People on special diets travel all the time -- including members of our own staff. (IndependentTraveler.com is home to several vegetarians, a Webmaster with celiac disease and an editor with a wide variety of food sensitivities). Traveling with dietary restrictions takes careful planning and a willingness to communicate your needs clearly ... and sometimes repeatedly. The following tips will help you overcome language barriers, find restaurants that fit your diet and stay safe in the case of an allergic reaction.
Research your destination and be prepared for any food-related challenges you may face with regard to local eating customs. For example, nearly a third of India's population is vegetarian, so it's easy to find meatless dishes there. But vegetarianism is a foreign concept in most of South America. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't visit South America if you're a vegetarian or a vegan; however, you can expect to spend a lot of time explaining to befuddled waiters exactly what you're able to eat (and why vegetable soup made with beef stock doesn't qualify).
Call ahead. Most travel outfitters can make arrangements to meet your dietary needs if they're given plenty of notice. In fact, we recommend multiple calls -- one as far in advance as possible to make preliminary arrangements, and another a few days before your trip to confirm your request.
You can avoid the hassle of making your own arrangements by booking a trip with a specialty outfitter that caters to your particular dietary needs -- like a kosher cruise with Kosherica or a vegetarian biking trip to England with Bicycle Beano. For more tour outfitters, check out our resource list below.
Look up informational Web sites for your particular condition (see our list below) and see what resources they have for travelers. Many offer useful tips, restaurant and accommodation directories, and links to local support groups in your destination. Contacting local groups is one of the best ways to get information about your destination; they'll be able to recommend the best restaurants, health food stores and even doctors (in case of a medical emergency).
Food Safety Abroad
Food Allergy Translation Cards
If you're traveling to a country where you don't speak the local language, food allergy translation cards can be a lifesaver (literally!). Several companies offer these wallet-size cards, which explain your allergy or other dietary restriction in the local language of wherever you're going. They usually can be customized to include multiple allergies and food restrictions. Be sure to order multiple copies of your travel cards in case you lose one or leave one at a restaurant.
The following companies offer food allergy translation cards:
You may also be able to make your own cards. Some travelers print out photos of the foods they can't eat and draw a large X (or a circle with a slash) over them to indicate that these items are prohibited. The International Vegetarian Union offers a directory of vegetarian phrases in a variety of world languages, while CeliacTravel.com has printable gluten-free cards in 42 different languages.
Whether you buy cards or make your own, it's a good idea to research how to read and pronounce the word(s) for your particular dietary condition -- this will help you decipher menus and nutrition information labels, and enable you to communicate with anyone you encounter, regardless of their level of literacy. The tourist board for your destination should be able to help you with translation and pronunciation.
Talk to your innkeeper or hotel concierge about which nearby restaurants or grocery stores would be suitable for your needs. (Calling well in advance of your trip will give them time to do a little research on your behalf.) You may also be able to find restaurant recommendations online; in particular, there are a number of sites that offer directories of vegetarian restaurants and health food stores. See our resource list below for details.
When traveling within your own home country, it's often useful to seek out chain restaurants where you've eaten in the past -- that way you'll already be familiar with the menu and know which items you can eat without a problem.
At restaurants, address your dietary needs with your waiter or, better yet, the chef (who may be the only person who knows exactly what ingredients are in each dish). Show your food allergy card if you have one; if you don't, and you don't speak the local language, see if you can find another diner at the restaurant to help you translate. Don't be afraid to ask the kitchen to modify a dish or to prepare something that isn't on the menu -- most restaurants can quickly throw together a veggie-only salad or another simple dish. (Note that this is easiest if the kitchen isn't too busy, so you may want to eat at non-peak times.)
Eat Well and Stay Active on the Road
The best way to control your diet on the road is to book accommodations where you can cook for yourself. Vacation rentals are a good choice, as are home exchanges -- or look for a hotel with a kitchen. You can stock your pantry with food from local grocery or health food stores; just be sure you know enough of the local language to read the nutrition labels.
Another option to consider is a bed and breakfast. The owners of these small properties can often take more time to accommodate their guests' special needs -- and in some cases they may grant you access to their kitchen.