21 August 2013

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 August 21, 2013
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As I am once again getting ready to hit the gluten-free open road (well skies) as I jet off to Istanbul and Montreux (Switzerland) in a couple of weeks — I was reminded of a post that I did for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness last year.  You can view the original post on the NFCA’s Web site or read a newly refreshed version below.

It’s basically my five-point checklist that I always use to ensure that my journey will be as smooth as possible.  My upcoming flights are on a carrier I have not yet flown on — Turkish Airlines — so be sure to check back for a full review of their business class long- and shorter-haul flights.

Let’s face it, we’ve all had that moment of initial panic when we first received our celiac diagnosis. Speaking from personal experience, I know I was completely caught off guard and quite honestly had not even heard of celiac disease before I actually found out I had it. Sounds familiar, right?

Well, that was more than 10 years ago when the gluten-free landscape and celiac awareness were indeed at a very different place than they are today. Fast forward to today and awareness of and catering to celiacs has come a very long way, and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the travel and hospitality industry.

I have been globe trekking since before I could walk, and when first diagnosed thought that celiac disease would throw a wrench into my love of travel.  To be honest, it did at first. My diagnosis came at a time when there were few good gluten-free products and they were difficult to source. Most restaurants had no clue what I was talking about and going abroad seemed to only magnify the confusion. I slowly but surely got back on the proverbial horse when I realized that celiac need not be limiting and that I needed to take control of the disease and live my life on my terms.

Over the years I have developed a few tips and tricks particularly when it comes to traveling with celiac disease, and I am happy to share some of them with you here:

1. All Airlines Are Not Created Equal.

If you are going to be flying, particularly long-haul international, check out a few carriers’ websites to see whether or not they offer a gluten-free meal option – some even provide samples of what they’ll include.  This will depend on length of flight and class of service, but most airlines will have a gluten-free option if your flight has meal service. Yes, some airlines do gluten-free better than others, and I have had some amazing gluten-free meals over the years – some even included a fresh gluten-free roll – can you imagine?  Will the gluten-free meal knock your socks off?  Likely not, but at least it is safe option to tide you over until you land.

The most important tip I can give when flying is as soon as you board, ask a flight attendant if your meal has been loaded BEFORE departure.  Oftentimes if there is a problem they can deal with it while on the ground vs. not being able to do anything at 35,000 feet. On a recent flight, my gluten-free meal was even noted right on my boarding pass – nice!  Another trick I use is when flying in a premium cabin to check out the airline’s online menus for the route. Most airlines have monthly menus for specific routes and these can be accessed online. I scan the menu to see if any of the “regular” options will work for me and more often than not there is something I can have. I have also seen more and more gluten-free snack item choices making their way on board shorter flights, which is always good to see.

Check out some previous international business class gluten-free offerings on LAN and SWISS airlines.

2. Do Your Homework.

This sounds like a given, but just getting a feel for the area you’ll be visiting can help you enjoy your vacation (or business trip) a bit more.  I like to go online and look at the immediate vicinity around where I’ll be staying.  Where is the nearest supermarket?  What dining options are around?  Is there a local celiac group site that gives tips and advice for the area?  If a restaurant piques your interest, check out their menu or give them a ring to discuss whether they will be able to accommodate your needs. There are even an increasing number of hotel chains that now that cater to a host of dietary restrictions and food allergic travelers.  The more leg work you do before departure, the less stress you’ll have at your destination.

Personally, I am extremely loyal to the Fairmont hotel chain and try to stay in one whenever possible.  They have their Lifestyle Cuisine Plus program across all of their hotels that cater to a range of dietary restrictions and needs.  I was lucky enough to try the program out shortly after it’s launch and will be enjoying, what is in my opinion, the finest gluten-free breakfast in the world in just two weeks at Fairmont’s Le Montreux Palace.  Gluten-free croissants.  Enough said.

3. Speak the Language.

Okay, this might be easier said than done but there is an easy solution if you find yourself in a country where you do not speak the language. Printable food allergy cards that you can either buy or download for free online.  My recent trip to Peru had me a bit leery as I do not speak Spanish.  Before I left, I printed out and laminated a few double-sided cards that  had both a celiac disease explanation and shellfish allergy notation that called out what I could and could not eat in detail.  Let me tell you that these were a lifesaver because each time I presented them, the server read them and could immediately tell me what would work for me on their menu. If I was in a location where I thought the cross-contamination from shellfish could be an issue, the servers actually brought the cards back to the kitchen for the chef and kitchen staff to read. I had zero issues or reactions on my most recent journey, which was the first time I have brought such cards along with me – and best of all they were available free online.

For my upcoming trip to Switzerland via Istanbul (yes, via Istanbul) I reached out to a friend from my Ph.D. cohort who just happens to be from Turkey.  She graciously translated some key phrases for me so I now have custom allergy cards for my trip.

4. Pack Accordingly.

No, I am not talking about what clothes to bring – though that is sometimes equally as important.  When I travel, be it by car, train, plane, or horseback (okay, that last one is a bit of poetic license) I always take along what I call my Gluten-Free Contingency Pack.  Depending on the length of my journey, I always carry a bag of nibbles so that I have something to nosh on if I find myself delayed or not having any gluten-free options readily available while en route.

So what’s in my contingency pack?  Well, I am glad you asked.  I typically include a few gluten-free snack items like chips, pretzels, cookies, or snack mix along with a couple meal replacement bars or snack bars.  Okay, and maybe there might be a chocolate bar (or two) in there.  A just-add-water type noodle snack or dry soup is also great to toss in your carry-on and I typically will carry those for ultra long-haul flights of 14 or more hours. I also like to toss a few snack items in my checked bag so I can have a snack at my hotel without having to pop-out to a supermarket right away.

5. Be Flexible.

Flexibility is really key. You might find yourself in a situation with limited knowledge of or availability of a host of gluten-free options. Don’t panic.  Regardless of the situation (and some of mine have been less than ideal) I have never gone hungry while on the road.  Sure, you might not always be able to have exactly what you want, but there will be something – trust me. I have always been amazed at how far people are willing to go to accommodate my dietary needs while on the road.  Also, a little education goes a long way.  I cannot count how many times I had someone on the road say “I had no idea that contained gluten” or “I have heard of celiac, but never knew why you couldn’t eat gluten.”  Just think, the more people become exposed to celiac disease, the less bumpy the road ahead becomes for all of us.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned since my diagnosis is that I will not let being celiac define who I am or dictate what I can and cannot do, and you shouldn’t either.  Life does in fact continue and it’s for the better because I now know why I would get sick after certain meals and in retrospect, pre-diagnosis was actually more limiting than I have found celiac to be.

It’s a great big gluten-free world out there so please, get out there and enjoy it.  Oh, and there will be hiccups along the way – it’s just inevitable – but when they happen, look at them as learning experiences and not roadblocks.  They happen to all of us, gluten-free or not.

Be sure to stay tuned for my upcoming tweets and posts as I take the long route to Switzerland.

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