If you’ve got a food allergy, travel presents special challenges. Whether you’re planning a short European business trip, sending a child to summer camp, or gearing up for a sub-Saharan music festival, there’s a lot to consider.
For one thing, there’s relatively little awareness of food allergies in many countries. And there’s the issue of language barriers. It can be difficult to explain the concept of cross-contact in English, never mind in Arabic or Flemish. And then there’s the rather big concern of accessibility to medical care in a foreign country.
As someone who always dreamed of filling a passport with stamps from around the globe, acquiring food allergies late in life was crushing. But they don’t have to kill one’s sense of adventure. With a little extra work and preparation, even a food-allergic traveler can go on exploring.
With two trips on my 2015 calendar (Galápagos and Europe), I’m looking back at lessons learned.
Traveling for work, you want to avoid the business dinner where your food allergy becomes the main topic of conversation. You may have one advantage: the concierge.
Concierges usually speak multiple languages, including English. Rely on their help to call ahead to restaurants and help explain your food allergies. That way, even if your schedule prevents scouting out allergy-friendly spots yourself, you can relax.
When in Brussels, I was thrilled to find that many frites shops sell only the very-popular snack and nothing else. This means no shared fryer where cross-contact can occur. Here at home, shared fryers almost always mean no fries for me.
Preparing a child with allergies for camp can be worrisome. You must make sure your child is trained to understand and communicate his or her allergies when you’re not around. Age-appropriate responsibility can be tricky to figure out. But it’s possible.
Speak to camp directors and counselors about activities, likely side trips, medical training, and medication storage. Teach your child to be responsible in age-appropriate ways. Older kids can convey their medical information to others and administer their own medication; they also know better than to trade snacks.
For more tips on evaluating camps, packing, and planning, visit www.foodallergy.org/document.doc?id=150. A list of allergy-friendly summer camps, including Camp Emerson in Hinsdale and Camps Kenwood and Evergreen for Boys and Girls in Wilmot, N.H., both of them peanut and tree-nut free, can be found at www.foodallergy.org/camps/camp-list-2014.
A newer competitor to the EpiPen, Auvi-Q includes recorded instructions for how to administer the medicine. This could be a lifesaver for a child who may be unable to speak in an emergency.
Apply the same rigor if your child is off to a friend’s home. Do the parents understand how to handle allergy issues?
Attending the Festival au Desert in Mali was a life-changing experience. It could have been life-ending, however. I knew of many things that might give even a seasoned traveler pause: yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever, polio, hepatitis A. Tuareg unrest and government travel warnings also demanded consideration.
Before the festival began, a day of sightseeing ended at a restaurant near the peace monument. We found ourselves on the patio of a house. Nearby a bunch of kids hung around, pressed into service to collect extra chairs when needed. On the menu, one dish: spaghetti Bolognese, a pasta sauce traditionally finished with cream.
Having done my research on the local diet before leaving, I expected local river fish, millet, or rice. I knew of the French history and refreshed my middle-school-level language skills with phrases I might need. Who could have anticipated this? After much back and forth, I was served a bowl of what I quickly learned was not dairy-free spaghetti. Luckily, only hives followed.
Some tips for fellow allergy sufferers who are looking to travel abroad: Research the local diet before you go; consider getting a medic-alert bracelet and multilingual wallet cards (choose one with cross-contact information); call on multilingual friends for help translating your needs; learn a few key words or phrases; and enlist the help of fellow travelers. (The time to discover that your travel partner has a needle phobia is not the moment you need help with your EpiPen.)
Whether your travels take you to Bamako or the Berkshires, don’t let food allergies get in the way of adventure.