For many travelers, the chance to sample cuisines from different destinations is one of the most appealing parts of the travel experience. But if you have food allergies or other dietary restrictions, journeying to areas that involve language barriers can feel like a daunting challenge.
How can you clearly and quickly communicate your dietary needs when you’re not fluent in the language of the country you’re visiting? To answer this question, we consulted a group of seasoned travel experts and gathered seven valuable tips that will make travel dining as easy, stress-free and fun as it should be.
Download special apps that’ll help you research the dining options ahead of time.
While you’re Googling hotel options and the hottest restaurant districts in the city you plan to visit, take some time to focus your research on which venues have a strong track record of accommodating dietary restrictions. “Check out some restaurant reviews on the location that you’ll be going to. There are a lot of websites out there that are diet-specific that can give you some insight for bigger cities, like HappyCow for vegans,” says Connor Ondriska, CEO of the SpanishVIP language and culture academy. You should also check out Spokin, a popular app that helps you eat out with food allergies.
Social media can provide travellers with abundant resources for dealing with their dietary restrictions while abroad too. “My best advice is to go to an expat group for your destination on Facebook or to look into the country’s subreddit community on Reddit and ask [members] to translate your dietary restrictions into their language. Typically, you’ll find bilingual people who are more than happy to help with a simple translation, and you can save that translation on your phone so it’s readily available while traveling,” says travel writer and digital nomad Kate Sortino of Cross Culture Love.
Once you choose your hotel and find some restaurants that look interesting, it’s wise to reach out and communicate your dietary needs in advance. “Contact hotels/restaurants directly ahead of time via their dedicated email, WhatsApp phone number, or your booking source,” advises CEO and travel expert Anne Desrosiers of The Voluptuary. “This way, they will be aware of how to meet your needs or will let you know if they cannot. Also, these methods are usually monitored by someone who speaks and can translate your needs.”
Always carry photos of the foods you need to avoid.
If you’re concerned about your lack of fluency in the language of the place where you’re traveling, clear photos of the foods you can’t eat will give you the ability to convey your restrictions to servers and hotel staff.
For instance, travel expert Cory Varga of You Could Travel, who is vegan, says that “the easiest way to communicate the fact that you’re a vegan is to have a printed page that shows pictures of eggs, milk and animals with an X on them. People might not all understand what veganism is, but everyone understands the meaning of pictures.”
Whether you choose to bring along a printout or prefer to keep photos on your phone, having an array of clear images of the off-limits foods (and a way to express the need to avoid them, like a negative facial expression, a head shake, or symbols like Xes on the photos themselves) can communicate your needs without involving verbal language.
Laminated (or digital) cards with allergy information are an easy and travel-friendly way to communicate.
When your dietary restrictions are based on allergies (and especially on severe allergies that can cause anaphylaxis), it’s essential to have easy and efficient access to materials that thoroughly outline the parameters.
Travel blogger Leah Pavel, who often travels with her severely peanut-allergic husband, tells us that “he keeps laminated cards in his wallet with his allergy information in the local language. Because severe allergies aren’t as common in other countries, he has to include the fact that his allergy is deadly in the statement.”
If you’d rather not deal with physical cards, you can download them from the internet and save them on your phone.
Ask someone who speaks the language (like a fluent friend or a hotel concierge) to explain your dietary restriction and record what they say.
When venturing to a place where you don’t have a strong command of the language, it’s always helpful to learn a few basic phrases to help you get around. However, when allergies and serious dietary limits are involved, fluency becomes more important than ever.
That’s why travel company founder Lorne Blyth of Flavours Experiences urges you to “record a friend [or a hotel concierge, or a travel booker, or anyone else in your circle who fluently speaks the language] on your phone naming the foods you are allergic to/prefer not to eat.”
“Then, you can get the waiter/waitress to listen to it when ordering,” Blyth adds.
Keep a supply of medications with you at all times.
It may seem obvious that someone with food allergies or digestive issues should have a ready supply of medications on-hand, but when you’re traveling in an unfamiliar place, you’ll want to keep those meds directly on your person (rather than in a suitcase at your hotel).
“Make sure you travel with your EpiPen, Benadryl or other medications you require, in case you accidentally come in contact with allergens,” advises travel blogger Jenn Lloyd of Sick Girl Travels. “Keep your medications in their original packaging and never [store them] in your checked bag [when flying]. You want to have access to them at all times in case of emergency.”
Pack snacks that comply with your condition.
Because it never hurts to overprepare when traveling with a health condition or a dietary concern, err on the side of caution by packing a few snacks that you know you can comfortably eat.
“I always carry some food with me,” says Josip Hotovec, the founder of travel guide Japanko Official. “Throughout my career, I figured out that many unexpected things can happen. For example, you can get stuck in the airport for some time, or there can be train delays. Usually, this isn’t a problem for people who don’t have dietary restrictions. They can go to a fast-food restaurant and order a meal. However, you can’t do that when you have strict dietary restrictions. That’s why it’s a brilliant idea to carry some food in your backpack and be well prepared for unexpected situations.”
On the subject of travel snacks, up-to-date familiarity with Transportation Security Administration regulations will ensure that you’ll have your food ready when you need it.
“Solid food items (not liquids or gels) can be transported in either your carry-on or checked bags,” says travel support expert Lauren LaBar of Upaway. “Liquid or gel food items larger than 3.4 ounces are not allowed in carry-on bags and should be placed in your checked bags.You can also keep food cool with frozen ice packs in a cooler, but the packs must be frozen. TSA officers may instruct you to separate food items from your bag to ease the screening process.”
Check out TSA’s full list of food items and special instructions.
Consider buying travel insurance that includes medical coverage.
Should you fall into a worst-case food allergy scenario while traveling, knowing that you’ll have access to medical care can provide some stress relief. For that reason, flight coordinator Ben Carothers of Global Air Ambulance recommends purchasing “trip insurance with medical coverage.”
“We regularly transport patients who have had severe allergic reactions while traveling abroad,” Carothers says. “Because they weren’t covered by insurance, these types of trips cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s best to shop around and specify the medical events [you need covered] in the policy.”