Traveling with Food Allergies
After fumbling with the airtight packaging of my in-flight sandwich, I finally opened my pre-packaged lunch only to discover that it had pesto on it. I sighed, placed the sandwich on the tray and closed my eyes. After a few minutes, I could smell the pesto in the air and my nose was starting to tickle. “At least I had been able to convince the flight attendants to not serve nuts in the surrounding rows,” I thought. They had put up a fight, but let’s face it: nobody wants to make an emergency landing. When we finally landed in Prague, I was hungry, tired, and anxious from being surrounded by allergens.
From the comfort of home, dealing with my allergies was never a big deal. My doctors knew me, my history, and were able to provide me with the appropriate treatments. But moving abroad meant dealing with unfamiliar foods in an unfamiliar language. In short: it was a recipe for disaster. I arrived with a piece of paper in my wallet, listing all of my allergies in perfect Hebrew. That little piece of paper was helpful, but I was refused service in more restaurants than I’d like to admit. I became a walking, very hungry lawsuit.
My allergist had warned me: when shopping for food, be extremely wary of open markets. He was right. The spice barrels look tempting and the fresh tea leaves smell divine, but you never know if the scooper that was used in the barrel of peanuts was also used in the paprika. Be sure to thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables. Anything that’s out in the open is a risk, and it’s just not worth it.
Trips to the supermarket became impossible without a little help from Google Translate. As time passed, I became more familiar with what to look for on labels and began to feel safer eating foods other than rice, eggs, chicken, and vegetables. Despite my over-cautious nature, there have been oversights. I found out the hard way that hot dogs in Israel are loaded with soy, and don’t make any mention of it on the labels. It seems that outside the States, food allergies are not taken as seriously as they should be. So how does a person with severe allergies travel with peace of mind?
1. Mention your travel plans to your allergist. As much as my little travel bug heart wants to see the world, there are locations that are out of the question for me. Thailand is off limits, as their cuisine would likely send me straight to the emergency room.
2. When you purchase your ticket, call or email the airline. Some airlines are nut-free, however the ones that are not should be informed in advance that there is an allergic person traveling with them. They can provide you with a safe meal, and depending upon the severity of your allergy, can make arrangements to avoid serving the food in question on the flight.
My flight to Israel last summer was a nightmare. I could not reach the airline by phone, and as a result, was refused food service for the majority of the flight. Instead of dinner, they gave me a small cup of salad which I couldn’t eat because raw fruits and vegetables trigger a reaction in my body. When breakfast finally came, I was ravenous and ate the eggs within minutes. I was extremely disappointed in how the airline handled my allergies, and have no intention of flying with them again. Now, I pack food for long flights…just in case. You should also bring your own food for day-trips.
3. Travel with a note from your doctor explaining your allergies. A MedicAlert bracelet works great, too. People tend to take me more seriously when I show them my “allergy bling.” It lists my condition on the back, and provides an identification number that links to my entire medical background. It’s a must when traveling with allergies, or any medical condition.
4. Make Google Translate your best friend. Take a screen shot of how to say “I am allergic to…” and don’t hesitate to show it to your servers at restaurants. I went to Prague last month, and very quickly learned the words for my allergens. Even though I was able to communicate my allergies, I still showed my Google Translate screen shot to every server at every restaurant.
5. If you’re not sure—don’t eat it. I live across the street from a bakery, and every day the smell of fresh baked pastries floats in through the kitchen window. Could I probably eat that chocolate filled rugelach? Yes, probably. Would I risk my life for it? Definitely not. As long as you are cautious, plan in advance, and remember to communicate, your travel experience will be allergy- (and worry-) free.
Traveling with Food Allergies photo credit: unsplash.com