Guest Post: Travelling on a Special Diet

by Melissa on July 24, 2013 · 4 comments

Once upon a time, travelling on a special diet meant bringing your own food. I remember becoming a meat eater again in a restaurant in Colorado, where the choice was basically, iceberg lettuce or a steak. The steak won.

Let me first confess; I am a foodie. I love to eat great food both at home and when we travel. Being on a special diet is a challenge for me. I’m happy to report that I can travel and eat well with a little advanced research and planning.

I’ve been on special diets as both a lifestyle choice and for health reasons at various times in my life. My conclusion: those who eat a certain way as part of a belief system have an easier time.  It’s their choice and they control it. When you’re on a diet for health reasons it can be very frustrating. For starters, this may not be the way you’d choose to eat, given your druthers. You’re eating this way because the alternative makes you ill and in some cases can even kill you. Doesn’t mean you like it. If you’re like me, you at least want it to be easy or at least doable. My latest challenge was food sensitivities. In restaurants, when I told them I was on a special diet, they’d ask me what I couldn’t eat. In truth, the list of what I could was way shorter. I was able to travel on this and, whatever your special diet is, you can, too. It just takes some advanced research and planning, a pinch of flexibility and a good sense of humor.

travelling on a special diet These days with so many people on gluten-free, carb-free, meat-free and other special diets, it’s become a lot easier. Restaurants and supermarkets have seen the writing on the wall and are stocking a wider range of foods, but you’re still not home free. Here are 5 tips for successfully travelling on a special diet, no matter what it is.

1) Research

The Internet is a great tool for researching your food options in advance. What restaurants in the area look promising? Are there specialty food stores and farmers’ markets? Once you’ve found some restaurants, contact them to see if they can and are willing to work with your special needs.  I once get a yes at a pricey restaurant that was really a no. The creative chef didn’t want to work with my food list. It would have been much better if they’d just said no.
travelling on a special diet
Contact local markets to see if they stock special foods you need. If they don’t, ask if they know who does. If there’s a language barrier, the country’s tourism office or the local tourism folks may be willing to help you. There are always Google translations if you can find menus on line. See if there’s an organization in the area that deals with people with the same special needs that you have. They could be a wealth of information. Pick destinations where you can eat. There are places where you’ll just be miserable. Avoid them. Some countries and even continents with their rice and vegetable-based diets are made for travellers with special needs. Travel to those.

2) Don’t assume, always ask!

I remember a vegetarian friend getting excited over rice and beans in a Mexican restaurant. Rice and beans, according to Diet for a Small Planet, the food bible of the day, combine to make a complete protein. The assumption was that beans are vegetarian. True, except when cooked with lard, bacon, etc.  A simple question could have fixed this one.

You know when you ask the Chinese restaurant if they use MSG and they say, “no.” and then you get that tell-tale reaction. They really don’t, but it’s in the prepared food they use. Years ago, I became a label reader. I need to know exactly what’s in that prepared food and you may, too. While you can’t read the label in the restaurant kitchen, they can. If they’re not willing, perhaps it isn’t the place for you.

3) Bring your food list

If there are certain foods you can’t eat, or if like me, your list is of those you can, bring your food list with you. If it’s short, put it on a card-sized piece of paper and laminate it. You can even translate them into the languages spoken where you’ll be travelling. If it’s a longer list, a piece of paper works. Laminate it to preserve it from all those hands and kitchens it will be in. Make sure that you have a copy of the list on your travelling electronic device so you can print if you need another copy.

For more upscale restaurants, make a reservation in advance and tell them what your special dietary needs are. Offer to send your list in advance if that will help the chef. I was so restricted at one point, I would give the chef my list, minus the foods I didn’t want to see on my plate and tell him to surprise me. With my issues, I felt it was the least I could do. Sometimes, easy adaptations to existing menu items will do the trick.


If there’s something you really can’t do without and know that a restaurant (or entire area of the world) won’t have it; bring your own. If you’re bringing it through customs make sure it’s something they allow. The chances of them searching in most places are slim; but what if you have contraband and they find it? Best case scenario, they confiscate it. Worst case…. Well, that’s part of your research.

5) Cook it yourself:

If you want to eat well and maintain your special diet, cook it yourself. If you’re staying a few days here and a few days there, this is not feasible unless you book a short-term stay in a place that offers a kitchen. But, in truth, it’s hard to travel with groceries. Consider changing your travel style. Stay a bit longer in one place and rent an apartment or a cottage. The benefit is you’ll get to know the place better and you’ll have control over what you eat. We like to travel this way whenever we can because we love shopping in local shops and farmers markets, taking advantage of the local bounty they have to offer.

travelling on a special diet

Some people who can and do eat whatever they want (and that may be your travelling companion) don’t understand the challenges travelling on a special diet can be. I’m here to tell you I’ve done it and it’s okay; sometimes, even fabulous. You may have to give up that baguette in Paris, but where else can you see the Eiffel Tower and the Seine? What are you waiting for? Grab your list and see the world.

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About the Author: Billie Frank is a freelance travel, food and features writer based in Santa Fe New Mexico. A former print journalist, she now writes for digital magazines and blogs. Her blog, Santa Fe Travelers is a treasure trove of information on the oldest capital city in the USA. Billie is also co-owner of The Santa Fe Traveler, a trip-planning and tour business. You can find Billie on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


*Photo credits to Jodi Ettenberg, Steve Collins, Cassie Kifer


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda @ Adventure Year July 25, 2013 at 8:19 am

Such a true and helpful post. I was talking to one of my friends who is afraid to study abroad because she has Celiac and can’t eat gluten. I told her it was absolutely not worth passing up, though! This is great for people to read.
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Heather July 26, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Great tips! I fall into the ‘eat everything’ category, but when I’m out with friends who have dietary restriction I really feel for them. Sometimes it’s a choice, but sometimes it’s much more serious. Being in tune with yourself requires sacrifice and can be painful at a restaurant, but everyone who does says that it’s totally worth it. Stay strong and don’t back down!
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Lauren August 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm

GREAT post! I’m severely gluten intolerant and mildly lactose intolerant, and always struggle when travelling. I’m most worried about my trip to the Ukraine in October – between a language barrier and country where gluten is basically a staple, it’ll be interesting. I plan to bring my own snacks, oatmeal packets, etc so I have stuff in a pinch, but I’ll definitely be employing some of these tips as well – the printable card with foreign translations is GENIUS!



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