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How to Plan an Allergy-Friendly Family Vacation

Family travel and new food normally go hand in hand, but what happens when one family member is one of the hundreds of thousands of people in this country who suffer from severe food allergies. Every meal and every new travel enviroment is a potential hazard. Family travel blogger Nancy Solomon of Ciao Bambino offers her tips for planning an allergy-free family vacation.

Eight percent of children have food allergies and an even higher percentage suffer from seasonal allergies. Pediatric food allergies alone have tripled in prevalence from 1997 to 2008*. This creates new complications and challenges for family vacations.

Our family is passionate about travel and food, two things that typically blend beautifully together, so I was crushed to learn that one of my four kids has food allergies. Over time, our challenge has grown as the extent of my son’s allergies has increased, extremely limiting his diet and presenting significant health issues.

We continue to embark on our family adventures while meeting the needs of every family member. The secret? Meticulous research and preparation. Here are my tips for successfully planning an allergy-friendly family vacation.

Thoughtfully Select Your Destination

Nancy Solomon's Family Allergy TravelKeep in mind that the destination matters, as regional cuisine plays an important role in how well a locale will work for your family. My husband and I just returned from Turkey where pistachios are a common ingredient. This would have been very nerve-wracking with our son in tow as he is severely allergic to these nuts.

On other occasions it may not be a safety issue, but rather, it may be just too difficult to constantly be around food kids want but cannot eat. For example, you may want to skip Italy if someone in the family is gluten-free and homemade pasta is a much-missed favorite food.

Additionally, it may be easier to communicate allergy needs if you are traveling in a country where you can speak the language. If not, there are allergy cards you can order to list your allergies in different languages and Allergy Translator, an iPhone app that offers similar services.

Research Specific Airline Practices and Policies

Airlines have different policies when it comes to serving nuts. Your best bet is to review them online as you consider which airline to fly, noting that these policies change frequently. Some airlines, like Jet Blue, who used to refrain from serving nuts on a plane when requested by an allergic passenger, now will create a “Buffer Zone,” where they ask the people in the row ahead and behind of the allergic person to avoid all nuts. Obviously, airlines cannot guarantee that other passengers will not bring nuts onboard.

If you need to bring specialty food or drinks on the plane, review TSA policies before your flight.

Book Allergy-Friendly Accommodations

There are many allergy-friendly accommodations available these days.

If you are unsure if a hotel is allergy-friendly, just call and ask a few questions (do they have allergy-free rooms, policies or menus?). You will know immediately by the staff’s response if the hotel has taken the time to train their staff on allergy-related topics.

If they have no idea what you are talking about, you know you will need to look for another hotel. Some larger chains have been diligent about their allergy policies; boutique hotels have also made efforts, though they are often less publicized.

Staying at a location where you can have your own kitchen is very helpful and a strategy many families use. It makes it easier to guarantee what your family is eating and will reduce the stress of going out for three meals a day.

Research Allergy-Free Services at Your Destination

Understanding ahead of time where you can grocery shop and eat significantly enhances vacation time. This is where apps and the Internet are invaluable.

There are many apps out there, easily found when you search “allergy”, “gluten” or “nut-free.” The apps I find most helpful are: Allergy Eats, I Can Eat, Restaurant Nutrition, Allergy Guard, and Allergy Translator. I constantly use Allergy Eats as it lists restaurants beyond the major chains and includes local favorites. Additionally, Yelp and Urban Spoon list restaurants with gluten-free options.

Ship Food Ahead of Time

Hard to find specialty food items can be purchased and shipped directly to your destination before travel begins. This way you guarantee that you’ll have what you need without taking up valuable suitcase space or vacation time.

Follow Consistent Best Allergy-Free Travel Practices

  1. Pack wipes to clean the airplane table and other surfaces for sensitive kids.
  2. On arrival, head to the local health market to pick-up produce and foods that you could not bring with you. Ensure that you always have safe snacks on hand to avoid hunger meltdowns.
  3. Do not get overly hungry. Feed your allergy child ahead of time so they are not walking into a situation when they are starving. There is nothing worse than smelling or staring at food they cannot eat when hungry!
  4. Ask the hotel to clear space in the mini-fridge ahead so you can add your food on arrival.
  5. Some hotels will supply small appliances like an electric kettle or microwave on request which extend possible meal options.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask the chef at a hotel to prepare special food for you. At Kimpton’s Vero Beach Hotel and Spa in Florida and the Lorien Hotel & Spa in Virginia, the chefs made pancakes from the batter we brought and the rolls we provided for any of my son’s items.
  7. Carry a family emergency plan, EpiPens, anti-hystamines and local hospital information. Be sure that you have proper medicine on hand.

What Can Families with Allergies Expect Going Forward?Nancy Solomon and family

Many hotel chains have committed to being allergy-friendly, especially for seasonal allergy sufferers. Per the American Hotel and Lodging Association, approximately 40% of all hotels now have allergy-friendly practices. Companies like PURE offer a specialized cleaning process that eliminates 99% of all allergens from the hotel rooms; these companies have seen huge growth over the past year with chains like Hilton, Hyatt, Fairmont and Four Seasons using their services. Other hotel operators like Kimpton offer specialized cleaning services on request. Fairmont hotels have a corporate policy to have allergy-friendly “Lifestyle Cuisine” options at all of their properties.

As for food allergies, Disney sets the gold standard. They have you meet the head chef at each dining venue and can take on the challenge of even the most limiting food allergies. The ability to dine worry-free is truly an amazing experience.

That said, if you are looking for a resort that is smaller and less of an institution, Basin Harbor Club in Vermont might be the place for your family. They are very accommodating and ensured my son had special meals delivered to the kids’ club and that every dining venue on the property had an alert card for the chef listing his specific allergies. Impressive!

Online Allergy Resources

*Information from Pediatric Allergy Department at Massachusetts General Hospital base on information published in Journal of American Medical Association 2011.

Text and photos by Nancy Solomon for Nancy Solomon is an avid traveler and writer for the popular family travel guide She lives outside Boston with her four children with whom she enjoys sharing the world.

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