Travelling Gluten Free
One of the most daunting parts of a celiac or gluten sensitivity diagnosis is figuring out how to travel safely. It may seem overwhelming and discouraging at first but with a little research and preparation, you can have a vacation experience full of culinary success and excitement.
How you prepare depends on the type of trip you will be taking, and where you will be going. Generally speaking, Africa and Asia tend to be tougher for finding gluten-free options, while in the other continents, things are typically much more smooth.
If you’re in doubt, and want to minimize the amount of work you’ll incur while on vacation to find GF food, going with tour groups or cruise ships might be your best bet. If you’re more of a planner or a bit more adventurous, you can do it on your own, often with just as much success. Here are our tips to try to help you have a successful vacation.
Tour group tourism
With a tour group, you can make sure to clearly communicate your needs to the guide, so they can ensure you are taken care of. This is especially useful in countries where you do not speak the language. Contact them in advance as much as possible, and have a good talk when them when you meet. You are heavily reliant on the tour guide so you want to make sure you understand. Bring several copies of travel cards explaining the GF diet in the local language to help make sure you are safe. A good collection of cards can be found at www.celiactravel.com. At the end of the trip, it’s a good idea to tip generously, so they know that their work to keep you safe was appreciated! Note however that tipping expectations vary by country.
The cruise ship industry is well known as a leader in the world of allergen-free cooking. While the buffets are a bit more risky due to the threat of cross-contamination, the restaurant dining room menus often have gluten-free items indicated, or they may even have a separate gluten-free menu. You may find that the wait staff ask that you order for the following day’s dinner in advance, so that they can prepare it separately, earlier on, and not during the hubbub of the evening hours. “Specialty restaurants”, while costing more, do tend to get that superior level of service. Most cruise lines even offer a “galley tour” (there may be a cost) where you can see how and where your gluten-free food is prepared. If you want a way to visit multiple countries and not have to worry about the food, having the cruise ship as a “home base” takes a huge weight off your shoulders. We’ve received numerous positive reviews about pretty much all the major mainstream cruise lines – Disney, Oceania, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, MSC, Fred Olsen, Regent, Silversea, Holland America, Cunard, etc. There are also a number of smaller river cruise lines, such as Viking River Cruises, that cost more but also reportedly go above and beyond when it comes to gluten-free dining. Even for expedition-type cruises, they should be able to accommodate your diet without trouble. Always contact the cruise line in advance to let them know that you will be requiring a strict, gluten-free diet, and bring it up with all of your restaurant servers and maitre d’s.
We often get the question, “Which Caribbean resorts are best for gluten free?” These days, however, you can eat safely at pretty much any resort, with a little legwork. Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Curaçao, Aruba, St. Martin, Jamaica, etc. – we’ve had numerous reports of success from across the Caribbean. Some tips we’d provide to ensure a safe resort experience:
- Use the à-la-carte restaurants as much as possible, as you get one-on-one attention and avoid the increased cross-contamination risks of a buffet.
- When at the buffet, ask to speak to a chef (who is conversant in English) and have them explain to you which buffet items are GF. We advise arriving at the beginning of the meal service period, to further reduce the cross-contamination risk.
- Bring a few copies of a gluten-free travel card in the language of your destination, to help the chefs understand your needs. Even if they speak English, it may be their second language and it’s considerate to have your needs explained in their native language.
- Generally speaking, the higher-class resorts (4 or 5 star) tend to be perhaps a bit better, as they likely pay more attention to quality dining by virtue of you paying more to be there.
Maybe you want to go out and about on your own and not be beholden to someone else’s schedule. While it takes a bit more gluten-free preparation to go this route, it can pay off nicely with more flexibility and substantial cost savings. Some considerations:
- Bringing your own food. Be careful here. It may seem like a simple matter, but many countries have major restrictions on what kind of food can be brought into the country. If you are asked to declare food items, be sure ALL food is declared, regardless of where it came from (that includes the airplane). Failing to declare food can lead to fines and, in extreme cases, potential visa cancellation and deportation. That said, most countries will allow you to bring in certain types foods – crackers, bars, cookies and other processed foods tend to be safest. Fruits, veggies, eggs, dairy or meat are all big no-nos – don’t even bother. Nuts are also frequently forbidden to cross borders. You can travel with those types of foods, but be sure to eat it all before you meet customs in your destination (or leave it on the plane). Again, declare everything if you are asked. More and more there we see sniffer dogs at airports looking not for drugs but for undeclared food. Some travellers have reported less trouble with customs if they have a signed letter from their doctor indicating that there is a medical need to eat gluten free. If that’s an option, it doesn’t hurt to have that with you.
- Consider renting an airbnb or hotel room with a kitchenette. Especially in regions where eating GF may be more difficult, this can be an effective option to both save money and reduce your risk of falling ill on your vacation. The downside is, of course, that preparing your own food means more work.
- Research and shop at your destination. Rather than trying to bring all kinds of food along with you, why not do some research and find grocery stores in the area where you can shop for GF products? Do your research; Are there any stores in the area, or along your journey that specialize in GF products? Is there a GF certification program in the country you are visiting, and if so, what does the logo look like? What does “gluten free” mean in the local language? Is there a local celiac society that might have tips on where to shop? Be aware that many countries have labelling regulations far less stringent than in Canada. While gluten needs to be declared on food labels in the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, that is not the case in many other countries, where gluten may not have to be clearly indicated on the ingredient list. In those circumstances, you’d want to stick to products you know are GF (e.g. Dr. Schär, which is found across the globe), items with a “gluten-free” declaration, or items that are naturally GF – eggs, fruits, vegetables, etc.
- Pre-plan your restaurant visits. Once again, consulting the local celiac society, if there is one, can be very helpful on this front. As well, reading reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp is a great way to read about others’ gluten-free dining experiences. Read blogs as well. And pay it forward – leave reviews online about your dining experiences to help others who will be visiting the area down the road!
- Check out the hotel breakfast. If your hotel has a breakfast, speak to the manager or chef and find out what is gluten free. If you’re going to be out and about all day, getting a solid start with a big breakfast can make for less pressure at lunchtime. In your research, you also may find a bed & breakfast that is gluten-free-friendly. It’s great to support businesses that have made that extra effort to accommodate our diet!
Other considerations for gluten-free travel
Travelling in Canada
Use the resources of the CCA. Many Chapters have lists of restaurants or places to shop. Our Facebook group community is always happy to offer suggestions as well! Supermarket chains across the country have gluten-free food. A couple fast food restaurants have gluten-free options, such as the fries at McDonalds. Via Rail has gluten-free items available, both in economy and in business class, but note that you should book your GF meal in business class at least 72 hours in advance.
Air Canada, WestJet and Porter all have gluten-free snack items available. When travelling internationally, most airlines have gluten-free meal options. Note that these MUST be pre-booked with the airline. And when you receive your meal, be sure to give it a once-over to make sure the label on it is indeed GF, and take a look at the items before you dive in. While rare, we’ve heard of cases where people were inadvertently served the wrong meal or had an item (e.g. a bun) that in fact was not GF. When travelling in other areas of the world, be aware that flights as short as two hours may have a meal included for free – unlike what we see in North America. If you’re not sure, check, and book the gluten-free meal choice in advance. It’s also always a good idea to have at least some emergency snacks, in case there are delays, cancellations, or you’re stuck on the tarmac.
Eating at the airport
The availability of gluten-free food at airports varies greatly. It’s good to check online before you go, so you can plan accordingly. All major Canadian airports will have some gluten-free food available – it may be minimal (snack bars/nuts) or there may be a full restaurant with gluten-free choices, for example the Boston Pizza in the Edmonton airport. In the US, some airports have PF Chang’s, which does GF Chinese food.
Africa and Asia, generally speaking, are notorious for being difficult for gluten free. For example, gluten issues are practically non-existent in Korea. In China, soy sauce seems to be in everything. In Africa, food allergies are considered so rare that locals may not even understand what you mean by the word. Gluten-free processed foods may be next to impossible to find in stores. For trips to these regions, going the route of guided tours might be your best bet, especially if you do not speak the local language. Research in advance – there may be some naturally gluten free options that you can rely on!
General travel tips
- Always check the Government of Canada’s travel advisories page for the area(s) you are visiting. Specific issues with regard to food are often listed.
- Explore the cuisine! Travelling puts us outside of our comfort zone; so while you’re there, why not experience the local foods and delicacies? As long as it’s gluten free, give it a try!
- Pay it forward. First, remember the gratuity. We rely on tour guides; wait staff, etc. to help make sure we have a safe and healthy vacation. As appropriate, please leave a tip, to let them know the service is appreciated. Second, please share your experiences – in our Facebook group, on TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc. We rely on feedback from others who have to eat gluten free, so it’s great to help those who will be travelling after you.