“How am I supposed to manage gluten-free travel in an unfamiliar country when I can barely manage to do it in my own home?”
That was the first thought that went through my head in 2010 when I was considering studying abroad in college. I had been diagnosed with celiac disease for just under two years, and I was still figuring out the ropes of living 100% gluten free at home.
I ultimately decided not to study abroad, and it is one of my biggest regrets to date.
Since my first trip in 2012, I’ve traveled around the world, finding the best gluten free restaurants in places like Paris, Santiago, Budapest and Sydney.
You can eat gluten free anywhere in the world. You might not be able to eat at that Parisian bakery. Or that one. But guess what? There are at least three dedicated gluten free bakeries in Paris to choose from, where you can enjoy that croissant you’ve been craving without worrying about cross-contamination or getting sick on vacation.
And did you know they take celiac disease very seriously in Italy, the world capital of pasta and pizza?There are gluten free options everywhere – you just have to find them. Planning is part of the adventure. Think of it as a treasure hunt.
In the last six years, I’ve traveled around the world to Australia, Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Europe, all 100% gluten free. Is it easy? Not always. Is it complicated? It can be. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Here are ten things I have learned along the way about traveling gluten free.
1. Traveling with Celiac Disease Takes Planning
I’m a foodie at heart, and I haven’t let celiac disease put a damper on my obsession with food. I put in hours of research before every trip. Uncovering the best gluten-free eats is part of the fun.
There are four basic steps I use to find the best celiac-friendly gluten free eats in any given place. This has worked well for me around the world, including in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Chile.
- Google “Gluten Free [city]” and “Celiac [city]” to find any local gluten free bloggers who can give you the lay of the land.
- Pull up Find Me Gluten Free and search in the city you’re visiting. This site is the best of the gluten-free review sites, but it is by no means a definitive source. Instead, treat it as a starting point for your research and focus on the number of reviews, recency of reviews and especially the percentage of people who say it is safe for those with celiac disease.
- Search TripAdvisor for “celiac” in the place that you’re traveling to. It might help you uncover up some gluten-free restaurant options that didn’t show up in your previous research.
- Now that you have a solid list of gluten-free restaurants to visit while you travel, reach out to them on their website or give them a call and ask about their gluten free options and whether or not they take precautions against cross contamination. Then make your judgement about whether or not you’ll eat there.
2. When In Doubt, Don’t Eat It
You shouldn’t be afraid to walk out of a restaurant if you don’t feel like they can accommodate your needs. Sure, it can be awkward asking for a manager, only to ask a few questions and leave, but you definitely don’t want to be sick on vacation. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s not great.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to a place that I was excited about based on online reviews, spoken to the manager, and found out that there’s really no way they can manage cross-contamination. There is absolutely no shame in avoiding a few days of sickness by choosing not to eat somewhere.
3. Don’t Take Online Reviews as Gospel
Don’t get me wrong, FindMeGlutenFree and the other review sites are great. However, they are both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, those sites barely existed in 2012 on my first trip. They have absolutely made researching gluten free restaurants a lot easier. On the other hand, I have come across so many places with five star reviews that say “SO GOOD AND TOTALLY SAFE FOR CELIACS” only to find that no, it’s definitely not.
My point is that you should use it as a starting point, but always do your own due diligence before you accept an anonymous person’s word for whether a restaurant is safe. Write a quick note to the places you’re interested in just to confirm that they are safe for your needs.
4. Always Book a Place with a Kitchen
It is so nice to have a fallback option in case you can’t find any gluten-free options at restaurants nearby.
I traveled to Nuremberg, Germany over the holidays in 2017 to visit the world-famous Christmas Market, which was amazing, and I highly recommend it. There was just one problem: I had a lot of trouble finding gluten-free restaurants in Nuremberg.
Lucky for me, I booked an Airbnb with a kitchen. We grabbed some groceries and made dinner at home, and saved money and anxiety.
When I travel for work, I’m usually staying in a hotel. In that situation, I will always book a hotel with a mini fridge that I can store food in, and ideally a room that also has a microwave.
When I land, I’ll run to the local grocery store and grab some supplies – hard boiled eggs or gluten free cereal, gluten free sandwich materials, and other snacks. I’ll eat a quick breakfast of eggs and cereal, pack a sandwich for lunch, and maybe eat another sandwich and some snacks for dinner if I can’t find safe gluten-free restaurants in that city.
5. Cook For Yourself To Save Money and Stress
By cooking for yourself, you can nearly eliminate the chance of being glutened.
In 2019, I road tripped around the South Island of New Zealand for three weeks. While it’s a fairly celiac-friendly country, it was hard finding safe gluten-free restaurants outside of their bigger cities. I ended up cooking 90% of my meals myself.
Depending on how long you’ll be there, it might be worth picking up your own cookware and dishware to avoid cross-contamination. To find gluten-free groceries in the U.S., try Kroger, Target, Trader Joe’s, Safeway or Whole Foods.
Internationally, you’ll need to do a little bit of research to figure out where to find safe gluten-free groceries. For example, in Amsterdam, Albert Heijn has a fantastic gluten free selection, as does DM (Drogerie Markt) in cities like Berlin and Budapest.
6. Fewer Cities, More Time
How often have you packed up your bags on vacation, ready to move on to the next stop on your trip, and said “I wish we had spent more time here.” If you tend to say that in every city, it’s a good indicator that you’re trying to squeeze too many cities into your trip. You want to relax on vacation, not come back from your vacation needing a vacation.
I’ll admit that on this one, I need to take my own advice. In December 2017, my little brother and I tried to fit Germany, Amsterdam, and Belgium into a short two week trip. It was way too much, and it forced us to miss some of the great smaller cities in Germany, like Dresden and Hamburg, to try and fit Belgium and the Netherlands in. We got to see nine cities in 18 days, but I wish we could have gone deeper in each place. If I were to do it again, I would split it up into two separate trips to give each place the time it deserves.
Plan on spending four to five days in big cities—think London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney— and two or three days in smaller cities, like Seattle, Porto or Melbourne. That way, you will have plenty of time to explore the cities without feeling rushed.
7. Some Other Countries Take Celiac Disease Very Seriously
In some countries, particularly in Europe, and also in Australia and New Zealand, waiters perk up when you say the word “celiac.”
Is it always the case that restaurants in “X country” are good at handling celiac disease? Certainly not. If you walked into any random restaurant and tried it, your results would vary wildly. If you’ve done your research and selected restaurants that have catered for gluten free customers in the past, your experience will be fantastic 95% of the time.
8. Language Barriers Can Make Things Complicated
You need to arm yourself with tools to make it easy to communicate your needs.
Have you ever been at a restaurant abroad with a language barrier, and after you explained that you couldn’t have wheat flour, they brought you a plate with a piece of bread?
“But you said no wheat flour, not no bread!”
Lucky for us, that problem has been solved by Gluten Free Translation Cards. They are a must for traveling with celiac disease. I use two in particular, depending on what language I need. Legal Nomads is my favorite —she has translated a couple of paragraphs outlining what you can and can’t eat, but she only has a few languages. The other option is Celiac Travel, which has a more comprehensive list of languages. I used their Swahili card in Tanzania in 2018, and it made finding gluten-free food much more smooth.
9. Always Bring Snacks
When you’re traveling gluten free, bringing snacks is essential. Whether it’s for the plane, or to get by in a pinch, snacks serve one main purpose: to avoid the hangries.
Here are some ideas for gluten free snacks to toss in your carry-on:
● Gluten-free bread and hard cheese
● Gluten-free cereal— just add milk and you’ve got a great gluten-free breakfast.
● Single-serve nut butter packets
● Gluten-free crackers, chips or puffs
● Gluten-free protein bars
● Beef, turkey, pork or salmon jerky
TSA shouldn’t give you any trouble about carrying on food. Don’t try bringing fruit, veggies or meat into another country, though.
10. Order a Gluten-Free Meal on International Flights
Worried about suffering through a 10+ hour international flight with no safe food options?
Guess what? You don’t have to. Most airlines will pack you a safe gluten-free meal if you request it at least 48 hours in advance. Bonus: you get served meals separately, before the rest of the plane!
The quality of these meals is a different conversation and varies wildly. On a Qantas flight to New Zealand, I got a nice chicken and rice dish in a rich tomato sauce. On a Delta flight home from Belgium, it was boiled chicken and potatoes.
You usually will get some pre-packaged gluten-free bread and butter. I’ve even gotten an Udi’s blueberry muffin for breakfast a few times. That’s like hitting the lottery, if you ask me.
On the flip side, you might get a rice cake or two instead of gluten-free bread. If you do, it will be stale. That’s just how it goes.
After 10 years of living with celiac disease, I’ve learned that one of the hardest parts about it is the fear of getting outside of your comfort zone. Traveling gluten free doesn’t have to be filled with anxiety. You can start checking things off your bucket list tomorrow, you just have to approach it a little differently.