Gluten-Free Travel – A Survival Guide for Celiacs

May is Celiac Awareness Month and as someone with celiac living on the road full time, gluten-free travel has been a big challenge, especially when it comes to figuring out what to eat, where to eat, and most importantly what not to eat.  

I wouldn’t wish celiac on anyone as it’s a sensitive condition that can be difficult to handle; it comes with a lot of gnarly symptoms.  But that being said, I am grateful that it comes with a very manageable treatment plan. On my most positive days, I can say that my diagnosis has made me a much more mindful and healthy eater as a result.  

When I first got the word from my doc that I was to cut out all wheat, I panicked over–and subsequently mourned– all the foods I could no longer eat, especially my favorites like fried chicken, chicken parmigiana, and fried mozzarella. My standbys were now, sadly, off limits. 

But then I discovered that there are actually quite a few gluten-free substitutes, a realization that inspired me to devour every gluten-free pizza, GF chocolate chip cookie, and wheat-free ice cream creation I could find. If I “could eat it” safely, I would.

After all of this and following my new diet I realized that I was still getting sick.  A gluten-free diet didn’t automatically fix everything.  I was about 80% better, which was amazing, but I needed to do more.  A doctor suggested I eliminate alcohol and dairy as they can interact with gluten sensitivity.  

Though I endured another initial “mourning process,” I’ve come out stronger than ever. For years, I had become resolute to experiencing daily stomach ills, aches and pains, depression, and “mind fog,” but now I have never felt better.

To some, it may sound overwhelming–and, believe me, that first shift was for me, too– but it mostly came down to adjusting a few key habits and finding ways to navigate these changes while being on a road. Because my lifestyle is an unconventional one, so is the way in which I plan my meals. Here’s how I do it…

Finding Places to Eat Out

My two favorite apps for gluten-free travel are FindMeGlutenFree and Vanilla Bean.  They have great coverage for most of the US (also Canada is getting decent and other international locales are being added at a pretty steady rate).

I also have great luck just doing a search for “gluten-free” into Google Maps or a search engine in whatever area I am traveling.  New restaurants are popping up all the time and they’ll show up there first.  Just make sure that wherever you look, you do take a minute to read through the comments/reviews. It makes a big difference and I never trust the ratings–see what people say about their experience ordering gluten-free. With “buzzy” diets comes a lot of misunderstanding, even from restaurant owners and chefs which means that, unfortunately, just because a place might have a GF menu doesn’t mean you’re not at risk for cross-contamination. 

I also always try to have a backup plan.  My go-to places on the road are Chik-Fil-A, In-and-Out, Chipotle, and Denny’s.  They have all done a very good job with their menu options and, save for the occasional bad location, I have not gotten sick.  In general Thai, Vietnamese, Venezuelan, and Mexican restaurants tend to the best (in that order) at accommodating and being aware of the needs for celiacs.  

Ordering: Trust But Verify

It’s always a little nerve-racking to walk into a new restaurant to find they know absolutely nothing about actually making gluten-free food.  It sucks getting sick.  But lucky for all of us, gluten-free has become more popular and I am seeing it on the menu more and more over these past two years.

But availability aside, a GF label on a menu can also give you a false sense of security as sometimes the only precaution taken is “we don’t put any bread on that.”

It can be hard to get someone who doesn’t understand, but make sure you get your questions answered before ordering. It’s just not worth getting sick over.

Most of the basics are obvious, like avoiding recipes with wheat, barley, and rye, etc.  But always ask them about the cooking surface to see if they prepare everything together–if so, you are putting yourself at risk for cross-contamination. If you’re attempting to order fries or any GF breaded meals, ask the server if the restaurant has a “dedicated fryer.” And, always inquire about sauces–if they can’t tell you what’s in it, don’t eat it!    

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Having Your Own Meal Plan

Grocery stores are your new best friend.  The one great thing about grocery stores is that you know exactly what you are getting because it’s packaged and labeled.  Specialty markets, like Whole Foods have great buffets with lots of GF options. And, you can always pick up a hearty meal and/or some snacks like fruit and carrots, hummus or something to munch on for the drive.

At first, I had a really hard time determining what packaged groceries were safe.  Even if it’s labeled gluten-free, I’m ultra-sensitive which means I do much better if I avoid high fructose corn syrup and modified food starch. My advice? Shop on the “outside” of the market, where the fruits and veggies are stocked.  

We also make a weekly meal plan for cooking at home wherever we are living. When we have a full kitchen it’s best, but it’s surprising just how much you can make with just a hotplate or microwave.  Simple proteins and fresh veggies go a long way for any meal.

Photo by foodie_lizzie on Instagram

Make Some Snacks

Having some gluten-free options to snack on for the road is critical.  Sometimes you just can’t stop!

We really like to make these no-bake GF Protein Bites.  They are super easy to throw in a bag and are good at room temperature for a couple of weeks.  They’re high in healthy fats, carbs, and protein, which also means that they’re perfect for hikes and post-workout snacks. Tip: if you do make them, they can be a little sticky so you really have to use your fingers to ball them up and pat them together.  It’s optional, but we also store them in the fridge when we can as it makes them a bit firmer.  

We also take tuna packets, a few gluten-free energy bars, nuts, and fruit with us when we’re on-the-go. 

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

International Travel – The Ultimate Test

Going to another country is incredibly stressful for someone with dietary restrictions and I found it to be challenging during trips to Asia, in particular, as the disease is almost unheard of there. I would strongly recommend printing out a GF travel card before you go. 

Do your homework ahead of time.  I’m sure you will but researching if certain local cuisine is naturally gluten-free or if there are any particular shops near you is a great way to get a jump on your trip.   

Stick to basics, similar to my shopping list nowadays, simple, plain proteins and veggies are where it’s at.  Stick to dishes that are plain or you can always ask for them to be prepared that way, too.

So there you have it.  Do you have your own tips to share? Questions?  Please post a comment and let us know!

  1. randrwander says:

    Great post, it definitely addresses the struggles my wife and I run into while travelling. We are planning a trip and always need ideas for good snacks to bring. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      You're very welcome, it's always a learning experience. If you come across some great snack ideas please send them our way!

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