What’s your experience traveling internationally with food allergies?

Guest post by Alissa
Portugese Bread
A few years ago I discovered that I had some pretty annoying food allergies (garlic and the onion family, to be exact). It’s not life-threatening anaphylaxis, but I still get pretty sick.

I have traveled before and would love to continue to explore the world, but I’m worried about how well allergies could be accommodated in various destinations — short of preparing all my own food.

Of course things vary from eatery to eatery, but anyone out there with food allergies have experience traveling internationally and want to share what worked and what didn’t? -Allisa

We’ve talked about all kinds of issues with allergies

But we haven’t discussed the traveling with food allergies. Luckily Allisa started off this conversation with her advice…

I can start it off with one experience that I can share: I traveled to Uganda and they prepared garlic-and-onion-free food for me without difficulty, since they make almost every single thing from scratch. Delicious, and the ultimate locavore experience!

Your turn! What tips do you have for traveling internationally with food allergies?

Comments on What’s your experience traveling internationally with food allergies?

  1. I’ve lived in Europe and the Middle East with food and drug allergies and the thing I found most helpful is learning how to ask for a meal without those things in the local language. That was easy to do in mainland Europe, English is common and each nation has a distinct language, and more difficult to do in Abu Dhabi and Dubai because English was rare in some areas and there are a multitude of differing languages commonly spoken by the people I interacted with in restaurants, cafes, and markets. I would also suggest research before your trip to learn common and traditional meals where you are headed and try to learn how they are usually prepared. But to be completely honest, I have, on several occasions, spent a day or two recovering from food mistakes. It will probably happen. My husband knows about my allergies and is quick to ask about early warning signs so that we can change plans quickly. I carry meds (bring a prescription for all of them because they may not be over-the-counter accessible or legal where you are headed) but they usually knock me out for a day and he spends that day reading or wandering on his own and actually enjoys the down time. I suggest having a backup plan for those days, let your travel partners know ahead of time what to expect and what you need from them or don’t need from them. I also carry my own water everywhere and a small bag of pretzels because they help settle my stomach if I eat something that doesn’t react well. Usually, those of us with food issues have those kind of go-to habits that will travel with us pretty well. If any of your allergies have the potential to be dangerous, know how to call emergency services and ask for help in a language understood where you will be. Also, check in with your nation’s consulate (I suggest this anytime you visit another country even without allergies) and they have likely helped others navigate food there. If you are adventurous, don’t let it stop you! Mistakes are going to happen. I aim mostly for mitigation, maintaining a good attitude about it when I do feel sick, and a long list of fart and vomit jokes. Bonus points for fart jokes learned in another language!

    • Everyone has pretty much said everything I wanted to say. Just make sure to check with a native-they may have a special way of saying something colloquially that isn’t as cut and dry as asking for “no onions”. For example, everyone looked at me like I was a loon in Jamaica when I told them I was vegan, but no one questioned it when I told them I ate “ital”. When in doubt, I just find a local market and attempt to make my own food. It’ll save you money from eating out!

  2. Luckily, in Uganda most people speak English and the children are taught English in schools, so you can more easily communicate food allergy needs. I’m just not sure how to deal with it when you don’t know the language very well or the locals don’t speak your language very well. Maybe just learn how to say, “no onions, please, I have allergies” in the local language. I know that I have had issues with Mexican and Italian restaurants in the US because the waiter or cooks are not always native English speakers and don’t understand the importance of not having that item in my food. I have had to send many items back because they still put things in the food that I couldn’t have. Or, I have ordered a second meal because they didn’t make the first one correctly. Just remember that you are the one who is going to be sick later and you don’t have to eat everything that is offered to you every time.

  3. I don’t have any allergies but I don’t eat mammals. When I travelled in Japan, I tried learning how to say “no beef or pork, please” in Japanese, but I failed to realize that I would not be able to understand when the waiter or counter person responded or asked a follow-up question. Ooops! I ended up with meat on a few occasions, but for me while that made me unhappy, it wasn’t a health issue.

    My only really good advice is to order very simple foods without a lot of preparation, so you will be able to see each element clearly. It’s unlikely onions could sneak into a salad without you noticing them, for example, but in a stew they totally could. Things like plain grilled fish or other meat are also unlikely to have as much hidden. That might be a good path if you feel like there’s no way to make your concerns understood.

    • I have traveled somewhat extensively as a strict lacto-ovo vegetarian. Again, not an allergy, but a dietary restriction that is very serious to me. I too was going to recommend ordering simple foods. Also, if you learn about one or two good local dishes that you know you can reliably ask for because they aren’t made with the foods you need to avoid or can easily be made without them, just stick to those! You might have to sacrifice experiencing all the local delicacies, but that’s only one aspect of travel and culture. Believe me, I’ve traveled and learned a lot even though I’m a vegetarian and can’t eat the national dishes of . . . well, pretty much anywhere.

    • “order very simple foods without a lot of preparation”

      This is my go-to plan even when eating out at home with my allergies. Burgers, sandwiches, and salads are great because you can see everything and it’s also easy for the kitchen to leave something out of the assembly. Anything with a sauce or marinade I just try to avoid unless I feel like trying to explain everything.

      • Actually, I’ve been made sick by stuff mixed into the hamburger. I am hypoglycemic and cannot tolerate sugar. I thought a hamburger was a safe choice, until I ran into a place who mixed brown sugar with the meat!

  4. I just know these things can be sneaky — on the Uganda point, a friend traveled there while he was a vegan. He (still) hasn’t eaten meat since he was about 13, so while it’s not a food allergy, consumption of meat has the potential to make him very ill. His hosts in Uganda understood this, but he still kept getting sick. It took a couple of weeks before he figured out that the “flavor” they were putting in everything was concentrated chicken stock.

  5. I always have some meals i can eat with me. Something i just have to heat up or boil with water. I also google about the region i’m going, what restaurants and, most of all, supermarkets are there. Then i write down what i can buy there without hassle.

  6. I’ve got a mushroom (all fungi really) allergy, and again it isn’t life threatening but will render me useless for a day if I eat them. I can say that I’m allergic and know the common words for mushroom (since there are so many) in English and French. When I traveled in China, I had a business card that someone who was a native speaker had written on that explained that I was allergic and couldn’t eat any fungi which worked really well.

    I’m planning to travel to Rio this summer and am learning Portuguese so that I can let waiters know what the issue is.

    I also always travel with gravol which can help the symptoms for a short while if I only consume a little.

      • Yes! There are little cards you can get printed that list your allergies in various languages and explain your situation – a few companies out there that make them (do some googling) or you could make your own with the help of a translator.

        • It is a great idea but don’t rely only on this . Check when you are there it says what you think it does and that there might be a local dialect expression that works better. Also bear in mind that if in less developed countries you may have to communicate your needs to people who can’t read.

  7. I traveled to Ireland last September and am a Celiac, so wheat/gluten will get me very very sick. Everywhere we went the restaurants had a food allergy guide on the menu. I have heard other countries are the same way.

    From what I’ve read, most countries are this way. If I was to eat out here in the states and I was to ask about gluten, most of the time I get an unknowing stare or I will get scoffed at because they think I am on the “gluten free trend diet”. It wasn’t this way in Ireland and my Scot friend said that it was the same in the UK. If you were to tell them you have a food allergy, they take you at your word and know what you are talking about. Just make sure you can communicate in whatever language is the primary language and do your research about the country and how well they accommodate food allergies. There is lots of info out there on the interwebz about it.

    • My husband is a recently diagnosed celiac and we traveled to England this past summer. We were very worried, but managed to have a successful trip for him food-wise.

      EU labeling laws are great. They made it easier to find food for him that he could eat. We also had figured out a couple of restaurants in each town we went to where we knew they could accommodate gluten free eating that at least we could hop in a taxi and get him fed if needed.

      But there were some misses. We got a couple of eye rolls in London (we also found a fantastic little Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel). But he didn’t get sick. My aunt and uncle who both have serious (but very different ) food issues, pack a suitcase filled with snacks and instant meals that they can eat if they can’t find anything else. They’ve been traveling the world like this for nearly 30 years now, so it takes some work but totally can be done.

    • Even if you WERE following a “fad diet” and did not have a medical disorder as serious as celiac disease, you still have a right to decide what does or does not go into your body. Shame on them for not understanding this!

  8. How does offending people fit into this? I haven’t traveled internationally since I developed my food allergies, but I remember that refusing food was quite rude. Does a simple explanation of, “I’m allergic to X. If I eat that, I will get sick” suffice, or do people still expect you to take it?

    • This may not be the best advice, but I just accept that I might end up offending some people because of my dietary restrictions. The precise way to present the reason not to eat the food in the least offensive way probably depends on the culture or situation. I have had to refuse food from hosts throughout my life at home and abroad (I’m a lifelong veggie, which was way less common or understood when I was a kid), and sometimes the risk of offense just comes with the territory. I know people who would prefer to eat (or pretend to eat/pick at?) the food rather than give offense. But I know that if I were staring at a plate of meat, I’d be entirely unable to eat it, and that would just be worse. I suppose there could be some exceptions where the take-it-anyway option would be better, but they are outside of my realm of knowledge.

  9. I have interstitial cystitis, a bladder condition which (for me) is worsened by certain foods: tomato and citrus. I’m also lactose intolerant. And, I don’t eat red meat or poultry. So, no food allergies, but definitely food sensitivities and preferences. My wife and I just got back from Japan for our honeymoon this summer. It was a challenge sometimes to find food I could eat, but not very often because traditional Japanese food nicely accommodates my food needs. Although I don’t speak Japanese, and most Japanese we met were not fluent, we had several people help us along the way (sign language and pidgin Japanese work wonders!) Also, Google Translate (a free app) was immensely helpful. You can type in single words and it will type it in Japanese, then speak it if you push a button. Though we didn’t find the full-sentence translation that accurate (lots of frowns and funny looks), the single-word translation got us out of some situations where I probably would have eaten something I shouldn’t have. Google Translate also lets you take a picture of something, like a sign, then translates it into English (with mixed results for the Japanese version). Also, we looked at Yelp reviews in English a lot, and we primarily went to restaurants where there were pictures of the food available, and/or the menu was available in English. Again, these were relatively easy to find in Japan, which caters so well to tourists. Good luck!

    • Web translators are great. But a word of caution if you’re ever going to “remote” areas or local communities. (Usually island or mountain communities.) Many isolated communities use distinct words for many foods. Sometimes the same word means different foods. It’s kindof like how “spicy” in American can mean a hot food, or a food with a lot of seasoning. Some people are okay with hot chiles, but are allergic to something season with garlic and onion.

  10. My coworker’s husband has some pretty serious food allergies and travels internationally for work a lot. Before he leaves, he uses Google translate or a local contact to make up a card in the language of the country he’s traveling that lists what he’s allergic to and asking for dishes that can be made without those ingredients.

    • I just did some travelling with a friend who is allergic to gluten and soy who used this method and it works brilliantly. He brought multiples of this little card, each laminated, so if needed it could be handed off to the cook in the kitchen.

      One thing he said the often does when he travels is somewhat over-exaggerate the impact of his allergy. While it actually gives him some pretty serious GI troubles, the card he’s had written up says that the allergy can be life-threatening. He said that in countries where knowledge of food allergies are less common this has helped to convey the seriousness of the allergies.

  11. I’m a (former vegetarian) gluten-free deaf traveler. Alongside attempting to butcher the language and power through learning phrases such as “no meat” and “no wheat,” I also prep my iPhone with digital flash cards. If you’re traveling to a less literate country (I traveled to China about 2 years ago) try including both a symbol or illustration along with a phrase in their native language!

  12. I’ve traveled a whole lot internationally (DOS brats, represent!) and when I’m in an area where English is not common nor do I speak the native language, I have someone who does speak English fluently write out an index card for me in the local dialect, then I laminate it with packing tape. It’s usually easy to find someone who speaks decent enough English that you trust to write for you in a hostel, or just by listening to people at the train stations. Plus, it’s not a bad idea to travel with blank note cards, a Sharpie, and packing tape 🙂

    Doing research ahead of time helps to, so that you know what the local cuisine is and what you might ask for as common food that you can eat. Also, always stock up on snacks when you find something local you can eat and carry with you (I have a purse that still smells like sticky rice in bamboo from when I found a vendor in Cambodia who sold it without peanuts in it!). You never know when you’re going to have to say “no thank you” and end up hungry.

    PS- never turn down tea or other drinks, it is considered very rude in most parts of the world. It’s generally OK to not to eat the snacks offered, most likely your host will notice that you’re not eating and try to find something else for you; try eat something if you can without making yourself sick.

    Here’s what I ask someone to write on the card (and write in English on the other side, to make it easy to remember what’s on there!):

    My name is ____ and I am allergic to ___(bullet points)__. Please do not feed me anything with those foods in it, they will make me very ill.

    And always carry your medications with you, just in case you do get whammied (Benedryl, EpiPen -possibly with instructions in the local language, and steroids if you’re prone to systemic allergic reactions).

    • I agree that accepting hospitality is a challenge, but as someone is celiac’s I narrowly avoided disaster recently in Korea when I was given barely tea to drink. As a guest I try to make it clear I have a medical condition and must be very careful. All of my hosts have been very gracious when I give them an easy way to accommodate it. (I would love a glass of hot water with lemon, etc.)

  13. Thanks so much for the comments so far, guys! One thing I worried about was language barriers. The suggestion that several folks have made about a card is awesome and something I had considered; glad to hear that this has worked well for people.

    The other big thing I worried about was attitudes encountered around allergies / food sensitivities while traveling. So far from commenters it sounds like folks’ experiences mirror what I encounter locally: that establishments are responsive and communicative, but that ordering food with allergies is always kind of a pain no matter where you go. Of course things can vary from location to location and even server to server, but overall this is great news to hear! 🙂

    As an aside, I actually found it even easier in Uganda to eat out because EVERYTHING is made from scratch. At home (USA), so much food is pre-made or pre-seasoned or pre-packaged that often times servers and chefs have no clue what spices are in the food and have to run to the stock room to read long ingredient lists – if they even have them. It’s not their fault; it’s just the nature of food here. :-/

  14. I’m allergic to onion and garlic too and I made a graphic with the words in German for our trip to Austria and had it on my phone. Even though I speak German, it was good to be able to show the server just in case I made a pronunciation mistake! If this is the only thing you learn in a foreign language, make sure you also learn how to say ‘I don’t speak x’ or ‘do you speak English?’. Make yourself a list of all the foods in the family you are allergic to or save pictures to your phone and put a big red circle with a line through it over all the images as that’s the universal sign for no. I also travel with one protein bar per day just in case I can’t get anything to eat someplace.

  15. I would just add – don’t be afraid to ask multiple times and confirm. I have a dairy allergy and depending on where I am, I find I have to be very specific about what ingredients / items might contain dairy (e.g. bread, margarine). And sometimes what you communicate to the server doesn’t get communicated correctly to the kitchen, so you may have to double-check when your food arrives.

  16. Great advice here. I’m based in the UK and just to confirm what was mentioned above – the law was changed recently, so now all restaurants in the UK need to be able to provide allergy information. It’s getting better and better for allergy sufferers in most of the chain restaurants, coffee shops and supermarkets.

    I’m a coeliac and I’ve travelled a few times to Australia, which has very strict rules about what food products you can bring into the country – but I’ve never had any problem bringing in vacuum packed, sealed gluten free breads etc. I just declared it at customs, they checked the packages and it was fine. For those who carry medication (like Epi pens) it can be handy to have a letter from your doctor explaining what you are carrying and why.

  17. I made a translation note with my allergies multiple languages including English. You would be shocked how many people can read and write in English even if they can’t speak it well. I also researched traditional dishes in advance so I had the best idea of what I could safely order. Im painting with a broad brush but a lot of cultures have way more traditional food than the USA, so you will find certain recipes call for the exact same ingredients and no room for additives or substitutions. 10 days in India and I didn’t get sick once! I even had cooks accommodate my allergies without me asking based on my card. A basket of chickpea bread showed up on my table. The chef made it special for me because of my allergy. I used an online translator. One tip: Translate it, then translate it back. I got some pretty interesting results until I found the right wording.

  18. I’m allergic to shellfish, in Hong Kong they love it and put it into a lot of food when it isn’t specified.
    I tend to avoid broths/soups in new places, anything that is “X style”, fried rice and if we are eating dumplings or something with hidden centers I always use my companions as testers.
    Sticking to more western orientated places also helps.

  19. I’ve only been abroad once, but we lodged in a place with a kitchen. The cost reduction of eating in more than compensated for the small extra price. And it gave me complete control of my food. I sympathize completely–I have multiple food allergies, some of them life threatening, and hypoglycemia, which means that sugar can do severely bad things to my brain before I pass out.

  20. After a recent trip to Barcelona with a group of vegetarians, my primary advice is to book in advance. It’s much harder to find somewhere with a decent range of edible dishes on the fly (especially in a group of 8!) than it is to check tripadviser and book ahead.

    As some of the others have pointed out, the thing to really be aware of is stocks and seasonings. A lot of countries use garlic powder as a standard seasoning (or meat – if you’re eating out somewhere like Spain, it’s worth specifying if you’re a vegetarian that you also don’t eat ham, since it’s often used as a garnish), and stocks will be made up with a variety of ingredients not necessarily listed on the menu. Avoid fast food places, even familiar ones: a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut will vary recipes based on local preferences, so may not have the same ingredients as back home. Actually, the same goes for places like Indian and Thai restaurants too. We had a terrible Indian meal in Spain because apparently the Spanish expectations of Indian food are bland and creamy. Eat local, and eat at places that cook from scratch.

  21. I have found that having a travel card that explains what I can not eat – and also what I can eat – is helpful.

    I have celiac disease and get very ill when I eat anything with even a small amount of gluten. And, when traveling I am extra cautious as access to bathrooms might be limited. I have used the travel cards from this website in Mozambique, Korea, and Nicaragua: http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/

    They explain the things I must avoid, and they list the things that are fine. So even though I had to pass over a few yummy things in Korea because I was surprised at how frequently barley showed up on the table it was very handy to have with me at all times.

    I also find it helpful to have a native speaker read my little speech about my illness and record it on my iPhone so that I can play it to folks who might be in a more rural area and might not be as literate as needed to follow my instructions carefully.

    There are lots of sites who make allergy cards, and this one can do a speciality one for the allergies named by the original poster: http://www.selectwisely.com

    I also travel with half a suitcase full of food – which just leaves room for my souvenirs at the end of a trip 🙂

    • “I also travel with half a suitcase full of food – which just leaves room for my souvenirs at the end of a trip 🙂 ”

      This is so true! When I visited some friends in Europe and packed a whole bag of American “delicacies” (Cheez-its, candy, etc). On the way home it was stuffed to the bursting with souvenirs.

      Also, holy cow those card web sites! I just sent excited messages to my friends for this: http://www.selectwisely.com/products/Onions_Allium_Family_card

  22. Everyone’s suggestions about cards and things are great.

    I would just add – other countries may surprise you! Although in the US/UK, we tend to think of ourselves as the only ones who have/understand allergies, allergies are becoming more common in many parts of the world.

    I was surprised, for example, when I met an Australian woman with coeliac in a bar in Italy. I said it must be tough travelling in Italy with a gluten allergy, and she said actually no, it was the best place in the world for it! In Italy, gluten allergies are apparently extremely common, and they even screen small children for gluten allergies. I’ve travelled for work with a colleague who is gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian, and everyone in Italy has been incredibly accommodating, because (in general) restaurants make everything fresh for you, so it’s easy to leave out certain ingredients.

    I would also question people’s advice about going mostly to places that serve more “Western” food. YMMV, but those places might be buying in pre-made stuff. If you’re eating more local food, they are more likely to be making it fresh, and would be able to adapt it for you. This may of course depend on what you are allergic to, and how likely it is to appear in the food in a hidden form.

    I also second the advice about knowing the usual local terms. In India, for example, you can eat “veg” (no meat, and usually no eggs), “pure veg” (vegan) or meals for Jain food restrictions (vegan, no onions or garlic). All of these are totally normal options, and no one will bat an eye. It took me a while to work out what people meant by “veg” and “pure veg” at first!

  23. Hi! I have a life-threatening allergy to shellfish and I travel all the time. I always learn how to say “If I eat this…INSERT WORD….I will die”. And I google every variation of words for all the different shellfish. There are still a lot of cultures that don’t really understand allergies. China comes to mind (I had a friend from a doctor family in Hong Kong who kept trying to slip shrimp into my food because if I tried it, I would like it). And weirdly a lot of people in Quebec. There are also a lot of people at home who just think that saying you have an allergy means that you don’t like something. And I personally hate when someone says they have an allergy when they don’t. It invalidates those of us who do and that leads to a lot of very very dangerous situations for people with anaphylaxis because restaurants, etc just get fed up with the amount of pseudo-allergies.

    I always browse restaurant menus very quickly and ask how the food is prepared. If I don’t speak the language fluently, I always make sure there is someone around who does who can translate. For instance, if I decide to have chicken that is prepared on a grill, I always have to ask if the chicken is prepared on the same grill as whatever shellfish is on the menu. If it is, chicken is out. Then I have to ask if there’s shellfish in any salads, pasta or whatever, if it’s all prepared at the same station or would they prepare mine separately because of my allergy. I can’t have anything that can have cross-contamination. This often means when I’m out, I opt for the vegetarian option or the only thing on the menu that’s been nowhere near shellfish. That’s why I love landlocked countries! Way less shellfish on the menu!

    But when in doubt – don’t eat. It’s not worth it. There have been many times I’ve just had a cup of tea and a dessert and that’s it. And people think an epipen buys you time – you get 15 mins and you MUST go to the hospital after using it. I’ve buried one friend and one family acquaintance because where they were for dinner did not accommodate their peanut allergies. And they were in the States & their first language was English.

  24. A friend and her partner went to japan last year and friend is deathly allergic to quite a few things like some types of fish. We all freaked out before she left, but they bought two epi pens and both learnt how to use them and made some japanese flash cards. I don’t know exactly what they said, probably something like “if you serve me x y z I will die. In your restaurant. And then I will sue you, for I am a lawyer. And then my partner will make a documentary about it because he is a film maker.” And she survived! Being aware and carrying a medical history letter with contact details for your consulate and home doctor would be a good idea too.

Join the Conversation