There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’ve lost a piece of your life with a new diagnosis. When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I was so worried about how it would change my life in the long term. Going to restaurants felt hard, spending time with friends in food situations felt hard, and gluten free travel sounded out of my reach.
Many places have never heard of celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivity. Even if they did, I didn't know how I would communicate my restrictions in a different language. Ordering food and getting around with language barriers is tricky enough as it is. If many people in my home country still don't know what gluten is, how could I assume that the rest of the world would?
My early travel post-diagnosis was mostly local or outdoor travel (think camping, hiking, backpacking, etc) since everyone brings their own food. As I became more comfortable navigating food situations while traveling locally, I gradually began choosing more adventurous destinations.
Until recently, I mostly stuck to Europe and North America where celiac disease is well known or English is widely spoken. When I recently had the opportunity to travel to Southern Africa, I felt completely unprepared and unequipped.
Long story short, I took the leap and explored Southern Africa safely on a strict gluten free diet! It was an amazingly successful trip and it helped me to refine my gluten-free travel strategy.
Now, let's get to my time-tested strategies so YOU can make that travel dream a reality!
Step 1: Get motivated!
It can be easy to forget about the power of motivation. For me to go to Africa with celiac disease, I had to really want to go. I wanted to explore the savannah and see African wildlife with my own eyes, meet remote African tribes, and say YES to an opportunity to teach and support talented underprivileged students in rural South Africa. This felt very meaningful to me, and was enough motivation to take the leap!
So why do you want to travel to this destination? Keep this reason in the forefront of your mind and record it in your workbook. Enter your information below to get your copy:
Why-power is stronger than willpower!
Step 2. Do your research.
Since this is a pretty comprehensive section, I broke it down into parts:
Part A: Figure out what gluten-free options are available.
Is gluten-free recognized as a dietary restriction at your destination? An easy way to answer this question is to research if there is a celiac disease association/group nearby. You can also research gluten free food companies and if gluten free products are sold in grocery stores. The more information you can find, the more likely your restriction will be recognized in the food industry.
If you can’t find anything, it’s ok! This was my experience traveling to Namibia, and it was a wonderful, safe gluten free trip. Check out my strategies for this type of travel situation in my Gluten Free Namibia post.
Related: Gluten Free Travel Guide to Namibia
If you're lucky, you may find a gluten free travel blogger who can provide some of this information for you. And if there are no bloggers? Consider writing a post yourself after your trip to contribute to the growing archive of online resources for gluten free travelers.
I find it’s also very helpful to research naturally gluten-free foods that are available at your destination, such as beans, meat, fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. You may even find new types of produce that you’re excited to try!
Part B. What are the food labeling laws?
This is a frequently missed step and an important one if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to trace amounts of gluten. You want to make sure that the food labeling laws indicate which foods will be safe for you. Do they include ingredients lists on packaged food products? How about common allergen information? You’ll also want to investigate which languages are used on ingredients labels.
Part C. Restaurants
If they exist, this is the fun part! While some destinations will have limited knowledge of the gluten-free diet, you will also find gluten-free options in some of the most unexpected places!
Carrie of forglutensake.com provides many 100% gluten free destination guides for all over the globe, and they're a great resource for planning this section. There is nothing more comforting than going on a trip knowing you’ll get delicious gluten free food along the way.
Part D. Language barriers
Language barriers present themselves at home and abroad, so it’s always good to have a strategy. Even if your language is the one that's primarily spoken, you don’t want to be surprised by other languages in the kitchen when you’re sharing important health information.
Be sure to check out my navigating gluten-free with language barriers post so you're prepared in any situation, home or abroad.
I also highly recommend purchasing gluten-free language cards for your destination. Be forewarned that there are certain areas where this won't be super successful. For example, South Africa (amazingly) has 11 official languages, so it's unrealistic to find a card for each one. Once again, this is where my language barrier posts will save you, so be sure to click the link above to learn more.
Step 3: Hack your accommodation
Create a packing list for yourself. It should include emergency foods to eat at your destination, snacks to take on-the-go, and maybe a few cooking utensils. You may be surprised by how compact and lightweight you can make an entire cooking set; a small set of key items is even easier if you’re not sensitive to cross-contamination.
If you have celiac disease, an allergy, or are otherwise sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, click the link below to make your own DIY Travel Kitchen Kit.
Depending on how far you're traveling and your mode of travel, you may also want to bring some prepared meals with you. This is a popular method used by some of my favorite gluten-free family bloggers, including Courtney of travelingglutenfreemom.com. Currently, I only bring the meals I eat along the way and the items listed above, but it's really a matter of preference and lifestyle.
You're also going to want to scope out a grocery store near your accommodation. Along with this, I find it's helpful to brainstorm some super easy gluten-free meals you can make with local ingredients. I find visiting markets and stores to be one of the most exciting cultural experiences since you're interacting with locals and witnessing everyday life at your destination.
Related: Gluten Free Meal Ideas For Travel
Be sure to sign up for my FREE gluten-free travel planner to walk you through each of these steps in detail:
Step 4: Pack your bags!
The day before my trip, I like to have everything I need already packed. However, it takes until the last minute for me to realize I need to pack food for travel days. If it's a short trip, you're in luck and this should be easy. However, if you’re traveling halfway around the world, it could be 40+ hours with flights and other transit before arriving at your final destination.
Rather than scrounging at airports, I prefer to bring a few key meals with me so I continue to eat well on the journey. These often include a small container of leftovers, gluten-free sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and my favorite gluten-free almond flour muffins. If I don't have time to bake, I keep a few extra gluten free snack bars in my bag.
Step 5: Troubleshoot the unexpected!
As an optimistic person, it can be hard for me to get into the mindset where I start troubleshooting the different ways my plan could go wrong. I've packed my bags, I'm excited for my trip, and I'm feeling confident. I have a completed workbook with a gluten free restaurant list, and knowledge about working with language barriers and local foods.
However, especially if you're traveling with friends or coworkers that are not gluten-free, it's always good to spend a little time brainstorming potential problems and solutions.
Here are some of the tricky situations I've experienced:
- My friends want to eat at a restaurant that does not seem celiac-safe, and there are no safe options nearby.
- A train/plane is delayed and I’m left with only the options in my bag.
- I’m on a work trip and no one is able to take me to the grocery store, it’s not safe to walk there by myself, and the catered food is not gluten free (this was my trip to South Africa).
- 40 hours of flight travel to get back home, with limited access to gluten free foods and customs regulations.
- Related: A Step-By-Step Packing Guide for Gluten Free Flight Travel (instructions on how to prep for this situation prior to leaving for your trip)
- Customs regulations (I talk all about this in my flight travel guide linked above ^)
I also bring a small “just in case I'm glutened” kit with a few essentials like gluten free medications, tea, and ginger chews.
So let's recap on our 5-step Gluten Free Travel Planning Strategy:
- Decide on your destination and outline your motivations
- Do your research on local foods and restaurants
- Make a food plan & hack your accommodation
- Get packing
- Troubleshoot the unexpected
I used this guide for my recent travel and found it to be super helpful to have all of this information in one place. I know you will have the same success, my friend! I hope you're feeling excited and confident for your trip. Let me know in the comments below or on social media where you're headed!