More and more people are emerging as having allergies and intolerances to a huge cross section of foods, some people being so severely allergic that they could die from a reaction. Although it is not easy to live with allergies in the UK, it is often much more difficult when travelling abroad. I spoke to Elida de Besche, an Acoustical Engineering student at University of Southampton who is both allergic to a variety of foods and a great lover of travelling. She told me how she makes travelling with allergies as safe as possible.
So Elida, tell me a little bit about your allergies
I’ve always been allergic to nuts, carrots and green apples; but in more recent years I’ve also become intolerant to gluten and lactose.
Wow, that must eliminate so many foods. Despite this, I hear on the grape vine that you love going abroad. Are you a keen traveller?
Yes, I’m a very keen traveller. Lately I’ve travelled a lot in Europe, but I went to Peru last summer and I am heading to America this August for what should be an amazing few months.
Sounds incredible. Have you found travelling with your allergies difficult?
It’s been okay, but a lot of places around the world don’t recognise allergies as being a thing, which is hard. This has especially been a problem with gluten, lactose, nuts and carrots because these are often hidden within foods and aren’t obvious. Whereas, it’s quite unusual to find green apples hidden in something!
I know that for a lot of people allergies can be life-threatening, is that the case for you?
Luckily it isn’t, but I do get very ill. For people who do have a life-threatening allergy and need an epipen, it is so important to teach the people that you’re travelling with about your allergies and where you keep your epipen. It is a good idea to let the airline know before you fly as well, because some of them might not let you carry the epipen in your hand luggage.
What precautions do you take to make sure you don’t eat anything you can’t have?
It’s all about preparing yourself and being sensible. You might have to spend a little bit more money on food because chances are that the cheapest places won’t take the relevant safety precautions. So, definitely do your research before you go to a place; go online, search for restaurants in the area you’re going, and check out the places that have a menu published online. Once you’ve found some menus, have a look through and see which ones have a separate section for people with allergies and these will tend to be very safe. Obviously that does mean you’ll have to spend a little more money on food, but it’s worth it.
That sounds sensible. That must be quite tricky if you’re travelling with other people though…
Yeah, it does make it trickier. Sometimes people don’t want to go to more expensive restaurants, which is understandable, but I usually travel with my closest friends so they always understand. It’s always best to let anyone you are travelling with know that you’ll have to avoid certain places beforehand, so they don’t get annoyed when you’ve finally arrived. Obviously sometimes people will want to eat something spontaneously from a market stall, but don’t be tempted to eat at those places. This also means though, that because you can’t simply pick something up walking around, you could go a whole day without finding anything to eat. This is terrible, so I always carry snacks with me that I can have. Travelling on low blood sugar is not good for you or the people around you, so make sure you’re not going to get caught short.
So do you take enough snacks for the whole trip? That would be a lot of food!
You can do that, but I’m really lazy so I don’t usually. Instead, I find it useful to learn the phrases in that language for the things I’m allergic to, and the word for being allergic. So when I get to the supermarket ready to stock up on snacks for a day trip, I can scan through the backs of the packets to see whether things contain what I’m allergic to. This also helps when ordering food in restaurants because I can make it clear to the waiting staff that I am allergic to certain things, and even write down what I’m allergic to in their language. It leaves far less room for error!
That is so clever. But have there been times when your precautions haven’t been enough? What has been your worst experience abroad with allergies?
Well, there have been several times which weren’t too great. Peru was very difficult in general: my biggest enemy there was carrots, which seemed to be in everything. No one really understood what allergies were (even though I speak fluent Spanish), and they always made quinoa soup with tiny bits of carrot in. Basically I had to look up a list of traditional foods and read recipes for those dishes in order to find things that were served everywhere that I could actually eat. This meant that I ate Lomo Saltado pretty much every day – never again. I also had a bad experience on a long haul flight, where the flight attendants insisted that I didn’t have allergies and couldn’t provide me with any alternatives. That was a very hungry flight, so from now on you won’t catch me on a plane without a vast variety of snacks in my hand luggage.
How awful! Had you told the airline beforehand?
Actually I was travelling with a volunteer organisation who had booked my flights. The organisation knew about my allergies so I called to complain; but they said they had told the flight company, so somewhere I along the way I guess the information was mislaid. That leads me to mention that it’s really important to be vocal about your allergies before you travel if going abroad with an organisation. It’s so important that they know so that they can make plans for you. When we did the trek to Machu Picchu the food was absolutely amazing because the organisation had briefed them in advance as to what I could and couldn’t eat.
Is there any other advice that you would give to other people who have allergies and intolerances but want to travel?
Don’t let your allergies restrict you from doing to things you love, just make sure you take precautions.
For any other food related travel advice, head to Travel Health Pro, an FCO endorsed website: http://travelhealthpro.org.uk/food-and-water-hygiene/.
If you’re looking for other travel advice or information, simply hit https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.