Getting to Grips with Gluten-Free Travel
In accordance with your doctor’s recommendations, you made the decision to completely exclude gluten from your diet. You’ve done your homework, you’ve made countless adjustments to your lifestyle and you’re doing a great job keeping gluten at arm’s length.
Most importantly, you’re reaping the benefits of your hard work and you’ve never felt better.
This is the point during the transition to gluten-free that the whole thing becomes evident as a seriously worthwhile venture. It’s also when you realise that excluding gluten from your diet isn’t nearly as difficult as you expected.
Pasta, pizza, cakes, confectioneries - you can still eat almost everything you love, just in a slightly modified form.
But just when things appear to be heading the right way, you’re thrown a curveball you couldn’t have seen coming. You’re in the midst of planning a well-deserved holiday, when you suddenly realise gluten-free travel isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be.
Why ‘Winging it’ Simply Isn’t an Option
Travelling abroad with coeliac disease without careful forethought and planning is a recipe for disaster. It’s also a mistake coeliac patients only make once, though the consequences of this fateful poorly-planned trip could be catastrophic.
The same also applies to a lesser extent to those with a mild gluten intolerance, which can still make for a difficult journeys and hazardous holidays.
But this doesn’t mean that gluten-free travel has to be a major challenge. Nor is it particularly difficult to enjoy fantastic trips and overseas adventures with a gluten intolerance.
It’s simply a case of acknowledging and accepting the fact that careful planning is essential - making things up as you go along simply isn’t an option.
How to Make Gluten-Free Travel Easy and Enjoyable
This is where a few tips and pointers from the pros can make all the difference. And by ‘pros’, we mean anyone who’s mastered the art of enjoyable gluten-free travel through personal trial and error.
With all of the above in mind, here are the 15 most important tips you’ll ever hear on how to make gluten-free travel easy and enjoyable:
1. Focus Heavily on the Planning Process
Once again, planning is everything when taking a trip overseas as a celiac sufferer. Thankfully, all the help, advice and recommendations you could ever need are now right at your fingertips online. Wherever it is you’re heading, a handful of Google searches will give you a decent insight into how the town, city or country in question caters to people with celiac disease.
Make a list of restaurants and cafes in advance that are suitable for gluten-free lifestyles, use expert reviews to guide the decisions you make and feel free to contact hotels, eateries etc. in advance if you have any questions or concerns. Never simply leave things to chance, or assume you will find something viable when you arrive.
2. If in Doubt, Leave it Out
If your gut tells you the ‘gluten-free’ menu items on offer are probably anything but, go with it. There’s no shame of leaving a restaurant or café after checking the menu and gaining little confidence in what’s on offer. Likewise, if your server (or the restaurant manager) doesn’t do a good job convincing you it’s the right place to eat, it probably isn’t.
Where there’s even a shadow of doubt, you need to do what’s right for you. Several days of feeling ghastly is a heavy price to pay, simply for saving face and eating something you know you probably shouldn’t have.
3. Read Between the Lines with Online Reviews
More often than not, the only 100% honest and impartial insights available online are those that come from genuine customers. However, this doesn’t mean that you can completely trust everything you read in online reviews. Just because somebody says “This place is fantastic for celiacs” does not for one moment mean it definitely is.
It simply means that it satisfied their requirements and expectations. It doesn’t even confirm that the reviewer is a celiac sufferer, or that they carried out any real checks into whether the menu items were 100% gluten-free. Online reviews can be a great starting point, but should never be taken entirely at face value.
4. Consider Your Accommodation Options Carefully
Always try to book yourself a place to stay that has at least the most basic cooking facilities. This will mean that you have a welcome and important fallback option, just in case you don’t find anything suitable nearby. Having your own kitchen can also be useful if and when the places to eat that are celiac-friendly in the vicinity are either closed or booked up.
In any case, one of the best ways of getting to know a foreign country or city is to hit the local stores (or markets) and have a go at cooking up something yourself. Just as long as you’ve a fridge, a single hob and (if possible) a basic microwave, you’ll never struggle or go hungry.
5. Plan Your Transit Food
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the journey to your final destination will go 100% smoothly. It might, but there’s also every chance you’ll encounter delays and disruptions along the way. If you suddenly find yourself in the middle of nowhere with several hours to kill and nothing but a petrol station café, you’ll be glad you packed plenty of snacks to keep you going.
6. Explain Yourself in the Clearest Possible Way
Depending on where you are at the time, telling a server (or restaurant manager) that you have coeliac disease could result in a wide variety of responses. A polite nod, a raised eyebrow, a shrug of utter confusion - all paving the way for an unnerving dining experience. This is why it is far better to explain your gluten intolerance as clearly and simply as possible.
For example, you could state clearly that you are allergic to anything that contains wheat, rye and barley - then ask if the dish in question contains any of them. Or try things the other way around - ask for a full list of the ingredients that go into the dish, explaining that you have serious ‘food allergies’ and going no further with your explanation.
7. Prepare Translation Cards in Advance
Better yet, you could always prepare, print and pack a series of summarised translation cards in as many local languages as necessary. This will make it so much easier for you to explain to the restaurant staff (and anyone else in general) that there are certain things you simply cannot eat.
Keeping it simple and straightforward is again important, so avoid medical terms and buzzwords at all costs. If you suspect there’s likely to be a communication barrier of any kind, politely hand the appropriate card to the individual in question and gauge their reaction. At which point, go with your gut.
8. Check Customs Restrictions Carefully
Taking a fair amount of your own food along for the ride is advisable, if not essential. But at the same time, the last thing you want is to find yourself with a big problem at customs. Irrespective of where you head, chances are there will be various restrictions in place with regard to what you can and cannot bring into the country.
Countries like Australia and New Zealand in particular are pretty stringent when it comes to foodstuffs that can be brought into the country - even if intended entirely for your own personal consumption. Always check customs restrictions in the country you’re travelling to in advance.
9. Focus on Foods That Are Naturally Free of Gluten
The safest way to ensure you avoid gluten when travelling abroad is to stick with foods that do not contain any gluten in the first place. Different countries, cultures and brands have entirely different takes on what ‘gluten-free’ actually means. Hence, you could pick up a pizza or pasta salad in a café abroad that claims to be gluten-free, but would actually be more accurate if labelled ‘low-gluten’.
Eventualities like these can be avoided by prioritising naturally gluten-free foods - a near-endless list you’ll already be familiar with at this stage. If in doubt, go with what you know does not contain any gluten whatsoever.
10. Pack the Right Meds and Remedies
Last up, accidents and oversights can and do happen when travelling abroad. There’s really nothing you can do to rule all possible slip-ups out of the equation. You can reduce their probability, but you still need to plan for every possible scenario.
This means ensuring you have a decent arsenal of whichever meds and remedies your doctor recommends, in the event you accidentally consume gluten. Again, don’t simply assume that they will have everything you need at your destination - they might, but they also might not!