I love planning for a vacation because there’s so much to look forward to see and do at the destination but there’s a lot things I do in the background to keep my kids with food allergies safe so we can stay safe and have a sense of normalcy. Here are some of my best food allergy travel strategies from over 13 years of being an allergy mom. As I was getting ready for our vacation this summer, I made a list of things to do to get ready, which turned into a blog post.
Update: minor updates (May 2023)
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Food Allergy Travel Strategies for Road Trips
When my one of my sons had a known history of reacting to airborne nuts, we opted to take more road trips to avoid exposing him to nuts while on board airplanes. We can drive from San Francisco Bay Area as far north as Portland, OR and as far south as San Diego, CA within a day.
We also opted to stay in hotels with at least a small kitchenette with a microwave and mini-fridge so we can prepare simple meals or put together some no-cook meals (bagged salad, bread, and rotisserie chicken). I pack a selection of paper plates, disposable utensils, inexpensive kitchen tools from a dollar store, collapsible colanders, collapsible storage containers, foil, plastic wrap, utensils, etc. to make things easier.
One year we went camping in Yosemite and we couldn’t cook at the campsite. So I cooked everything at home, vacuum sealed the food with a Food Saver, and we reheated the food in a pot of boiling water over a camp stove at picnic site.
It’s not as relaxing for whoever does the cooking, cleaning, and driving but it’s a change in routine and scenery with lots of time to be together and have fun.
Food Allergy Travel Strategies for Airline Travel
Thanks to my friend Lianne at No Nut Traveler, she has brought so much attention to the challenges of flying by airplane with food allergies. The DOT recently recognizes food allergies as a disability. The next step is to move toward consistent policies to accommodate passengers with food allergies and for consistent anaphylaxis training and preparedness. I recommend reading some of the testimonials posted on No Nut Traveler to help you think through potential issues.
Some key travel tips include:
- Before you book your airline tickets, familiarize yourself with the airline’s policies and willingness to accommodate your needs. Some are wonderful, some are borderline hostile, buyer beware. Allergic Living has a list of airlines with links to their allergy policies.
- Bring your own safe foods and drinks for the flight.
- Ask to preboard so that you have enough time to wipe down your seat area with hand wipes, including hot spots like the tray table, arm rests, remote control, seat belt buckle. Wiping down not only removes allergens but sanitizes the area for your health in general.
- Bring your epinephrine auto-injector and keep your emergency meds within reach, such as in your pockets. Do not check them in or even stow them in an overhead cabin, you need to be able to access them even when you are required to be seated with the seat belt sign on.
- I recapped a FARECon session on Food Allergy Travel Hacks for a Gluten Free and More magazine article, you can read that for more ideas.
Food Allergy Travel Strategies for Cruises
Our family likes to go on cruises with our kids’ grandparents. It’s the perfect family vacation because we can be together and also enjoy different activities as we wish. We look for cruise lines that are well known for excellent customer service.
- We note the allergies when we reserve our cruise vacation.
- Then on the very first day, I find a buffet supervisor on duty to help us with the first lunch. Now that my kids are older, they read the signs, ask for help, and select food on their own.
- Between lunch and dinner, I head to the main dining room to find a staff member to note the allergies for our table and confirm our dinner reservations.
- During the first dinner, the waiter can take your order and check to see if your order is allergy safe. Otherwise, the dinner service is prepared with a basic meal for those with dietary restrictions, usually something like a plain grilled chicken with steamed veggies and a baked potato.
- And for all subsequent meals, we can look at the menus for the next day and place special orders for the next day’s meals.
I started this post before our trip and now that we’re back I wanted to add a few more details related to our RCCL Anthem of the Sea dining. Our reservations for main dining didn’t work out and they placed us in “My Time Dining” in the Silk Room, which operates like a restaurant. You make a reservation and show up at the desired time or you show up without a reservation and wait until a table opens up.
Because of our children’s food allergies, they assigned us to the same time, same table, with the same waiters so that there’s consistent service. In addition to checking specific ingredients, we were consistently told that the staff received a lot of training and food allergy safety is very important to them. I overheard the waiter at a nearby table welcome guests and then ask if anyone at the table has food allergies.
We ate at the buffets for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes the boys wanted a second dinner. I found that there were very few dishes with nuts in them except for desserts and pastries, in which case the nuts would be conspiciously obvious and easy to avoid.
Near the end of the cruise, I inquired about the pastries which do not contain obvious sprinkles of nuts and the server wouldn’t serve them to me and asked me to find a buffet supervisor to help me. That’s exactly the response I would want to hear if my kids were asking about for themselves.
A buffet supervisor happened to chat with us later and I asked him if they had any pastries that were nut allergy safe and he came back with a plate full of pastries that the cruise chefs prepare and set aside in the kitchen. My sons did not pass up the opportunity to enjoy some yummy nut free pastries.
My older son observed that it’s quite easy to manage his food allergies during the cruise because he’s only allergic to nuts and some fruits and vegetables which are usually conspicious allergens. He’s also empathetic and said that it might be more challenging for someone with milk or egg allergies because they would definitely need a head waiter or buffet supervisor help them determine which foods are safe and access dishes free from cross-contact in the back.
Food Allergy Travel Strategies for Packing
- Emergency medications, prescription medications, and any over the counter medications that you need. We went on an Eastern Caribbean cruise and we brought everything needed for anaphylaxis, first aide, cold/flu. We were over-prepared but I’m thankful all of us were healthy and safe during the trip and didn’t need any of the medications I packed.
- I also had each person carry two 2-packs of epi so that we would have back ups in case we had to use them or in case any of them become lost or damaged.
- Fortunately most over the counter medications do not contain peanuts or tree nuts, but some do contain milk or other allergens so you might use specific brands due to allergen safety. It’s easier to pack what you might need rather than be sick and look for allergy safe medications.
- Our ship had some mini-packs of basic medications. Out of our four destinations, we saw CVS and Walgreen pharmacies in Puerto Rico and a tiny pharmacy with basic OTC products on Front St. in Sinte Maarten.
- Pack more if you are going to remote or foreign locations, pack less if you are going somewhere with familiar stores and brands.
- Weather appropriate epi carrier. It’s hot in the Caribbean and I searched on Amazon (affiliate) or an insulating epi carrier and found Epi-Temp, which happens to be invented by my friend’s son. Epi-Temp is a neoprene zippered carrier that comes with 2 sets of “phase change material” that look like gel packs. The “hot” pack keeps epi from overheating and the “cold” pack keeps the epi from being too cold, you insert the packs that you need for the day and the phase change material will restore themselves when they are exposed to room temperature. (Disclosure: I bought three and received one as a gift, I have no obligation to share.)
- Use a Chef Card to help communicate your allergy needs with a chef or restaurant staff. It’s a good habit to use a Chef Card with your list of allergens and to share specific actions to avoid cross-contact of allergens so you can stay safe.
- When we eat out locally, we are usually well rested, we go to well vetted restaurants where the wait staff remember our allergens. However when we travel, some of our safety nets are not there.
- Some people have a long list of allergens to avoid. It’s possible for you or waitstaff to forget one allergen when your allergen list is long.
- Be prepared for unexpected allergen hazards. For example, very few restaurants in the Bay Area use peanut oil but I called 6 different restaurants in San Diego before I could find one that doesn’t use peanut oil. Most Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area are safe for us, but I called many Japanese restaurants in Santa Barbara to learn that they use peanuts in their salad dressing.
- I was excited to use some chef cards that Delicardo sent for my sons to use. They made chef cards in Chinese and printed on a lovely cardstock that fits in my son’s wallet for a crisp professional presentation. But sadly we forgot to pack them for our trip due to leaving right after finals and graduation.
- We didn’t have our cards and during our travels, I could see that being exhausted affected our ability to list all the allergens in a succinct way. We survived without incident and were well taken care of during the cruise but using a chef card when we dined out before and after the cruise would have been much easier.
- I just looked at FARE’s chef cards, which you can download interactive PDF files. I especially like that they are available in English and 10 other languages. You can save the pdf file on your phone or in cloud storage and print out at your hotel or at a local library when traveling.
- Favorite allergy safe snacks and foods for unexpected situations. You never know what might happen.
- Our return flight was cancelled late at night because turtles were mating on an airport runway. Fortunately we packed the night before and left one carry-on suitcase empty so that we could pack our clean clothes, our toiletries, and pajamas in the morning. When we had to stay overnight unexpectedly everything we needed was in that bag!
- While we’re waiting for our flights, I like to look at the airport stores to scout out allergy safe snacks. I love to find some of my recommendations from various food shows I’ve attended over the years, especially if the products are not available in my local stores.
- My friend, Lianne at No Nut Traveler, recommends packing enough snacks for a round trip and setting aside a stash of safe snacks for the trip home.
- Bring enough of your own allergy safe toiletries and personal items. That seems obvious but learn from our mistakes.
- Know your allergen’s Latin roots: I learned the hard way that food allergens or their derivatives might appear in personal care products. I used my sunscreen on my son and he broke out in hives from head to toe because I didn’t know that allergens aren’t required to be labeled with plain language. Sometimes they’re listed by their chemical name and knowing your allergen’s Latin roots might help.
- Pack what you need: My kids forgot to pack shampoo and we were staying at a hotel for a 5k run, so a shower with shampoo wasn’t exactly optional. The hotel shampoo ingredient list was in such tiny print, I needed a magnifier to read it and discovered that it contained almond oil.
- Pack enough: One time we ran out of our hypoallergenic sunscreen while on vacation in Hawaii. We spent quite a lot of time calling around to try and find a tube of Vanicream. Our choices are even more limited now that some travel destinations are banning certain sunscreen ingredients that aren’t coral reef safe. It’s better to bring enough instead of spending precious vacation time looking for basic necessities.
- I love using travel storage bags (affiliate link). Since we have to carry so much stuff in addition to our clothes, we make space by compressing our clothes in travel storage bags. The bags are easy to use, fold up your clothes, fill the bags about 2/3 full, seal, and then you can squeeze the air out.
What are your some of your travel tips?
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