7 Tricks on How to Travel with a Special Diet

Oct 27, 2015

For many of us, food and the enjoyment thereof is an integral part of traveling. The thought of adhering to a special diet may seem to suck all the “specialness” right out of your plans.

But it doesn’t have to. I’ve made my way across the U.S. and through Germany, Colombia, the Czech Republic, England, Scotland, Mexico, Costa Rica, Austria, France, Poland and more while maintaining either a vegan or vegetarian diet, and I’ve had a great time doing it.

Of course, it may take a little more planning and thought than does traveling without dietary restrictions. Those of you with food allergies or other eating requirements will probably agree that life in general with a special diet takes more planning and thought than does life without, so this is kind of just par for the course.

Here are a few things I’ve learned that make “traveling while special” easier and more enjoyable.

1. Scope Out the Cuisine Before You Book

Photo from Flickr by Stab of Sleep

Some hotels – and some whole cities and even countries – are going to be friendlier for certain diets than will others. Vegans will have a hard time throwing a stone without hitting a vegan-friendly restaurant in Southern California, India or Israel, but may be challenged to find a meat-free meal in Argentina or a butter-free dish in France.

Larger resorts will probably be prepared to make gluten-free meals for those with celiac disease, while mom-and-pop bed-and-breakfasts probably won’t – especially when there’s a language barrier. By no means am I saying to avoid traveling to certain destinations because of a food allergy or preference, but a little investigation may help you pick a hotel that will make dining more enjoyable, or let you know to prepare for certain dietary challenges that may be ahead.

People with severe food allergies can also find destination-specific groups that can help with advice on where to eat and how to get by in any region of the world. Most cruise lines are very aware and accommodating when it comes to special diets, but it’s a good idea to do some investigating before booking. And there are even dedicated vegan adventure tours for plant-eaters who want to leave the surprises for non-diet-related exploits.

Of course, food should be a consideration as you plan your special-diet vacation, but it shouldn’t be the only one. If you want to really LIVE as you trot across the planet, I implore you ...

2. Don’t Be Ruled by Food

Photo from Flickr by Catherine Sharman

No matter what your restrictions or preferences, food does not have to be a limitation when it comes to exploring the world. The point of scoping out your destination is to figure out how to make it work, not if you can make it work.

When I first re-adopted a vegan diet six years ago for ethical, environmental and health reasons, I will admit that the idea of leaving the comfort of my home kitchen – where I had complete control over the ingredients that would go into every dish and where I knew how to make satisfying vegan food that actually tasted good – was daunting. All too often, I had been stuck eating limp iceberg lettuce salads at local restaurants while friends chowed down on hearty multi-course meals; or choking down veggie dishes made by inexperienced cooks who felt the need to overcompensate for the lack of animal ingredients by throwing on pools of oil and mounds of salt. The thought of enduring a string of meals like this, spanning days or even weeks, was enough to keep me close to home.

But 2.5 years ago, I found the motivation to give travel another try, despite my dietary leanings. That motivation came in the form of a tall, handsome firefighter who is now my husband. Our first big trip together – an eight-day jaunt through Costa Rica – had its uncomfortable moments. I ate so much “pasta pomodoro,” even the mention of spaghetti turned my stomach for months thereafter.

But that mild annoyance turned out to be totally worthwhile. I traded a little comfort for hikes through verdant rain forest, my head encircled by cool cloud vapor; heart-pounding zipline tours, hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy; the chance to try strange sweet fruits whose innards look like sacs of alien eggs (they’re called granadilla); and my first attempt at surfing in a beach town called Tamarindo, where I finally found a drool-worthy vegan meal in the form of a sweet potato burrito ... at a restaurant that swapped swings for traditional chairs. Plus, I got to bond with my sweetheart as we braved a new world together.

The point is, the bother of straying from the safety of your food routine is beyond worth the returns.

3. Be Bold in Restaurants

Photo from Flickr by Erin

Apps like Yelp and Happy Cow have helped guide my restaurant choices on several continents, and certainly make it easier to pinpoint places that cater to particular diet styles or needs. Especially when traveling abroad, though, it’s unlikely that you’ll always have time (or access to Wi-Fi) for researching every meal.

Pack restaurant cards that explain your needs in the local language. Those with celiac disease or severe food allergies will probably find these especially helpful. Handing these cards to your server will spell out – literally – how serious the situation is, and also make sure your message gets to the most important person (the chef!) undiluted.

Combine ingredients from multiple dishes to make up your own meal. This will work great for vegetarians, vegans, paleo, sugar-conscious and low-fat eaters, among others. Maybe, for example, there’s not a single vegan dish on the menu, but you notice a fish entrée that comes with a side of beans, a chicken dish that includes mushrooms, and a pork option that sits on a bed of wild rice. Ask your server to lean in for a heart-to-heart as you point to the beans, the rice, the mushrooms ... your wish-list of ingredients for your custom-made dinner. In my experience, any decent restaurant that cooks food to order will accommodate your request if you ask really really nicely, and you’ll probably be delighted with the result. Remember to tip generously!

Pack an emergency snack in your bag just in case you get stuck. Keep reading for pointers.

4. Pack Your Own Supply

As a health-conscious vegan, I never travel without at least:

  • One pack of shelf-stable soy or almond milk
  •  A bag of whole grain cereal
  • Crackers
  •  A bag of trail mix
  •  A tub of nut butter
  • A few Larabars or the equivalent

If I’m especially worried about finding sustenance in our destination, I’ll also pack kale chips, shelf-stable tofu and “just-add-water” soup packs. Celiac folks will want to tote gluten-free snack kits, perhaps with the addition of medications to help in the case of an adverse food reaction. Paleo people can bring jerky, canned meats and nuts. Thanks to the modern age, there’s convenience food for virtually every diet style out there. The trick is to make sure you’ve stowed some away in time for your departure. Make it a priority!

5. Think of Others in Your Traveling Posse

Photo from Flickr by Paul Keller

If you’ve done some homework on your destination’s cuisine, packed your restaurant cards and stashed your emergency snack and meal kit, you’ve already helped not only yourself but also your group by taking responsibility for your diet and safeguarding against the misery of having nothing to eat. Good job – you’re MOST OF THE WAY there. The last things you’ll want to pack are a can-do attitude and a right-sized ego.

Here’s what I mean. You might be heading into places that have never heard of your particular eating style or allergy, and just as you may be doing things you’ve never done before, you may be asking the staff at restaurants you’re visiting – and maybe even your traveling companions – to accommodate you in ways that are unfamiliar or inconvenient for them. A boatload of patience and a smile will get you everywhere.

If you’re traveling with people who don’t eat like you, try not to dominate the restaurant selection process every time. Your snack/meal stash will make it possible for you to accompany your seafood-loving mother as she samples Peru’s ceviche, or to stand by your pastry-obsessed significant other as he relishes croissants from the best bakeries in the world in Paris. Delight in their delight and act like that protein bar you’re eating is every bit as satisfying as those perfectly seasoned and/or buttery, flaky masterpieces they’re raving about. Do not ruin this moment for them!

6. Bend the Rules Where Possible

Photo from Flickr by Denna Jones

For people with food allergies, there’s no such thing as a day off. But for those of us who have the luxury of choice, there may be battles that are not worth fighting while traveling. When I’m out of the country, and especially when I’m tired and starving, I am not as diligent about investigating every ingredient of the food I eat. I’ll eat a soup that I’m “pretty sure” is vegan, or a piece of flatbread that is “probably” dairy-free. At home, I pretty much refuse to eat white rice or refined flour, but I don’t put up a fight when I’m in Mexico or South America. This is as much for my own enjoyment as it is for the people around me – neither my husband, nor I, nor the people we encounter on our travels would benefit from my making every meal an ordeal.

Those with food allergies, however, can’t afford to be lax, embarrassed or shy. Ask a million questions and do the legwork to make sure every meal checks out. Safety first!

7. Treat ALL Your Senses

Photo from Flickr by Adrienne Bassett

Depending on how restrictive your diet is, the reality may be that food won’t be the highlight of your travels. Maybe just not on one particular trip. Or maybe not an ANY of your trips. The key here is acceptance and adaptation. Taste, after all, isn’t the only sense we have to indulge. Feast your eyes on the singular architecture or landscape of your destination; pamper your skin at an exceptional spa; take in the unique aroma of the seaside or the forest where you’ve landed; and treat yourself to the music of the native culture.

After all, isn’t it really a hunger for LIFE that drives us to explore all corners of this magnificent planet?

Lead photo by ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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