When people would ask me what happens when I eat gluten, I used to joke: “You really don’t want to know!” Wink wink, nudge nudge! But when a coworker (on whom I’d already used my little line) asked me yet again to clarify, I realized that my polite reply was more evasive than explanatory. People were not “getting it.”
So now when they ask, I give the straightforward answer:
Really. Bad. Diarrhea.
There, I said it.
And that’s a great segue to the topic of being socially awkward.
It can be socially awkward having to ask for “special” food whenever dining out or with friends. People often assume that you’re just being picky or that you’re into annoying fad diets.
But I’ll tell you what’s even more socially awkward: The panic of sudden-onset diarrhea! Having to run for a toilet because you consumed something you shouldn’t have!
Feel free to scroll past this overly dramatic bit to get straight to the GF Travel Tips below!
What if you’re out somewhere with no toilet for miles? Like on the hike from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg in the Swiss Alps, with nary a tree or bush for cover in sight?
What if you’re with a tour group in the middle of the Louvre, admiring “Liberty Leading the People,” when all you want Liberty to do is lead you to the WC … ASAP?
For sufferers of this unfortunate digestive issue, the fear is real. So, let’s look at ways to eliminate the risk. After all, the last thing we want is for your food allergy or intolerance to keep you from traveling.
And the good news is, it doesn’t have to!
GF Travel Tips
I’m writing with a focus on European travel, but many of these tips can be helpful no matter where you’re headed.
A little bit of prep work will go a long way in giving you peace of mind as well as peace in your belly during your trip.
To help explain your dietary needs and to avoid misunderstandings, prepare translations into the language of the country you are visiting. You may want to have the translations already printed on a note card that you can just whip out and show when needed. If you are Celiac or suffer from severe gluten intolerance, you might think about printing these pre-made travel cards. You can even have them laminated to extend the life of the card. And because laminating is strangely fun.
Don’t assume they’ll know what gluten is
Some countries are great when it comes to knowing about gluten and celiac disease. (I’m looking at you, Italy!) But others need a bit of help.
Keep in mind that in some places — even if you’ve got the proper translation — locals might have no idea what gluten is. To avoid misunderstandings, I recommend explicitly mentioning that you cannot eat wheat, barley, or rye.
Also, even if you suffer from a food intolerance, as opposed to an allergy, it may be easier just to translate something like “I am allergic to barley, wheat, and rye” into the local language, to keep it simple and to the point.
Some translations that may be useful for your travels: English: I am allergic to gluten. I cannot eat barley, wheat, or rye. Do you have products/dishes without gluten? French: Je suis allergique au gluten. Je ne mange ni orge, ni blé, ni seigle. Avez-vous des produits sans gluten? German: Ich bin allergisch gegen Gluten. Ich darf keine Gerste, Weizen, oder Roggen essen. Servieren Sie Gerichte ohne Gluten? Italian: Sono allergico/a al glutine. Non posso mangiare orzo, il grano, o la segale. Avete prodotti senza glutine? Spanish: Soy alérgico/a al gluten. No como ni cebada, ni trigo, ni centeno. ¿Tiene productos sin gluten? Turkish: Ben de Gluten alerjisi var. Arpa, bugday ve cavdarla yapilmis yemekleri yemem yasak. Glutensiz hazirlanmis Yemek Servis ediyor musunuz?
A good phrasebook can be very helpful for providing these sorts of translations. Just confirm ahead of your trip that the particular phrasebook you choose has the dietary translations you need. In addition, Google Translate can also be a great resource for this type of translating.
Do a Google search
Speaking of Google, you’ll definitely want to use it before your trip to search for local eateries that offer gluten-free alternatives. You might be surprised by the little treasures you’ll find!
Doing a Google search in advance will also help you figure out which local specialties are naturally made without any gluten ingredients. For example, when in Spain, I love eating Spanish tortilla, which is traditionally made without gluten: just potatoes, onions, eggs, salt, and oil. Of course, you’ll always want to confirm the ingredients locally, but it helps to travel with ideas of “safe” local specialties that you might be able to try when you get there.
I would also recommend searching for health-food stores in the towns or cities you plan on visiting, as health-food stores across Europe generally carry a range of gluten-free products.
It’s true, you can search for these things once you’re in Europe, but – especially if you’re planning on visiting smaller towns or villages – it’s good to know ahead of time what food options you’ll have available to you, which will play a role in determining the next point on my list.
Bring some gluten free snacks with you from home. I always travel with a bunch of bars to hold me over in case I’m in a bind. After all, who wants to suffer from hangriness on the road? My favorites are LÄRABAR and KIND Bars, but there are so many too choose from, that you probably already have your own favorites!
On my most recent trip to Europe, I actually brought a loaf of my favorite gluten-free bread from home. (Although I’d never recommend doing that if you’re sure you’ll be able to pick supplies up locally.) In this case, I knew that I was staying at an AirBnB in Istanbul for the first five days of my trip, so the bread from home helped to supplement the delicious breakfast supplies I was able to get locally.
Contact your hotel
If you plan on eating breakfast at your hotel, be sure to email them ahead of time to find out if they have gluten-free options available for breakfast. Sometimes they can accommodate this, but it is best to give advance notice so that they are stocked up on their gluten-free supplies when you get there. At several hotels I visited in Italy earlier this year, they apologized when they brought out their gluten-free stash, because there wasn’t very much left in stock. If I had let them know I was coming, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
Prepare your own meals
While enjoying local cuisine is a wonderful part of traveling abroad, if you know you’re going to be somewhere particularly tricky for gluten-free travel, you can plan to prepare more of your own meals. Apartment rentals, such as AirBnB, make it easy for you to cook for yourself – so that you can control the ingredients you consume. And you’ll still be able to partake in many wonderful offerings at local markets.
For those who cannot tolerate any traces of gluten, an apartment rental might be the best way to go. Suffering from severe gluten intolerance or Celiac disease does make traveling more of a challenge. But, with careful research and planning, it can be done! Celiac Associations Around the World is a resource to help with your planning.
Packing your own picnic is another way to be sure you know exactly what you’re eating, since you’re the one determining what goes in your basket. Plus, picnics are budget-friendly and fantastic on mountain hikes, in local parks, or while people-watching in cute town squares. Your translations will still come in handy at the local market. Or at the health-food store you so diligently Googled before your trip.
If you are traveling with a tour rather than independently, be sure to speak to the tour company in advance to see if they will have options available for your dietary needs.
Bigger cities tend to have more options
As a gluten-intolerant traveler and Europhile, I want to assure you that I have always been able to make it work on my trips throughout Europe. I’ve always been able to find food options (occasionally by supplementing with my own snacks along the way). And, the great news is that gluten-free travel has gotten easier and tastier in recent years as awareness has grown. If you are new to travel, and are in the process of trying to figure out where to go, you might want to bear in mind that bigger cities tend to have more options available.
In short, gluten-free travel is not only possible, but it can be downright delicious! Hopefully these tips will encourage you to get started on planning your next trip today! Bon voyage and bon appétit!
I’d love to hear about your own GF travel experiences! Do you have any tips to share? Eateries to recommend? Or special moments that come to mind? If you do, please share them in the comments section!