We’ve roamed extensively as a family, with relatively few problems, but it’s important to be prepared. On first discovering our children had allergies, we restricted our trips to the UK and continental Europe. However, there’s really no logic to this as the nearest destination isn’t necessarily the safest.
Choose your destination carefully
Recently, we’ve found Romanians and Sri Lankans both friendly and flexible. In Transylvania, the cooking was simple but wholesome. Sri Lanka has a very mixed cultural and religious heritage, with different dietary requirements the norm. In short, both countries ‘get it’. For dairy sufferers, Asia is a good option as milk-based products are rarely used, compared to say, France or the Netherlands. For those with nut allergies, however, the reverse is the case, so doing plenty of research in advance is key.
Carry your medication
Make sure you prepare all your medication early. Insist your GP issues a double supply and carry at least two extra EpiPens — this can be the difference between life and death. Split your medical supplies between your hand and checked baggage, or between family members — just in case a suitcase goes missing. Always carry a doctor’s letter or medical certificate with you.
Pack a small suitcase with safe tinned food in case of emergencies. Consider carrying a small supply for the flight, too. Snacking supplies are particularly important when going off the beaten track — and remember to take a portable can opener or a good penknife.
At the airport
Although medicines are exempt from the ‘100ml liquids in cabin baggage’ rule, always carry a doctor’s letter with you to avoid delay. EpiPens can also be challenging when going through airport security, so allow extra time in case of problems. Try and swap liquid medication for tablets, if at all possible.
Airlines are generally far more switched on to food allergies than they were a decade ago and many have detailed information on their websites. Some will even offer to cook a special meal, but most simply let you choose from a pre-prepared, allergen-free menu. Where no specific safe choice is available, check out the vegetarian or vegan options. Always check the ingredients in advance — airline websites usually provide this information and if they don’t, just ask. Note that some require a medical certificate before allowing allergy sufferers to fly with them.
Ensure hotel safety
If you’re staying in a hotel, be sure to email in advance, letting them know about your situation at the time of booking, especially if you’re using a third-party booking agent. Also, email again 24 hours before you arrive so they’re well prepared. At check in, ask to speak to the manager or chef. Clear communication is key.
Research where the local hospital is and if you have a sat nav, pre-set the hospital’s coordinates in advance. Always take both EpiPens with you, just in case, and consider giving a spare one to anyone travelling with you and show them how to use it. When eating out, take back-up food with you and don’t be embarrassed to tell the restaurant that you might need to mix and match. Most responsible restaurant owners will understand and will go out of their way to accommodate your request, if you explain the situation clearly.
Remember that English is not always a first language in the country you’re visiting, so keep food requests simple. If the menu appears unsuitable, most chefs will happily grill a piece of chicken or fish in a clean pan. Check the type of oil that the food is cooked in, ensuring that it hasn’t been used to cook other food too, as cross-contamination is a big risk. Avoid sauces — however good they may appear — to reduce any risk of contamination. If you’re allergic to dairy, check that vegetables aren’t glazed in butter.
Avoid the tick box mentality
Some chefs will go the extra mile and either show you the ingredients or explain how food is stored and prepared. This will help you make an informed judgement based on real facts. However, some places will trot out the “we can’t guarantee…” line, which is a particular problem in Britain. If they won’t elaborate or expand on why they can’t — or won’t — provide such essential information, don’t risk it.
Know when to cut losses
Don’t be frightened to walk out. On the whole, there’s more of a risk of this in large cities or tourist areas where staff can be rushed. On odd occasions, you will encounter unhelpful, perfunctory or badly trained staff. This is normally apparent from the outset, so don’t be afraid to change your mind.
Break the language barrier
Communicating in a foreign language is always going to have its difficulties. Take some well-translated allergy cards — clearly showing what you’re allergic to
— with you. When you’re heading off the beaten track, find a good English-speaking local guide.
If travelling alone, wear a medical alert bracelet explaining your allergies. Make any new people you may meet aware of them too, in case something goes wrong. Show them how to use the EpiPen.
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)