Food Allergies and Travel

Gillian loves to travel, and she's determined not to let her food allergies stop her. She says feelings of awkwardness and worry about her food allergy have faded as she gets older. Now she doesn't hesitate to ask questions about food, no matter where she is. She knows that ignoring her food allergy could lead to a bad reaction — and draw a lot more attention to her, not to mention put her in some serious (and vacation-wrecking) danger.

Yes, people with life-threatening food allergies really can take off on weekend road trips, spend a summer abroad, or vacation in the wilderness. It just takes confidence and planning.

Get Your Mind Ready

Planning a trip can be stressful for anyone. But people with food allergies may feel particularly anxious about leaving their familiar home environments. It's easy to understand why: Not only do people have to stay safe in a new place, but they also have to handle any social concerns that arise, like asking for special accommodations, avoiding certain activities or places, or explaining the need to prepare and eat their own food.

Even among friends, people can sometimes feel embarrassed or uncomfortable raising food allergy concerns. So it's natural to worry that it might feel even more awkward in a new environment or culture.

Perhaps the best way to boost confidence and calm nerves is to research and plan your trip thoroughly. Think ahead. Instead of trying to push worries aside, use them as a guide to prepare yourself for the kinds of situations you might face in a new place. Remind yourself that your anxiety is real — and understandable.

You already know how to manage your food allergies — you do it every day. The strategies that help you cope at home can work well on trips too.

Think about what kinds of situations might come up and how to deal with them. Talk through any worries with supportive friends and family who will be joining you on the trip. Not only can they help you avoid risky situations, they can also be your emotional support system.

If you're traveling overseas, talk to someone who understands the country's traditions and culture to get tips on how to manage your allergy and still fit in.

If someone other than you or your family (like a teacher or friend's parent) is organizing your trip, be sure that person is clear on what your needs are. Be sure that he or she understands enough about food allergies to look out for you.

Get Your Plan Ready

Planning ahead can help you feel less anxious about what could go wrong and more excited about the adventure ahead. Start a couple of weeks to a month in advance by making a detailed to-do list. List each of the tasks below — along with any others your doctor or nurse educator recommends — starting with the one that needs to be done farthest in advance.

  • Choose where to go. For people with food allergies, deciding on a destination might take some extra thought. For example, if you have a peanut allergy, some places, like a remote village in Thailand, might be more risky than others. It's wise to discuss travel options with your doctor before making any final decisions.
  • Check prescriptions. Discuss travel plans ahead of time with your allergist to be sure you have all the medicines you need, from antihistamines and inhalers to epinephrine injectors. Don't plan to rely on local pharmacies for your prescriptions — medications may not be the same overseas. Instead, take your meds with you.

    Heading OverseasIf your insurance company or pharmacy limits how much of a prescription you can fill at once, a letter from a doctor explaining the situation may allow an exception to their policy. Also, if you're traveling by airplane or train, ask your doctor to write a letter authorizing you to carry your medicine to prevent potential confusion/delays at security checkpoints.
  • Research local hospitals and medical care. Before you go, find out where local emergency medical help is and how long it will take you to get there. That way, if you need emergency care, you'll know your options.
  • Research grocery stores, restaurants, and accommodations. Well ahead of your visit, find out which grocery stores (if any) at your destination carry allergen-free products, which restaurants seem to be "allergy-aware," and which hotels offer rooms with a kitchen. Support groups and food allergy web sites can often be helpful, whether you're traveling within the country or internationally.

    If you're going abroad and speak the language, talk directly to grocery store, restaurant, and hotel managers. If language is a barrier, or you just need more answers, seek help from food allergy organizations, travel agents, trip coordinators, or local friends and relatives. Prepare a list of questions before making your calls and take careful notes.

Get Your Plan Ready (continued)

  • Research transportation. If you're sharing a car, let your traveling companions know about your food allergy. If you're traveling by train, bus, or plane, find out about their policies and services. Do they serve snacks that contain ingredients you're allergic to? Can you board early or get a seat by yourself? Is emergency medical help available?

    For air travel, research airlines in advance. Some airlines are more accommodating than others when it comes to food allergies. Call and discuss your needs well before you make reservations. Ask for a safe snack, but bring your own food along just in case. Ask if you can board early so you can wipe down your seating area without holding other travelers up. When you board, remind the flight crew of your needs. If it helps you feel more comfortable, ask that they alert other passengers to your allergy.
  • Carry enough medicine. Keep your meds in your hand luggage so they're easily available. Also keep your food allergy emergency action plan in your bag. It should be signed by your doctor and describe the allergies you have and the treatment you need. Wrap and pack your meds carefully so they don't get crushed or leak.

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  • Carry hand wipes. Washing your hands frequently and keeping them away from your mouth, nose, and eyes is a great way to prevent accidentally coming into contact with allergens. But when you're traveling you can't count on having access to soap and running water. A good supply of hand wipes ensures that you can clean your hands as well as wipe around seating areas on planes, trains, buses, and other forms of transportation where contact with allergens is likely.
  • Pack safe food. If you can, bring enough safe food to see you through at least the beginning of your trip. Of course, how much you bring will depend on where you're going and how long you'll be traveling: If you're in an area where you cannot easily purchase or order allergen-free food, stock up on your food supply. If you're someplace where you can buy and prepare what you need, pack less. If you're traveling internationally, you may not be able to read labels at local grocery stores. Again, it's best to bring a sizeable supply of safe food with you.
  • Alert others to your allergy. You don't have to wear a T-shirt that screams, "Hey, everyone, I have a food allergy!" But it's a good idea to wear a medical ID bracelet when you travel, so that people can help you get proper emergency medical help if you need it. You may also wish to carry a medical release form, signed by your doctor, which authorizes others to give you emergency medicine, such as epinephrine.

    If you will be eating out, carry a personalized "chef card." These cards detail your allergies and help kitchen staff understand how to prepare a safe meal for you. Chef card forms are readily available, in many different languages, through food allergy websites. But the card is not a substitute for direct communication. It's best to speak directly with your waiter and possibly the chef when you eat out.

Staying alert, taking precautions, and carrying meds are just part of normal life for someone who has a food allergy. Once you've done it once or twice, traveling with food allergies feels perfectly routine also. You feel less like you're "traveling with food allergies" and more like you're simply "traveling."

With careful planning, travel can be liberating and help you feel more independent. You'll learn just how good you are at taking care of yourself.

Reviewed by: Robert Van Winkle, MD, and Sheelagh M. Stewart, RN, MPH
Date reviewed: October 2011
Originally reviewed by: Hemant P. Sharma, MD