With a bit of advance planning, self-advocacy, and key apps and websites, traveling GF is easier, and tastier, than ever.
By Stacy Small
As the owner of a luxury travel agency, it’s my job to travel the world. I am also gluten-free, a status that can present challenges at a domestic airport food court, never mind at a restaurant in Hong Kong where menus may be written in a foreign language and practically dipped in soy sauce. In the fifteen years that I’ve been aware of my allergy, hotels, restaurants, and airlines have come a long way in accommodating those of us who aren’t avoiding gluten by choice. Plus a growing global awareness of celiac disease and gluten allergies makes the “I can’t eat wheat, barley, or rye” conversation easier in places like Australia, the United Kingdom, and even pasta-mecca Italy. But I still find that I’m my best GF advocate and that the following seven practices make it easier than ever to stay gluten-free and healthy while traveling to Hawaii, Italy, and, yes, Hong Kong. Try them and the world really can be your oyster, perhaps even served as a crispy, GF tempura with a safe, savory dipping sauce.
SPREAD THE WORD
The best preventive measure you can take when you travel is to share your dietary needs and restrictions with your travel advisors, hotels, and restaurants before you embark. A travel advisor can share your needs with anyone who will be involved with your meals along the way. If you’re arranging your own itinerary, communicate directly, in writing, to hotels and restaurants you book in advance. Communicate ahead of time, and you’ll be amazed at how far some establishments will go to accommodate you.
MEET AND GREET
Before you depart or upon your arrival, make arrangements to meet with your hotel’s executive chef, general manager, or both, in person. I’ve found chefs are very willing to adjust menus or accommodate my special needs as long as they are given advance notice. (It’s always easier to get what you need when you’ve given everyone a heads up.) I’ve also learned that good general managers will go the distance on your behalf.
DON’T FLY ON THE FLY
Before flights, triple-check that you or your travel agent has added the gluten-free meal option (GFML) to your passenger name record (PNR). Even then, don’t rest assured; there’ve been many times I’ve added this to my own record well in advance but learned mid-flight that catering forgot to deliver my GF meal to the plane.
Always, and I mean always, bring gluten-free snacks. This is a non-negotiable survival tactic for gluten-free travelers. Rather than take a chance that something being served is gluten-free, when in doubt, I play it safe and curb my hunger with a gluten-free protein bar or dried fruit or nuts that are always stashed in my purse.
RESEARCH GF-FRIENDLY RESTAURANTS
There are a number of phone apps that help you find gluten-free-friendly restaurants around the world. My favorite is Find Me Gluten Free, which allows you to plug in your current location and do a search for nearby spots with “safe” menu options as well as reviews from recent gluten-free customers.
STATE YOUR CASE
When in Japan, Europe, and South America, what saves me is translating “I am allergic to wheat and gluten” into the local language, thanks to websites that make this easy. There are a number of versions of this in various languages that you can print out and show to restaurant staff anywhere in the world in a language they understand! Two that I use and recommend are allergytranslation.com and celiactravel.com. The website SelectWisely creates custom cards that state any food or drug allergies as well as medical conditions in your language of choice (from $15 at selectwisely.com).
QUIZ THE WAITER
When dining anywhere, ask for a list of ingredients, and don’t be afraid to question anything that sounds questionable. If you’re like me, you know the minute you ingest gluten (eyes get itchy, throat swells up, stomach starts aching) and immediately regret not having asked. I’ve learned the hard way that even a “flourless” dessert may contain gluten, and there’s no sense in risking illness on the road.