As I watched TSA swab my jar of peanutbutter, I thought back to the good old days–not the days before Sept 11 when airplane security was less rigorous, but back to the good old days when I didn’t have food allergies and celiac disease. My biggest concern before becoming An Allergic Foodie was what shoes to pack. Now, I begin hyperventilating while making an airline reservation. What will I eat it? Where will I eat? What if I have a reaction? Should I just stay home with the dog?
I made many ignorant mistakes in my early days of traveling through airports with allergies. Let me share a few.
Mistake #1. “Surely, I’ll find something in the airport to eat.”
Wrong. I’ve wandered through some of the largest airports in the U.S. and come up with zilch. Too many times I’ve drooled over my husband’s burger or pizza slice while eating a bag of potato chips and an overripe banana. On occasion I’ve hit the jackpot and found a restaurant with a menu I can eat off, but this is like finding a four-leaf clover in a field of dandelions.
Now I always carry a lunchbox with me and keep it by my side as if it’s full of diamonds. The plastic salad bowls with built-in ice packs are great for chicken salad and quinoa salad. I fill snack-sized bags with carrots, sliced peppers, and apple slices to replace the standard airplane pretzels.
Mistake #2: “Peanutbutter is not a liquid.”
My husband travels every week for business and he even thought peanutbutter wouldn’t count as a liquid. But it did. Because it was the only protein I had with me, we allowed TSA to swab a spoonful. Now I know that if I want to take peanutbutter, or applesauce, or yogurt, it must be under 3.4 ounces and placed in a plastic bag.
Mistake #3: “I’m starving! I’ll take a chance.”
It was midnight and there was only one restaurant open. Having to use sign language wasn’t making me feel too confident that the waiter understood “no dairy, no soy, no wheat.” In retrospect, being hungry for another few hours would have been better than what happened next.
Mistake #4: “It’s a short trip; I’ll eat when I get there.”
Yeah, how many of your short trips have turned into 12-hour ordeals? And being irritable from low blood sugar and a grumbling stomach does not help one negotiate with the ticket agent. Don’t just bring one ham sandwich on gluten-free bread–bring two. Statistically, you can pretty much count on a flight being delayed.
Mistake #5: “I ordered a special meal.”
We were going to Italy and I ordered a gluten-free/lactose-free meal, thinking there’d be something I could eat. What I didn’t know is that airlines can only put one code in for a meal: GFML for gluten-free meal and NLML for non-lactose meal. There may have been a vegan option too, but those always scare me because I’m allergic to tofu (soy).
Somehow I got neither meal–maybe the two codes cancelled each other out? The flight attendants felt horrible and kept bringing me apples and bananas. Fortunately, I had frozen some allergy-free turkey and ham with me that I nibbled on throughout the long flight. Beware: You’ll have to throw away any food you take with you when you enter another country so eat it before you get off the plane.
Mistake #6: “Sure, I’ll have a second glass of wine.”
Hey, I got upgraded and the wine was free. I just couldn’t eat any of the foods in the snack pack. Actually the hummus was allergen-free for me, but my seat mate gave me the evil eye when I tried squirting it into my mouth. Eating wine on an empty stomach is never a good idea.
I’ve been traveling for six years now with food restrictions and it has gotten easier. Airports are offering healthier options including gluten-free menus, though I’m not sure how confident I am about the service folks being aware of cross-contamination issues. Allergy-friendly snacks have started appearing in the convenience stores, too.
At the recent Food Allergy Research and Education conference, I had the opportunity to hear Kim Koeller of Allergy Free Passport, share some tips for airline travel, staying in hotels and dining out with dietary restrictions. She says, “There are three keys to safe travel and dining out: education, communication, and preparation.”
To learn more about traveling safely with celiac disease and food allergies, visit Kim’s website: Allergy Free Passport and check out her popular series “Let’s Eat Out Around the World Gluten and Allergy Free.”