Saturday, June 30, 2012

Gluten Free Travel Tips, part 2

This is part two, click here for Gluten Free Travel Tips Part 1.

Air Travel:

  • Most international flights offer a gluten free meal although you may need to pay more for it, or inquire about it. Do not count on it being there or being correct [have a backup plan]. (With multiple food allergies I don’t even try this. I always just bring my own lunch/dinner avoiding anything liquid.)
Coast of Norway at Sunrise

  • Always double check the latest TSA regulations. Carrying a note from your doctor wouldn’t hurt either.

  • When traveling internationally it is generally forbidden to carry food across borders. This almost always refers to agricultural products [unpackaged fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.]. I’ve never had issues with sealed gluten free processed foods but I do avoid fruits and vegetables [I take them on the plane but eat them before arriving].

  • Don’t forget to pack food for the flight back as well. (I usually polish off whatever cereal bars I have left.)

General tips:

  • Ask at the hotel. They may have no idea what gluten even is but they may be able to recommend a local health food store and/or super market. (And it doesn’t hurt for them to know. On a recent trip to Oslo I never said anything to the hotel about being GF/DF. They had gluten free crisp bread for the breakfast buffet and there were plenty of naturally gluten free and dairy free items to supplement it. However, on the last day, they restocked the gluten free bread they were out of! Had I mentioned my issues before hand it is likely I would have been enjoying hearty Norwegian gluten free bread the whole time!)

  • Be prepared for people that have no clue. Use your trip as an opportunity to educate them.

  • It may also be easier to stay in a central location and take day trips from there rather than staying in a new place every night. This is especially true if you rent an apartment.

  • Eat at odd times. Find out when the locals eat and eat slightly before or after. It is easier to get the attention you need at less busy/crowded times. (Heck, I even do this here in the U.S. for the same exact reason!)

Santiago Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador
  • Make friends in safe places. They may be able to recommend other safe restaurants or even deviate from their menu so you don’t have to eat the same thing every night. (I read an account online from someone who mentioned there was only one local restaurant with a gluten free option and even then it was just one dish. He ended up eating it multiple times and got tired of it. I can’t help but think had he talked with the restaurant that the chef wouldn’t have been willing (or even excited) to put together something different for him given some advanced notice.)

  • Not every illness is from gluten. Don’t mistake food poisoning / travelers’ diarrhea for exposure to gluten. (For days, I thought I was being exposed to dairy or was super seasick in the Galapagos Islands. Hours after starting the antibiotics that all faded away!)

International Tips:

  • Overall the hardest place I have found to travel is right here in the United States! Most countries are much less wheat-centric than we are and are much less likely to bread and deep fry their food or smother it in gravy. There are still some additional tips that can help you through:

  • Be polite and gracious. People are much more likely to help if you approach the situation as a request to help rather than a demand for service.

  • Learn a couple of words in the local language [remember many countries have more than one language so make sure you learn the correct one for the area you are in]. (With a month of study I was able to learn 100 words of Norwegian for a trip to Oslo. Yes, everyone spoke English and all I ever got to say was “I don’t speak Norwegian, do you speak English” but everyone thought it was great that I tried.) No, you don’t need 100 words, but things like “please”, “thank you”, “celiac”, “gluten free”, “allergic”, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak local_language, do you speak English?” are all incredibly helpful. [There are numerous free online resources for this.]

  • Learn the local customs before you go. Most travel guides have a section on local customs including how to dress and behave. Blending in a bit and not expecting things to work the same way they do here will go a long way toward endearing you to the locals.

(Using these tips in Paris resulted in my wondering why anyone ever complains about the French. Everyone I spoke to was nice and helpful –they would even go and find me someone who spoke English if they didn’t!)

Kayaks on the beach we paddled to in Bonaire
  • Restaurants in hotels and tourist areas are much more likely to have English speaking staff.

  • Pay attention to local business hours. Things aren’t usually open as late as in the NY/NJ area. (I found most establishments in Ireland opened at 9am, closed an hour for lunch, then closed for the day at 5pm.)

  • Use travel cards to get past the language barrier. I prefer the allergen dictionary at since I have multiple intolerances and can therefore print a whole list. Others have also used the Celiac Travel cards from Triumph Dining to great effect.  (You can buy threm from here: Gluten Free Dining Cards(With my multiple food issues, I’ve never used them.)

Roll with the punches:

And my final tip is to roll with the punches. Things will go wrong at some point so focus on the good parts of the trip and work past the others.

  • On a trip to Machu Picchu in Peru, I had a craving for chips and guacamole. Chips in Peru are made either from wheat or a blend of wheat and corn. I asked in every single restaurant in Agua Calientes [Machu Picchu Village] before giving up and eating something else for dinner.

  • I’ve found restaurants that have gone out of business, entire towns closed for a particular holiday (I’m talking to you Spain!), and arrived in many towns after closing time of the local shops.

In every case I still managed to have a great trip, and so can you!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Gluten Free Travel Tips

Last week I gave a talk at the Northern NJ Celiac Disease Support Group Meetup on traveling gluten free. People I meet are often most surprised by the amount I travel and think it impossible or overly difficult on a gluten free diet. Yes, it takes extra planning, extra effort, and an extra positive attitude but it is doable and certainly well worth it!

I’ve decided to share these same tips here as well. As I pointed out to the group, not all of these tips will apply to everyone or every situation. But hopefully you’ll find quite a few that will work for you.

This article got so big I decided to split it in half. Today’s tips are more focused on the planning, tomorrows will be more on the trip itself. [But there is lots of overlap between the two!]

You should start any trip off with some internet planning:

Outside of Phoenix, Arizona
  • Use the global map at the Gluten Free Registry to see if there are any nearby restaurants and stores. Use other gluten free travel sites as well but these tend to not have a searchable map [Travel Gluten Free].

  • Search both “Gluten Free” destination and Celiac destination [be sure to use the quotes around gluten free, and try both the city and state/country as the destination]. For example, if going to Atlanta, GA search “gluten free” atlanta, “gluten free” georgia, celiac atlanta, and celiac georgia.

  • Repeat those same searches just this time add the words support group and/or blog to them. [Note the lack of quotes on support and group this time.]

  • Go past just the first 10 search results as these often belong to larger sites covering a wider area, and you want to get to the locals.

  • Reach out to the local celiac support group(s) and/or gluten free bloggers for recommendations if you haven’t found enough on your own through reading their sites. (A couple of weeks back I got an email from a woman in Canada planning a trip to Cape May County and looking for gluten free options. I emailed here a list of local restaurants off of my Gluten Free NJ Restaurant List, found her a local health food store, and even pointed out which local supermarkets were chains that carried a lot of gluten free products!)

  • In Europe at least, the Association of European Coeliac Societies [AOECS] maintains this list of member states/organizations: So member country sites are extremely informative, others not so much but it is worth a shot.

  • Try these gluten free travel bloggers: Gluten Free Traveller is one of the best. Laura {the author} [and her then boyfriend, then fiancĂ©, now husband] have been all over the world and she manages to find some amazing gluten free options everywhere she goes. Gluten Free Globetrotter is written by Erin from the New York Celiac Meetup group. Her travel site is newer but I expect it to fill out as she travels more (p.s. if heading to NYC she’s got an awesome map of GF restaurants in NYC). Gluten Free Kids Travel has actually lived in different parts of Asia and traveled extensively elsewhere with her young celiac daughter. Finally, there is Gluten Free Mrs. D. Based in England she recently has traveled mostly in Europe but has found GF options in places where I searched and could find nothing online.

Mana the dediated gluten free shop of
the Association of Celiacs in Madrid
  • List the restaurants/stores you find on a map of your destination and carry that map with you. This way, as you are planning your day you’ll know where you can eat lunch/dinner without having to search somewhere out once you are hungry. This will also help you to plan your flexibility. It’s easier to head out and explore if you’ve got a map of where you can eat when the time comes. (I’ve taken maps of Oslo, Buenos Aires, Phoenix and others with me on my travels. I even picked my hotel in Madrid one trip based on it being in walking distance to the Association of Celiacs Madrid’s Gluten Free store!)

  • Email / call the hotels and/or restaurants before your trip to make sure everything is as you expect.

Be Flexible in your Planning:

  • The more general you are with your destination/vacation the easier it will be to find somewhere easy to travel to. For example, selecting a general destination of the gulf coast may be easier than a specific town along the gulf coast. Then when you begin to research that general area, if you see a community with a lot of gluten free options you can restructure your trip to take advantage of that opportunity.

Plan your vacation around something other than food: 

  • Be prepared to eat a diet of plain grilled meats and vegetables and concentrate on the experiences of where you are. (Back when I was in college, I was speaking with someone at a barbecue who had just come back from Hawai’i. He house sat for someone and brought along bread, peanut butter, and jelly. When someone belittled him for it, he was quick to point out all of the amazing things he saw and did, that he would not have been able to afford had he not packed PB&J. He focused on the experience, not the food!)

La Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Consider staying at a vacation rental rather than a hotel [search vacation apartment rentals and the destination]. You’ll then have your own kitchen [give it a thorough cleaning first and/or cook using foil] for the trip. Consider as well bringing your own small thin cutting board, sponge, and / or other utensils. (I even saw a discussion online about bringing a magic bullet!) (On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina I had planned to buy local bread for breakfast but found that all gluten free bread there contains dairy. I was staying in an apartment with a kitchen and ended up eating left over roast chicken, rice and green beans for breakfast!)

  • I’ve seen more than a few people online discuss ordering GF products [ or Gluten-Free Mall] and having them shipped to their destination. Personally, I’d rather explore the local GF options but I do see the advantage to doing this from a time perspective.

  • Pack non-perishable compact snacks – cereal/nut bars, nuts, dried fruit, carrot / celery sticks [if not flying internationally], tuna packets, gf crackers, gf pretzels, hummus, etc. These are great not only for a long flight but also for quick snacks while sightseeing. Hot GF cereal packets would be great anywhere you can get a cup of hot water [i.e. almost anywhere serving tea]. Frozen fruit works great as an icepack to keep other foods cool. [WARNING: sealed packets may burst from change in air pressure on a plane.]

Plan to be flexible:

Waterfall in Costa Rica
  • Leave a free day at the end of your trip. This way, if you have any gluten related disasters during the trip and need a gluten recovery day mid trip you can move things around. You can always find something to add that final day if you don’t need it. (Sadly, I missed the last day of a bus tour through Costa Rica due to an unexpected recovery day. Certainly would have preferred to have a make-up day built into the trip!)

  • Carry some snacks with you each day to tide you over before meal time.

  • Small convenience stores / fruit stands can do in a pinch. (I don’t eat a lot of banana at home but they are a go-to snack when traveling.)

Traveling with others / being a house guest:

  • Be reasonable and flexible.

  • Have a sit down with your traveling companions before the trip and educate them on your needs and concerns. Be prepared to explain your symptoms and what you need to be safe. Include what you can do and eat. [Think back to how overwhelming this was for you at first, they’re going to be overwhelmed too.]

Gluten Free / Dairy Free Samoa Donut from Babycakes NYC
  • Be prepared to spend some time alone. If there is an activity on the trip you aren’t overly interested in that is a great time to break off and check out the local health food store(s). (Some cousins visited from Spain in December and while we were touring Chinatown in NYC we decided to split up. I checked my map (thanks Erin!) and made a beeline to Babycakes for some gluten free / vegan cupcakes and donuts. I then headed back, toured Chinatown quickly and met up with them at the agreed upon time.)

  • If taking a tour, make sure you are discussing your dietary concerns with the ‘in country’ tour operator and not the people you are booking through [these are not always the same company].

  • If homestaying, Laura from the Gluten Free Traveller has a great article on cooking for a Celiac that you may want to share or use at the starting point for a conversation.

Gluten Free Travel Companies:

There are a number of companies that now cater to gluten free travelers:

Bob and Ruth’s - One of the earliest gluten free travel groups. I find their trips a bit pricey but they arrange everything and even welcome travelers with multiple food allergies.

Colibri Culinary Travel - They plan small groups and bring along their own chef so they can easily handle gluten free, vegan, and any other food issues.

Cruise lines. Consider a cruise but again be flexible as some cruise lines are much more accommodating than others. Make sure you inform them of your needs well in advance and double check closer to your departure.

Disney Land. The mother of all gluten free vacation locations. Truly the happiest place on earth . . . even for celiacs!

Other amusement parks. Each one varies in their offerings and awareness level so check before you go. (Growing up my parents left a cooler in the car and we got our hands stamped at lunch time, returned to the car and had a picnic. They did this to be able to afford a trip to an amusement park but the same technique applies to ensure that you have safe food.)

Tune in tomorrow for part two!  [Gluten Free Travel Tips, part 2]

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Day with the Seashore Celiacs

You know how you sometimes go to a cook out and everything is gluten free, from the gluten free hamburger buns, to the gluten free hot dog buns, to the gluten free pizzas on the grill, and even every single item every single other guest brought is gluten free?  No? That doesn't happen to you?  Then apparently you weren't at the Seashore Celiacs 11th Annual Picnic yesterday!

There were even plenty of options for those of us who are both gluten and dairy free.  There were Udi's, Ener-G, and Kinnikinnick gf hot dog and gf hamburger buns and about 1/3 of all of the items brought for the potluck were dairy free too.
Gluten Free Samples from the Seashore Celiacs'
11th Annual Picnic (Warning: not all are dairy free)
Upon arrival each guest is given a wrist band and directed to pick up their bag of samples.  This year's bag was packed to the top with samples, coupons, and literature donated by various gluten free companies.  I dumped the bag out on my bed when I got home like a kid after a long night of trick-or-treating!  (That's the photo at the right.)  I'd say about 90% of these samples are dairy free as well.

Each picnic-goer is also asked to bring along a dish to share.  I brought my Black Bean and Quinoa Salad.  Each dish is labeled with the ingredients making life easier for those with multiple food issues.  At the back of the pavilion are a couple of grills turning out hot dogs and hamburgers on your choice of gluten free buns donated this year by Udi's, Kinnikinnick and/or Ener-G.  There were even pizzas going on one of the grills (the shells were donated by Still Riding Pizza).  [The ones cooking when I went up the first time had dairy cheese and I was too stuffed to go back for seconds and see if there was DF cheese at any point.]  There were also two tables of pot-luck (about 2/3rds hot) some made with donated products (like Caesar's Pasta Specialties, Conte's Pasta, Goldbaum's pasta, Lotus Foods Forbidden Black Rice, amongst others).

After lunch (ok, some of us snuck under the wraps early) they opened up an additional two full tables of desserts.  Most where homemade (again some with donated mixes from Wegmans, Namaste, Breads by Anna, and GF Oats)  While still others were samples by Foods by George, Udi's,  Schar, Ener-G, Amy's, Pamela's, and Sunstart).

The picnic finished with a raffle of dozens of prizes again donated by various GF vendors, stores and restaurants.  The volunteers running the raffle, even pause towards the end to make sure everyone who bought a ticket wins at least one prize!

All in all it was an amazing day.  The weather was great, I met some new friends and reconnected with some old friends.  The volunteers that make this happen are truly amazing people, they are super friendly and put in not only a long day pulling this picnic off but what I am sure were long hours planning and organizing it as well.  Thank you all!!!