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]

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, these are really excellent tips! I'm excited to see we've travelled to many of the same places (Machu Picchu, Buenos Aires, Norway, Spain...). Thanks very much for the mention in your post.


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