Traveling 101: Road Tripping It With Food Allergies
Updated: Jun 26
This is a tough one - traveling may be one of the most difficult things any food allergy family must navigate. While extreme levels of planning are second nature and a daily practice for food allergy parents, the degree of preparation necessary increases by leaps and bounds when taking the family on the road. And, I'll be honest: we don't totally have this one down. As with anything, we've learned much through trial and error, and we are constantly striving to make traveling as easy and safe as possible for our family. While we roadtrip it often, we haven't ventured out to very exotic locales either. We aren't there yet. My hope is that we will continue to learn and grow in our confidence, and one day traveling outside of the country, for example, will be a possibility for our family. But, for now, there are some strategies that we've adopted that have made our trips fun, even with food allergies along for the ride.
This is key and applies whether traveling to the beach or a foreign land. The more you know ahead of time about the city to which you are traveling, the more successful you are going to be at navigating your allergies on the road. Here are a couple of specifics:
If you are a food allergy family, it may be helpful to stay in a place where you have access to a kitchenette and the ability to prepare your own food. Our family always opts for a hotel suite, condo or vacation house over a regular hotel room when we have the opportunity because it allows us this food freedom and takes a considerable amount of pressure off. So, research your options - and if these kind of accommodations are available, jump on it.
Since vacations include at least some eating out, research the restaurants in the area where you will stay. Once you've identified some dining options, call ahead and speak with a manager or chef about their food allergy policies, and do it BEFORE you leave on your trip. Having this information ahead of time will make it considerably easier for your family when trying to find a safe place to eat; it's never fun to do this legwork when you are starving (trust me, I speak from experience). But, also, don't ever hesitate to simply bring your own safe food to a restaurant. We do this ALL of the time with our two boys. We bring something from home that they will love, and I simply pull out their food when the food for the rest of our table arrives. We've have never had a server or manager give me a hard time about playing it safe like this.
If traveling to a theme park, water park, museum or any type of tourist attraction, it's a good idea to research them in the same way you would a restaurant. What types of dining accommodations do they have? What types of snacks are available? And, most importantly, what are their policies for bringing in outside food? Most tourist attractions are flexible when it comes to allergies and bringing in safe meals from the outside. Just call to make sure that you don't need to make any special arrangements ahead of time to allow for this provision.
While On the Road
Plot out your stops. We've done this a couple of different ways. If we know that it is going to be a shorter drive during which we'll only need to eat one meal, we'll usually pack that meal from home. But, if we are going to eat at a restaurant along the way, we research our route ahead of time and identify a few spots along that way that have restaurants with which we are comfortable and have eaten before.
If you eat at a restaurant, choose a heavily populated area. This may seem like a quirky one, but it does provide our family with a level of comfort. If we do stop at a restaurant to eat along the way, we make sure that it's in a heavily populated area, not in a itty bitty town with nothing around it for miles. My thought is that if my boys did ever have an allergic reaction due to cross contamination or some unforeseen circumstance while on the road, I want us to be in a place where there is quick access to emergency care.
Bring lots of safe snacks. If you stock up on a plethora of safe snacks for your road trip, you will always have reserve of back-ups in case you get stuck and are, for whatever reason, unable to find something safe to eat. I know that no one wants their child to eat a dinner of snack bars, pretzels and cookies, but if that's what's safe, then that's by far your best bet.
Once You've Arrived At Your Destination
ALWAYS HAVE SNACKS. Yes, I'm mentioning this again - snacks. Safe snacks will save you in a pinch! Stock your purse or bag up with plenty of things that you know will fill up your child when you are out and about on your vacation. I also like to pack some sweet treats, too. I can't tell you how many times a little sweet surprise has totally made my boys' day, especially when they are surrounded by so many yummy looking things that they can't eat.
Keep plenty of antibacterial wipes on hand. In that same bag of yours, don't forget antibacterial wipes. While soap and water is always the best way to ensure that allergen proteins are removed from surfaces and hands, your wipes are your next best line of defense. Use them often when traveling. We actually had a unique need for our wipes on our most recent beach trip when a random little boy who had been playing with our kids and sharing our beach toys left us for a moment, only to come back eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My husband told the child's mom about our boys' allergies while I simultaneously handed her a package of wipes. I was so grateful that we had them in that moment.
Pack your patience and flexibility. Please don't leave home without these two things! You have to go into this knowing that, yes, your food allergies are going to add an extra level of stress and planning that the average person does not have. But, you've got to be patient - with yourselves and others. If you make some mistakes along the way (as we have), don't beat yourself up; take what you've learned and do better next time. And, make sure that you are flexible. You might have to change course when you're having trouble finding a safe place to eat, or maybe you have to settle for a menagerie of snacks for dinner one night. It's OKAY. At the end of the day, your family deserves the vacation memories that will last a life time. And, the truth is that those memories are in your reach. Make it happen... because you can!