It’s Carly Helfand from 52 Cities, here to talk travel—specifically, how to travel with dietary restrictions. While navigating a foreign country AND a particular diet simultaneously may sound tough, I promise, it’s doable! Below, I’m sharing six tips that have helped me travel the globe while eating near-vegan and gluten-free over the past several years and that I hope will help you do the same!
1. Enlist translation help
Not all foreign countries understand “vegan” and “vegetarian” the same way you do—or at all, for that matter. Some people may consider a dish meat-free if it contains only chicken or fish (as opposed to red meat), or if it contains meat broth, rather than meat itself.
To make sure nothing gets lost in translation, ask your hotel concierge or Airbnb host to write out a list of your dietary restrictions or any questions you may have for waitstaff in the local language! You can also find card decks online before your trip that come with a variety of pre-translated food phrases and food photos you can use to help get your point across.
2. Choose “foodie” restaurants
If there’s one thing I’ve found while dining out, it’s that the “foodier” a restaurant is, the more likely it’ll be to accommodate your dietary needs. Chef-driven establishments tend to be more sensitive to dietary restrictions, if for no other reason than that they seem to take providing you with a gastronomic experience you’ll remember really seriously!
Look for creative menus and tell-tale signs like locally sourced produce. These are indications that care is going into the menu and will likely go into your overall experience as well.
3. Opt Asian on planes
For those of us who are both gluten free and vegetarian/vegan, choosing an airplane meal can often seem like a lose-lose proposition. Pick the vegetarian option, and you’ll undoubtedly receive a pasta dish. And is it just me, or is the gluten free option always chicken?!
Fortunately, depending on which airline you’re flying, there may be another way to go! Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates and others offer so-called “Asian vegetarian meals” that feature Indian dishes made from ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, potatoes and cauliflower, and they’re generally served with rice. This is the option I now request on every flight!
(Vegan friends: Unfortunately, this option won’t always work for you; sometimes, the dishes will contain paneer, an Indian cheese.)
4. Consider cooking classes
The best way to control what goes into a dish you’re eating is, of course, to make it yourself, and the good news is that in many destinations, you’ll find opportunities to do just that. Cooking classes can be a great way to engage with locals and get a unique window into local culture, and you’ll usually be cooking in a small group with an instructor that can help you choose dishes you can eat and/or tailor menu items to your needs.
One note of caution: Make sure to read reviews of a cooking school before signing up, and don’t eat anything you’re worried has been stored or prepared in a way that isn’t sanitary. The last thing you want on a trip is to be sidelined by food poisoning!
5. Stash away snacks
Let’s face it—no matter where you are, when you’re in transit, food options are limited. I seldom go anywhere without a snack reserve, since in many places, the chances of finding gluten free, vegetarian/vegan options during a layover or a pit stop is slim.
If I’m being honest, most of the time, I’m toting around bars of dark chocolate, but nuts, dried fruit, protein bars, and roasted chickpeas or edamame make for healthier options that are just as lightweight and convenient! I’ll usually bring these from home in my carry-on; it saves time and the hassle of trying to navigate a foreign grocery store. Plus, I love having a bag that gets lighter as I go!
6. Don’t be shy!
Don’t see anything on a menu you can eat? Ask. I can’t count the places I’ve been that have had off-menu vegetarian entrees or an entire gluten-free menu available upon request.
I know, I know—people tend to feel embarrassed (and even, at times, disrespectful) about making extra requests or asking to tweak a dish, but just remember: Generally speaking, restaurants want you to enjoy your experience as much as you want to enjoy it. That’s especially true in today’s world, where Internet reviews can make or break a business.
Trust me, I felt like an irreverent clown showing up in Rome and asking if a restaurant had gluten-free pasta. But if I hadn’t inquired, I wouldn’t have discovered that gluten free pasta is actually common in Roman restaurants; there wasn’t a single place I went that didn’t have it!
If you’re still feeling shy, remind yourself that you’re probably not the first to ask for whatever it is you may want—and that even if you are, the worst someone can say is no!