Travel Tips

5 Tips for Dealing with Special Dietary Needs When Traveling Internationally

Holding cherriesLiving with a food allergy, eating intolerance, or otherwise special dietary need is difficult enough; traveling outside of your comfort zone where communication is a problem can be downright dangerous.

But with the right planning, anticipation of any possible food-related difficulties, and the appropriate resources, even those with the most serious conditions have options on the road.

1. Learn the Language—At Least Some of It

For those with special dietary restrictions, ordering a meal can rarely be done with a simple finger point at the menu followed by, “thanks.” Most people with special dietary needs are accustomed to conversing with waiters, chefs, and shop owners, asking questions about ingredients, preparation and sourcing. And while this interaction is manageable, it can be particularly frustrating when there’s a language barrier.

Get more help on overcoming the language barrier with online tools, don’t miss Lost in Online Translation. Or learn how to choose a Dedicated Pocket Translator.

To ease the linguistic transition, develop a base of dietary and gastronomical vocabulary in the local language. Foreign language dictionaries and online translation sites can provide travelers with key phrases and words to support explanation of dietary issues. For someone who suffers from lactose intolerance, the ability to comfortably say words like “allergic,” “dairy,” “milk,” and “nuts” can prove beneficial.

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2. Don’t Get Lost in Translation

Thanks to translation cards, travelers can pack a cheat sheet of helpful words and phrases. While a dictionary is an obvious choice, a translation card synthesizes the dietary information in a way that is clear, concise and small enough for easy transport. Check Web sites such as,, and offer translation cards for a multitude of serious medical conditions, dietary sensitivities and intolerances, and allergies to particular foods.

Select WiselyThe Sparta, New Jersey-based SelectWisely, for example, accommodates travelers with food allergies and intolerance, vegetarians and vegans, and even those who require low-salt or low-fat diets. Each card features phrases such as “I am allergic to” and “I can’t eat” followed by a list of the offensive ingredients and foods. Cards also include images of the problem ingredients crossed out by the universal “no” symbol, as well as medical alert symbols. Custom-made cards for more specific allergies or additional languages are also available.

On, travelers can design their own cheat sheets and “Chef Sheets” and print unlimited copies of the credit-card-sized travel buddy.

For more on travel health issues, don’t miss our Health & Fitness section.

3. Sleep Your Worries Away

Orange sliceAnother way to allay diet-related anxieties is to research and take advantage of the multitude of hotels and resorts that work hard to accommodate special dietary needs. Bed and breakfasts can be a wise option for guests seeking special meals, as many advertise their flexibility regarding meal preparation.

Be sure to alert your hosts ahead of time of specific allergies and dietary needs, or they may not be prepared to accommodate you upon arrival. Online resources such as and include a directory of hotels, bed and breakfasts and resorts that are welcoming to vegans and vegetarians.

4. Make Sure You’re Covered

Travelers with serious medical conditions might consider becoming members of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT,, a non-profit organization that acts as a kind of safety net, a reassurance that medical assistance is available abroad no matter the language. By joining the free service, members gain access to a print and online directory of English-speaking doctors and clinics in the 125 countries currently represented by the association. IAMAT membership also includes free access to information such as immunization requirements and recommendations, and an online forum for the sharing of travel knowledge and expertise. Doctor visits operate on a fixed set of rates, which are available online.

More information on this subject here: Travel Insurance category.

The other option, of course, is to obtain travel insurance or medical evacuation coverage in case of illness, allergic reaction or serious emergency. Read the fine print to make sure your insurance includes emergency medical services, treatment and hospital stay.

Who knows what lurks within the salad In the case of most medical evacuation policies, you’ll be transported to a hospital of your choice, not necessarily the closest facility.

5. Don’t Assume and Be Prepared

An allergic reaction or a difficult food search can ruin any trip, and it is important for a person with special dietary needs to come as prepared as possible. Pack any necessary medications in your carry-on and bring a prescription that includes both the brand name and the generic version.

Never count on being able to find allergy or intolerance-related products at a destination. Filling a suitcase with items like powdered or aseptically sealed boxes of non-dairy milk, gluten-free energy bars, and dried fruits can provide quick and easy nourishment.

By Jacqueline Rosokoff for

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For more information on travel health issues, don’t miss our Health & Fitness section.