Gluten-Free On the Go
As any travel agent will tell you, the most stress free, relaxing vacations happen because a lot of planning took place long before departure day. Traveling gluten free is no different. So, as you plan your next getaway, take a few tips like these from experienced travelers.
A Stress-Free Vacation Guide
If you're a person with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, that break with routine might feel a little scary. It means putting yourself in the hands of unfamiliar cooks at restaurants, hotels, or even in the kitchens of your host friends or family. You might wonder how you'll find the gluten-free foods you need in an unfamiliar place, or how to explain what celiac disease is to someone (maybe even in a foreign language). Just thinking about it can stress you out — and that's definitely not a vacation attitude!
Once you've decided on your destination, a good first step is to contact a local celiac support group at the destination city. These groups, found all over the world, can often point you to local gluten-free restaurants and grocery stores as well as other helpful resources. A list of celiac support groups is available at the Gluten Intolerance Group website, the Celiac Sprue Association website, and at www.celiac.com. Or, let someone else help you with the planning: there are several travel agencies and tour planners that specialize in gluten-free travel. Find them through the above websites.
If you're traveling to a country where you're not familiar with the language, pick up a phrasebook (or download a translator application to your smart phone) and brush up on a few key phrases that will help you explain your dietary needs, find a grocery store or pharmacy, and get through other important transactions. Just knowing you can communicate your needs will help you feel more confident and relaxed.
To help make it easier to explain your dietary needs to waiters, chefs, and anyone else providing you with food, consider bringing a restaurant card that briefly explains what foods you can and cannot have, along with instructions for safe food preparation and serving. Present it to your waiter or waitress to give directly to the chef. These cards come in handy at hotels, too — and even if you're staying with friends or family who might not be familiar with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Some include translations in different languages for foreign travelers, such as Triumph Dining. Check for more companies that offer these helpful services.
Traveling safe, traveling happy
Plan for the unpredictable: planes get delayed, trains get missed, train or bus station food venues can close at unpredictable hours. Make it a rule to always bring some food with you just in case (see "Good to Go," below, for suggestions). Choose your carry-on foods carefully, as carry-on restrictions for airplanes forbid more than 3.4 ounces (100 ml) of any kind of liquid or gel, which would include foods like yogurts, applesauce and juices. But if you've forgotten to stock up before your trip, don't worry; once you've passed through the scanners you can usually find a few staples like fresh fruit, yogurt, snacks, and dried fruits in airport stores. Keep in mind that if you're taking an international flight, you may have to discard any uneaten food when you arrive at your destination, due to customs regulations.
If a meal is being served on your airplane flight, request a "celiac meal" or "gluten-free meal" when you order your tickets, if available. It's a good idea to let the serving staff know who you are when you board the plane, to ensure that your meal won't mistakenly be delivered to someone else.
Traveling by car? Many people who have gluten restrictions find car travel the easiest option, since there's more room to bring supplies. Bring some gluten-free staples with you that might be harder to find at your destination, such as gluten-free bread or bagels and ready-to-eat meals. Include a travel-size cooler with reusable ice packs to hold fresh foods; restock it at grocery stores you find en route. Bring disposable plates, bowls and cutlery — and, if you have room, some "clean" food prep supplies (cutting board, baking dishes, etc.) so that you can prepare your own food and avoid cross contamination. A supply of aluminum foil and zip-close bags is helpful as well, to wrap up foods and prevent them from coming in contact with non-gluten-free foods.
Hotel and restaurant savvy
Being able to have a supply of safe foods in your hotel room will save you lots of stress at mealtimes. So when you make your hotel reservation, try to choose an all-suite hotel or request a room with a kitchenette (or a microwave and mini-fridge). (Even if your room only has a coffee maker, you can still heat up water to prepare gluten-free hot cereal or soup mix for some "tide-you-over" quick meals; bring a few packets in your suitcase). Find out if there's a grocery store within a short distance of the hotel so you can stock up your fridge with healthy foods. If you're staying for more than a few days, consider ordering some of your favorite gluten-free foods online and having them delivered.
As much as possible, try making restaurant reservations in advance at venues offering gluten-free options (if in doubt, call and ask what's on the menu). And don't forget to pack your restaurant cards!
Relax and get away!
The most important things to pack on any trip, of course, are your sense of adventure and a good sense of humor. Let yourself be open to the new discoveries travel brings, and embrace them — you just may surprise yourself with how capable you are. Challenging yourself through travel, as the philosopher and theologian St. Augustine noted, expands your knowledge — not only of the world, but of yourself: "The World is a book," he wrote, "and those who do not travel read only a page."
Author Joyce Hendley, who holds a Master's in Nutrition, is a freelance health writer and contributing editor at EatingWell magazine.