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.

6 thoughts on “How to Travel on a Special Diet

  1. Dear Rita,
    Thank you so much for this post. I’m having to start learning a whole new way of eating; most fruit is out, as are sugars, dairy, wheat and caffeine. Probiotics and kombucha are in 😉
    Traveling this way will be a learning curve, so I appreciate your tips.
    But… Isn’t it likely that eating at McDonald’s and Burger King will wreak havoc on your system regardless of location?

    • Hi, healingpilgrim! I swear by strolling through the local supermarket wherever you go. Even countries like Kazakhstan, Macedonia, and Namibia have ready-made health food in the deli sections of the local supermarket chain. IMO one of the best ways to eat like a local and stay healthy!

  2. Excellent advice. Flying also tends to make me have to go to the bathroom every five minutes, which isn’t the case normally. Is it something about elevation? A good tip is to get an aisle seat if this is the case. Maybe also avoid alcohol, as tempting as wine or whiskey might be during a 12 hour flight.

  3. Hi sonatono1,
    Many people have the same issue, a lot of it having to do with not being active while sitting on a plane, whereas if you were on the ground being active you’d be losing a lot of moisture through your skin. I just pity the people next to me who had to get up five times on the flight to India so that I could use the loo.

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