In today’s guest post, Erin discusses ways in which having a severe allergy affects travel and includes some great tips for people with allergies who are planning a future trip.
When I was a toddler, I had my first “allergy scare.” My mom didn’t know yet that I was severely allergic to peanuts. She had fed me a snack that had a tiny trace of peanut butter on it, and within moments, I was suffocating. This was my first anaphylactic attack. As I grew up, my allergies were carefully monitored. I was eventually diagnosed as being allergic to other things, too. Kiwi and cashews, for example.
My severe allergies have had lots of impact on my life, and the impact of them becomes more obvious when I travel. At home, I’m familiar with foods, brands and restaurants, and I have a food routine that I know is safe. When I’m abroad I can’t rely on that routine.
For example, while traveling around South East Asia, visits to remote regions were challenging. Before heading to Koh Rong Sanloem, an island off the coast of Cambodia, I had to purchase a week’s worth of instant noodles and other packaged goods that I knew would be safe to eat – just in case I couldn’t access safe meals on the island.
Wherever I go, I have to make note of the nearest hospital and make sure that I have insurance that will cover costs in case I need medical attention.
Despite these challenges, my allergies haven’t kept me from traveling! Over the last decade, I’ve traveled to over 30 countries across 5 continents. Along the way, I’ve learned how to safely manage my allergies no matter where I am in the world. Read on to learn 6 ways that allergies affect travel, and how to cope with them.
1. Allergies can create travel anxiety
There is a lot of misunderstanding around allergies. Since allergic reactions can vary so much in severity, people often assume they aren’t life-threatening. I understand why! For many people, allergies are simply an inconvenience.
But for those of us who have anaphylactic reactions to allergens, allergies are very dangerous. Living with them does more than just complicate eating. It can also impact mental health. When traveling, I feel anxiety about finding meals that I know are safe to eat.
There’s anxiety about knowing where the nearest hospital is, and about whether I’ll be able to communicate with local people if I need help. The best way I’ve found to cope with this anxiety is through preparation – and that starts with research.
2. Allergic travel requires research
Before traveling somewhere new, research! I usually start by researching the local cuisine of the country or culture that I’m going to be visiting. This gives me a sense of what ingredients are predominantly used.
For example, before visiting Myanmar I discovered that peanut oil is commonly used in Burmese cooking. By knowing this in advance, I was able to plan for the challenges that I would face in Myanmar when it came to finding safe meals.
Doing research in advance is a great way to familiarize yourself with the degree of danger that eating in a specific region of the world might present, and it can help you to figure out which allergens are used in specific dishes.
3. Prep is important before traveling with allergies
Research isn’t the only type of preparation that is essential for allergic travelers. Allergic travelers also need to make sure they have the right medications and documentation before leaving for a trip. I always make sure that I have at least 2 epinephrine auto-injectors (and I check that they haven’t expired!).
If I am traveling for a longer period, I’ll carry more. For example, on a 9 month trip around Asia, I carried 4 epipens. I also make sure to pack diphenhydramine in tablet form. This antihistamine is super effective, and so it can be taken in the event of an allergic reaction, along with an auto-injector.
4. Allergic travelers may need to carry documents
When traveling I like to carry a letter from my physician which explains why I carry epipens. I’ve never had to actually use this letter, but I do like to have it with me just in case my epipens are flagged while going through airport security.
I also tend to carry allergy translation cards. These are small cards that you can give to servers, concierges, physicians, and other people who may be in a position to help you with food service needs while you’re traveling abroad.
A translation card explains your allergy to the local language, just in case there’s a language barrier. I sometimes prepare a physical translation card, or simply keep an explanatory message ready on my phone.
5. Flights can be stressful
On a flight you are in an enclosed space with no access to emergency medical care. This can be scary for allergic travelers because if you have an anaphylactic attack you need immediate medical care.
Since you can’t access that care while in the air, travelers with severe allergies have to be especially careful of what they ingest before and during a flight.
To fly as safely as possible, I pack myself a meal and snacks to eat on flights. I basically never eat food that is offered by the airline, because in most cases the airline cannot guarantee that there’s no trace of allergens in their food. Rather than take the risk, I stick with my own meals.
6. Culinary experiences abroad are less accessible
For many people, trying local cuisine is a highlight of travel. But for allergic travelers, the culinary part of travel isn’t always a possibility.
In my experience, in some parts of the world it can be tough to figure out if a dish is safe to eat. Often, I have to opt out of eating local dishes, and instead opt for fast food or “American” style food that I’m familiar with. I have definitely felt pangs of jealousy in watching my partner eat delicious street food, or in hearing backpackers rave about a specific local dish.
As a result, I’ve shifted my perspective about food and travel: I have accepted that I can’t travel for food. I have found it encouraging to actively remind myself that travel can be just as rewarding without trying local foods. Instead, I enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells!
People with allergies can still enjoy travelling!
Despite the frustration, insecurity and fear that my severe food allergies cause while traveling, I have always found ways to accommodate them. Sometimes this means taking extreme measures – but it’s worth it.
Over the years as I’ve traveled, I’ve figured out ways to cope with my restrictions, and travel has become more comfortable for me.
Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge the risk involved when traveling with any sort of health condition. For those of us with food allergies, that risk presents itself daily because, well, we have to eat.
Whether or not you should travel with food allergies is a personal question, and there’s no right answer. Every individual allergic traveler should decide for themselves what their boundaries are when it comes to travel and safety.
Hi, I’m Cassie, and I’ve been solo travelling the globe since May 2018. In this time, I’ve backpacked around Southeast Asia, Japan and The Balkans, alongside spending a year living in Australia. Currently isolating in New Zealand.