Traveling Made Easy
Gluten-free travel specialists take the effort out of traveling
In the early years after our son was diagnosed with celiac disease, traveling meant we were essentially “on our own” in uncharted territory. This was way back in 2005, before “gluten-free” was a household term. My research for any trip involved calling chefs at resorts to have lengthy conversations (and in many cases educating them on what it meant to prepare a safe gluten-free meal). At one well meaning resort, we’d finish one meal, and I’d immediately have to track down the chef at the restaurant where we had decided to eat our next meal. I’d begin all over asking about ingredients, preparation methods, and labels.
But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and it was actually after this particular trip that I began my work launching GlutenFreeTravelSite. The vision was to give people a place where they could share reviews about their good (and bad) dining and travel experiences with others in the gluten-free community.
But even with the help of peer feedback on websites and apps like mine, I still find myself wanting someone to help with the legwork and details of planning trips. In short, I’ve realized how much travel agents are still very much needed.
That’s why I’ve often enlisted the help of Lesley Hayden- Hock at Travel Leaders . Although not gluten-free herself, Lesley has worked for 45 years as a travel agent and has spent the past five years thoroughly educating herself about the needs of gluten-free travelers. She has forged relationships with executive chefs and vice presidents of food and beverage departments in numerous vacation destinations in order to help our family – and hundreds of other happy clients – travel without worry.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or the Caribbean, Lesley has dozens of safe options to choose from – places that happily welcome gluten-free guests and take their concerns seriously. Best of all, Lesley acts as your advocate and liaison, asking all the right questions and handling the details of your stay. If a cruise is what you’re in the mood for, Lesley knows which cruise lines are best for gluten-free travelers. She talks to the right folks in advance of your cruise, so you know what to expect – and so the staff is ready to exceed your expectations. Lesley can even make arrangements for spa getaways, honeymoons, and destination weddings (complete with freshly baked gluten-free cakes!).
Right now, she’s coordinating a special 5-night gluten-free getaway in November with Dr. Alessio Fasano of the Center for Celiac Research as the featured guest. The all-inclusive luxury resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya will serve gourmet gluten-free meals to the group. (Space is still available, so if a trip like this is of interest to you, call Lesley at 800-487-6110. )
Apparently I’m not alone in appreciating the high-touch service travel agents can offer. Lesley mentioned that, even in today’s book-it-yourself travel environment, people are coming back to travel agents. Agents can typically match or get even better rates than Internet sites, and they offer invaluable guidance that comes with years of experience.
Ellen Morse of Gluten Free Travel-Us (glutenfreetravel-us.com ) agrees. She said that, although much information (sometimes too much!) is available online, her clients can’t possibly sift thought it all – or they get frustrated and don’t know what information to trust.
Ellen was diagnosed with celiac disease before her first birthday. With 18 years of experience in the travel business creating customized itineraries for clients, she was thrilled when demand for gluten-free travel assistance took off about five years ago. She was finally able to realize her dream of combining her personal expertise navigating a gluten-free diet with her travel knowledge.
Ellen’s specialty, if you could nail her down to just one, would be facilitating travel to places that – up until recently – have been off-limits for people requiring gluten-free diets, including destinations like China, Japan, India, South America, and Croatia. In Asia, she works closely with Wendy Wu Tours , whose local people meet with the chefs in the hotels to ensure all the particulars of preparing safe gluten-free meals. All meals are eaten at approved hotels, and in more challenging locations like China and Japan, Ellen’s clients are given gluten-free boxed lunches to take with them if they venture out for a full day of sightseeing.
Although it varies by country, Ellen typically finds that high-end international hotels (and not necessarily American chains) are often the most knowledgeable about gluten-free food preparation, since their chefs have trained all over the world. However, she says it’s largely dependent on the specific executive chef, and that’s why she and her partners at Wendy Wu Tours meet with the chefs personally to provide strict guidance.
Favorite European destinations that Ellen has years of experience booking for gluten-free clients include Italy, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain, Scandinavia, and France. In these and U.S. based destinations, Ellen typically provides a list of safe restaurants and markets where her clients will find gluten-free options. If clients want to book a group tour with non-GF family or friends using a traditional tour company, Ellen will act as their advocate and make all the arrangements. “Once someone becomes a client of mine, the world is open to wherever they want to go, any way they want to travel,” she said.
If you want a fellow gluten-free traveler to do the planning for you, another great option is to book a group tour with Bob and Ruth’s Dining and Travel Club (bobandruths.com ). Since 1998, they have been planning gluten-free getaways in which Bob Levy (a celiac since 1995) and his wife Ruth accompany all trips.
Bob designs and reviews every menu for every meal of the getaway, verifying ingredients, brands of packaged foods, and methods of preparation. He works with the restaurants’ chefs to incorporate ethnic specialties of the country they are visiting, so that the group can have the most authentic experience. Once the group arrives at each venue, Bob meets with the chef to go through each item on the menu to verify that what they will be eating is, in fact, what they had previously agreed upon. Like Lesley and Ellen, Bob feels responsible for his clients. “We take the safe way or we won’t go,” he explained.
Bob never intended to get into the business of planning exotic vacations for groups of travelers. What began as an effort to gather friends from around the country to travel to a resort in Nassau shortly after his diagnosis has evolved into a travel club that plans 3 to 4 trips and 1 to 2 “mini” getaways each year.
Bob described the wide variety of trips they plan as offering “something for everyone,” including ocean cruises, riverboat cruises, international tours, safaris, getaways to popular U.S. cities, culinary tours, and beach destinations. As opposed to specifically seeking out gluten-free restaurants, Bob prefers to look for really great restaurants and resorts and then work with the executive chef to design a gluten-free menu for the group. He explained, “A good chef looks at it as a challenge.” He also explained that the intimate, friendly atmosphere of small family-owned restaurants often trumps restaurants at 5- and 6-star hotels that can “make it seem like a big favor to put gluten-free bread on the table.”
So what are you waiting for? Contact one of these travel specialists and leave the planning to them!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog (glutenfreetravelblog.typepad.com) and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.