Gluten Free Travel Tips: Gluten Free Airline Meal Reviews, Gluten-Free Airport Meals (Chicago and London)

biscottiairport.jpgAs you may know, this month the Book of Yum is On the Road, in a big way. This last Thursday we got on a plane to Bangalore, India, and will be spending two and a half weeks here in India, and then continuing on to Europe for two weeks. DH and I love to travel, but I always wonder what the gluten-free meal situation will be like en route. This time it worked out fairly well.

On this leg of our journey we flew on American Airlines and then British Air. Although we requested special meals, I also brought tons of food, keeping in mind the no-liquids or gels issues. (The London Heathrow airport is especially strict, and so I kept in mind the fact that we would be changing planes there). The night before our trip I made a batch of Bette Hagman’s biscotti from “More from the Gluten Free Gourmet” and two batches of Rebecca Reilly’s graham crackers. I thought not only would it be good to have these things on the plane, but they would also undoubtedly serve me well once we reached our destination for quick snacks or even work as a meal when paired with a breakfast cappucino or piece of fruit. Of course I could just buy snacks (and in fact, did buy some), but generally homemade baked goods taste better and are substantially less expensive. I packed my biscotti in a big gallon ziploc bag and the homemade graham crackers in tupperware packed carefully with paper towels to keep them from moving around and breaking. [Update: None broke!] I also brought snack bars, fruit leather (ate them on the plane before arriving in case even dried fruit was a problem), Ever-g Foods GF pretzels, garden of eating cheese curls (not exactly healthy, but at least no trans-fats and they satisfy cravings for a savory snack), chocolate, Nana’s no gluten lemon cookies, and Ian’s GF individually wrapped 140 calorie snack packs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Buttons. Speaking of Ian’s Natural Foods, I don’t know if you are familiar with their products, but lately they’ve really expanded their gluten-free product lineup to include frozen Gluten Free French Toast Sticks, Popcorn Turkey Corn Dogs, Battered GF fish, and even GF and DF Soy Cheesy French Bread Pizza. Some of these products are still hard to find- I only found the cookie packs recently at my local Whole Foods and haven’t seen many of the others. I keep hoping to find the French Toast sticks, but so far no luck. So just in case the airlines completely failed me, I would have been reasonably well off, although a little, er, nutritionally deficient. Also, in security at the San Francisco airport, Heathrow airport, and finally Bangalore airport, there were absolutely no comments or notice paid to my food. I put it all in my carry on to avoid mishandling by baggage handlers and to keep it accessible during the flight, as well as to answer any questions in person if necessary. I think if you just avoid fresh produce, meat, and any liquid/gel foods like yogurt you can manage to bring GF food on a flight without too much hassle. While it is probably recommended to bring a doctor’s note about Celiac to help explain the surplus of food stashed in your bag, I personally have never done this and I haven’t had any food confiscated. It helps to try to find out as much as possible about food regulations in the countries you will be stopping in and try to avoid anything that might be questioned.

heathrow.jpg Unusually, I was also able to find food at both the airport in Chicago, pre-made packaged sushi: available both in sashimi varieties and vegetarian, and at the London Heathrow airport. The latter was just pure luck, as I stumbled on this family style English/American restaurant called Garfunkels, saw the menu and saw several possibilities that inspired me to try it. Not only did they have several very tasty looking salads including a goat cheese, avocado, and grilled eggplant dish or a fresh basil mozzarella salad, but they also had a delicious and simple meal of a perfectly baked potato with a cheese omelet and simple salad. I ordered the latter, as after 15 hours or so in the air, I was really craving a wholesome baked potato. The meal was very, very safe and very satisfying, if not especially gourmet. I loved that I could order a basic potato with the meal. 3D Virtual tour of one of their restaurants here

airplanemeal.jpgairplanecookie.jpgNot only was I able to eat at the airports, but the gluten free meals on both flights were quite palatable. We generally request a vegetarian meal and a gluten free meal for both flights, figuring that between the two of them there will be enough food for me to get by. It’s unfortunate that you can’t combine dietary requests in a special meal order, but I guess things would be complicated for the airline if you could. DH is willing to eat the vegetarian meal if it doesn’t work for me, and he can usually request a leftover ordinary meal for seconds if it isn’t substantial enough. For long international flights I err on the side of caution and if anything looks suspect about the vegetarian meal, just avoid it. Happily for me as a sometimes-pescatarian, both flights served salmon for their gluten-free meal, and although I had to pass on the vegetarian meals, the gf meal worked out. One note- the lengthy flight from San Francisco to Chicago skipped serving a meal entirely, although they offered us the option to buy a sandwich a few other gluten options, and potato chips (possibly GF) for a VERY hefty sum. The American meal on the flight to London was great because it had grilled salmon on rice, super yum, with steamed baby bok choy and some tasty nutty sauce on the rice(just a dab). It also came with a German Chocolate Sun Flour cookie- nicely labeled gluten free with ingredients. Although I’ve had some negative experiences with the Sun Flour cookies (based on pinto bean flour), the coconutty chocolate cookie was downright tasty. On the flight from London to Bangalore the British air meal was not quite as tasty, but they served plain salmon with pretty good mashed potatoes and some very, uh, well cooked veggies in a buttery sauce. While the GF meal just had some rather nasty prepared pears for dessert, the vegetarian meal came with kick-patootie rice pudding from Ireland, labeled, that I gobbled half of- DH ate the other half.. It was awesome and confirmed my faith in the advantage of ordering the vegetarian meal in addition to the gluten-free meal. Breakfasts were less satisfactory. American Airlines served me a suspicious looking bagel in the American airlines meal carelessly wrapped in saran wrap with no label. While it might POSSIBLY have been GF and it was different than the regular meal’s croissant, DH (my official guinea pig/ taste tester) thought it tasted wheaty so I avoided it. Personally, I never eat bread products that aren’t labeled because I have had careless stewards throw on a roll from the regular meal onto the special meal. (Flight to Paris, 2001- scary but they did serve very tasty cheese and luckily I didn’t eat the roll.) I so never want to embark on a marathon gluten-inspired barfing session on a plane. The British air breakfast was
decent, but light (left me still hungry) with some more potato mash and i think eggs. Unfortunately it had a big fat slice of ham on the bottom of the dish which I threw away- not ideal, but what can you do.

The point of this post is not necessarily to tell you what you can expect from any gluten-free meal on American airlines or British airlines, as they differ by day and destination. But I did want to let you know the type of meal options you can expect and also a few tips I’ve picked up on these kinds of marathon international trips.

When traveling gluten-free internationally:

1) PACK GLUTEN-FREE SNACKS. These snacks should be hardy and unlikely to be damaged by humidity, dryness, or being shook around in your bag. I like to pack homemade biscotti (check Bette Hagman or Rebecca Reilly’s cookbooks for some great recipes), Bette Hagman’s parmesan toast points, and homemade GF crackers. Prepared snacks are great too- you can try packaged nuts, dried fruit (may not be appropriate for customs), prepared GF cookies or crackers found at Trader Joes or a health food store (Glutino’s round crackers are great), your favorite GF chips or GF cereal, or any packaged treats that will last well.

2) READ UP ON AIRLINE REGULATIONS. Lately liquids and gels are serious issues- you may be able to pack them in your checked bags but they will be an issue in carry on. You may be able to get small amounts of gel/liquid food in by packing them in a clear, quart sized bag, but anything over 3 oz. won’t be allowed. Also, it’s highly doubtful you will be able to take juices or water from home through security, so don’t count on it… you may be able to purchase water or juice once you’re past security, and may be able to take these on the plane, but it’s not a sure thing, and regulations can change.

3) REQUEST YOUR GF MEAL as early as possible. Most airlines require at least 24 hours notice, and it’s hard to make it through a long flight without a supplementary hot meal, IMO. Flying is tiring enough without being hungry too.

4) GRAB A MEAL WHEN YOU CAN. If you see something at the airport you can eat, get it and eat it or take it on the plane. You won’t be sorry (except maybe at paying exorbitant airport prices). You never know when you’ll be able to find a decent meal- and with airline penny pinching you may be surprised at how often they DON’T feed you. This is especially important on a layover before a long second leg of a flight. You’ve probably eaten any prepared meal that you brought with you already and you can’t necessarily count on a palatable GF meal on the plane. Good bets are: sushi places, fries (if you trust McDonalds), and some prepared salads- fruit salad is especially likely to be safe. You might be able to grab and eat a yogurt at this point, even if you can’t get it on the plane.

5) RESEARCH YOUR DESTINATION, especially in regards to their regional cuisine and any gluten typically found in that cuisine. Contact the Celiac Association for the country that you will be visiting and see if they can’t provide tips on restaurants, housing, and shopping. Many European destinations may surprise you at how many options they have for the gluten free tourist! Print out gluten free dietary cards in the language of the country you will be visiting. It can’t hurt to learn how to say “celiac” or “gluten free” in that country’s language. You may also find helpful tips from locals or experienced travelers/expats by posting on travel forums.

6) PACK SOME EMERGENCY MEAL STAPLES, especially if you can arrange hotels with microwaves. I like to bring Thai Kitchen noodle pouches (in onion or garlic) for a 3 minute microwave meal. If you know you’ll have a kitchen and your destination is not likely to have such things easily available, it may be worth it to bring gluten free pasta or powder pasta sauce mixes in your checked baggage. (Mayacamas will turn a boring hostel pasta into WOW satisfying pasta. They served me well when traveling around Japan solo. You can find them in some health food stores or on Amazon.

7) BE FLEXIBLE! It’s especially hard when we have needs or dietary requests that don’t fit neatly into one category. Being gluten-free while traveling can be difficult, but being gluten-free and vegetarian or dairy-free etc. can be even harder. Try to be creative- have your plane companion order a special meal that fits your other dietary profile and then combine the two for something edible. If restaurants and plane food aren’t working for you, try an airport convenience store- treat yourself to some chocolate bars or chips that you wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in. Hey, all those calories may just keep you going! Do be careful with airport trail mixes- the odd brands they often carry can contain oat flour on the chopped date component. Also, in the airport check out regional specialties for an impromptu snack. Sees candies is just one example of a regional food that is sold as a souvenir but just might make a fabulous treat for a forlorn and hungry GF veggie. If you have access to the internet, you can verify gluten free status on a site like the SillyYaks Yahoo group or GF forums. (Do a keyword search on google and see what comes up).

and most important,

8) HAVE FUN! I have to admit, travel is one of the few times being gluten-free can get me down. But, if you prepare well ahead and roll with the glutenous punches, you can travel safely and in good health. And while sometimes travel is all about the food, sometimes it really isn’t. Take a good long look at the Taj Mahal… Enjoy the tranquility of a Zen garden… Go on a jungle safari in Africa- and what you eat or don’t eat won’t seem so significant anymore. The world is an amazing place, and we can’t let any pesky diet get in the way of exploring it!

I’ll keep you posted on our trip one bite at a time- right now I’m at my husband’s company’s branch office in Bangalore, looking out the window at another building with a “Shabari Bakes N Sweets” sign for a restaurant selling snacks… We’re having a wonderful time and I’m so glad I came!

Check out
Catherine’s Gluten-Free Travel Tips
Biggie over at Lunch in a Box has some great tips on packing a bento for the plane!Read them here

Please post any recent GF travel experiences in the Comments! Had any tasty Gluten-Free Airline meals? Any atrocious ones?


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18 Responses to “Gluten Free Travel Tips: Gluten Free Airline Meal Reviews, Gluten-Free Airport Meals (Chicago and London)”

  1. Great post Sea! Wow! I’ve never flown internationally, but I’ll certainly know how to prepare and pack if we ever get a chance to do so! I’m glad things went well for you and you were able to find things to eat without issues! Great job!!

  2. Thanks for the timely post! I leave for Australia next week. I’ve requested a GF meal on Qantas (and called to confirm that I have a GF meal). I’ve been stocking up on GF snacks that I’ll be able to take with me. I’m staying with family once I get there, so I’ve been in contact with them about food – so once there, I shouldn’t have a problem.

    Enjoy your trip!

    Karen

  3. Hi SS:

    I so want to be there too!

    This post is amazing. I’ve never, I mean never, seen anyone so organized about travelling. It’s just incredible that you baked the day before your flight. I’ve travelled a lot, with the same troubles as you face, including avoiding dairy. It can be so hard to find anything to eat. I usually end up wandering around every restaurant and cafe in the airport until I find the least scary food. Glad you had no trouble on your trip.

    Yes, I agree on two points about the airlines food service. I also want to be able to combine some options, like vegetarian and gluten-free. Why is it so hard for the airlines? I’m sure with all their money and the large volume of passengers that they have the resources to have their nutritional advisors set up a few safe meals for different diets. It’s the computer age, after all.

    The second point is about having to buy food for fights within North America. I could pay for the food, though it’s overpriced, but why don’t they have better choices? Everything on Air Canada is loaded with gluten. I wasn’t able to find one safe choice. Luckily I had packed some food for my last long trip from Toronto to Vancouver, or I wouldn’t have had anything.

    Anyway, gald to see that you are not just coping, but thriving, in typical Super Seamaiden style. Please take some pictures of the street people and foods, and have the best time ever.
    :)

  4. With my various food restrictions (no gluten, no cow dairy, no soy, no eggs), travel makes me a bit nervous even though I love it. When I travel (plane or otherwise), I always pack a big bag of homemade gluten-free trail mix: gf, dairy-free chocolate chips, gluten-free pretzels, dried organic fruit, and nuts. (The pretzels do stay firmer if the dried fruit is stored separately.) With that combination of foods, I know that I can have a satisfying snack or a–like you said, filling, if not entirely healthy–meal replacement if I need it. That helps me relax and enjoy my trip.

    I hope you have a mahhhhvelous trip!

  5. Great entry! I traveled to Israel on El Al last year. Great GF meals! The only problem was that they screwed the no. of GF meals for my family–we had ordered 1 vegetarian and 3 GF and they brought 3 veg and 1 GF. So make sure to keep confirming when you order any special meals–even when you check in and again when you board the plane. I had brought lots of Lara bars and they worked as a snack when GF food wasn’t available. We also ate lots of clementines on the outbound flight–just had to finish them before going thru customs!

  6. On several occasions, my pre-ordered (and sometimes pre-paid) GF meal has been served to someone else, or not loaded on the plane! Could I add to all this excellent advice: never board a plane hungry – you may have to spend several hours on the runway! And I survive on sachets of miso soup, and corn thins: one gets so tired of nothing but fruit all the time, and these fill a savoury gap.

  7. I have had positive and negative experiences with gf meals on airplanes. I bring enough food with me in case it’s a complete bust and usually my food is better – but I am amazed at how good your options were! Here are my travel tips and experiences:
    http://glutenguide.blogspot.com/search/label/Travel

  8. I hope you are having a wonderful time on your trip. The tree from your last post is awe inspiring.

    Have a safe trip home!

    Sheltie Girl @ Gluten A Go Go

  9. These are wonderful tips for flying. I made my first trip via the airlines last summer and was not prepared enough. I did better on the way back home. Your tips are so helpful. If you can make it half way across the world, surely I can do this well going just to California! I have bookmarked you and am adding you to my blog!

  10. this is a great post! we have little ones at home now, but will someday travel abroad again in life and now that the Mr. is diagnosed with celiac we will need to think about all of these things.

  11. Amazing tips and information!
    Haven’t traveled much since going gluten free but I appreciate the thought process and planning you describe.
    What I love most about your blog is reading the details that go into checking and thinking about being gluten free. Sometimes I feel like I have to be so hyper vigilant and my friends say “I’m sorry” when I can’t eat something they serve…I say don’t be sorry, it’s not their fault…I just don’t want to be sick anymore!! I’ve accepted this required strictness, embraced it, made it part of my life…am grateful for it…it means HEALTH, WELLNESS, LIFE ITSELF…

    Safe travels and thanks so much for your wonderful blog!
    Alex

  12. This was really great to read! Although I do not require a GF meal, my 5 year old daughter was diagnosed with Celiac Disease at 14 months. We’ve not traveled a lot, yet, but look forward to doing so. Thank goodness that people are become more and more aware of special dietary needs. We’ve only traveled as far as Disneyland, thus far, and they are wonderful about GF diets. I’ll keep your tips at hand for when I feel like venturing farther than “the happiest place on earth.”

  13. Thanks for a great post! Would be interested in your tips for travel to South Asia. Noticed you had travelled to India and wanted to ask if you’ve travelled to Sri Lanka.

    The airports we’ll be passing through include Los Angeles, CA, USA; Toyko, Japan; Singapore; and Colombo, Sri Lanka. We’ll be travelling on Singapore Airlines. Any suggestions?

    Have you had any difficulties with customs when bringing gluten-free food with you across international borders?

  14. Hi Tawnya,
    I haven’t traveled to Sri Lanka, only India. I’ve been to the LA airport, Tokyo, and Singapore airport, though. The Singapore and Tokyo airports are beautiful and have many restaurants- most of which are not especially useful. I can’t remember what I ate in Singapore- I usually have salad or sushi. In Narita, most of the food will contain gluten in the form of soy sauce. If you trust McDonalds fries, both will have that as an option. They may or may not have a dedicated fryer, so you would want to check on that. (National Celiac Groups have found that the Fries no longer contain gluten although they have a flavoring agent derived from gluten. The distillation process supposedly removes gluten as it does with distilled alcohol.) Otherwise, in Japan I typically get pescatarian sushi, either nigiri or chirashi zushi (rice bowl with raw fish stuff on top). If it is cooked it usually contains soy sauce. Avoid fake seafood and egg cubes. Salad dressings in japan typically contain soy sauce. Don’t believe anyone that tells you japanse soy sauce (or even tamari) does not contain wheat- it does. and finding tamari without wheat is next to impossible unless you go to a macrobiotic health food store, and even then it is difficult. Convenience stores in the airport have rice balls but often contain soy sauce in the nori or filling. You would want to read the Japanese label for the character meaning “wheat” if possible. Starbucks is at the narita airport as well. Hope this helps.

    I havent had trouble bringing GF food across borders. Australia and New Zealand are strict about many things other countries are not. (for example, no honey, even baked into things.) Don’t try to bring- liquids, meats (even sealed jerky), fresh fruits or veggies, seeds or nuts off the plane and you should be ok. But check with individ. countries.

    I brought prepared homemade bisotti and graham crackers without problems, as well as dried pasta, spices, gf soy sauce (in checked baggage), crackers etc.

    Hope this helps!Enjoy your trip!

    -Sea

  15. Dan Kovnat Says:

    NOTE THAT CONTINENTAL AIRLINES DOES NOT OFFER GLUTEN FREE MEALS FOR THEIR PASSENGERS.

  16. Good travel tips. Glad you found substitutes in Asia. I have found it extremely difficult, with all the soy sauce. I am not celiac, but allergic to wheat, which has brought me close to death at least 3 times… twice in China. We were working throughout Asia, but after these experiences, my husband said it was enough. He couldn’t watch me almost die again. Wheat closes my lungs along with terrible hives and rash which is inside the body as well as on my skin.
    I have found, even with the best interpreter, few in Asia understand the challenge of allergies thus use products that were dangerous for me or there were no ingredients available. Due to GI challenges, I am unable to eat a constant diet of salads or other raw foods. That causes trouble wherever we are.
    Am not sure if the difference was where we were… we didn’t stay in hotels, but generally stayed out of the main cities in homes.
    I am saving your tips to pass on to friends, although I truly hope I can return to international travel. But it won’t be with my hubby’s blessings. :(

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  18. FWIW, American Airlines no longer offers special meals of any type in the main cabin for domestic US flights. If you must eat a special diet, plan to bring your own food.

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