Many times we have no control over things in our lives.
If you’re like me, sometimes you are dealt shitty genetic codes, like being allergic to peanuts.
And just not get-a-rash-and-feel-sick-to-your-stomach allergy, rather have your-throat-swell-shut-and-go-into-anaphylactic-shock-and-die kind of allergy. Thanks fate, I really appreciate that one.
Though to be honest, I haven’t really let that fact change how I live my life in any way shape or form, except that I generally avoid Thai restaurants.
Until I almost died in Dublin and I started writing about my food allergy and sharing with the world, I haphazardly assumed that other people dealt with food allergies in the same way. Talk about being naive!
You see, I forget I have a food allergy all the time. Never in the forefront of my mind, it only occurs to me when something triggers it, like eating a certain type of food or if I smell a dreaded peanut.
Since I shared my story here and on CNN, the response has been surprising, to say the least, and not always in a good way. I’ve gotten an overwhelmingly negative response from people telling me they wish they could travel but are way too afraid because of one food allergy or another. Oh, and they think I’m crazy.
Well let me let you in on a little secret, I think anyone who doesn’t travel and cites having a food allergy as an excuse is crazy. Boom. In fact, those are the type of people who would probably not travel anyways.
While having an allergy that might potentially snuff out your life can be a pain in the ass, letting it dictate how you live is another matter entirely.
After around 7 years of traveling and living abroad, with very few peanut incidents and only almost one fatality, I’ve come up with my 5 best reasons why having a food allergy shouldn’t keep you from traveling.
1. Traveling teaches you to not be uptight or picky
I used to be really picky with foods. Then I moved to Spain, land of random pig parts and octopus, and that quickly went out the window.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed an alarming trend among travelers – picky eaters. “oh, I’m sorry, I don’t eat gluten. Oh, I can’t eat red meat. Whole milk will kill me.” You know who I am talking about. Those people annoy me to no end.
There is a difference between “can’t eat” and “won’t eat,” right?
Unfortunately, those kinds of people are also ruining it for the rest of us who have serious and/or fatal food allergies. While I might not be a fan of beets and they make me gag uncontrollably, they won’t kill me or make my throat swell shut, where there IS a strong likelihood I’ll snuff it if I eat peanut butter.
This means that I have to be extra careful when explaining to waitstaff about my allergy, and I also make a point to say that my allergy could kill me, you know, so they can’t mistake my message.
I also try to explain it in a way that is not condescending or arrogant, instead I try to be very apologetic and friendly. A smile and an “I’m sorry to inconvenience you but…” gets you so much further than a pissy, self-entitled proclamation that the restaurant staff should bow down before your dietary requirements.
Trust me on this one. You want those people on your side.
While I still take my peanut allergy pretty seriously, I have also learned to not let it control me while traveling. A lesson I couldn’t be more thankful to have learned.
2. No one is trying to kill you on an airplane, unless you’re Qatar Airways
So this one time, Qatar Airways tried to kill me with peanuts. Twice.
Once is forgivable. Twice gets you on the top of my shitlist.
As a general rule, over the years I’ve learned the best way to manage my allergy on flights is by notifying the airline in advance so they can make sure not to include peanuts as a snack on board – they all have chips or secondary snacks to serve.
Locked in a tin tube with no way out while hundreds of other people snack on peanuts around me is a disaster waiting to happen, and one that can be avoided with a little preparation and people doing their job.
Unfortunately, while I held up my end of the bargain, Qatar Airways failed to do so. Twice.
I was flying Qatar Airways to Europe from Australia in October and I called them a week in advance as soon as my ticket was booked to let them know I had an allergy, since this was over 20 hours of flying time with them. Then when I arrived at the airport in Melbourne, I informed the staff when checking in and, surprise surprise, they had no mention of it in their system.
Do you know how long it takes to get hold of an agent when phoning an airline? Forever! So glad I wasted 30 minutes of my time a week before calling them.
Though it gets even better.
Superficially apologetic, the check-in staff made a bunch of phone calls and tried to sort it all out. Then they tried to blame me, telling me I needed an official doctor’s note and a bunch of other nonsense. I’m sorry, but no other airline has ever asked me for that in almost a decade of near-constant travel, and if that was a requirement, surely they should have informed me of that when I took the trouble to call them in advance.
They then proceeded to tell me that if I did in fact have a severe allergy, I wasn’t allowed on the flight due to liability.
You have got to be kidding me!
Giving me a look, I had to decide whether to say “oh my allergy isn’t so bad,” or wait a day for the next flight, spending another night in Australia, losing the London-Dublin flight I booked on a separate carrier, my first hotel night in Dublin, AND missing the first day of a conference which was the only reason I was going halfway across the world. Oh, and I flew over from New Zealand just for this as well. So, did I really have a choice?
So thank you Qatar Airways for putting me in the worst position in the entire world.
I had to bring all my own meals on the flight with me, and I took sleeping pills the whole way and slept with a blanket over my head looking like a hobo so I wouldn’t smell peanuts.
Of course, any notes they made were lost in transit in Doha, so the second flight in London had no information about any of this even though I was told they would be informed. Fabulous. And when I tried to explain to the Qatar staff in the airport about my allergy, their exact response was “What do you expect me to do about it?”
And the best part? The EXACT same thing happened on my return from Rome a month later, even though I notified them twice by phone.
Moral of the story? Don’t trust airline customer service to do their jobs and double check any special allergy requests by phone in advance, ask to speak with a supervisor and follow up at check in. Oh, and don’t fly Qatar Airways if you have a peanut allergy.
3. Eating like a local is one of the best ways to experience a new place
One of my favorite ways to experience and get to know a country is through the food. You can learn a lot about a culture through taste and smell, and I would definitely be missing out on those learning experiences if I refused to eat like a local when traveling.
In my opinion, as long as you are careful and conscious, you can still eat what you want when traveling even if you have a life threatening food allergy.
Personally speaking, the food that is most prevalent with peanuts nowadays is in Asia and in hipster English-speaking places. This means I am SUPER careful around any sort of Asian food or restaurants where the staff have beards and serve drinks in mason jars.
My mantra is sniff before you eat. Peanuts have a distinct smell. Sometimes I make my friends eat something before me, or I even take a tiny bite and don’t swallow, just in case, though I don’t recommend that way for everyone.
Brown noodles? Eyebrows raised. Asian soup that’s not pho? Maybe not. Hipster burger joint? Definitely not.
In all my years around the world, my worst peanut incidents were in foods where peanuts are not usually, if not ever, present. In a banana smoothie in Dublin and on a gourmet pizza in New Zealand. I should also add that my very worst incidents all happened back home in the US. Glean from that what you wish.
Research the foods of the countries you plan to visit and see if whatever you are allergic to is common there.
To be honest, peanuts are not common in most of the world. In Spain, they don’t know a peanut from a walnut and they certainly don’t cook with them. This means it’s worth researching a place before writing it off.
Personally, I can’t wait to visit Thailand one day, and I won’t let having a peanut allergy that could kill me keep me from going.
4. Life is about taking risks
I know that is a bold statement, and I do not make it lightly.
I think people are taking their food allergies and blowing them out of proportion nowadays, especially moms. They are using it as an excuse to control or as a justifier for fear. And while it certainly shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten, it also shouldn’t control your life. Maybe this will change if I become a mom one day, but I can only speak for myself and my experiences in the present.
I am sure this opinion will get me hate mail, but I don’t care. I have one of the worst cases of food allergy out there but I will not let it stop me from following my dreams around the world.
At the risk of sounding cliche, I am much more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a rogue peanut. Am I more cautious around cars than food? Probably not but I should be.
At the end of the day I would have preferred getting to spend a week in Ireland with my best friends, even though I almost croaked, than not getting to go to Ireland at all. Is that horrible to say? I hope not, but that’s how I feel.
I just wish I had thought to smell my smoothie first. But rest assured, I always smell my smoothies from now on, and I am deathly frightened of bananas in liquid form.
On taking risks though, while I don’t think we should let fears or food allergies get in the way of travel, I do think we ought to be clever and pay for travel insurance, in case anything unexpected happens. At least you won’t have to pay for medical treatment! I’m amazed by how many people don’t give a rat’s ass about travel insurance. I use World Nomads, whose policies are customizable AND affordable. They can also be altered easily online. 100% recommended! Especially for adventure travel!
5. Travel is the best
No two ways about it, traveling is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have in the world. It’s something I recommend to anyone, and I have no shame in admitting it has, and continues to shape and change my life. Usually for the better.
I would never be where I am today if I didn’t take risks, culinary, physically, or emotionally, and I owe a huge part of it to travel.
By its very nature, travel yanks you out of your comfort zone, and if you suffer from a food allergy like me and your comfort zone is already smaller than average, that pull can be a hard and challenging one.
But rest assured it’s for the better. At the end of the day, any travel experience is worthwhile, even the bad ones, and it can make you a better person, in more ways than one.
Do you have a food allergy or know anyone with a food allergy? How do you cope?
More resources for people with food allergies:
- 5 Tips For Traveling Safely With Food Allergies on Care2
- Food Allergy Research and Education
- IAMAT – Traveling with food allergies
- Trouble-free Travel for Families with Food-allergic Children
- Allergic Living
- Allergy Safe Travel
- Allergy Translation Cards