This spring my best friend and I graduated university, and decided to celebrate by buying oversized backpacks and booking plane tickets to Europe for a month long adventure. It was a whirlwind! We visited 12 towns throughout 6 countries in just 28 days, but it was definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had.
Most of my family was very supportive of my plans to take off and explore, but I did see some hesitation from my dad. Being two young girls travelling on our own, I do get where he was coming from, but it turns out that he was most concerned about my food allergies. Being in such unfamiliar places, with language barriers, made him nervous.
This wasn’t my first trip to Europe, so I was fairly confident in being able to keep myself safe, but there were still a lot of unknowns. I am glad I didn’t let this hold me back! I had an amazing trip and felt safe when I was eating abroad with my food allergies. If you’re planning on backpacking abroad I have a few words of advice on how to keep yourself safe.
Preparing to Take Off
More than any other flight I had been on, I was very selective of the airline I chose for my transatlantic flight. Being a very long flight, I made sure I was going to be comfortable with the food allergy policies of the airline. It is great to see that there are many Canadian airlines that no longer serve peanuts or tree nuts on-board, and are accommodating by creating buffer zones and making cabin announcements about food allergies. I made sure to call ahead and confirm the policies so that I would be comfortable.
Before leaving I had food allergy cards made by a friend who was able to translate that I have life-threatening food allergies. These really ended up coming in handy in a few situations. I found that free online translation websites were typically not accurate so having a friend who speaks French and Italian was very helpful. There are a few sites online that have pre-made allergy cards that you can order, which is very useful. I would highly recommend doing this.
It is also a good idea to stock up on any medications you might need before you go. This may seem excessive, but I brought five EpiPens® with me. I kept two in my friend’s bag in case my bag was lost, two in my purse, and a spare in my luggage. I would not want to have to deal with replacing lost EpiPens® while abroad, so I over prepared.
For our month long journey, hostels were our places to stay because they are economical and a great way to meet other travellers. Also, to my surprise staying in hostels was quite helpful allergy-wise. The majority of hostels have a full-shared kitchen. With this, we were able to cook a lot of our meals and that way I had control over what I was eating. Being a shared kitchen, I did have to be careful about what was going on around me. I always washed dishes before I used them, since dishes were often not cleaned well and I did not know what they were used for before they were put away. Eating-in was also helpful in keeping to our budget and being able to have healthy meals more often.
Renting apartments or condos can also be a great economical option in Europe. This generally provides you with a kitchen allowing you to cook your own meals.
My trip began by travelling through the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. English is well spoken in these areas so it was nice to start our trip without the language barrier. Before our departure, many people had told me that food allergies are far less common in Europe compared to North America, and that it would be challenging to explain the concept to servers. To my surprise, when we went to order at our first restaurant in London, after mentioning I had allergies, the server returned with a full food allergy guide outlining the presence of allergens in all of their meals. I was amazed to find that this was only the start of finding food allergy menus at every single restaurant I went to in these countries. Many restaurants would even have a coded system at the end of their main menu so I would not even have to ask for a special menu. I was thrilled by how easy this made dining out for me and this lessened my worries. I still took the time to explain my food allergies to servers and ensured that they would relay the message to the kitchen.
Once I arrived in Paris, eating out became a little more challenging. First of all, I faced a language barrier since my French vocabulary is very minimal. At most restaurants servers would speak English but I still used my allergy cards to ensure that we were on the same page. Allergy menus were also far less common here, but the servers were generally able to suggest what my safest options were. The only time I really had difficulties was a night we ate at a true, authentic, off-the-beaten-path French restaurant. Luckily, one of the friends we had made along the way, who was out for dinner with us, was very fluent in French and able to help communicate for me.
The most shocking experience I had related to my food allergies throughout the trip happened when we arrived in Venice and picked a cute little Italian restaurant to eat at on one of the many canals. I was so excited to have my first true Italian pizza, until I looked at the menu, which did have a coded system, indicating that every single dish contained peanuts. I later learned that it is common in Venice for some restaurants to use peanut oils or peanut-based flours in their pizza and pasta. I had never heard of this before and was worried at that point that I would not be able to find any food that I could eat. Luckily during my time in Italy, there was only one other restaurant I found that did this and all others were safe, but this is something to definitely be on the look out for in your travels.
Overall, I had a great experience backpacking throughout Europe this past spring. Do not let your food allergies hold you back from exploring the world. Do your research, be prepared, and have fun!
– Sara S.