How to Travel on a Special Diet

Lactose intolerance.  Gluten-free diets.  Low-sodium diets. Any one of dozens of food allergies… and more.   Plenty of us are on a special diet or have restrictions on what we can eat, often for medical reasons.   Some people won’t even go on long trips abroad because they’re justifiably worried that a meal could send them to the hospital — or leave them stranded in the bathroom of the Holiday Inn.  One thing is for sure: anxiety over what we eat far from home isn’t limited to concerns about food poisoning or an upset stomach.  If you find that eating abroad causes you a lot of stress, you might find the following tips helpful.

Research local dishes before you go.  Part of the highlight of going to places like South Africa, Peru, or Mongolia is to try different food — and your food allergy or diet restriction threaten to hamper your culinary exploration.  Learn more about what people eat where you’re going, before you go, to find a popular dish that will fit your diet.  Try going to for more information by country and region.  At the very least, you can find out the ingredients in several dishes, the various types of preparations, and what to definitely avoid.

Book a hotel room or suite with a kitchenette. These don’t have to be expensive, and are more prevalent overseas than you may think.   Many such hotels are found where the tourist areas meet residential districts, which means that a supermarket is usually just down the street.  I’ve noted that such hotels, though, can be very fussy about requesting that you clean up the kitchen, completely, before you go out for the day (presumably to avoid possible pest nuisances), so be prepared to do “kitchen duty” before you go out sightseeing.

When eating out, stick with basic foods.  The less sauce, fixings, and “concoction recipes” you indulge in, the safer you’ll be — even if it takes some of the fun out of it.  The best choices include plain vegetables, grilled chicken or fish, and plain rice or pasta.  The waitress will give you a bored look, but at least you’ll be able to see her again the next evening for dinner.

Don’t make assumptions at globalized restaurants.  Is it true that a burger you order at McDonald’s or TGI Friday’s abroad is 99% similar to what you get at your favorite chain at home?  Absolutely — and it’s that 1% difference that could wreak havoc on your system.  One minor additive from a local source can make you ill, so start out with small portions at that Burger King in Siberia or Hong Kong to see if you have a reaction.

Remind the airline before you board that you ordered a special meal.  How many passengers have been vexed by flight attendants who come down the narrow aisle with chicken-or-beef in one hand and no inkling of your requested special entree?  By the time you (and everyone else on board) is ready to eat, it might be too late for the crew to locate and bring you what you reserved.  Verify upon check-in or baggage drop that you will be served the special meal(s) you requested.


The airline’s cold breakfast — possibly the most straightforward meal you’ll eat on your entire trip.

9 thoughts on “How to Travel on a Special Diet

  1. Thanks for this helpful post. When it comes to the airlines though, confirming that one’s special meal is on board needs to be done 48 hours ahead (in some cases 24 hours might still work). The catering truck doesn’t carry extras for just in case. If the meal was booked through a travel agent, even though it was requested and input into the reservation file, the system code might not have been accepted or decoded by the airline’s system – which causes untold aggro… as a former flight attendant I’ve witnessed this too often. The crew will try to find options but depending on the allergy or religious requirement, it’s not always possible.

  2. I must be flying too many North American and European airlines, because they’ve always been able to confirm my special meal at the time of check-in. I will take your advice the next time I fly elsewhere — thanks! 🙂

  3. Great suggestions.

    As vegans, we often have difficulty. For example, at a restaurant, recently, we discussed with the waiter that we could not eat cheese and, therefore, one of the vegetarian options was out of bounds because of the sauce. We ordered the only other vegetarian option and it came, complete with grated cheese topping! “Is everything alright, sir?” I simply reminded him that he had forgotten our conversation and scraped some of the cheese off.

    One other suggestion that was given to me, some time ago, concerned places where you are likely to eat more than once. The suggestion was to tip big after the first meal. (Actually, the suggestion was to tip big BEFORE the meal!) At the same restaurant as above, on the same evening, the waitress came on duty while we were eating our grated cheese meal. At our previous visit, a month ago, we tipped her fairly well for her understanding of our needs at breakfast. (We had been accompanied by my mother and two of our grandchildren – a restaurant’s nightmare.) She walked up to us, full of memories, and made sure the rest of our stay was comfortable, including dealing with our grandchildren’s special needs, the following morning. Needless to say that we tipped her well, again, not only for the exceptional service, but also in readiness for our next visit!

  4. I like the point you made on sticking with basic foods. You made me laugh about the waitresses being bored with the bland order, but at least you’d see them the next time you were dining out. I’m not very adventurous when dining out. Mediterranean style meals appeal to me most. But I will say the meals they served on Air France on our trip to Paris this summer were out of this world. Yummy.

  5. Reblogged this on Sole Traveling Mama and commented:
    Having food allergies doesn’t mean you need to forgo travel, even to exotic ports of call. My blogging friend, The Anxious Traveler, shares great tips for how to make it work with dietary restrictions and special needs.

    Happy 2014, friends. Let the adventure and travels begin!

  6. Thank you for yet another great post. I have a severe shellfish allergy but with my epi pen in hand and a bit of research on foods beforehand I am good to go anywhere. I will often write down my allergy on an index card in the language of the country where I am traveling, so that I can just show it to a waiter. I have reblogged your post on my blog – thanks again and happy 2014!

  7. Your style is very unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.

    Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity,
    Guess I’ll just book mark this blog.

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