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Food sensitivities & travel

How can a person deal gracefully with food sensitivities while travelling? I'm talking about a medical issue (that they take responsibility for on their own), not that they just don't like or aren't familiar with something. Milk, for instance, is everywhere and deeply cultural. For a person who cannot digest milk or who has another food allergy, what tips do you have to avoid it without creating concern, offense or cultural misunderstandings, especially when there's a language barrier?

Posted by
6742 posts

In my experience as a non-meat eater, people in Western Europe (the focus of this forum) are now fully aware of such issues. And milk consumption is declining like it is in the USA (not so for cheese, though). Add the fact that English is widely spoken, and you're unlikely to run into major issues.
Further east, it gets more complicated; I go to Russia for business on a regular basis, and avoiding cream and/or butter would be quite the challenge!

Posted by
10876 posts

Perhaps have cards made up in the language of where you are going (so you can communicate effectively) the medical need to avoid certain foods, ingredients or whatever is the issue.

When you are ordering food, if you have any doubt you are being understood, you can produce the card.

Posted by
15804 posts

What countries will you visit?

In general, I don’t think you need to be concerned about offending anyone by declining certain foods, but in some areas some foods are so much part of the culture that it may be difficult to avoid your problem food. Milk products such as cheese in Switzerland, for example. I am lactose-intolerant and manage in Switzerland by avoiding cheese and milk products as much as possible, but I carry Lactaid pills for times when I cannot. (Or whanI want to eat some ice cream, just because). (Also note that most hard cheeses are low in lactose and not a problem for those of us with this problem).

In most cases, careful ordering will take care of the issue, but for some countries it may be useful to carry an allergen card as suggested above. But depending on the particular sensitivity, and the country you visit, allergen foods may be indicated on the menu. In the European countries we have visited, many menus indicate gluten-free foods with a symbol, for example. But I do not recall seeing lactose-free indicated on a menu.

Posted by
2767 posts

I travel with someone with celiac disease - requires a gluten free diet. Some countries are easier than others (Italy is easiest!) but in general you can work around it with some planning.

Carry an allergy card in the language. Most waiters are happy to help figure out what’s safe if they understand the issue. Learn the cuisine ahead of time so you know what’s likely to be an issue and what common foods are probably ok for you.
Also I find renting apartments super helpful. Sure, you CAN mess with restaurants 3+ times a day but it’s just easier to occasionally not have to worry about it. A cooked meal, or just an assortment of grocery store things set out for one meal can really put your mind at ease.

And even if you eat all your meals out, buy snacks at a grocery to keep with you. Fruit, snack bars, chips, nuts, pretty much anything can be bought there. Specific allergy friendly food is also available (dairy free yougurt etc). If you have a fridge you can also store meats and eggs.

Many restaurants list allergens. There’s a code with a letter for each allergen.

For dairy specifically, vegan restaurants are available in big cities. A search for “vegan restaurants in X” will pull some up.

Posted by
7048 posts

people in Western Europe (the focus of this forum) are now fully aware
of such issues.

I didn't realize that Western Europe - and specifically only urban areas - was the focus of this forum. I don't think there is as much a difference between Western vs Central vs Eastern Europe (all places where people on this forum are venturing) as much as an urban-rural divide. I struggle with this question myself, as I would like to visit rural areas in Bulgaria and Romania ( and also in Ecuador) and do a type of homestay where a local family does most of the cooking. This is very different than going to a restaurant in Paris and just letting the server know what you don't care to partake of - that type of transactional interaction is easier to deal with. I don't have any sensitivities but I don't eat meat and haven't for a majority of my life. I don't know how I would tell that to a farm/homestay host without appearing insulting (and I'm sure there would be a language barrier as most of these folks would not be speaking in English). Being a vegetarian may be seen as odd, elite, foreign, etc in many rural cultures like Maramures in Romania. I still haven't figured out how to deal discretely with this.

Posted by
4431 posts

Agnes, are the homestays arranged by an organization? If so, chances are the hosts are vetted and informed about alternative diets. Ask the organization how they handle it.
I understand the concern, however.

Posted by
1075 posts

My son is gluten-free, dairy free, and we had zero problems in Spain, France, Italy, or Switzerland. Enough menus are in English, many waiters speak English, and if you do a little bit of research ahead as to foreign menu names and use things like Google translate, you’ll be fine. Also we saw many items marketed as gluten-free.

Posted by
4431 posts

I also found it helpful reading travel blogs of people with food sensitivites for the country I was visiting. I learned a lot about Spain and gluten free eating...once uou get past the bread tapas, they are very aware and mark menus accordingly. Just like in North America, they also listed other allergens. If necessary, ask to speak to the cook or write down in appropriate language for the server to take to the cook. Server may not know personally.

Posted by
36 posts

I can’t have dairy and I have had no issues with milk, cheese, etc. when communicating my restrictions. I haven’t had a glass of milk since I was about 4 years old so I honestly wouldn’t even think I would be offending someone if I declined. I also agree if you’re worried to have the words written out in the local language and maybe a sentence explaining the issue.

I have eaten with local familes, and definitely smile politely when declining certain foods and eat enthusiastically what I can. If I’m considered rude I can’t really do anything about that... its not worth getting sick over.

Posted by
2070 posts

I’m very allergic to strawberries so I made a card in the applicable local language as ‘Joe32F’ suggested. I’ve only had to produce them a few times (Switzerland & Norway) but felt it was worth a few minutes for peace of mind.

Posted by
13675 posts

Welcome to the Rick Steves forum! I guess I'm curious as to why you are asking? Are you planning a trip and do you have allergies?

I'm vegan (which is a lifestyle choice so not the same as allergies) and I have cards printed out in various languages saying I am vegan and generally don't have a problem. I've been vegan long enough that dairy does upset my stomach so I know when I've gotten it.

I will also add that I would not choose to do any kind of home stay where I would risk offending someone because of my food choices. Sometimes I've been put in the position on a tour (either Rick Steves or Road Scholar) where a venue has made something special for me but have got it fairly wrong. Since I know eating non-vegan stuff won't kill me I bite the bullet and eat some of it.

To the OP, let us know the context of your question. Where are you planning to travel?

Posted by
7048 posts

Agnes, are the homestays arranged by an organization? If so, chances
are the hosts are vetted and informed about alternative diets.

No, not necessarily - some can be booked directly. "Alternative diets" is not a concept that's uniformly available or acceptable everywhere, so I don't take it as a given. I'll just have to learn how to get around it somehow.

Posted by
4132 posts

My sensitivity is also everywhere and deeply cultural. I have an issue with salt. It makes my feet and ankles swell. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to avoid.

I can have reactions from eating out anywhere and had a slight problem in Scandinavia. But I've never had the severe reactions I had in Portugal and Spain this past summer. No amount of hydration or elevation helped. It started about 4 or 5 days after I arrived in Portugal and didn't abate until about 3 days after I got home.

I could wear my lace-up every day short boots, but after those first few days in Portugal, I couldn't even put on the flats that fit perfectly when I left home and while I was in Amsterdam before I went to Portugal. I guess the food was equally as salty in Spain, or else the swelling would've gone down while I was there.

Dolt that I am, I never thought to ask for "no added salt" like I do at home. Food almost anywhere is salted in the cooking, as well as after.

My next trip will be to Ireland. I've been told that asking for no or limited salt in the cooking is futile, but I hope a request for no added salt will be honored.