When you’re a newly diagnosed coeliac, simple things like going to the supermarket or going out for lunch with your friends can seem pretty daunting. Throw in visiting a new country, and it can feel like walking into a minefield. However, with a little forward planning, research and confidence, it need not be. In fact, properly planned, the only regret you will have are the extra pounds on your waistline.
Research is your friend
Being a coeliac doesn’t need to hold you back when travelling. You may need to do things slightly differently, but don’t let it restrict you; instead, try to embrace the challenge.
One of the first things I do is to make myself a coeliac travel card in the language or languages of the country I’ll be visiting. For example, if I’m going to Dubai I would take a card in English (for posh hotels) and one in Arabic (for general eating), but I’d also bring one in Urdu/Hindi/Tamil, as kitchen staff might not speak English or Arabic very well. Getting a coeliac travel card is simple; several websites have free versions you can print yourself, and Coeliac UK provides printable leaflets for dozens of countries. If you have additional food allergies, I find Google Translate a wonderful tool. Simply type in your sentence (for example, “I can not eat any foods that contain soy”) and press “translate,” and you are good to go. You can also get apps for your phone, but I tend to stay away from these simply because waiters often want to take the translation card to show the chef in the kitchen. It will also be clearer to read on paper than on a phone.
Coeliac societies in the country you’re visiting can be a great resource. Don’t be afraid if the websites are in another language; just use Google Translate. (For example, if I were heading to Denmark, I would firstly look up “Denmark Coeliac” or “Denmark gluten free”, followed by “Danmark cøliaki glutenfri”.) Emailing to ask about local resources often yields an amazing wealth of information. Some overseas coeliac societies are also on Facebook. These are normally set up by individuals who don’t have a local coeliac group, but they often have an abundance of local knowledge to share. Read blogs, too. Bloggers are people who want to share, so it pays to learn from their experience.
I also research the local cuisine. Many countries have a culture of gluten-free food, but if you ask “is this gluten free?” you may just get a blank look in response. Research the foods you can eat as well what you can’t eat. Before I went to Malaysia, I knew I had to learn about the local ‘safe’ foods. I also learnt the words for foods that I knew contained gluten. This meant on arrival, jet lagged, overwhelmed by the heat, I was able to walk into a restaurant, spot the local safe food on the menu, and ask informed questions to ascertain if it was safe for me (it was).
The safest and probably easiest option when you go abroad is to take a self- catering holiday. This need not be dull and boring, and certainly not repetitive. As with all things coeliac, a little planning will go a long way.
- Investigate the area. Using the internet, use Googlemaps to your advantage and take a virtual walk along the local shopping street you may find out which brands cater to the area! Find out the names of local supermarkets and by looking at their online shop you can discover if they have any gluten free basics. If you find a shopping centre look up the names of the shops on their website and from there have a look at their menu etc. Some places may have gluten free specific menu items eg pizza but you may have to arrange for it in advance.
- Meal plan before you leave home. I know this sounds like extra work, but it actually saves time. If you are cooking for family or friends it’s easier and safer to make all meals gluten-free, as you will probably have limited cooking space (and frankly, who wants to cook two different meals while on holiday?) Plan meals which are easy to cook and take the essentials you will need with you. This year I look a large plastic drinks container with various spices/salt/pepper decanted into self-seal sandwich bags.
- In terms of meal planning, start with grains, and go from there. I like to take a little of everything; that way you aren’t eating the same thing day in, day out. There is nothing more un-holidaylike than eating repetitively.
- Make sure any food items you take on holiday do not contravene airline and border regulations.
- Make sure to double-wrap everything!
- Take a ready meal for your first night. When I went to Corsica earlier this year, I packed an ilumi ready meal for our first night’s dinner. It was fantastic – we had been travelling since morning, and the last thing I wanted to do was hit the supermarket. Instead, we ate our fully-prepared meal and then went for a walk to discover the area.
Here’s a sample 7-day dinner plan:
Day 1 – Ilumi ready meal
Day 2 – gluten free pasta with grilled vegetables and simple sauce
Day 3 – grilled meat/fish with potato salad and vinaigrette
Day 4 – dinner out /risotto
Day 5 – gluten free couscous /millet with a tagine style chicken/fish/veg
Day 6 – gluten free pizza using ready made pizza bases
Day 7 – dinner out
I’ve allowed for two dinners out but kept an emergency meal of risotto on hand if things don’t work out. This tactic came in handy in Istanbul, when one night none of the restaurants we tried could offer a gluten-free option. After wandering around a few places, I aborted our mission and opted to eat from my ’emergency supplies’ instead.
I can’t function without breakfast. I feel hotels should include gluten-free bread as standard; however, I don’t assume it will be available. I prepare for the worst and take my own, but at the same time I do the following:
- I state at the time of booking that I require gluten-free bread. If needed, I translate this into the local language, including please and thank you (politeness goes a long way!)
- I also email the hotel nearer the date, just to remind the staff.
- Then I ask the hotel staff to confirm the arrangement when I’m checking in.
- If I’m booking through a travel agent, I make it clear that my request is essential to the booking. Email the hotel (or write an email and get the agent to pass it on), and insist on a response. Travel agents are great at badgering hotels and resorts.
- If I’m going somewhere remote, like the Maldives, I take along gluten-free bread mixes so the kitchen can make me gluten-free bread. Remember, in some parts of the world coeliac disease is unknown. It is not that people are unhelpful, it is just they have no idea.
I’ll admit it – airports can be a total headache. Even when I know I am going to have a meal at the airport, I still take back-ups with me while travelling. Excellent hand luggage companions include:
- Bars (choose a type which doesn’t melt)
- Rice cakes (the way they are packed they rarely crumble and are not heavy)
- An extra sandwich for the flight
- Gluten free porridge pots
- Fruit/nuts and sweets.
I also try and make sure I pack sufficient snacks for my return journey.
Airplane travel has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Meals used to be served as standard, but these days I always take my own. I also make sure I have enough snacks to last if the plane is delayed. The last time my flight was delayed, I had enough snacks on me but ran out of reading material!
For long haul flights it is possible to order a gluten-free meal; however, I still take plenty of snacks and spare sandwiches. It doesn’t matter if you have to throw them away at your destination; what matters is having sufficient food for twelve hours or more. A hot-water porridge pot is great to have in your hand luggage, because a) it gets through security as it is dry; b) airlines do mess up, and you can end up with nothing; c) airplanes always have hot water.
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