I've dealt with varying levels of intolerances, sensitivities, and allergies for the last 15 years. that on it's own can be difficult. but for the past 5-ish years, I've been living in and traveling to various countries where I don't always speak the language - which is even more of a challenge.
back in my early expat days, I wrote about how I coped with allergies abroad. my symptoms have gotten worse since then [even since last year when I had my first allergy tests done] but thankfully I've developed better strategies on how to make traveling with allergies easier.
to be clear: none of my allergies are life threatening. I am able to tolerate low amounts of many things I am allergic to, and therefore can take more risks than some when dining out. but I wanted to provide advice for those with sensitivities and dietary restrictions that went beyond "print out your allergies in the local language" or "just don't eat anything." [seriously, I once found an article where someone suggested travel as a great time to fast to keep you from eating allergens. eye roll.]
do your researchwandering without a plan and just stopping to eat wherever looks good when you get hungry sounds like a fun and carefree way to travel. but if you have allergies, you know it doesn't really work that way. instead: plan ahead. I always try to look up restaurants and recipes for local dishes before I get on the plane. that way I know of a place or two I can go to eat when we arrive, what's on their menu, and which items are likely to be safe to order. it means planning ahead instead of being spontaneous [and on occasion, it means I will drag Husband across the city for a special trip to find Jamie-friendly pizza] but knowing where I can safely eat is worth it.
depending on the local cuisine and regulations, and of course your specific allergies, some destinations will be easier to navigate than others. New Zealand and Vietnam were fantastic for eating gluten free - one because of gluten free bread alternatives and the other because the food is mostly rice based. I literally cried with joy when I discovered that in Prague [and Vienna as well] the EU requires restaurants to provide you with allergen information on thier menus. not everywhere is so easy, but planning ahead can save you headaches [and stomach aches!]
be able to communicatewhile you can certainly translate your allergens ahead of time to print out and bring with you for handy reference, I would also recommend springing for a simcard on your phone. as much research and planning you might do beforehand, you can't anticipate everything. being able to look up restaurants, menus, and ingredient translations on the go can be a lifesaver. the Google Translate app now allows you to take a photo and translate a menu or label [even Chinese characters] and you can type in your questions for the waitstaff. this has helped me out in so many situations!
another potentially life-saving reason for purchasing phone service while traveling: in case of emergencies. hopefully you will never need it, but knowing you have a way to contact emergency services in case you have a serious reaction can give you [or your loved ones back home] peace of mind.
take a cooking classknowing how a dish is made, the ingredients that are commonly used, and best of all - being able to ask a chef questions - can be an invaluable experience. I've done this in Vietnam, in Bali, and almost in Turkey. [we didn't, since after explaining my allergies to the chef, I was told that I wouldn't be able to eat anything we made in the class.] most chefs are accommodating for allergies, and want to help you learn about and enjoy the local cuisine - safely. try to schedule a class at the beginning of your trip, and you'll be able to use your new knowledge throughout your stay.
go grocery shoppingbooking lodgings with a kitchen isn't always practical [or affordable] but being able to cook your own food is the easiest way of controlling what you eat. even if you aren't equipped with so much as a microwave, you can still make use of the local grocery. picking up a loaf of bread and peanut butter, replenishing your snack supply, grabbing a salad or other prepared foods can take the guesswork out of restaurants. bonus: this usually saves you money too.
be prepared to face difficultiesnot to be a downer, but dealing with allergies while traveling will probably not be easy as [gluten-free] pie. you will have to play 20 questions with the wait staff, the chef, and anyone who will listen. you will have to attempt to translate through language barriers and cross cultural divides that may not beleive in allergies, and deal with people who feel they are being inconvenienced by your health issues. you might have to send your dish back if it comes out wrong. and you still may end up with something in your food that you can't eat anyway.
it can be incredibly frustrating. I've had restaurants do everything from flat-out ignoring my request for no shrimp because I'm allergic [even when explained in Chinese by a local friend] to telling me "I don't think you should eat here" after I explain all of my restrictions.
and sometimes, your conflict will be with your fellow travelers. I have been talked into eating things I knew I shouldn't on many occasions - usually because I didn't want to eat granola bars for dinner when everyone else ordered pizza. know what your body's limits are and be honest about when and where or what you need to feed yourself.
pack snacksI cannot stress enough just how essential snacks are to travel survival. I am always hungry, so even before my allergies got bad I would always carry snacks. now I bring even more. did it suck that half the weight in my pack for our month-long trip last summer was vegan protien bars and gluten-free oatmeal packets? yes. but knowing I had breakfast covered and a stash of emergency "there's nothing I can eat here" snacks was worth it. once I knew enough about local foods [or used that handy Google translate on ingredient lists] I could replenish my stash with items safe for snacking.
always bring your medicationas I mentioned before, thankfully, none of my allergies are life threatening. but I always travel with benadryl just in case. if you have an epipen, bring it. if you use pepto, immodium, lactaid, etc then pack more than you anticipate needing. don't assume you will be able to buy your usual medications [or an acceptable substitute] while traveling. better to be unnecessarily over-prepared than to find yourself trying to communicate your digestive issues in a foreign pharmacy. trust me, I've been there.
all this is not to say I've never let my dietary restrictions get in the way of my travels [or, to be honest, my life.] the truth is: ensuring my food is 100% safe is sometimes impossible, and I've had some pretty miserable days on the road when things went wrong.
however. traveling with allergies is difficult, but not impossible. despite the challenges I am willing, and thankfully able, to still travel. [even on days I have to get by on packed snacks, coffee and wine.]