Though traveling abroad creates increased risk for people with food allergies, there is scant scientific literature about the difficulties involved.
One recent assessment, done in the UK, was the first in-depth look at the challenges faced, and strategies employed by food allergic travelers. Researchers interviewed adults with clinical histories of peanut or tree nut allergies to assess their travel experiences and allergy management behaviors.
The study revealed participants used a variety of tactics – generally informed and appropriate – to minimize the risks that traveling entails.
Strategies Used By Food Allergic Travelers
You may recognize your own traveling strategies in these UK study results, or find helpful tips for your next adventure.
A foreign language was generally considered a travel challenge by the research participants unless an individual had some knowledge of their destination’s language. Several interviewees opted to visit only English speaking countries; a few only traveled within the UK. Some individuals avoided high-risk food countries such as China where many dishes contain nuts or peanuts.
The travelers tended to feel more comfortable in countries whose native cuisine they regularly consumed at home (e.g., pastas), and generally preferred vacations where they maintained control over their food choices.
Air Travel Issues
Airline issues were the most problematic for study participants, primarily because of the inconsistent information and responses offered by airline staff.
As might be expected, nut-allergic travelers expressed a mix of positive and negative flight experiences. What contributed to feelings of safety were practices such as not handing out peanuts, asking other passengers to not eat nuts during the flight, and the crew “keeping a watchful eye out” for allergic individuals. Negative experiences included a man being served nuts after making the airline staff aware of his allergy.
Interestingly, travelers on long flights were more reluctant to reveal their allergy to airlines, fearing they might, for instance, be offered a poorer choice of foods. Those taking shorter flights were more likely to carry food with them and either skipped airline fare, or waited to see what was being served before deciding.
Medical Care Accessibility
Some nut allergic individuals avoid all activities in remote areas where medical help is less accessible, while others describe taking more risks where medical care is available. Several participants complained their allergy put a crimp on spontaneity when staying in remote areas. Planning, which included establishing where the closest hospitals were at all locations, played a large part in travelers’ sense of safety.
Many study participants vacationed at familiar travel destinations where they had come to trust those handling food preparation. Others did not let unfamiliarity determine their plans, but took extra precautions such as purchasing or making allergy translation cards, and/or learning to recognize allergy-related words (e.g. peanut, cashew) in their destination’s language.
Other precautions included carrying extra auto-injectors, taking a comprehensive first aid kit, and wearing Medic Alert bracelets that included a phone number for emergency instructions.
Avoiding High Risk Foods
Participants expressed a general tension generated by desiring to dispense with inhibitions while vacationing, but having to always be on the lookout for allergens.
Some travelers restricted themselves to plain foods when traveling, such as opting for a simple steak instead of a foreign dish. They indicated this was “boring” but safe. Participants typically made a point of avoiding restaurant desserts in foreign countries, believing they are likely to contain nuts.
Several individuals chose to only buy food at supermarkets and prepared their own meals. While reading foreign food labels was daunting for certain participants, others felt safe as long as they recognized the word for their allergens.