Celiac Disease: For Travelers, It Demands Advance Planning

Despite the risk, Celiac disease for travelers is very manageable and can be highly rewarding.

celiac disease for travelers

Those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity need to plan ahead before heading out on a trip, scouting out airline, hotel, and restaurant policies as related to gluten-free dining.

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The thought of dealing celiac disease for travelers can be daunting. Anxiety about meal planning and being away from the safety of home kitchens can often deter people from hopping in the car or boarding a plane and exploring a new city. All it takes is a little extra planning and effort. The good news is that more places around the United States and internationally are accommodating travelers who have celiac disease and need a gluten-free diet.

Before you leave home, do your homework. Map out your trip in terms of allergy-friendly places to explore and safe restaurants to enjoy. Once you arrive, double-check your information, as menus can change. Locate natural food stores at your destination in advance so you know where to purchase food throughout your trip.

According to market research sponsored by AllergyFree Passport and GlutenFree Passport, almost half of allergen-free and gluten-free consumers travel frequently, either within their own country or internationally. At the same time, more than 50 percent of resorts, spas, airlines, restaurants, and other hospitality professionals report a growing number of special-diet requests from their customers worldwide.

Regardless of destination, more than 85 percent of food-sensitive consumers are primarily concerned about two things when traveling: eating out safely in restaurants and the availability of special dietary snacks and meals. Airlines, accommodations, reactions to foods and foreign languages are significant concerns for almost 50 percent of special-diet travelers.

Celiac Disease: For Travelers, It Takes Planning

How do you increase your personal comfort with traveling and reduce your worry about celiac disease, gluten-sensitivity, or food allergies? Educate yourself about your travel and eating-out options. Prepare yourself with snacks, medications and back-up plans in the event of a mistake or emergency. Communicate your special dietary requirements effectively with airlines, hotels, cruise lines, restaurants, and hospitality professionals, as needed.

Yes, there are challenges with special-diet traveling, but food concerns needn’t keep you at home. Education, preparation and communication are your keys to a safe journey, whether it’s around the corner, around the country, or around the world.

At the Airport

It’s essential to be prepared when traveling by air. Unfortunately, air travel often brings long delays. You may be stuck (and hungry) on a plane, in an airport, or at your destination. Pack nutritious bars and other healthy gluten-free snacks in a carry-on bag to eat during your flight. Bring enough for at least one meal, just in case your plane is delayed or plans change.

Make sure your snacks are allowed based on defined regulations. In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has strict standards on items that can be in your carry-on luggage. Visit the TSA’s website for up-to-date information. Liquids (3 ounces or less) must be packed in one resealable, quart-size plastic bag per traveler.

Be aware that certain foods, such as yogurt, salad dressing or creamy dips, might be considered liquid and might be confiscated. Don’t bring cooling packs, as they typically contain chemical liquids or gels and will not make it through security. Instead, fill your resealable baggie or travel cooler with ice after you go through security, either at a food stand or on the plane.

Gluten-Free Dining: Use the Internet to Your Advantage

Before you leave for the airport, use the Internet to investigate airport dining options in case you have an extended layover. Some airports, such as those in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Tucson, have food stands that carry gluten-free snacks (example: Cibo Express Gourmet Markets).

Once in the air, different types of special meals are offered based on flight duration, destination, and meal availability. Many airlines no longer offer much in the way of food service.

Some airlines may offer snack boxes, which can be purchased during the flight. These pre-packaged items may not provide gluten-free foods. Be prepared by bringing your own safe snacks. To determine what foods are served or sold on board, review the airline’s website or call customer service before you book your flight.

On the Road

Take some simple steps to ensure safe eating while staying in hotels, resorts, bed & breakfasts, and condominiums. Start by contacting customer service at your place of lodging to address any questions and inform the representative about your gluten-free concerns before booking your reservations.

If you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort with a defined meal plan, discuss food alternatives with the appropriate culinary specialists and order your gluten-free meals in advance. If possible, obtain a mutually agreed-upon meal plan in writing. Three to five days before departure, confirm your special meal plan. Upon arrival, communicate your dietary concerns to the staff and provide feedback, as appropriate.

Hotel Tips: Celiac Disease for Travelers

When booking accommodations, look for lodgings with microwaves, refrigerators or kitchenettes so you can keep breakfast items and snacks in your room. Controlling at least one meal a day makes cross-contamination less likely. An all-suite hotel or executive-stay hotel is likely to have a kitchenette. In some hotels, you can request a mini-refrigerator for free or a small additional charge. Research local grocery stores and supermarkets located near the hotel so you can pick up food or have it delivered. Consider having your favorite online store ship products to the hotel during your stay.

Stock up on safe, healthy foods (visit a natural food store or farmer’s market) for a quick breakfast or late-night snack in your room. Gluten-free cereal, milk and fruit provide for inexpensive, safe breakfasts that will save you time and money. Pack lunches to eat on the go. Always carry gluten-free snacks with you so you have a stash of safe food when sightseeing.

For road trips, buy an inexpensive cooler to keep in your rental car. Also, use your smart phone and the Internet as you’re traveling to map out local restaurant options and nearby grocery stores.

On a Cruise

More cruise lines are catering to guests with celiac disease or special dietary needs. Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, and Princess Cruise Lines specify on their websites that gluten-free meals are available for their customers. In addition, Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Lines indicate that they can accommodate gluten-free guests.

Discuss meal alternatives with the chef or ship’s culinary specialist and order your gluten-free meals in advance. Determine whether designated wait staff will serve all meals to you throughout the cruise. Three to five days before your cruise, confirm your meal plan. Once you board the ship, meet with the dining room manager, designated server, wait staff, cabin crew and/or chef to clarify and communicate your needs.

International Travel

It’s important to carry a dining card in the language of the country you’re visiting that contains an explanation of how you can be safely served. Be certain your translation is correct; a less-than-accurate translation will cause confusion and may be risky.

Read ethnic cookbooks as a guide for safer eating when traveling overseas. These recipes will give you an education on what questions those with celiac disease or food allergies should ask and what foods to order in restaurants. In particular, look at marinades and sauces, a source of hidden gluten in every country.

Focus on places and activities, not dining. You don’t have to indulge in five-star luxurious dining to have a great time. Make learning experiences and fun adventures the goal of your trip. Scale back on eating expectations-think basics, like being safe and eating healthy.

Preparation and packing are more extensive and important when you travel with special dietary needs-but do not let fear of gluten contamination keep you from leaving home. Pack gluten-free snacks to stave off hunger.

For further reading: A gluten-free diet quick-start guide.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Timothy Cole

Timothy Cole has served more than 30 years as chief content officer of Belvoir Media Group, publisher of University Health News. In addition to oversight duties on University Health News, … Read More

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