 at 6:50 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I try not to let my allergies stop me from living my life as fully as I can, though it definitely does put a damper on things sometimes, and adds an extra level of stress. But, with the right attitude, you can usually make almost anything work!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:21 am
  • Reply Kat

    I don’t have food allergy except for soft-shell crab that would have me running for the toilet within 15 minutes of eating and probably a trip to the hospital to be hydrated on IV drips 🙁 But my mum has been having serious food allergy this last 2 years due to steroids she took for her skin allergy. The steroids depleted collagen under her skin which resulted in her easily bruised and bleeding on her skin if she hits against something or if someone holds on to her arm tightly. She went through a series of allergy tests which later identified that she is allergic to several types of food, chemicals and fabric materials. Since then she had changed her entire diet and wardrobe, and her allergy and immune system have improved. Thanks for sharing this post, something which I can share with mum so that she won’t have to feel despair not being able to travel and to enjoy the experience 🙂

    April 12, 2017 at 7:32 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Allergies, like any chronic condition, can absolutely turn your life upside. There’s no cure, so all you do is try to and reduce the risk, but it can be really frustrating, and can definitely cause a lot of stress and anxiety! But, with the right attitude and some preparation, you can still enjoy all the things you love in life, even if sometimes you have to make some changes or adaptations! 🙂

      April 13, 2017 at 3:24 am
  • Reply Ruth

    I suffer from several allergies, therefore, I can understand how difficult things can get. I applaud you for finding ways to still travel and have fun. I started to develop food allergies several year ago. I know I have to go to the doctor to have them identified. Last year, I got a pretty bad rash all over my legs in Poland. I suspect it was one of the spices used. #wanderfulwednesday

    April 13, 2017 at 1:22 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      I love travel and can’t imagine not being able to explore the world, so I just have to find ways to make that happen! It’s definitely not perfect – on our last trip I was often frustrated by the fact that my husband could eat anything he wanted, while I had to be so careful, and often eat simple, plain, boring foods. But, it’s still worth it to be able to see the world!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:27 am
  • Reply Elizabeth (Wander Mum)

    Some great tips and advice here. It isn’t something that affects me and can only imagine how difficult it can be when travelling. Good on you for not letting it put you off!

    April 13, 2017 at 1:50 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Thank you! Travel is so much fun and such an important part of our lives that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep on exploring the world! 🙂

      April 13, 2017 at 3:27 am
  • Reply Sarah

    I also travel with quite severe food restrictions so I always love reading other people’s tips. It’s difficult but you’re right, you have to be your own champion! Also thanks for reminding me… I have to inform my airline about my special meal for next week!! (I forgot on my 10 hour flight last week and it was noooooot nice).

    April 13, 2017 at 2:03 am
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Oh, be sure to book that meal! That’s a loooong time to be hungry!

      April 13, 2017 at 3:30 am
  • Reply April J Harris

    I’m so glad you shared this post with us at Hearth and Soul, Jane! Traveling with allergies must be so challenging, and I know it’s something a lot of my readers are dealing with. You’ve shared some excellent tips – I especially liked the one about Be Your Own Champion. (I’m Canadian as well as British so I totally get the not causing a scene thing!!) I’ve featured this post at Hearth and Soul this week, and I do hope you will come visit and share. The party is open now!

    April 17, 2017 at 5:21 pm
  • Reply La Brutta Figura

    I feel very lucky not to have any allergies, and I can well imagine how frustrating it must be when you travel and you have to constantly check what you are eating or miss out on typical foods. Excellent tips!

    April 18, 2017 at 8:59 am
  • Reply businesstravelerswife

    These are great tips! I consider myself lucky for not having any allergies but I have few friends who have. I’m sure these tips will help them a lot. Thank you!

    April 18, 2017 at 4:20 pm
  • Reply Shona @ paraphernalia.co

    I’m so fortunate to not have allergies but know many who do. Great tips to avoid the repercussions!

    April 20, 2017 at 10:02 am
  • Reply PackYourBaguios

    I’m allergic to eats, dairy, and gluten. Not enough to make me really sick, but enough that I try to avoid them as much as possible. Italy was a challenge, but doable. You’re right about staff wanting to help you. I never had anyone get aggravated because of my allergies.

    April 20, 2017 at 6:33 pm
  • Reply shere y paul - con un bebé a cuestas

    I know from a friend that not every airline is so careful than this one. They told him the food had no peanuts but it did

    April 22, 2017 at 8:08 pm
    • Reply Jane the Raincity Librarian

      Scary!! Definitely worth bringing your own snacks. :'(

      April 22, 2017 at 8:09 pm
  • Reply Siddharth and Shruti

    These are some great tips! Sometimes the problem though is trying some food that you don’t know anything about. My chinese roommate had made some hot pot which was delicious but I ended up with a rash the next day. In such a case it is so difficult to understand which ingredient caused the flare up!

    April 25, 2017 at 5:12 am
  • Reply M a l o u (@skiptomalouuu)

    My boyfriend suffers from pollen allergies and we were once advised to eat some local honey to build up an immunity to the pollen in that area – it really works! Whenever we are staying somewhere for more than a couple of days, we try to find local, organic honey from a small shop or farmer’s market. We have quite the collection now! 🙂

    April 27, 2017 at 3:47 pm
  • Reply heather

    I memorized how to explain my husband’s food allergies in French when we went to France. He has one “Call an ambulance” allergy and a few “Take some benedryl” ones. It does make eating out stressful even at home.

    June 12, 2017 at 10:55 am
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