Home Travel Tips Eleven Tips for Traveling with Celiac Disease

Eleven Tips for Traveling with Celiac Disease

by David Cohen
Gluten-free Bantam & Biddy Greek Salad w Roasted Chicken

Gluten-free Bantam & Biddy Greek Salad w Roasted Chicken

In April 2019 I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease where eating gluten, even trace amounts, leads to long-term damage in the small intestine. Currently, the only treatment for Celiac Disease is to adopt a gluten-free diet. But, as many of us who have been diagnosed know, sometimes we continue to experience immediate symptoms and damage to our intestines even when we avoid gluten.

For me, committing to the gluten-free diet when I’m at home has been relatively easy to adhere to because I can control the type of food available and follow strict kitchen protocols. But, as an avid traveler, the gluten-free lifestyle has always been challenging when I’m on the road, especially in rural areas. Most restaurants, cafes, bars, and breweries aren’t well-versed in Celiac safety, or just don’t view it as a priority for their business. For anyone living with Celiac Disease, it’s not as simple as ordering foods that are naturally gluten-free. We also need to make sure that we are avoiding cross-contamination.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned and adjusted to traveling with Celiac Disease through a lot of trial and error. Here’s a few tips that will help make traveling with Celiac Disease safe and enjoyable.

Research Celiac-Friendly Restaurants Beforehand

It takes time and energy to map out your meals ahead of the trip, and you’ll never plan everything out. But the more research you do prior to hitting the road, the less stressful your experience will be. I lean a lot on Find Me Gluten Free, which is the holy grail of gluten-free dining. This is a free app that uses crowdsourcing to determine the most Celiac-friendly restaurants wherever you are. Users of this app rank restaurants based on their safety and quality, and there is even a feature that enables you to search for dedicated gluten-free restaurants. Another reason to plan ahead is because you can be sure to book an advanced reservation for any highly rated restaurants amongst the Celiac community. Another tool that I have utilized in the past is the Gluten Dude App, but it requires a subscription fee of $5.99/month. This app ranks restaurants, but also includes a gluten-free beer finder and a dedicated section for gluten-free airport options.

Pack Celiac-Friendly Gluten-Free Snacks

For a road trip, pack a cooler of gluten-free snacks. Prior to being diagnosed with Celiac, I never thought to do this. It was easy to pull off the road in any town and find a local restaurant or some fast-food wherever I got hungry. But passing by a Celiac-friendly restaurant is too random to rely on, so you’ll want to pack healthy snacks and of course a few treats. It may not be as convenient, but it’s a lot healthier than stopping at Micky D’s or Subway. Some of my recommendations for road trip snacks include GFB Gluten Free Bars, fresh fruit and salads packed up in containers, nuts, yogurt, peanut butter spread on rice cakes or on gluten-free bread, and Emmy’s Organic Cookies. The same strategy goes when flying. You don’t want to depend on the airplane having a gluten-free option, or the airport vendors having variety.

Make a Stop at the Grocery Store

Once you arrive at the destination, hit up the grocery store and stock up on some of the staples. Depending on my lodging situation, I usually go with fresh fruit, cereal, milk, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter and rice cakes at a minimum.

Consider an Airbnb Over a Hotel

Most Airbnb’s give you the flexibility of a full kitchen and equipment to cook with, which is helpful for preparing some of your own meals, especially if your destination is lacking Celiac-friendly restaurants. Prior to being diagnosed with Celiac, I would typically wake up and grab a bagel at a café or grab breakfast at a hotel buffet to get a quick start to the day. But this isn’t a reliable option when you’re living with Celiac, so a kitchen can come in handy. The other benefit to having your own kitchen is you’ll likely save a lot of money on meals.

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I’m certainly not suggesting cooking all your meals. After all, sampling local cuisine is one of the highlights of traveling. But at the end of the day, working some meals in gives you the best of both worlds.

Book Hotels with a Kitchenette

Airbnb isn’t always going to make sense depending on costs, your length of stay, or the location of the Airbnb in relation to where you want to be. When booking a hotel, there are a few factors to consider for a better travel experience. If possible, book a hotel that comes with a kitchenette. Hyatt House or Residence Inn by Marriott usually come equipped with a kitchenette, and there a several others. A microwave is a nice to have, but a mini fridge is a must have. If you have a microwave, you will have the flexibility to prepare some quick gluten-free meals.

Great Gluten-Free Options for the Road

A great option for breakfast is the GFB Protein Oatmeal Cup. Top it off with some nuts, a side of fresh fruit, and a cup of yogurt for a healthy start to your day. When preparing meals later in the day, some microwave options to consider are Kevin’s Natural Foods chicken dishes, rice bowls, Beecher’s Mac & Cheese, Lotus Foods Ramen, and there are a variety of gluten-free soups. The refrigerator and microwave combo will also allow you to store and reheat leftovers from any Celiac-friendly restaurants that you may have ventured to. If you only have a refrigerator, you will still be able to keep milk and yogurt cold and fruits fresh. Call room service and ask for some bowls and spoons and you can have cereal, yogurt, and fresh fruit each morning before you start your day.

Book Hotels Near Celiac-Friendly Restaurants

This is all about convenience. It will make the start of your day quicker, as well as give you a potential late-night food option without having to Uber across town. Prior to being diagnosed with Celiac, I was a big fan of the hotel bar for dinners because of its convenience, especially when traveling with my toddler. But what I’ve found is that many hotels don’t have much in terms of Celiac-friendly options at their on-site bar or restaurant. Choosing a hotel that has a Celiac-friendly restaurant within walking distance helps with this.

Embrace Being a Regular at Celiac-Friendly Restaurants

Bantam & Biddy gluten-free omlet hash browns and grits

Bantam & Biddy gluten-free omlet hash browns and grits. Photo by David Cohen for Amazing America.

On some trips, there may only be one restaurant you’re going to eat at. When I traveled to Amelia Island last year, Celiac-friendly restaurants were limited, and we dined at Bantam and Biddy for every meal. But we couldn’t have been happier! The food was outstanding and almost every day we tried something new, with a few favorites that we ordered multiple times. It took away all the stress out of finding a Celiac-friendly restaurant and allowed us to use our energy on the rest of our travel experiences.

On a recent trip to New York City, I ate every dinner at Bistango. Unlike Amelia Island, New York has many Celiac-friendly restaurants, but Bistango was within walking distance to my hotel, had enough variety for me to change it up every night, the food was phenomenal, and I never got sick. By the end of some of these trips, you become a regular and form a connection to the restaurant and its staff, which adds to the experience.

Talk to the Waiter or Waitress

Even if you feel safe going into the situation, let them know that you have Celiac Disease and ask about cross contamination, shared fryers, and shared surfaces. Sometimes I articulate it as a “severe gluten allergy,” because I feel that not all people know what Celiac Disease is, but most understand what a severe gluten allergy is. If the waiter or waitress seems confident and knowledgeable about their precautions, it gives me reaffirmation. If they seem unsure, my intuition may tell me to pass on the meal.

Test Your Food for Gluten

If you want extra peace of mind, invest in Nima Partners gluten tester. This technology enables you to take a small piece of your food, add it to a capsule, and within minutes the sensor will tell you if gluten is detected. While I’ve never used the Nima products, I know that they’re highly regarded by some in the Celiac community.

Travel with a Partner Who Understands

I love traveling with my wife. Although she does not have Celiac Disease, and is very much a foodie, she understands the challenges that people in the Celiac community experience. I know that she’d love to eat every meal out and try different places when traveling, but she goes with the flow, helps with the research, and never makes me feel guilty for my health restrictions.

Travel is never going to go perfectly smoothly, especially when living with Celiac Disease. You’ll inevitably have a bad meal, a difficult time finding a Celiac-friendly restaurant, forget to pack some snacks, or get accidentally exposed to gluten at a restaurant even though you took all precautions. Try not to let these minor setbacks derail you from having a great travel experience. Cut yourself some slack, and don’t let Celiac Disease prevent you from experiencing all the fun that’s out there and all the memories you’re about to make!

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