When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease, I was convinced I would never be able to dine out or travel again. The idea of leaving chefs and waitstaff in charge of my health scared me to death. For a long time, I avoided traveling and eating out altogether. And let me tell you, the world started to feel very small! Eventually, I realized I had to learn the skills necessary to feel comfortable and confident leaving my home with celiac disease. Like anything, it has been a process. I educated myself, pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and made mistakes.
During my senior year of college, I spent six months traveling solo through Europe while writing my thesis about how different cultures approach gluten-free eating differently. I also discussed the effect celiac disease can have on quality of life. When I arrived in Italy, I discovered what a celiac paradise this country truly is—which was not what I expected (hello pasta capital of the world!). It was a breath of fresh air, to say the least. And reason enough for me to move. Though born and raised in Colorado, I am now happy to call Florence, Italy my home!
Needless to say, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on gluten-free international travel—especially in Italy—and I’m excited to share my suggestions with all of you.
Research your destination
Before you pack your bags, it’s important to educate yourself about your destination. Spend a few hours researching, so you’re not left confused and worried when you arrive. Identify safe restaurants close to your accommodations, as well as the closest grocery store. Figure out whether you’ll have access to a kitchen or if you’ll only be eating out. If you’re staying in a hotel, request a complimentary mini fridge (make sure to mention it’s for medical supplies) to keep a few food staples in your room.
Travel with 48 hours’ worth of food
My gluten-free snacks are as essential as my toothbrush. Airports and flights are both notorious for having limited gluten-free options, so I like to be extra prepared and carry two days’ worth of snacks. That way, if I don’t find anything in the airport or when I first arrive, I won’t starve. In addition, I always carry a letter from my doctor explaining that I have celiac disease, and that’s why carrying this much food is a necessity. I’ve only been stopped by TSA once or twice, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Bring your tools
There are three things I never travel without:
First, The Hot Logic Mini, which is like a little personal oven. You stick your meal in it (even something frozen!), plug it in, and it warms the food through and keeps it at a constant temperature until you’re ready to eat.
Second, a collapsible silicone cup. When I have long layovers at the airport, I pack powdered bone broth, get hot water from Starbucks, and make myself warm soup. This cup folds down and stores in your carry-on easily!
Third, this bamboo travel utensil set. There is a new trend of making eco-friendly utensils out of wheat straw plastic (not ideal for a celiac!). As much as I love the idea of saving the turtles, this just stresses me out. 🤣 By using this bamboo set, I can be nice to mother nature AND avoid gluten cross-contact all at once.
Wear a medical ID
This is especially true if you’re planning to travel solo. Wearing a medical ID bracelet is a good way to ensure your needs are being advocated for, even when you’re alone and can’t do it yourself. I have a very simple bracelet that states I have celiac disease and should not be given anything with gluten (since gluten can even hide in some medications these days, ugh!). I also ensure the medical profile on my phone is up to date and has emergency contacts listed.
Traveling to Italy specifically
My personal bias aside, I believe other countries should be looking to emulate Italy’s approach to managing gluten. I have never been anywhere else that understood my diagnosis and took my gluten-free diet as seriously as Italy. If you get an opportunity to visit this beautiful country, here are my suggestions:
Download the AIC app.
The Associazione Italiana Celiachia (AIC) will be your best friend. This foundation was established in 1979 to support and advocate for the celiac community while spreading awareness about celiac disease itself. You will find their well-known red certification sticker on the front window of restaurants that maintain strict protocols for celiac-safe food preparation, and on celiac-safe packaged foods. While you’re exploring Italy, keep your eyes peeled for this sticker!
The AIC also has a mobile app with a map of all certified restaurants across the country, a barcode scanner, and a detailed list of which ingredients are safe. When you download the app, there is an option to try “Welcome Access,” which gets you into the app for two weeks. Check them out here!
Learn a few Italian words.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to speak fluent Italian to enjoy your trip. Truth be told, most people in major Italian cities speak English. But just to be on the safe side and to boost your confidence, it’s a good idea to have a few basic Italian words under your belt. At the very least know that “gluten-free” is “senza glutine.” I recently wrote a post all about celiac/gluten-free Italian vocabulary that’s a great place to start!
Catalin Varela is an American living in Florence. She was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2016 and has since become a Certified Institute for Integrative Nutrition Health Coach with a degree in Health Arts & Sciences. As the founder of The Celiac in Italy, Catalin teaches online Italian cooking classes (all gluten-free, of course!), consults with clients about traveling safely in Italy as a celiac, and is an English + Italian-speaking resource for all things gluten-free Italy. Learn more and follow her adventures on Instagram.