9 Tips for Studying Abroad and Traveling with a Food Allergy

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Earlier this spring, my egg allergy and I spent two weeks in Italy.

As I waited to board my flight to Rome, I practiced saying “Sono allergico all'uovo” (I am allergic to egg), researched which ingredients typically went into fresh pasta in Italy, and quickly began to worry about being unable to eat all of the delicious food in a country that was famous for it.

A month later, I’m here to say I not only survived traveling through Italy with an egg allergy...I thrived! By following these nine tips for traveling with a food allergy, it was actually easy. Dare I say, in some cases, it was easier than communicating food allergies back home in the United States.

With some pre-travel preparation, good communication, and a little patience, you’ll see that studying abroad with a food allergy is completely manageable.

1. Learn About Local Cuisine and How Foods Are Typically Prepared

With pasta being such a staple in Italy, I did some research before my trip on how it was usually prepared. I knew that in the States I could eat most boxed pasta, but what was I supposed to do at a restaurant? Was it rude to ask if this pasta was fresh or boxed? By researching how most pasta was prepared, I quickly learned that spaghetti and other thin pastas should be safe for me to eat—but that it’s still always good to ask.

2. Learn How to Explain Your Allergy in the Local Language(s)

I didn’t speak any Italian before heading off to Italy, so I set aside some time to learn the basics, as well as the translation for “I’m allergic to egg.” It was also crucial to learn key, allergy-specific vocabulary words like traces of egg, mayonnaise, and yolk.

For anyone traveling with a food allergy to a place where you don’t speak the language, my advice is to get really comfortable with your pronunciation of key words and phrases:

  • Your allergy
  • Ingredients related to your allergy
  • Food preparation related to your allergy
  • “I cannot eat...”
  • “I am allergic to....”
  • “Does this contain...?”

3. Practice Local Manners

Along with my key allergy phrases, it was beneficial to learn core manners - think translations for words and phrases like excuse me, can you help me, please, and thank you. Kindness, especially while traveling, really does go a long way.

4. Plan Ahead in Case You Need Treatment Abroad

Whether you carry an EpiPen, a cream, a medication, or some other form of treatment, it’s important to know how to legally transport it abroad. Also, it's good to know how and where to refill a subscription if needed.

As this will vary by the allergy treatment you use and where you study abroad, the best piece of advice is to work with your doctor and IES Abroad Advisor to create your personalized plan of action should you need it - and always remember to bring your essentials in your carry-on luggage.

5. Carry a “Chef Card” Explaining Your Allergy in the Local Language(s)

No matter how much you practice your translation, there will be times where you’re not 100% confident you were actually understood. By carrying a card with your allergy perfectly translated, you’ll always have this option in your back pocket to share with restaurant staff, chefs, street vendors, etc.

Use an index card or a quarter sheet of printer paper to briefly explain your allergy and dietary needs. Consider including points like the severity of your allergy, specific foods you cannot eat, or how you need food to be prepared. Whatever you choose to include on this card, be sure to be polite!

6. Bring Some Non-Perishable Snacks

There are going to be times during study abroad when your classmates might grab a quick bite from a street vendor, and you can’t find anything that fits your diet. Think ahead and bring some non-perishable snacks (things like granola bars, trail mix, or fruit leathers...depending on your allergy!) in your bag.

7. Look at the Menu Ahead of Time

If you’re going out to a meal at a restaurant or café, look at the menu online beforehand. Translate the words you don’t know, and be prepared with a few options, and how to ask any questions you might have about them.

8. Use Your Senses 

You know your body and your food allergy significantly better than anyone else. So my advice is to trust your gut when you doubt that a dish is okay to eat.

Maybe you can smell a whiff of peanuts from a mile away, or you know that dense bread is likely to be better for you than flaky bread. For me, I can usually tell if something contains egg by its color. Any sort of white sauce or salad dressing is likely to be off my list of safe eats.

Using your senses to examine food is a good way to wean out a few options. By narrowing down your choices, you can ask questions wisely and spend less time reading ingredients on labels for foods that you may have been able to quickly identify.

That said, foods abroad may surprise you. I normally stray away from all baked goods because they typically have egg, but many Italian desserts were egg-free—I just had to ask!

9. Build Some New Local Go-Tos 

In Italy, I quickly learned which flavors of gelato tended to be egg-free (#priorities), and used those as my go-to for sweets. Even though that became my go-to dessert, I still made a point to ask questions, and I didn’t let it stop me from trying new flavors when I was feeling confident in speaking Italian and explaining my allergy. Find specific types of local restaurants that fit your allergy, too! For example, with an egg allergy, I know that all vegan restaurants and dishes are automatically safe for me. Finding a local vegan restaurant helps me feel confident that what I'm ordering is free of my allergy.

At the end of the day, remember to embrace the potential challenges. So much of study abroad is a learning experience - for you and for the people you meet. Explaining your decisions around food, respecting your body and your choices, and finding new ways to lead a healthy lifestyle are all worthwhile feats.

By doing your research and being prepared to communicate your allergy and needs, you’ll be a better traveler because of this experience. And hey, you might even teach some people abroad about your allergy, and that’s pretty cool. Look at you paving the way for the next person to travel there with the same dietary restriction!

 

Anna McCloskey, Digital Marketing Coordinator

As an alumna of our Study in Granada Program, Anna knows the life-changing IES Abroad experience first-hand. In addition to being passionate about travel and education, Anna enjoys cooking, listening to podcasts, and exploring Chicago. See more from her trip to Italy in our Roaming Through Rome Facebook album.