Usually when I tell people I have a dairy allergy the reaction is “how do you LIVE?”
I mean… just fine? Dairy-free ice cream has come a long way, my dude.
Even though I no longer have to resign myself to Tofutti Cuties, I do have to think about my allergy, well, basically all the time. I can have anaphylactic reactions to dairy, meaning I have to use an EpiPen and usually go to the hospital if I ingest even a small amount. I have to worry about cross-contamination, I read ingredient labels every time I go grocery shopping, I can’t kiss my boyfriend if he just ate ice cream, and I only had a passable quesadilla like, last year. I’m a whole lotta things beyond my allergy, but when you have to eat to live, yeah, it becomes a big concern.
While managing an allergy can be stressful, I try my best to not let it hold me back, and especially when I travel. There are some destinations I know will probably always be too challenging, in terms of access to care, safe food, and my comfort with communicating in a foreign language. But things have definitely changed a lot since I was first diagnosed–when I was young my family and I assumed I’d have to commute to college, and instead I’ve been able to attend school out-of-state, study abroad, and travel to places very much known for their dairy-rich cuisine.
It hasn’t been completely incident-free, but I have learned some things along the way that make travelling with food allergies a little easier. Read on below (and see pictures of some of the best meals I’ve had while travelling):
Think beyond hotels for accommodation. Hotels are often the most convenient and popular way to stay, but will rarely have facilities for you to prepare your own food. Resorts can have great policies (Disney Resorts have been #1 for food allergy travel long before it was ‘cool’ to offer vegan or gluten-free options on your menu), but if they’re subpar you can be stuck. Before the days of Airbnb, when my family travelled abroad we usually looked at short-term apartment rentals or “aparthotel” chains like Citadines. They usually come stocked with basic cooking equipment in a small kitchenette. Not only will this help you save money, it’s also the easiest way to have total control over your food. Rentals and “aparthotels” tend to be centrally located as well, which makes it easier to plan your itinerary.
Use apps to your advantage. I’ve already talked about apps a bit here before, but for those with food allergies, apps can be your best friend in figuring out where to eat. Spokin is an especially great food allergy resource, with restaurant and hotel reviews directly from fellow food-allergy travellers, as well as tips on managing your allergy in your ‘real life’ as well, at school or work. I also like to use HappyCow to find vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants nearby–though this app is really only useful if you’re allergic to dairy, eggs, or fish. At the very least, it can help you find some hidden gems in the neighbourhood–HappyCow helped me find an amazing vegan taqueria in Mexico City hidden away only a few blocks from my hotel. Another useful app: Google Translate. I definitely wouldn’t use it for ordering food, but I did use it a few times in Mexico when checking packaged food labels to translate any individual ingredients I didn’t immediately recognise.
If you do eat out, advocate for yourself ASAP. I am a big proponent of calling ahead, even if you’re just eating out near home. You can gauge a lot from that initial phone call and just asking what sort of options a restaurant can offer for your allergy. If the menu is available online, take a look and get a sense of what may or may not work for you. When you arrive at the restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask to speak with a manager or see an allergy menu before sitting down. Chef cards are useful. Reconfirm and double-check whenever you get a chance. We quite literally have to trust our guts–if something feels off, whether it’s in the initial phone call or when your dish is placed in front of you, don’t ignore it. Advocating for yourself is important. And no, you aren’t ‘bothering’ anyone or ‘ruining the experience’ by speaking up (something I still have to remind myself of often… I think most adults with food allergies know the feeling.)
Food doesn’t have to be the focus. Lots of people travel with the intention of trying new foods or signature dishes of whatever place they’re travelling to. That is a fun thing to do, but it doesn’t have to be the main goal of your trip, and prioritising other goals instead of food can keep you from feeling like you’re ‘missing out’ on something because of your allergy. When I was in Paris I mostly ate PB&Js while we were out and about–which may sound sacrilegious in a city so known for its food, but I didn’t really care because I WAS IN PARIS. When I was seeing Notre-Dame’s gargoyles up close or standing in the same room as the Mona Lisa, my inability to eat crepes was the last thing on my mind.
Travel with understanding people. Of course, the above attitude is easy to adopt when you’re travelling on your own, but if you’re travelling with companions, it’s important for them not only to understand your allergy, but how to manage it. Establishing expectations for meals ahead of time, and maybe making some plans for special meals at restaurants you know are safe, can keep meal stress at a minimum. Foodhalls and markets are becoming popular nowadays, and can make travelling with food allergies a lot easier–every member of your party can choose what they want and then meet up to eat their individual dishes. One of my favourite places in New York to do this is Chelsea Market, where there are tons of options for every dietary restriction you can think of. (On that note, NYC-centric travel posts will be coming @ u this Christmas!)
Snacks are your friend. I always pack some safe snacks in my luggage, like granola bars, tuna pouches, or nut butter. I always pack my own meal for the plane on long-haul flights due to limited airport options and a few airline meal mix-ups (or boredom! Serve something besides harissa chickpeas, Virgin!). On school band trips I would pack Cup o Noodles and a tiny water kettle, along with enough Luna Bars to feed a small army. There may be some times where you’re stuck ordering a meagre salad just to stay safe, and you’ll be glad to have some additional food on hand when the iceberg lettuce burns off and you’re hangry. You can always pick up food at your destination as well, but if you’re not confident in the language, having stuff from home you already know is safe can save you a lot of stress.
Be prepared for any emergency. Please carry your EpiPen. I know they’re unwieldy and annoying and never fit into pockets or those cute little purses, but please please PLEASE carry your EpiPen. Make sure you bring a few spares when you travel and make sure anyone travelling with you knows where you keep it and how to use it. I try to always keep mine in the same pocket of my bag to avoid the ‘oh crap where’s my EpiPen’ moment. I know medic alert jewellery is very unsexy, but it’s worth it at least while you’re travelling. Know where the nearest hospital and urgent care facilities are in relation to your hotel, know the emergency numbers, and figure out what your insurance coverage options can be if you do need to visit an emergency room. Of course these are the things no one wants to think about when planning a vacation, but they are important. Reactions are really scary, and doubly so if you’re in an unfamiliar place. And I’ve had reactions even when I’ve done everything right–confirmed with the restaurant, double-checked, used a chef card. In those moments, I was glad I was prepared for the worst-case scenario.
If you have a food allergy, you’re already used to living a little differently–but you don’t have to limit that life. Get out there and see the world! You can do it and stay safe, believe me.