Amazing Travels - Despite Food Allergy Fears and Frustrations

One of my central goals is to motivate clients to push through challenges and learn to live, work, love and play despite them.  Often, this doesn’t involve fixing a problem, but rather living fully in spite of it!

In 2008 my family’s passion for travel was threatened. My husband and I had travelled with our babies, since 1995, every opportunity we had - domestically and internationally. But when our youngest had an anaphylactic episode in Istanbul, Turkey, at only 18 months old, we almost lost our gumption to continue our family pastime. Eager to not succumb to the limitations fear imposes, I read voraciously about travelling with food allergies and learned how to always be as prepared as possible for an emergency.

Since that time, my family has traveled to well over 25 countries and 30 states, and we’ve done so now for over 10 years with food allergies. A recent journey to Western and Central Europe, highlights my belief that being as informed, prepared and empowered as possible facilitates an easier, relaxing and more enjoyable trip. The experiences described can be relevant if your destination is global or right at home in the U.S.A. We travelled to Poland, Hungary and Denmark and for the most part stayed in three of their beautiful major cities: Krakow, Budapest and Copenhagen.

So check out these 7 simple and practical strategies to have AMAZING TRAVELS, DESPITE FOOD ALLERGY FEARS AND FRUSTRATIONS!

1. Be Pragmatic!

Realistically there will be challenges, when traveling with food allergies, but if you are practical, creative and determined, you can still have unforgettable experiences and memories. Let’s look first at the basics where you go, where you stay and how you get there!

My journeys can and do involve air travel, but I typically avoid islands where there are limited medical facilities.

Knowing airlinebest practices” and “culture” is important. It’s not enough to just carry plenty of medicine, medical documentation, snacks for flights, wipes and other products (i.e. seat covers) to avoid cross contact. Know which airlines are allergy friendly, what practices work best with each, and always try to reserve the first flight of the day to get a cleaner aircraft!

I like to rent homes or apartments, rather than hotels, so I may cook in a meal or two.

I try to select my destinations carefully, based on more than just my travel interests. I need to consider cooking practices and related allergen risk (hard to avoid hazelnuts in Turkey), communication (finding English speakers in Hungary was harder than Denmark) and general food safety practices (food labeling and laws, kitchen safety, etc…)

A recent journey to Western and Central Europe, highlights my belief that being as informed, prepared and empowered as possible facilitates an easier, relaxing and more enjoyable trip. The experiences described can be relevant if your destination is global or right at home in the U.S.A. We travelled to Poland, Hungary and Denmark and for the most part stayed in three of their beautiful major cities: Krakow, Budapest and Copenhagen.

2. Prepare for Language and Cuisine Challenges

I knew that language and local cuisine would pose additional challenges on this trip. For instance, Danish specialities rely on eggs or mayonnaise (think Smørrebrød with Hønsesalat, traditional dark bread with a chicken salad spread on top), and when in Hungary or Poland, one can’t always be assured a server with skilled English or schooled in food allergy protocols. At home or abroad, servers don't always know that mayonnaise is made with eggs or what cross-contact is and how to avoid it.  My research and planning led me to use:

  • Food allergy dining out cards can be purchased as an app or a durable card. There is variety in what they say so research wisely. I used Select Wisely on the trip to Central and Western Europe and now use Allergy Translation's App.

  • Translation apps are very helpful navigating supermarkets, reading labels and menus. Research them well as they are not all created equal and they get better and better every day. My young adult kids recommend the ones with internal camera access, which actually read and translate the labels directly. Translation is a art not a science, so proceed with caution and use the apps as a guides... they are imperfect but helpful.

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3. Plan in Advance and Flexibly to Enjoy Local Authentic Cuisine

Our most cherished travel experiences center around authentic cuisine! So when in Hungary, eat Langos (fried dough prepared with all kinds of ingredients), Palacsinta (crepes) or Gulyas (goulash)! Right? Well not necessarily if you or a loved one are allergic to gluten, eggs or milk. It takes determination, resourcefulness and sadly, a more flexible budget, to still eat authentically.

We worked hard to eat local in Hungary.  We dedicated extra time and creatively to the search for authentic and safe cuisine. On an early evening walk through Budapest’s District VII, the Jewish Quarter, exploring the neighborhood’s architecture, history and ruin pubs, we peeked into restaurants and asked for menus. Restaurant staff tended to be more available and willing to answer questions before the busy dinner hour. This neighborhood had dozens of grungy old buildings that had been creatively renovated to maintain their bohemian charm while creating a chic dining experience. Our fourth or fifth stop was at a restaurant that looked like a bookstore. Konyvbar  (Dob utca 45, Budapest, VII) loosely translated to Book Bar, was a tastefully decorated restaurant with wall to wall bookshelves, an inviting fireplace and very bilingual wait staff!  They not only had various offerings that my entire family could eat, but they were also willing to customize whatever we needed. The restaurant’s literary themed menu offered diners an intellectual and linguistic spin on the experience, making it all the more fun. Our theme was Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho so we aptly chose from drinks such as blood orange sangria and martini madness and ate narcotic red pepper cream soup with murderous chicken and butcher’s sirloin.

4. When Local Cuisine Fails You, Seek Safety and Quality!

Some cuisines don’t always lend themselves to customization, even when on a flexible budget. While we did delight in pierogi at a wonderful little restaurant called Pierozki u Vincenta, a Van Gogh-themed small restaurant serving meat, vegetable and fruit pierogi (ul. Juliusza Lea 114, Krakow), our other evenings in Krakow, we struggled to readily find what we needed.  We couldn’t find allergen-free recipes or wait staff that could answer our questions. Feeling frustrated, our kids suggested we try an international cuisine, one we knew well enough to “vet” on our own - and our hunger and frustration tolerance led us to acquiesce! While this definitely challenged our traditional methods of experiencing a foreign destination and its culture, we discovered a tiny little Sushi restaurant in the heart of the Kazimierz district in Krakow, called Youmiko Sushi (Józefa 2, 33-332 Kraków.)

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Sushi in Krakow? Yep!

Youmiko Sushi, which had approximately 3 four-top tables and a sushi counter service area for 7 - 8 people ranked in the top 10 on typical travel rating sites. Unless you came off hours, you simply couldn’t get in without a reservation. We realized that if we came early, we could sit at the bar and watch our chef prepare our food. Our sushi chef’s English was very good and he followed our instructions fabulously… we were confident as we were able to sip sake, admire his culinary artistry and at the same time, make sure all knives and surfaces were wiped clean! And I must say that this sushi was some of the best and most beautifully presented we have ever had in all our domestic and international travels. In our 4 days in Krakow, we ate there twice, each time reserving the highly coveted bar stools to have the best food safety view in town! Most larger cities now have an assortment of international restaurants. Finding those that typically suit your family's eating needs is often a nice way to improve the odds that you will have a relaxing, if not culturally local-authentic, meal. Photo: Kyle Head

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5. Plan for Pleasures!

Before our youngest was born, we used to end each evening with a sweet treat. In Italy, for instance, we never went a day without one or two scoops of gelato with a decadent decaf latte - our family nightcap. Now we take advantage of renting homes instead of hotels, with fully stocked kitchens so we can make our own desserts and more importantly, perhaps, we have taken on new non-food rituals. One of our favorites has been listening to books together on tape. The first few Harry Potter novels created beautiful shared moments on recent trips introducing our baby to my older kids’ most cherished books!

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6. It's OK to Divide and Conquer

Planning for individual experiences with family members creates good will and allows for more age appropriate experiences and reduces frustrations, resentments and boredom. Photo: Jay Wennington

Be sensitive to age. We always take our older children out for a special meal so that they can have culinary experiences without feeling badly under the sad, jealous and sometimes even worried eyes of their sister. My middle child and husband, will only order foods safe for my food allergic child, not because of safety (because she can dine with someone else eating some of her allergens), but because of their empathy for her limitations. When on vacation for a long time, giving each person some space to explore and expand his palate and culinary experience, is healthy. It also builds more tolerance for the frustrations we often experienced when together, seeking allergen-friendly offerings. 

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7. Be Sensitive to Age

Sometimes travel calls for sensitivity to age. During this trip, we separated our family members to experience the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Nothing really prepares you for the emotional impact of witnessing man’s inhumanity to man, and our littlest wasn't ready for it.

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Age Appropriate...

My husband and I split the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau over two days, each planning an age appropriate outing for our youngest child on the other. He brought her to Wawel Castle, a handsome castle perched on a hill with splendid views of Krakow, towers with dungeons, a dragon’s den, and beautiful gardens. On my day, I planned a low tourist day and visited a local hangout for young families in the heart of Krakow, called Kocia Kawiarnia Kociarna, the Cat CAFE on ul. Krowoderska, just a short walk outside the pedestrian part of town. Upon entering the cafe, you order from baristas as you would expect in any good cafe with personalized drinks, pastries and smoothies. After ordering, you pass into the cafe’s seating area through a cat decorated wardrobe, which separates the food preparation area from the seating zones for customers and cats - of the feline sort!!! The baristas spoke English well and understood my daughter’s food allergies. They washed a blender, especially for her and made her a fruit smoothie to enjoy. She sipped heartily and happily, gently appealing to the cats with toy mice and yarn, to join her for some lap time.

Traveling with food allergies requires pragmatism, preparation and a willingness to be adventurous and creative. By being an avid learner and creative planner and through perseverance, you can access some authentic culinary experiences and some simply satisfying, if not culturally intriguing ones. These strategies align with the principles that inspire Food Allergy U, that of educating, supporting and empowering families with food allergies. Resuming international travel after our petrifying experience with anaphylaxis in Turkey, reaffirmed my family’s travel tradition and passion. We are again, living out our values and pastimes. I can’t guarantee allergen or reaction-free vacations, but I can be courageous, creative, resourceful and flexible.  

Like this if you feel inspired. Share your favorite inspiring travel tips in a comment, but most of all, Enjoy happy and safe travels!