Planes, Trains, or Automobiles: How to Successfully Manage a Gluten-Free Diet on the Road

Planes, Trains, or AutomobilesSummer is fast approaching and chances are, your plans include some type of travel— whether it’s visiting friends or family or taking a full-fledged vacation. Travel can admittedly be one of the most challenging aspects of the gluten-free diet. But this, too, is manageable and has become quite a bit easier as awareness of celiac disease has improved.

I’d like to share some helpful tips for different types of trips, based on my own family’s experiences and the feedback we receive on GlutenFreeTravelSite.com from other gluten-free travelers.

Pack Gluten-Free for a Road Trip
If you’ll be embarking upon your own version of National Lampoon’s Vacation, be sure to pack a cooler. You’ll want to take more than just nonperishable snacks (although those are great, too). Pack your favorite gluten-free cold cuts (Boar’s Head and Dietz & Watson deli meats are gluten-free), cheeses, yogurt, canned tuna, fruit, and condiments. Another easy option are the ready-to-eat, shelf-stable, gluten-free meals and snacks made by Go Picnic. They’re available at many Target and Wegmans stores, as well as online at GoPicnic.comAmazon.com, and Drugstore.com.

For “fast food” meals en route, our family likes Chick-fil-A and Boston Market, which I find to be healthier options with more gluten-free choices. Panera Bread also has many soups, salads, and smoothies that are gluten-free, keeping a list on hand so you can review the options easily. Just be certain to talk to a manager and request that the person preparing your food puts on clean gloves, uses a clean bowl for mixing salads, and is careful to avoid crumb-laden countertops and prep areas.

Set aside some time before your trip to scout out places to shop along the way, since you’ll need to replenish your supply of gluten-free staples every few days. Reliable (yet sometimes pricey) places for finding the best assortment of food include Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, and Trader Joe’s. However, more and more “mainstream” grocery stores are adding gluten-free aisles (or whole sections of the store) or labeling gluten-free items with tags on the shelves for easy spotting.

If you’ll be staying in hotels or motels at night, take your cooler in from the car and be sure to replace the ice to keep your food from spoiling. If possible, request a small refrigerator in your room—and a microwave if available. This will give you a few more options for breakfast in the room.

Snacks to Pack on an Airplane
If you’ve scouted out a “gluten-free friendly” destination and are heading there by plane, you’ll want to request a gluten-free meal if possible. (We list the special meal policies of the major US-based carriers on the Air Travel page in the Resources section of GlutenFreeTravelSite.com.) Keep in mind, however, that unless you’re traveling internationally, most flights only offer snacks for sale. You should definitely bring your own, since it’s rare to find many gluten-free options.

What are the best things to pack? Try fruit, nuts or trail mix (but avoid peanuts in case other passengers have severe allergies), healthy snack bars, dried fruit, and hummus with gluten-free crackers or chips. Pack in disposable containers and bags so you can throw everything away when you’re done. Again, you can opt for an even easier option: one of Go Picnic’s gluten-free packaged meals. Don’t worry about being conspicuous bringing your own food on the plane. You won’t be alone! It’s commonplace now, as many people buy food and beverages at restaurants in the terminal to bring on board.

One final word of wisdom: follow the Boy Scout motto and Be Prepared! Even if you are traveling internationally on an airline that offers gluten-free meals, bring back-up snacks of your own. Speaking from first-hand experience, the meals aren’t always reliable. They may forget your request, or you may doubt the safety of the entire meal if you find they’ve included a (clearly gluten-full) roll on your tray. (This happened to us.)Not having a safe back-up snack can make for a very long flight with a very hungry stomach.

Maintaining Your Gluten-Free Diet When Staying with Family
If you’ll be staying with family, be sure to talk with the person who plans the meals at least a week before your arrival. Offer to help plan, shop for, and cook the meals. Also spend some time online scouting out local grocery stores and markets so you’ll know if your favorite gluten-free staples will be readily available or if you’ll need to pack some favorite nonperishables in your suitcase (like bread, pasta, and crackers).

Try to plan meals that are naturally gluten-free. This will keep things simple, make everyone feel included, and eliminate chances of cross contamination—especially if your hosts aren’t well-versed in the intricacies of gluten-free meal preparation. You might also want to pack some toaster bags.  The Celiac Sprue Association has them available on theirwebsite and Amazon.com offers many varieties, too. These reusable bags allow you to toast gluten-free bread in a non-dedicated toaster while avoiding direct contact and cross contamination. Some people even like to travel with their own cutting board (easy to pack flat in a suitcase) and collapsible colander to use when preparing gluten-free pasta.

Sick of cooking and want a night out? Consider taking the group out to a gluten-free friendly restaurant. This is a great “thanks for hosting us” gesture and allows you to choose the restaurant.

Cooking Gluten-Free Meals When Renting a House
Many of the same principles apply if your vacation involves renting a house with a full kitchen. Find out in advance what markets are nearby and pack favorite “must have” nonperishable items in your suitcase (or in a cooler if you’ll be driving). If you’re among a large group that includes many gluten-loving friends, do your best to encourage naturally gluten-free meals, but understand that pizza and pasta nights are common stand-bys with large groups. Do your best to fix a comparable meal for yourself, and if need be, politely remind others about the basics of avoiding cross contamination.

Dining Out Gluten-Free
If you’re the type of person who believes true “vacations” should include a break from the kitchen (that’s me, if given the choice!), you’ll want to do as much research as possible on sites like GlutenFreeTravelSite.com to read local dining reviews submitted by other gluten-free folks. Make reservations and talk to a chef or manager when doing so. Have them note your dietary needs on the reservation as a reminder.

I also always recommend bringing gluten-free dining cards (available free or for a small fee online from Celiac Travel, Gluten Free Passport, and Triumph Dining) to explain your needs. They are available for different types of global cuisine and many are also bilingual, so a language barrier is never an issue.

Don’t worry if you don’t have time in advance to research and plan a meal out. For more spontaneous dining needs, you can use a smartphone app like our new Dine Gluten Free app (available free for both iPhone and Android devices) to read user-submitted reviews of restaurants and evaluate your options when “on the go.”

A Note About Finding a GF-Friendly Hotel
I recommend one of two options if you’ll be staying in a hotel for more than a night or two. Either book a hotel with a full kitchen for cooking (best bets include chains like Residence Inn, Extended Stay, and Homewood Suites) or splurge and choose one of the following hotels that are becoming known for pampering their gluten-free guests: Fairmont, Omni, Ritz Carlton, and Hyatt. Staying at one of these higher-end hotels may be more expensive, but if you stay at a less accommodating hotel, you’ll find yourself spending a lot of money eating out at nearby restaurants anyway. Condos and time-shares are other popular options for gluten-free travelers who favor exotic destinations but prefer to do much of their own cooking.

Whatever your style and preferences for travel, staying gluten-free need not be a limitation or headache. Plan ahead, keep it simple, and try to enjoy your getaway! Remember that it’s often better to play it safe and opt for a basic, foolproof, gluten-free meal (such as grilled chicken or fish, a potato, and steamed veggies) than risk being sick on your trip. Focus on the new experiences rather than the food, and you just may find you return from your trip without those extra pounds, too!

Written by Karen Broussard