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Traveling with Food Allergies and Restricted Diets

On the Road, In Hotels, and On Business Trips


Updated February 11, 2008

Whether you're traveling across the country for work or upstate for a week at Grandma's, you'll have to think about your restricted diet, especially the first few times you travel with it. But it won't take long for you to become a pro. Here's what you need to think about when you're on the road with food allergies or intolerances of any kind.

Must-Pack Essentials

What you need to carry with you depends on: whether you'll have access to a kitchen and grocery at your destination; whether you are attending a catered event; how long you'll be en route; whether the person on a restricted diet is a child who needs to eat frequently; and whether you're dealing with the possibility of anaphylactic shock. Here are some items to consider packing:

  • An Epi-Pen and/or other doctor-prescribed medication;
  • Safe foods;
  • A cooler, if you're traveling by car or train;
  • Contact information for an allergist or children's hospital at your travel destination (if you're dealing with very severe allergies). UCompareHealthCare can help you find a qualified doctor if you don't have a recommendation in the area.

Traveling by Airplane

Airlines are accustomed to dealing with all sorts of food allergies, but the most problematic for flying are severe peanut allergies because of the possibility of a reaction from inhaled peanut dust. Many airlines have stopped serving peanuts in-flight because of this possibility and will gladly request over the P.A. that people on-board refrain from eating peanuts, but virtually all will stress that they cannot guarantee a truly peanut-free flight because they cannot control what other passengers carry with them.

For more information, see:

Traveling by Car

If you're taking your own transportation, you have the option of storing your own food in the car. There's every chance you'll want to stop at a restaurant while on the road on a long journey, though, for both variety and convenience.

Chain restaurants that have proven to be safe in the past are one possibility for on-the-road dining on long road trips; another is to find recommendations for local restaurants that are safe for your dietary needs. One great source for the latter is local allergy support groups in the areas you're likely to be passing through. A free Web 2.0 app called Waymarking can also help you search for ethnic cuisines that are likely to be safe or allergy-safe restaurants that have been added by other users.

Etiquette for Social Events

If you're traveling to a wedding or other large catered occasion, asking the host or hostess to arrange for allergy-safe dishes is neither the most polite nor the most efficient way to get safe food. What you can do is ask for the caterer's number and speak to them in advance so you can assess whether you will be able to eat safely at the event or whether you should eat beforehand. Talking to the head of the catering staff on the day of the event may be helpful also.

For a short-notice gathering like a funeral, the best rule of thumb is to assume that food is unsafe. If you must eat at this sort of event, single-ingredient foods like fruit, vegetables, and cheese are the safest bets, assuming they themselves are not allergenic.

Room Service: Tips and Tricks for Hotels

If you're traveling with a food sensitivity that tends to be pervasive -- soy, gluten, or corn, for instance -- reserving a room with a kitchenette is helpful, though not necessary, on a long stay.

Depending on whether you reserve a higher-end or a lower-end hotel, you'll have one of two resources to make use of. At a high-end hotel, you'll have access to a concierge, who will be highly knowledgeable about the local area and may even be able to have allergy-safe goodies waiting for you, given advance notice.

Other hotels may not provide concierges, but don't overlook the front-desk staff as a resource. Ask them about room service options or promising-sounding restaurants in the guide you're likely to have been provided in your room.

Great Snacks to Pack

The best travel foods don't need refrigeration, are nutritious and filling, and don't require utensils. Here are some options that are widely available and suitable for many diets:

  • Bananas are rarely allergenic and last a long time at room temperature.
  • General Mills Fruit Ripples snacks are apple chips that are free from the "big eight" allergens, gluten, and corn (but they're not sulfite-free).
  • Terra Chips come in dozens of varieties and are free from most common allergens (though a couple flavors contain dairy)
  • Dried fruits and trail mixes travel well. Just Fruits and Veggies from Just Tomatoes are additive-free.

Allergy-friendly manufacturers like Enjoy Life, Glutino, and Vermont Nut-Free also sell great snacks.

The Bed-and-Breakfast Option

Bed and breakfasts can be a great choice for food allergies. You may be pleasantly surprised by the lengths bed-and-breakfast owners will go to accommodate food sensitivities and other dietary needs, given advance notice. Indeed, many B & B's announce their willingness to meet guests' food preferences directly on their promotional materials. As an added bonus, most know the surrounding area quite well and have excellent relationships with nearby restauranteurs.

Do communicate your needs as clearly as possible before making a reservation to ensure the innkeeper's willingness to work with your needs. For more information, see:

Special Concerns for Business Travel

Business travel to large conferences follows many of the same principles of traveling to catered events like weddings. At larger events, you'll have little control over the food served and should either pack food or learn about nearby restaurants.

For smaller business lunches or dinners, it's important to be assertive about your dietary needs. If you entertain clients frequently, you'll want to establish relationships with restaurant owners who can work with your allergies.

Keep a stash of allergy-friendly cookies or frozen desserts handy for office parties, and proactively ask about food arrangements for long meetings. You may be surprised at how considerate colleagues are if you explain your allergies.

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