How to travel well when you have dietary restrictions

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While most of us are looking forward to traveling far away from home and unwinding from our work and everyday stress, those traveling with dietary restrictions due to digestive disorder can feel nauseated at the thought of leaving their stomach’s comfort zone. 

Because of conditions like lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), many travelers have all the right in the world to be cautious, knowing that one wrong move may trigger a nightmare vacation for them. Being bloated, having flatulence, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea or even ending up in the emergency is a likely prospect for these people if they don’t practice vigilance. 

Others, like vegans and vegetarians like to keep clean from animal products and don’t like this to change while they travel. Whether you have a food intolerance, allergies, special preference or a specific lifestyle, you can travel with ease when practicing caution. Here is some advice for all those special needs travelers in terms of food.

Google your vacation.

If you travel to a bigger city, it is likely that someone else has already searched the area for food-specific places, hotels, cafes and restaurants and you can google this information prior leaving.

Book a hotel that offers vegetarian food or at least one that is close to a supermarket and allows food storage. Write an explanatory mail to your landlords, hotel staff, or rental hosts prior arrival, so you avoid surprises. Ideally, your host can provide you with kitchen appliances that you can use to cook and store your food.

Map the nearest supermarket to the place you want to visit. Pick accommodations near it or make a stop on your way there. Take your time while choosing the food you want to buy; Food products in a new destination can be unfamiliar, and it’s a good idea to make sure you find the right ingredients. Once you’ve found what you were looking for, get plenty just in case.

You can download an offline dictionary or translate a food list that outlines things you can and can’t eat. Having a translation of your dietary restrictions readily available can simplify things.

Prepare for transit with dietary restrictions

Here are some considerations for your mode of travel while in your destination:

I don’t recommend taking the bus for people with IBS. It’s not just the long hours: the bus vibrations may trigger your symptoms. Besides this, there are often few rest stops, and in the worst-case scenario, the toilets may not work. 

Travelling with your car has an obvious advantage: you can store larger amounts of food in it and stop whenever necessary. More easily transportable, durable food such as cans, gluten-free bread and biscuits, dried fruits and granola bars make the perfect travel food supply.

Flying to your destination is always the best choice because if you’re organized, you can pre-order your meal or, for people with IBS, reserve the seat near the lavatory. 

However you travel, there might be delays boarding, clearing border checks or something else entirely, so it’s a good idea to bring some homemade food for the road. 

Don’t forget your medications.

Even if you have been on the good, “no symptom” track for a long time, the environment might change that while traveling. 

Finding a physician in a foreign country may be a challenging experience, so don’t forget to take your medication and add an extra box, just to be sure. 

No matter how you’re traveling, you will be better off taking your medicine in your carry-on, in case of baggage issues. Make sure you have the original packaging, bottles, labels, and copies of diagnosis ready to present to customs. Medicine will be crucial if you flare up during your trip, so keep it safe and ready.

Be very clear about what you can’t eat.

Plate of food with drink.
Photo by Shanice Garcia on Unsplash

Visit places that have English menus and go through the ingredients of the dish you want to order. Show the waiter a card or your smartphone with a note in his native language that describes what you can’t eat and make sure they understand. Be very polite when ordering and don’t forget to add please at the end of your note or list. Many of the waiters will indulge you, but some may say they don’t have any main meal that wasn’t gluten or meat contaminated. Be prepared for this response and maybe order a vegetable salad instead. 

Be cautious experimenting with new foods.

I don’t recommend street food to anyone (travelling or not) but if you feel the urge to partake, try a small bite at first and wait to monitor the effects. Locals have different ways of preparing the food and even if it looks harmless, or they sell it as gluten-free, it doesn’t mean that it is the case. If you suffer from chronic illness, your digestive system has been through a lot already, so try to avoid food poisoning by any means. 

You should be similarly cautious of any unlabeled food or beverage you encounter.

When invited to a meal (especially a home-cooked one), be sure to specify beforehand what you don’t eat if possible. If your gracious hosts insist on a traditional meal with them, you can always apologize, taste a little, or pack it for the journey. It is always easier to set expectations and explain before the food is prepared.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, you might experience difficulty in explaining your no-animal product or no-meat policy in certain countries. If you can’t find an explanation that resonates culturally, you say that you have food allergies. That’s the phrase everyone understands.

Enjoy your trip with confidence.

More people are diagnosed with digestive conditions every day. Fortunately, thanks to technological advances, we can now translate almost anything on the spot and find what we need almost everywhere in the world. Being prepared and doing your research before your trip can make everything run smoothly. The future of travel for people with dietary restrictions looks bright!

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