When people discovered we were heading on a RTW trip we often heard the phrase “Gee You’re Brave”. When they then found out that I had life threatening food allergies and was travelling with anaphylaxsis they usually couldn’t pick their jaw up off the floor.
Today on the blog I wanted to share my personal story of travelling around the world with food allergies because you see, you can be afflicted with both allergies and a never-ending case of wanderlust.
In my experience a lot of ‘travelling with allergies’ experts don’t have allergies themselves. That isn’t to say that their information is not correct or valuable. However I feel many people who live with allergies are looking for others to share a personal story with personal tips –someone who has walked in their shoes.
I have lived with life- threatening allergies for almost a decade with adult onset anaphylaxsis to a range of foods. In that time I have had numerous hospital admissions and ambulance rides. I know what I am allergic too. I know how to avoid cross contamination and I always carry adrenalin auto-injectors (which we call EpiPens) here in Australia.
I have also lived with a desire to see the whole world for as long as I can remember. Studying geography at school only fuelled my childhood dreams of becoming a National Geographic Photographer and capturing images of exotic, far away destinations. While I never grew up to work for National Geographic the dream to travel internationally only intensified over time.
I can understand how people would consider anaphylaxsis and international travel unlikely companions. Adventures off the beaten track, away from the familiarity and security of known things increases the risks for all travellers. A desire or wish to fulfill a dream does not cause me to turn a blind eye to logic or commonsense. Yet I was unwilling to give up on a lifelong dream. I was determined to work around where possible, and within when needed, my limitations.
Tip 1 – Plan Ahead
I don’t know anyone who has woken up and decided “today I am going overseas” and sojourned away. All travel requires some degree of planning. When you have allergies it just takes a little more. I prepped for my adventure RTW for about 6 months prior to departure. In addition to organising flights, travel insurance, passports and accommodation I factored in the planning for my allergy safety net. I chose to think of this with a positive attitude. I wasn’t focusing on worse case scenarios. Thinking ahead allowed me a degree of mental freedom while on the road knowing all the issued had been taken into consideration.
Tip 2 – Choose your destinations carefully
When planning where we were going to visit I had to think carefully about the destinations I was going to and how my choices would either increase or diminish my chances of coming into contact with allergens. Were we going to destinations with a lot of packaged products with reliable food labelling systems or would be we visiting countries with a lot of street stalls and ‘on the spot’ cooking situations?
Would I be likely to find alternatives at these destinations or was I choosing countries where my options would be limited? I never crossed a destination off my list due to food allergies but let’s be honest, some countries take more logistical planning then others.
Issues such as language barriers had to be taken into account as well as medical facilities in the event of an emergency. Travelling with a small child meant we were already factoring these issues into our travel plans but I had to make sure not to overlook my needs in the planning stages.
For our RTW there was a mix of all the above mentioned experiences and our travel was kicking off with Stage 1 in Asia. I was starting by ‘eating the frog’ or facing the most challenging experiences first.
Tip 3 – Work with your Doctor
In the lead up to our RTW trip I worked with my doctor and specialist to ensure I was prepped for travel. Personally I was taking medication to lower the sensitivity of my system to allergens. Diet wise I was minimising certain food to keep my histamine levels low to reduce the severity of responses if they occurred. For anyone who is travelling, the fitter you are prior to departure the more enjoyable the travel experience will be.
I had my Dr write me prescriptions that I was able to carry around with me. We also discovered the generic and brand names of the medication I would be needing in the countries I would be visiting.
My doctor wrote out a travel plan for people at risk of anaphylaxsis. He also wrote documents which I then had translated that explained my need for the medication and the quantities I was carrying to facilitate movement through airport securities and customs.
We were trekking across Spain on a 5 week hike as part of our adventures. I am someone who uses the 2 epipens and I am also known to rebound when the adrenalin wears off. For this reason (plus hubby is a nurse) rather then take a stack of Epi Pens with expiry dates my doctor also allowed me to take vials of adrenalin with syringes.
Tip 4 – Carry the medication with you at ALL times
I can still remember being freaked out travelling through Singapore airport with all the syringes, vials of medicine and Epi Pens. I was sure I was going to get questioned and somehow end up in prison. I was freaked out having to tick the are you carrying any drugs with you today box on the customs arrival cards.
My worry was totally without cause. In all of the airports we travelled through were were never once stopped and questioned regarding the medication or Epi Pens. Yes I was nervous putting them through the sensor and x-ray but the research says that Epi-Pens are better to be scanned because radiation is so minimal and the less they are handled the less the chance of the device misfiring through incorrect handling.
My advice is to not risk having the correct paperwork. It is always better to have multiple copies of letters and authorised documents. If your Dr is unsure contact the embassy staff in your home country of the country you will be visiting and ask what you will need to be cleared through security without issue. Do not risk it with “someone on a forum told me it would be okay”.
Tip 5 – Air Travel
The next major stress for people with allergies travelling is planes due to the confined nature of the space and your reliance on your passengers to do the right thing. In the press recently was a young girl who had an anaphylactic reaction when a passenger 4 rows away opened a packet of peanuts.
So you need to carry your medication on board with you. Do not check your medication into your suitcase.I want to emphasise DO NOT TAKE RISKS IN THE AIR WHEN AWAY FROM MEDICAL HELP.
Like I said, the first time I had to travel overseas with medications, I was worried about airport security. But as long as your medication is in its original packaging and is clearly labeled, you shouldn’t have issues. If you’re concerned about carrying an Epipen on your flight, just ask your doctor for a note explaining what the medication is for and why you need it. (For the record, I’ve never been asked about my Epipen by airport security.)
Now I don’t have a nut allergy. I am allergic to onions, chives, shallots, capers and rockmelon. Travelling on a plane would be fare more difficult if I was allergic to nuts. Yet it can be done.Having flown many, many times this is what I suggest for tree nut allergies.
- Call the airline you plan to fly with and asking about their policies and ways they suggest minimising risk. While many airlines will change their in-flight snack options during the flight if made aware of your allergies, they can’t guarantee an allergen free flight because they do not have control of the behaviour of the other passengers on the plane.
- When you book your flight tell your agent about the allergy and ask that this information is shared with the gate staff and the flight crew. Remind the company when you confirm your booking and when your check your baggage.
- Arrive early at the departure lounge and make yourself known to the gate staff.
- If possible choose an early morning flight. The planes are cleaned at the end of the day and so early morning flights have less chance of having residual crumbs or food on seats.
- If you have a travel companion ask them to go to your seats first. Have them wipe down any of the areas you will be coming into contact with while in your seat.
- Request cabin crew to provide you with a spare seat if flying in a row of three. Most cabin crew are happy to do this if there are spare seats on board. This is not about having more space to stretch out. It is about lowering your risk of coming into contact with someone who will exposure you to allergens.
- Pack your own safe food to eat while flying. Check with the airline to see if there are any restrictions as to which types of food you are allowed to bring on board or to your destination.
- Introduce yourself to those sitting around you. You may like to do this with premade little notes with your photo explaining the seriousness of your food allergies. Don’t be embarassed. Being proactive is part of managing your allergy.
Tip 6 -Do your research about food labelling
The stir-fry cooking in Asia was what threw me into a panic but I have had more hospitalisations in developed countries with packaged foods. Please remember to read all the labelling when overseas because manufacturing guidelines change and so do ingredients. Don’t assume that the tomato sauce you buy at home will be onion free when bought in the United States.
Vigilance can be tiring but it is necessary. You need to measure relaxing and unwinding on holiday with exposure to risk.
Tip 7 – Plan your eating out and accommodation
If you plan to be eating at high end restaurants then simply calling ahead to determine whether the restaurant can cater for you will be all that is required, just like at home.
However if you are staying in cheaper accommodation then I suggest you choose an apartment or a hostel where there are self-catering options. At times we picked up cheap cooking implements and used those ourselves to cook dinners risk free. I know I am unlikely to encounter my allergens at breakfast or in a dessert so if we want to sample local produce or eat out we choose these meals.
People have asked me about BBQs and even cooking the meat on a piece of foil so it doesn’t come into contact with the hotplate where onions have been is a good measure for me personally lowering risk.
If you are somewhere that a buffet meal experience is on offer I would personally avoid it like the plague. People without allergies see an abundance of food. People with allergies see a cross contamination nightmare.
I want to share one story I experienced with allergens and cocktails. Most people picture kicking back next to the pool with a cocktail or three to relax after a long haul flight. Sounds perfect doesn’t it. If you have a food allergy you also need to remind the bar staff and have someone watch the drink being made.
I remember ordering a drink – not a fancy complicated cocktail, and with one tiny sip I knew there was an issue. The drink, was a capriosca and didn’t contain any of my allergens. Heaven forbid I was becoming allergic to vodka. Hubby raced back to the bar and it turned out the bar staff had rimmed the glass in a melon liquer before placing it in the sugar which was on the rim of the glass. That one sip of the beverage turned out far from the relaxing experience we had been searching for.
Tip 8 – Plan for language barriers
No one wants to cause someone with an allergy injury or harm. The easier you can make it for people to help you the better off you will be travelling.
I strongly suggest you invest in some allergy cards. I was fortunate enough to be gifted mine from a friend but there are plenty of companies that make them. Mine had images of the food with a line across it, similar to a No Smoking sign. It then had a list of all the foods I was allergic too translated into the language of the countries I was visiting. I had about 20 different cards on the little keyring – one for each language.
This proved invaluable for waitstaff and often it was taken to show the chef too. Even when we were sure the waitstaff had understood the look on their face and the head nod when they read the card showed that a message in the home language (even when people speak English) is much better received.
In my whole RTW trip I only had one reaction. People say “well you were just lucky” but it wasn’t luck. I chose to take measures to keep myself safe. I was informed and vigilant while on the road. I was able to manage both anaphylaxsis and wanderlust.
Tell me – do you have any personal stories of travelling with allergies or a family member with allergies?