Will it be easy to stick to a certain diet while you’re travelling, or will you end up living off steamed rice because it’s the only thing you know you can eat?
It’s hard to predict how difficult it’s going to be to stick to dietary restrictions in another country, especially when the locals may not speak English, and the food items on menus or labelling on packages are possibly indecipherable.
Travelling as a vegetarian was sometimes harder than I thought. There were particular countries we struggled in (damn you, Hungary and Poland) and others that we breezed through.
I’ve been asked by my good friend Erin to put together some info, so in an effort to make it easier for those who haven’t had to travel with dietary restrictions before, I’ve asked a few other travellers to share a few tips on how they manage their diets.
Meet Dale of Angloitalian who travels as a vegan with his partner Franca. Dale is a forever smiling Brit who chose to leave his retail hell behind him and make full-time travel a reality and not just a wanderlust-filled dream.
Also meet Inger of Cook With a Local who travels with food allergies. Inger has lived in six different countries (currently a Norwegian living in Denmark), and travelled since she was 2 weeks old.
1. What restrictions do you have on your diet?
Dale – We don’t see our animal cruelty-free choice of being vegan as a restriction, but a choice; but to look at veganism from a point of view where are we missing out on certain things? Then yes, sometimes we feel a little disconnected from a countries traditional cuisine, but we’ve found ourselves exploring the ‘accidental’ vegan food that’s vegan by default.
Inger – I am allergic to wheat and egg. In particular wheat makes travelling difficult as it common ingredient in almost all countries, often hidden in sauces.
2. Are there any particular countries or regions where you’ve had trouble following your diet?
Dale – France and Spain were quite difficult whilst we travelled there in 2014 as vegetarians and we had to sometimes resort to eating cheese-filled baguettes sitting on park benches, but twelve months later we’re far more experienced at being vegan in countries where the knowledge of veganism is in its infancy, and as we head to Spain this April we look forward to seeing how we handle our troubles this time.
Inger – I find that almost always it is possible to find something I can eat, sometimes it just takes more effort. Airports are a far bigger problem than specific countries or regions.
3. How do you get past the language barrier when you order or buy food?
Dale – Because we cook more than half of our meals in our AirBnB apartment, in the kitchens of the houses we look after via house sitting, and with our Couchsurfing guests; we don’t often eat out. However, when we do we tend to have prepared ourselves by learning how to ask for ‘without dairy’ and other useful phrases in the local language. Failing that, we make little notes in our notebooks and refer to those if things aren’t quite working out and do a bit of pointing and nodding!
Inger – One way I get past the language barrier is by getting a local to teach me how to say I am allergic to wheat and egg in the local language, and to write it down. I have been lucky enough to either be understanding the language or travelling with locals the last times I have travelled and that has helped a lot. Bringing an image of the thing you are allergic too with a big red X over it might help as well. If I go out to eat I often ask to speak to the chef if I feel the waiter does not understand what I am saying, and I ask about the content of dishes so I can make sure it doesn’t contain something I am allergic to. If possible call ahead and make sure the restaurant can cater to your needs.
When buying food in grocery stores I try to buy as clean products as possible, and use translation tools for the list of ingredients. I have found wheat in odd things such as ice cream and potato chips so I need to be careful with what I choose.
Sometimes I do research beforehand about what dishes would be safe to eat, or which should be avoided. Now I try to cook with locals when I travel because it enables me to learn and control what goes into the dish and how it is prepared. It also fun and I get to learn about the local food culture. Sometimes they can teach me how to make a traditional dish allergy friendly.
4. What alternatives do you have when you’ve had trouble finding food that fits into your diet?
Dale – For the most part we rely upon local markets and groceries to purchase all the fruits, veg, beans, and other grains we need to cook for ourselves. This is another reason why renting or booking with AirBnB – plus our continual use of house sitting – is a perfect situation for us.
Inger – Often I buy fruit and nuts. It is a not a meal but it helps against the pangs of hunger. I order plain rice and vegetables, and avoid the sauce/gravy. I almost always find something I can eat (unless I walk into a pizzeria) but it is not always a meal. If possible I cook myself, or join in the kitchen.
5. Have you had any mishaps while on the road?
Dale – The only mishaps we’ve had recently with our vegan diet have actually come from returning home to the UK. It’s been in the kitchens of friends and relatives that we’ve sometimes had to work around the use of eggs and milk in some dishes, mainly due to their not knowing fully that veganism and vegetarianism differ on some items. This is why we’ve decided to begin to document our vegan travels over on our slow vegan travel blog.
Inger – A few. Last time I was in India someone told me that a dish was wheat free when in fact it was based on wheat. They were not aware that semolina was wheat. I asked several times as the taste was odd to me but was assured it was wheat-free. I ate it to be polite, but then got really sick afterwards, and then I knew. I should have asked what was in it in more detail, but it is easy to forget that not everyone knows all the things that contain wheat when it is such a habit for oneself. After this I started to take part in cooking and was able to observe what went into dishes. That was great because I got to learn how to make a lot of vegetarian Indian dishes while I stayed there.
6. Any tips you’d like to add for travelling with dietary restrictions?
Dale – Preparation is key, but a smile and the right attitude is all you need. Asking the right questions with a smile on your face to the right people can really help you to navigate a country no matter what diet you may have. Don’t see it as a restriction, see it more as a unique way of travelling that many people don’t get to experience.
Inger – Stock up on energy bars, nuts (if you are not allergic to them or travel with someone who is), fruit, packed food that won’t go bad outside the refrigerator etc. for when you are on the road. This gives you something to eat if you travel somewhere were you can only find things you are allergic too. Find out the names for the things you are allergic to in the local language. Use photos and sign language.
A lot of places people do not understand food allergies and it is easy to come across as rude when you refuse to eat something. I have found that mentioning the doctor has ordered you not to eat it gets more understanding and acceptance.
Cook yourself, or with locals. It gives you more control over what goes into your food. On our website you can search for classes that are suitable for people with different food allergies, and other dietary restrictions. We are still building up a database of classes but the idea is that it will make it easier for those travelling with dietary restrictions, whilst getting to learn the local recipes.
Some useful resources:
- How to Eat Vegan While Traveling by HappyCow
- Vegan Travel Guide by Vegan Backpacker
- 25+ Tips for Eating Vegetarian While Traveling by No Meat Athlete
- 8 tips for eating a Paleo and Gluten-Free diet while traveling by Grass Fed Girl
- How to Plan Your Gluten-Free Road Trip by Stockpiling Moms
- Gluten Free Travel Site restaurant search
Lactose intolerant travel
- 8 Tips for Traveling with Lactose Intolerance by Passport Health
- Tips on Traveling with Lactose Intolerance by Wanderlust Marriage
Travel with food allergies
- 5 Reasons Why Having a Food Allergy Shouldn’t Keep You from Traveling by Young Adventuress
- Food Allergies & International Travel: How to Plan for a Healthy Trip by On Call International
- Don’t Give Up the Goat! Tips for Traveling with Dietary Restrictions by NerdWallet
Thanks to Dale and Inger for contributing their tips on travel with dietary restrictions! You can read more on Dale’s story of travelling as a vegan here, and use Inger’s site to search for cooking with a local opportunities here.