How to stay safe while traveling with food allergies internationally
Traveling with food allergies internationally was always a scary thought. I was born with a severe allergy to peanuts and all peanut derivatives. Around 10 years old, I developed a severe allergy to kiwi. In my early 20s, I was diagnosed with exercise induced anaphylaxis, and a moderate allergy to cashews.
If I ingest an allergen I will go into anaphylactic shock within minutes requiring medical attention immediately. I always carry two needles of epinephrine (EpiPen). These dosages of epinephrine will help to ease anaphylactic shock, but epinephrine is not capable of saving a person from a severe attack. As I type this I feel nervous, because on paper this condition seems terrifying. And it is. But having lived with these allergies my whole life, I am used to the anxiety.
Traveling with food allergies internationally has presented unique and stressful challenges. I spent a week on a rural Cambodian island eating only bananas and instant noodles. I cried in the middle of a street in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, because I couldn’t find something that I felt was safe to eat. I flew into Yangon armed with 10 cans of corn, cereal, crackers and protein powder, because I had no idea how accessible allergen-free meals would be in Myanmar. I spent a night in a hospital in Freemantle, Australia after going into anaphylactic shock in a pub. While people around me on a flight eat packaged peanuts, I’ve wrapped a scarf around my nose and mouth to keep the smell at bay. Despite the frustration, insecurity and fear that these allergies present, I have always found ways to accommodate them, even when this means taking extreme measures. And ultimately, I feel that traveling with allergies has awoken me to certain privileges as they relate to food. The freedom to eat whatever you want, and the means to eat whenever you are hungry is an absolute privilege. Below find top tips for traveling with food allergies internationally and locally:
Allergic travel means you cannot travel for food
This may seem obvious but is an important aspect to mention. Understandably, eating local cuisine is a highlight for most travelers. As an allergic traveler, I have often felt pangs of jealousy in watching my partner eat delicious street food, or in hearing backpackers rave about a specific local dish. Because eating local cuisine in many regions of the world is not safe, I have actively not traveled for food. This could be trivial, but I have found it helpful to repeatedly mentally assure myself that travel can be as rewarding without being able to try local food.
Traveling with food allergies requires research
Traveling with food allergies really does require thorough research. Before traveling to a new country, I research the local cuisine to give myself a sense of what ingredients are predominantly used. This helps to familiarize myself with the degree of danger that eating in a local restaurant might present, and helps me to figure out which allergens are used in specific dishes. For example, because peanuts are rarely used in cooking in Japan, I felt quite safe eating Japanese food. In Myanmar, I ate almost exclusively canned food that I had brought with me, because I knew that peanuts are a predominantly used ingredient in local cuisine.
Prepare yourself for allergic travel
There are a couple things I do to prepare for traveling in higher-risk regions with my allergies. Prior to travel, I ensure I have enough medication. On short trips (1 month or less) I carry 2 epinephrine auto-injectors, whereas on longer trips I carry 4. I always carry two packages of diphenhydramine in tablet form. This anti-histamine is extremely effective, and I would often take it before a meal if I was worried about cross-contamination. I always travel carrying a letter from my physician which explains why I carry auto-injectors. As of yet, I have never had to use it, but having such a letter is a precaution to avoid having your EpiPens confiscated in an airport. I make sure to research the local emergency phone numbers, availability of emergency transport, and the closest hospital - this way, you are prepared should anything go wrong. Lastly, investigate whether your travel insurance covers food allergies. Some insurance companies will require you to disclose the allergy ahead of time, and others will not cover anaphylaxis. I always use World Nomads, and they willingly covered the bill for an anaphylactic attack I had in Australia.
Always assume you will not have access to safe food
Given my allergies I always travel carrying food. I typically devote a quarter of my pack to snacks and meals that I can rely on if I do not find an allergy safe food option. Every day, I bring some of these snacks with me in my daypack. The best items I have found to carry include: Clif Bars (the only peanut-safe Clif Bar currently is the coconut chocolate bar), protein powder, oatmeal, instant noodles, broccoli, carrots, fruit. I typically bring the processed foods from home and buy the fruits and vegetables locally. I am often asked if it is possible to bring food on planes. Yes, but avoid liquids (yogurt, pudding, etc) because they may be confiscated for exceeding the carry-on limits of liquids. I always carry a note from my allergist in case I am asked why I have food with me. To date, I have never had to explain my food allergies to airport staff.
Traveling with food allergies tips
I have translation cards that explain my food allergies in various languages, but I very rarely use them. I have found them effective in European countries because you can rely on universal dialects and literacy. Adversely, I found that in Asia translation cards would often create confusion about the allergies. I found this was because you cannot rely on literacy, there are a plethora of diverse dialects across countries, and life-threatening allergies are not prevalent in Asia. Translation cards in Asia resulted in some scary situations (for example, the restaurant thinking I was asking for peanuts). Similarly, I found that trying to explain my allergies resulted in miscommunication and misunderstanding. Therefore, I decided it was safer to rely on my own judgement. I would scrutinize the menu, decide on my safest food option, and then carefully survey and smell the food before eating it. I often ate western- style meals such as pizza and pasta rather than local dishes.
Nut allergy travel insurance
Where can one find nut allergy travel insurance!? If you travel with food allergies internationally, you’re likely aware of how difficult it is to find insurance that will cover you should you have an anaphylactic attack. Before buying insurance, call the insurance company to ask about their policy on allergic travelers. Policies will vary, for example, some companies require declaration of the allergies before departure. I have always used World Nomads because their insurance is comprehensive. And, they covered my costs when I went into anaphylactic shock in Australia.