Changing planes in Amsterdam recently, my family and I stopped to check the departure board for information about our connecting flight from Italy to the United States. The board was huge, with a seemingly endless list of destinations – direct flights to 260 places in 91 countries according to airport figures – each one sounding more exotic than the last. Barcelona, Prague, Mombassa, Lima, Abu Dhabi. I felt like the proverbial child in a candy store, with every destination a tempting and uniquely flavored morsel. Evidently feeling the same way, my middle son asked, “Can we go to Cancun?” It seems that his favorite candy comes filled with white sandy beaches and clear turquoise waters.
Airports have always been a source of fascination for me. A literal gateway to the world, they offered limitless opportunities to experience and understand humanity in a way that couldn't be done by staying in one place. After my celiac diagnosis several years ago, however, my fervor was tempered by fear. I felt I could no longer pick any destination on that airport board, toss a few things in a bag, and be on my way. Instead, I had to worry about trying to get a gluten-free airplane meal, using half the space in my suitcase for gluten-free food, tracking down stores and restaurants at my destination that could provide me with gluten-free food, and possibly having to convey my celiac needs in a foreign language.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming tasks of traveling gluten-free, I’ve continued to roam. Most of us with celiac disease have, whether by need or choice. We take trips to spend time with family or friends during holidays and other special celebrations. We have business meetings in different cities. We take vacations. And some of us just have itchy feet. To keep traveling means to continue living our lives - not letting celiac disease be an impediment to our heart’s desires.
Fortunately, the travel environment for celiacs is starting to mirror what’s been going on in other segments of the celiac world. Meaning, as diagnosis and awareness of celiac disease increases, so does the availability of gluten-free food and services. Many airlines now provide gluten-free meals on long-distance flights. It’s a special request meal (code GFML) that requires advance notice, and should be reconfirmed several days before flying, and then again upon check-in. I also find it helpful to identify myself as a special-meal passenger to the flight attendants when boarding the plane. Note that flights of short duration usually don't offer meals to any passengers, gluten-free or not!
No matter what the flight distance is, I always pack snacks, whether as my sole source of nourishment, or as a "just in case." Most types of food are still permitted to be carried on board, including canned or jarred foods, Jell-o and pudding, and even yogurt. The catch is that no single container of a liquid-type food can be larger than 3 ounces, and all liquids must be carried inside a quart-size clear ziploc bag. There is no limit on other sorts of food such as bread, crackers, cookies, and fruit.
Certain international destinations do have their own regulations about importation of things such as fresh fruit, meat, and cheese, so always check the rules. Gels and frozen liquids necessary to cool disability or medically related substances are also permitted onboard. It is recommended (but not required) that passengers bring supporting documentation, such as a doctor’s letter, for the items. See the Transportation Security Administration website for the most updated information. www.tsa.gov/travelers/.
The wider availability of gluten-free food around the world these days means I can now pack more than one change of clothes for a two-week vacation! No longer found only in health food stores, gluten-free food is often available in regular grocery stores, and sometimes in unexpected places. I’ve stumbled across gluten-free munchies at a convenience store along an Italian highway and at a snack bar in the Amsterdam airport. A recent newsletter from the Dr. Schar Company, Europe’s leading manufacturer of gluten-free food, even announced the availability of its products in select stores in the Czech Republic! But what about far-flung places such as South Africa, Tunisia, and Russia? A geographic search on the Dr. Schar website, http://www.schar.com/, yielded a list of stores selling their products in those places as well. To keep my gluten-free food fresh and intact while on the go, I carry a couple of small plastic containers and baggies.
Likewise, dining out gluten-free is not as difficult as it once was. A query to the celiac listserv usually results in a plethora of restaurant options. Many of these places in the U.S. belong to the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) Corporate Restaurant Program and the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program. Support group websites, such as Alamo Celiac, and gluten-free dining guides also are invaluable resources. For a list of (GIG) branches around the U.S., as well as a restaurant list, go to www.gluten.net/. Worldwide celiac support group information can be accessed at Gluten-Free Holidays. http://www.glutenfreeholidays.com/.
When traveling overseas, foreign language gluten-free dining cards are essential. Fortunately, they are rather easy to come-by these days. They’re also handy when dining in ethnic restaurants around the United States. Triumph Dining (http://www.triumphdining.com/) sells a pack of 10 laminated cards, one each in American, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese. The following company websites also offer gluten dining cards for purchase: http://www.dietarycard.com/, http://www.livingwithout.com/, http://www.menudata.com/, and http://www.selectwisely.com/. Gluten Free Passport, http://www.glutenfreepassport.com/, provides free dining cards, plus sells a multi-language phrase book with French, German, Italian, and Spanish translations. For free gluten-free restaurant cards in 38 languages ranging from Arabic to Urdu, check http://www.celiactravel.com/. Even with dining cards, it’s imperative to learn beforehand about local cuisine, and to carry a cheat-sheet of key ingredient words to help with label reading.
Still, the most important consideration when traveling with celiac disease is the “where.” Some destinations just seem to be easier than others for celiacs, whether due to the lack of a language barrier when discussing the particulars of the gluten-free diet, or due to better celiac awareness and the resultant availability of gluten-free food. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand rank at the top for ease of travel on both counts. Italy, Norway, and Sweden also have received high marks from celiac listserv members for celiac awareness and ease of finding gluten-free food. Gluten-Free Holidays, http://www.glutenfreeholidays.com/, in addition to listing celiac societies from around the world, provides contact information for accommodations that cater to people with celiac.
Researching, sorting through, and making reservations for air travel, ground transportation, hotels, entertainment, and dining is time-consuming. While I think this process is all part of travel fun, not everyone agrees, preferring to leave the planning up to someone else. Though still an extremely small segment of the travel industry, there are several businesses that serve the celiac community. Chief among these is Bob and Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining and Travel Club, http://www.bobandruths.com/. Providing escorted trips since 1999, Bob and Ruth’s has numerous trips planned for 2007. They include a Club Med Winter Getaway to Cancun, a Panama Canal and Southern Caribbean Cruise, a mini trip to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, a Tanzanian Safari, a family getaway to Club Med Sandpiper in Florida, an autumn Baltic Sea Cruise, and a Paris and Provence River Cruise and Tour.
For strictly cruising options, celiacs may want to contact Diane Schaefer at Joy in Travel, located in Louisiana. Diane is a 14-year diagnosed celiac who started the CSA/Greater New Orleans chapter in 1994. Well-versed in the requirements of the celiac diet, she can work with cruise lines, tour operators, and hotels on behalf of the clients for both individual and group travel. Diane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Canadian travel agent, Ms. Sidney Clare, at Travel Professionals International, www.tpiworldwide.com/sidneyclaretpi, similarly arranges group tours for celiacs. Current vacations listed are a Greece/Aegean Sea cruise and a kayaking trip in Belize.
Closer to home, Outdoor Odysseys, http://www.outdoorodysseys.com/, offers sea kayaking trips in the San Juan Islands (WA) during the months of May-September. According to their website, they have itineraries lasting half-a-day up through five days. Primarily whale-watching trips that incorporate bird-watching, historical notes, and camping, they also provide fine cuisine that can accommodate the gluten-free diet.
Alas, our destination that day while changing planes in Amsterdam was not kayaking in Washington, a cruise ship sailing to Cancun, or any other exotic vacation spot. Instead, we were traveling “home” to spend time with family during the recent winter holidays in the cold and gray Mid-Atlantic States. Like a piece of bittersweet chocolate, the trip was intense and rich at the same time. One of my favorite types of candy.