For a Celiac or gluten intolerant person, the thought of world travel can be intimidating. When everything you eat has the potential to make you sick, it can be hard to have the courage to get on that airplane and travel the world. You are venturing into the unknown where language barriers, cultural differences, and unfamiliar food is likely going to be a lot harder for you than someone without your dietary needs. Ensuring you remain gluten free when traveling away from home is challenging but entirely possible with the right planning.
I’ve managed to travel gluten free to over 35 different countries with only a few mishaps. Pre-planning, translation tools and supplementary food from home is the key to eating safely in other places. I have written this article to share my best tips for making sure your trip is safe and enjoyable.
Some gluten free travel tips to help you eat safely abroad:
Choosing a travel region
Certain regions will be much easier to eat gluten free in (or follow other allergen diets) than others, so that should be taken into account when planning trips. You will enjoy yourself much more when every meal isn’t difficult, and where you can be confident you won’t get sick each time you eat. Getting sick often can ruin a travel experience, so consider your region carefully. The main areas I have traveled to are Latin America, Europe, Asia and North America. By far, East Asia (China/Japan) was the hardest to stay gluten free. I got sick at least once per week over my month-long trip, although I am very well-traveled now, used language cards, self-catered often and hired a guide. While Latin America and South East Asia were the easiest, where I traveled for 3 months and 1 month, without getting sick once.
Take a trip to your local library to look through cookbooks for the countries or regions you are visiting, read forums and posts about food, and try to determine the following: What ingredients do they typically use in their cooking? Are there dishes that seem naturally to be gluten free? Or ones always fried or battered? Becoming familiar with the cuisine will help you know what to expect and know what dishes will be easier to order gluten free.
When visiting Japan, I knew that soy sauce was a major component in their cuisine, so I made sure to bring gluten free soy sauce with me so I could enjoy the meals more. I also learned that soba noodles are usually made with a buckwheat and wheat flour blend, so I had to seek out a restaurant that specialized in making them the authentic way (100% buckwheat).
Throughout Latin America many dishes served with rice, beans, and grilled meat, so meals were varied and frequently gluten free throughout my travels there. Argentina and Brazil both had food laws requiring products to be labelled as gluten free or not, which made grocery shopping very easy once I learned to read the food labels. In Vietnam, most noodles were made from rice and they had incredible pho soups which were frequently gluten free. Take a look at the other posts I have written on specific countries I have travelled gluten free here.
Take language/allergy cards
There are numerous websites that offer allergy translation cards in a number of languages and different formats. These really help bridge the language gap so you can explain your dietary needs, especially in countries where it is unrealistic to learn many spoken phrases. I’ve tried a number of different cards explaining my gluten free food needs over the years and found that the shorter, simpler cards worked the best overall, but it depended largely on the education level of the general public.
In Japan, I had more success with a longer format card, as they culturally are more willing to go out of their way to help tourists. Remember that some countries (like China) have more than one language (Mandarin and Cantonese), so you may need to bring cards in more than one language.
It’s also worth noting that certain ethnic foods are typically easier to make gluten free than others, so bringing a variety of cards may be helpful, as it will give you more dining options. For example, I was able to eat delicious Mexican and Indian food meals while traveling in Tokyo, so having Spanish and Punjab language cards were incredibly helpful.
Here are some sites to purchase/download gluten free language cards:
Free, simple, variety of languages
Free, more detailed, several languages
Free, and they account for cross-contamination and use local food/ingredient names
Low cost, simple, laminated, speciality languages, and other allergies
Read more about my gluten free langage card comparison here. An idea for the tech-savvy gluten free traveller would be to install an app or screen grab of a variety of translation cards onto an iPhone or iPad so you always have a variety of languages with you.
Research gluten free resources before your trip
Try to find out where you can stock up on gluten free goods before you travel, and write down addresses or print maps. Any self-catering you do will lower your chances of getting ‘glutened’, so finding gluten free groceries in your travel destination will help.
There are lots of Celiac and gluten free forums where people have posted about their experiences eating in specific restaurants, as well as a number of websites specifically geared at gluten free (or allergy) lifestyles in the areas you are visiting (such as Celiac associations). Use sites like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum or Trip Advisor to post questions about your travel destination. Try to come up with a list of grocery stores, restaurants, bed & breakfasts, tour agencies that can accommodate gluten free for each area you plan to visit. Often health food stores are the ones to start looking for.
Try to come up with a list of grocery stores, restaurants, bed & breakfasts, tour agencies that can accommodate gluten free for each area you plan to visit. Often health food stores are the ones to start looking at online, to see if they mention that they have gluten free items.
Bring lots of gluten free snacks
It can be hard to find gluten free snacks abroad, especially if you are planning a lot of hiking or long sightseeing day trips, so make sure to bring lots of safe gluten free items with you to snack on. I like to bring fruit bars, granola bars, small bags of crackers, instant oats and other dry goods which are easy to pack and can be difficult to find in other countries. I have never had an issue bringing dry goods in my checked or carry-on luggage, but peanut anything is not a good idea on flights.
I typically bring at least a dozen bars when I travel, as well as a package of crackers and bagels (bread gets destroyed in transit). Bars are easy and hold up well if you are going somewhere hot, remember that ones with chocolate coating will get melted. Nut or fruit bars hold up well, but bring a flavor variety or you will get sick of them. On my month long trip to China and Japan, I ate about 32 Larabars! And will never eat that flavor again.
Here are some of my favorite snack bars to bring:
- Larabar Snack Bars – Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip (my favorite)
- KIND Nuts & Spice Bars – Almond, Sea Salt and Dark Chocolate (for a chocolate fix)
- Vega Protein Bar’s – Chocolate Peanut Butter (to keep you sustained)
Request a gluten free meal for your flight (but don’t rely on it)
When booking your flight, make sure to request a gluten free meal (most have this option), then phone back to remind them one week before and 24 hours before. Out of roughly 12 different airlines I’ve flown, only 7 have gotten my gluten free meal right, so never expect a meal to be waiting for you. I have also been served a single banana or apple as my ‘gluten free meal’ before too, so bring safe food for your journey.
I usually bring a sandwich or two on gluten free bagels or buns (bread doesn’t stand up well), as well as crackers and hummus, bars, beef jerky, dehydrated soup and a small fruit cup (check liquid amounts of under 100ml is printed on the cup). Meat and fresh fruit might get through the domestic portion of your trip, but expect it to be taken when crossing borders or going through customs.
Avoid eating in transit
I can honestly say I have been ‘glutened’ more times in airports than anywhere else while traveling. There are serious cross-contamination issues in busy airports and train stations, as well as rushed preparation, overworked staff and sometimes complete lack of any gluten free options. I would strongly recommend bringing enough gluten free food to last the duration of your journey and then some, anytime you take a long journey.
Dehydrated soups, noodles, porridges and oatmeals are usually fine to bring in you carry-on provided they don’t contain liquid and are easy to prepare with only hot water. Individual packages or instant cups are very convenient for transit, but larger packages to use during your trip are better value and easier to pack. Just don’t forget to bring a spoon or small Tupperware to use.
When you arrive at your destination, you might be jet-lagged, disorientated or tired, so having a ‘safe’ gluten-free meal to eat upon arrival will let you recover from the flight and adjust without the added stress of having to find gluten free food immediately. Once relaxed and refueled, you will be able to do your gluten free food research and find safe places to eat.
If you get stuck and need to eat on the go, opt for fruit, garden salad, veggie sticks, hardboiled eggs, plain rice and recognizable snack brands such as Classic Lay’s chips and Snickers chocolate bars.
Here are a few items I have enjoyed on my trips:
- Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Oat Meal Cup – Apple and Cinnamon
- Nature’s Path Qi’a Organic Cinnamon Pumpkin Seed Oatmeal
- Annie’s Homegrown Gluten Free Rice Pasta and Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese
Bring vitamins and gluten digestive enzymes
In the event that you get ‘glutened’ while traveling, make sure you have multi-vitamins, probiotics, and digestive enzymes to help your body recover faster. It’s not recommended to take Imodium or other anti-diarrheal medicine as this can prolong the negative effects. Instead, drink lots of water, take vitamins and eat simple food such as rice and fruit until you feel better.
I have also tried having meal replacement shakes for a few meals following getting sick and it sometimes helps. I often bring a few packages of individual Vega Shake Powder and they are easy to make water or milk.
I recently tried Gluten Relief digestive enzymes for the first time when I got sick in China, and I am certain they helped speed up my recovery. I took several right after ingesting the contaminated food, and then more about 4 hours later. I am sure it helped me recover twice as fast as normal. It should be noted that these aren’t meant to be used by Celiacs as a preventative treatment, and it is theoretical if they help, but I feel that they do and will continue to travel with mine.
Find someone who speaks the language
I found that hiring a guide who could speak both English as well as the local language was invaluable to eating gluten free while traveling in Eastern Europe and East Asia (both challenging areas). If you can explain your dietary needs to your guide and have them speak to the chef who is preparing your food, it can have better results than using language cards alone. Make sure to tip your guide well, as it will show gratitude for their extra work in helping you eat safely.
I traveled with G Adventures in China for two weeks and my guide went out of her way to help me eat safely. I also had a fantastic experience with Intrepid Travel and Moose Tours. I would definitely suggest using a tour company for your first big trip abroad or in more challenging areas because it makes it so much easier if you have a good guide.
When in doubt, don’t eat it
Chances are there will be times when you can’t be sure what you are being served is gluten free. My advice is to go hungry (or dig into some of your gluten free snacks!). It’s not worth being sick for several days to take a risk. If you don’t feel confident you will get a gluten free meal, opt for hard boiled eggs, plain rice, fruit and plain grilled meat. Always abide by this rule of thumb – “if it’s brown, put it down!” – sauces that are dark brown in color almost always contain gluten ingredients like soy sauce, thickening agents, packaged stock seasoning or malt vinegar and are best avoided.
I hope these tips are helpful to my fellow gluten free travelers. Gluten free travel is challenging in many places, but with some planning, it’s possible to have a safe and enjoyable trip. Please comment below if you have other tips to add. Don’t let your gluten free diet stop you from exploring our amazing world!