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5 tips for travelling with dietary requirements

Eating is one of the great joys in life, especially when you’re on holidays. But what about those of us who are travelling with dietary requirements?

As with mobility or sensory needs, dietary requirements can make travelling more tricky–but not impossible! If you plan ahead, and do your research, you’ll be able to enjoy local cuisine and make spontaneous snack stops like everyone else. Here are my best tips for travelling with dietary requirements.

1. Notify airlines and other travel providers ahead of time (and remind them!)

I always make a note when booking any flight (whether or not food is going to be served) that I have a dietary requirement. That’s not hard to do, it’s usually a check-box on an online booking form. But I’ve learned (the hard way!) to always double check when checking in that the requirement has been recorded and accounted for.

I was once on a long-haul flight where the airline, for whatever reason, hadn’t prepared to accommodate my dietary requirement. I managed to pick out one item from the standard meal that I could eat (a sealed fruit cup), but by the time I reached the layover destination I was ravenous. 

Now, I always ask when I’m checking in: “I have a dietary requirement, is that recorded on your system for the meal?”. Even if it’s too late for them to secure a suitable in-flight meal, at least if I know I’ll be going without, I can stock up on snacks in the airport before boarding.

Hand holding passport and boarding pass in busy airport
Be sure to double-check that your dietary requirement is recorded with airlines and other tourism operators.

2. Familiarise yourself with the local cuisine of your destination

This step can even come before choosing a destination, if you’re lucky enough to have complete control over your travel plans. 

You probably already have a good idea of which cuisines best suit your dietary requirements, from eating out and take-away. For instance, I know that Thai and Indian food are generally very good options for me, with lots of variety and little chance of cross-contamination that could make me ill. So, Thailand and India are obviously great choices for my next trip!

If your destination is swayed by other factors–price, proximity, travelling companions, and so forth–that’s okay. I’ve never come across a country with no food options for someone with dietary requirements. Start googling “country+cuisine” and “country+recipes”, and keep an eye out for dishes that would suit your dietary requirements.

Close up of a plate of Pad Thai on a green tablecloth
Thai food is a good choice for my dietary needs, so Thailand is a great travel destination for me.

3. Take aids for communicating your needs to locals

It can be hard enough to communicate your dietary requirements when you’re speaking in your native language. Don’t rely on your grasp of the local tongue–or a waiter/chef’s grasp of English–to get the message across.

Of course, it’s important to learn essential local terms before you go. Google Translate can help you figure out “no dairy” or “no gluten” or anything else you might need to know… but that’s not always sufficient.

A lot of organisations and helpful bi-lingual travellers have made “restaurant cards” with an explanation of dietary requirements (e.g., gluten-free, nut-free, etc.) in just about every language you can imagine. When you walk into the restaurant, you can show your server or the chef the card, and that will help them guide you to safe food choices.

To find a card for your needs, just google “dietary restriction+language+restaurant card” and that should bring up at least a few results. If you’re struggling to find one you’re sure about, try asking in destination Facebook groups or reaching out to an accessibility organisation in the country you’re travelling to ask for help.

A woman and a waitress in a minimalist light cafe
Prepare aids to communicate your dietary requirements ahead of time, especially if you don’t speak the local language.

Extra tip: save a copy of the card as an image on your phone AND take a printed copy with you. That way you’re covered, even if there’s no wi-fi or your device goes flat.

4. There’s nothing wrong with being “touristy”

It always makes me a bit glum to see travellers proudly bragging that they strictly avoid “tourist spots” and only ever eat from food trucks and holes-in-the-wall. There’s definitely a rife assumption that people who avoid chains or restaurants that target tourists are “better” travellers, somehow.

Here’s the thing: there is nothing wrong with being “touristy” and visiting a chain restaurant if that’s what you need to get something safe to eat. Don’t let yourself be shamed into taking risks with your health. 

Your best travel experiences will happen when you’re healthy and fed–not going hungry, or sick from eating something you shouldn’t. If a chain or a tourist hot-spot is your best or only choice, do it, and get back to enjoying your trip!

Exterior view of a McDonald's restaurant at night
There’s nothing wrong with being “touristy” if it means getting a meal you know will be safe and suit your dietary needs.

5. Be prepared to improvise

Just like travelling with other specific needs, a positive attitude and willingness to ask for what you need goes a long way. 

One restaurant I visited in Hong Kong had not one thing on the menu that suited my dietary requirements–but after a quick conversation with the chef, they managed to whip me up something I could eat.

Another time, my travelling companions were desperate to eat from a particular street vendor. I was struggling to find anything I could be sure was safe, but there was a 7/11 just up the street. I grabbed myself some fruit, bought a lemonade from the street vendor, and we all sat and ate together.

A woman eating standing in a city street, placing a piece of melted cheese in her mouth
A positive attitude and a willingness to improvise are your best assets when travelling with dietary requirements.

Remember, dietary requirements are universal: every country in the world has some residents who can’t or won’t eat certain foods. They don’t go hungry, and neither will you. Ask for help when you need it–before you go, or once you get there–and remember that the best (safe!) meal of your life could be just around the corner.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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