In today’s world, being gluten free is not just reserved for a few select people. Some estimates suggest that close to 3% of the population has some form of gluten sensitivity. Although I am fortunately not one of those affected, I have had readers ask me how to travel and still eat well, so I’ve put together this Gluten Free Travel Guide.
The Keys to Traveling Gluten Free and Stress Free
Traveling safely while managing a gluten free sensitivity is not only possible, but enjoyable and delicious, I assure you. However, the key to reducing stress about traveling with an allergy or food sensitivity is planning ahead! Do not wait until the last minute, or until you are faced with a table full of pasta, bread and cake! As a traveling chef, I can advise you how best to avoid gluten consumption, or worse, being left hungry with no options. There is no need to stress over this, but you must do three things: educate yourself on your destination, do some preparation, and also communicate your needs well all along the way.
Luckily, one positive that has come about because of this increase of occurrences of gluten sensitivity, is the better understanding of the diet. And, due to the increased awareness of this allergy, there are even a few cottage businesses that have popped up. I’ve come across travel agents that specialize in gluten free travel and tours (just use our friend Google!), and there are a few websites that include reviews of GF restaurants, bakeries, stores, hotels, resorts, and even cruises, all submitted by actual users.
These things make traveling while adhering to a gluten free diet easier but there are still a number of things to keep in mind. With a few key tips and tricks, you can travel around the world without gluten ruining your trip.
Gluten Free Transportation
Domestic airlines rarely have gluten free meals (hell, they rarely have MEALS!), but international flights always include that option. The thing is to try to request a special diet meal ahead of time . But, like everyplace else, be sure to bring back up food just in case.
Also, confirm with the airline when you are checking in to ensure that your meal is onboard for you. And, don’t then change your seat and forget your meal! I recently read of a traveler who had ordered a gluten free meal, but at the last minute, ended up switching seats to accommodate a mother traveling with her child. Unbeknownst to him, when it came to mealtime, the flight attendant followed the airline manifest, and served the new seat occupant (the mother) the special gluten free meal, not knowing it had been intended for the fellow who had booked that seat originally.
By the time he was served a regular meal and asked for his GF version instead, the mother had unwittingly polished it off a few rows ahead of him. Unfortunately, the flight crew said that there were no more available, as meals like that are special ordered. Lesson learned: make your special request ahead of time, but be sure to alert the flight crew you have done so!
If you want to travel with “medical foods” and not have TSA confiscate them at the security checkpoint, it’s a good idea to obtain a doctor’s note. That way, you can confidently pack snacks and meals like yogurt, soups, protein shakes or smoothies that otherwise would be considered liquids.
Do your due diligence by reaching out to your accommodations ahead of time. At the time of booking, inform them of your allergen concerns, and inquire about alternative meal options. These days, most hotels have a fully stocked minibar fridge. If not, you might want to ask for a small refrigerator if you believe you’ll need it to supplement your meals (ask too if arranging for this results in an extra fee). If you are staying at an All-Inclusive resort, ideally try to obtain in writing an agreed upon meal plan to ensure safe eating, early on in your reservation process. This goes for cruises too. Of course, like all special arrangements, it’s a good idea to also confirm all this a few days prior to your departure.
Be sure to inform your server when you arrive in the hotel restaurant, or call down for room service, and again communicate your dietary concerns to the staff.
It’s a good idea to also research local grocery stores and markets nearby to your accommodation in case you need to purchase extra food.
Gluten Free Travel Guide: Cruising is Easy
Cruise lines are well familiar with guests with food sensitivities, and cater to them even with some special promotional offerings. Research cruise lines first, to determine if they fit both your dietary and desired travel plans. Call the customer service number to ask questions prior to booking your cruise. As with the hotel planning above, reach out to the proper hospitality staff both before and during your stay aboard the ship to reiterate your needs. You may think you are being a pest, but their job is to make you happy and comfortable, and to hopefully satisfy you enough to make you a returning and loyal customer.
Also don’t forget to research each of the port stops where you are planning to get off for the day. (more on that next!)
Do Your Destination Research
If you are heading somewhere on a trip, there’s a 99.9% chance that someone who eats gluten free was there before you! The internet is chock full of information! From compiling a list of commonly gluten free foods in that city or country, to looking up ingredients in common seasonings, you can find a lot of information on the web.
Also check out my other destination food articles here on Tasteful Traveler to get an idea of what dishes and ingredients a place is known for. You want to have an understanding of some of the local specialties, and investigate their ingredients or preparations prior to your trip. That way, you won’t miss out on the famous dish or local delicacy by not knowing for sure what’s in it. Being informed is always better than not! At the very least, you’ll know enough to be able to request a certain ingredient substitution if you have to, to still enjoy the local fare.
If you’re lucky, you can find an actual gluten free guide to the region or cuisine of choice which will make it significantly easier. There are also apps you can download that provide recommendations and reviews of food establishments that are gluten free, or provide for other special dietary considerations. Don’t forget the obvious too: bloggers are a great source of info. I know there are gluten-free food bloggers in nearly every country who have already done the legwork for you, finding good and safe places to eat.
Learn Some Words for Your Own Gluten Free Travel Guide
The number one hands down best way to communicate your needs is to learn the words in the language of where you are traveling to. Learn to say key phrases like, “I have a gluten allergy” or “I have celiac disease.” (But don’t say you have celiac if you really don’t!) Again, the internet can help you do that!
Another method, is to get (or make up your own) a gluten free translation card and print a few copies to be able to give to waiters to give to chefs in the kitchen. Make sure it breaks down which typical ingredients you cannot have. Some cultures aren’t as used to allergies and sensitivities as others and cross-contamination may not be understood properly. People not familiar with special dietary restrictions may not think of cross-contamination by using the same knife or cutting board without washing in between use, or from preparing a dish in the same oil or boiling water as other foods containing gluten. If it just says you can’t have wheat, they may not understand that that includes flour, pasta, etc.
Eat Fresh and Ethnic
Often the best local cuisine is the freshest. Many cultural foods are not processed and naturally gluten free. Look for places that advertise fresh or locally grown or locally sourced. Seafood restaurants are always a good choice too. For flour, many international cuisines frequently do NOT use wheat to make the flour, but rather chickpeas, rice, or corn. Dishes are often thickened with beans, tapioca, masa, cornstarch, potato starch, arrowroot and the like. You can even enjoy some molecular gastronomy dishes because they’re likely made with guar gum or Xanthan gum – both of which are gluten free.
Check Other Gluten Free Travel Guide Reviews
When I am traveling with a friend who is gluten free, one of my favorite methods of finding “approved” places for us to eat, is searching a restaurant that I am interested in and the words gluten free. It will easily bring up any TripAdvisor or Yelp reviews, or any blog posts or articles about the place that mention whether it is gluten free friendly or not. Always take that info with a grain of salt, but it’s a good starting point. One of the best sources I found for restaurant reviews is the website https://glutenfreetravelsite.com/ which even references college campuses, camps and churches!
Hopefully this Gluten Free Travel Guide has taught you one thing: If you go prepared, traveling gluten free can be easy as well as delicious.
Some destinations do tailor a bit better for the gluten free traveler, though, so check out this post for my specific suggestions on best countries to travel in gluten free.