As a travel writer, I’ve made a career out of visiting new places, immersing myself in local cultures, and sampling exotic cuisines. However, navigating these experiences with severe food allergies can be an obstacle, to say the least. I’ve also had to adjust to managing these allergies as an adult.
Adult-onset food allergies are on the rise: Did you know that one in ten adults has a food allergy?! One in four of those adults also developed their food allergy later in life.
Fourteen years ago, I went out for an ice cream sundae with friends, having no idea it would lead to an ambulance ride to the ER. My whole world flashed before my eyes as my throat closed. I dropped the spoon on the floor as I gasped for air. I had no idea what was happening.
Another customer, who happened to be a doctor, told my friend to call 911—I was having an allergic reaction.
I didn’t have food allergies growing up, just seasonal allergies linked to pollen. After a terrifying ambulance ride and trip to the hospital, all was OK. But I was left shaken. I immediately scheduled an appointment with an allergist—I had no idea what caused the reaction, so I wasn’t sure what to eat or what to avoid. After a few skin prick tests, I found out that as an adult I had developed several food allergies.
I was puzzled—how are things I’ve eaten safely my entire life now poison?
Adjusting to food allergies was tough. Many people thought it was a joke and didn’t take me seriously. Some people were in denial and even insisted on serving me foods I’m allergic to! I had to avoid touching family members or kissing them goodbye if they consumed certain foods. Often, I had to bring my own food to family occasions because the meal served didn’t accommodate my allergies. Food is supposed to be something that brings people together—but I’ve found at times it can make things socially uncomfortable.
That said, I’ve taken on a “lemons to lemonade” attitude towards managing my food allergies, and I hope to use my experiences to help others that may be in a similar situation. After fourteen years of navigating adulthood with food allergies, here are some tips I’ve compiled when traveling:
Before I travel to a new place, I always look at menus online and send emails to the places I’m interested in eating to see if it’s safe to dine. If a restaurant provides a written response stating I can dine safely and has protocols in place to avoid cross-contact, I add them to my list. It’s always a good idea to call the restaurant the day of to remind the staff that you are coming, and also inform your server when you arrive. Dining out with food allergies can cause anxiety because you’re putting your life in the hands of the chef. I can’t wait for the Allergy Amulet to launch so I can double check my meal for allergens before I take my first bite!
Flying may be the safest way to travel, but sitting in a confined airplane cabin with poor circulation for extended periods of time can pose a risk to allergic travelers, as they may be exposed to airborne food allergens. In recent news, FARE is fighting for all airlines to require epinephrine auto-injectors onboard every aircraft.
Since no laws currently protect travelers with food allergies, it’s important to select an airline that has policies in place to help keep travelers safe. Many airlines (e.g., JetBlue and Southwest) do not serve peanuts on their flights. They will often let food-allergic passengers pre-board to pick a seat that works well for them, and allows them time to wipe down the seat and tray. I always bring a snack I know is safe in case I don’t feel comfortable with the food that’s served.
It’s hard for many people to cruise and not put on the pounds—but it’s even harder to dine when you’re confined to a ship AND have food allergies! However, many cruise lines are good about accommodating people with food allergies. While policies can vary across the different cruise lines, Norwegian Cruise Line takes food allergies seriously and lets guests pre-order meals the day before. In fact, some of their ships even offer allergy-friendly custom desserts including chocolate pudding and rice milk crème brûlée!
Sunning & Steaming
Many natural sunscreens contain nuts including cashews, almonds, and argan oils, so if you’re heading out to the beach or pool, you may want to wipe down your chair or cover it with a clean towel before sitting down.
The spa is the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate, however, it can bring about anxiety for those traveling with food allergies. Before a spa treatment, I always note my allergens on my consent form. It’s important to ask about the ingredients in massage oils, as they may contain nuts. In fact, some spas offer towels soaked in almond oil, so make sure you ask before touching anything! Before a satisfying soak at the spa, make sure you’re not stepping into a milk bath if you have a dairy allergy. Avoid a rash or swelling by making sure all ingredients being used for your services do not contain your known allergens.
Before you hit the bar and order a cocktail, ask them to hold the garnish if you have a fruit allergy. The same cutting board is often used to cut all drink garnishes, making the cocktail bar garnish tray a cross-contact nightmare.
If you order a mixed drink, make sure the shaker, stirrer, and blender are properly sterilized, not just dipped into a dirty tub of soapy water. When in doubt, order a beer or glass of wine. Salute!
Lauren Jablonski is a writer and photographer for travel, wellness, entertainment, and lifestyle publications/brands. She has severe food allergies that she developed as an adult—but she doesn’t let that get in the way of getting to her destination! She loves promoting places and products that are allergy-friendly and she does her best to educate and advocate for positive change for people with life-threatening food allergies.