Day to day eating is already tough enough when you’re unable to consume gluten. But travelling long haul to far flung and unfamiliar places? Well that’s a whole other ball game.
In your home town or city, you can rest comfortably knowing where all the good stuff is at. You know where to get your favourite gluten free energy bars and you know which restaurants cater for coeliacs. But all that goes out of the window when you travel to long haul destinations.
We’ll save general travel advice for another post; in this article we’re going to pin down ways you can stay safe (and healthy) as a gluten-free traveller on long haul flights.
Get over the fear of plane food
Today, I want to put to bed some of the rumours and give you my top tips for avoiding gluten when you’re 30,000 feet up.
With the right planning and a positive mindset, keeping gluten-free whilst travelling long haul is actually rather easy.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last 5 years averaging one flight per week, and if these tips can work for me, they can work for you as well…
1. Check with your airline first and pre-book meals
In my experience gluten free meals on short haul flights are nothing more than a few pieces of fruit, but when it comes to long haul flights, meals are typically more substantial. Especially in the last few years, I’ve noticed the quality and range of gluten free availability dramatically increasing with long haul carriers.
The first thing you should do after booking your flights is to make sure you pre-book your meals. Most long haul airlines include hot meals as standard, and these days most carriers also cater for gluten free.
It’s important you organise your meals in advance to ensure the airline has time to order in a meal that meets your special dietary requirements. Don’t leave it until last minute (like I did for a flight from Bangkok to Paris) as it may not give the airline enough time to order your meal.
As soon as possible, login to your airline account, find where you can manage your booking and select which meals you desire.
If you booked your flight via a third party travel agent, you’ll need to create an account on the website of the airline you’re flying with. Use your personal details and your flight booking number/reference to lookup and manage your flight meals from there.
If you can’t figure out how to select your own meals online, call the airline and have your booking reference handy. If they try to make you do it yourself online, explain that you have special dietary requirements and you need to ensure the meals are pre-ordered.
2. Once you find a good airline, stick to them
This point is obviously easier said than done, especially when it comes to budget and routing.
If you regularly fly the same long haul routes, or an airline you’ve previously had good experience with operates on the route you need to take, it can be worthwhile sticking with the same carrier.
After all, it’s your health that is at risk. I like to stick to the same carriers where possible even if it costs an extra $100, but if your budget isn’t as lenient don’t worry.
Today most airlines order in food from the same handful of catering companies, so if you have to use an alternate airline, don’t worry about it too much. Just make sure you book your meals in advanced.
I frequently fly between the UK and Asia, and in my experience Emirates has always provided a very good standard of GF food in economy/coach, with excellent food served in business & first.
3. Typically short haul flights don’t provide good gluten free options
As I touched on earlier, short haul flights typically do not provide an inspired range of gluten free options.
On most flights under 3 hours I get served a tray of fruit and if I’m lucky, a piece of gluten free cake.
If you haven’t experienced long haul travel since your diagnosis, but you have experienced flying short haul, don’t let it sully your expectations.
Today, long haul carriers have a much better equipped in-flight service, especially when it comes to dietary requirements. Unless you’re flying with an ultra-budget airline which doesn’t include meals, you will have very little to worry about.
4. Pack your own lunch
Even with airlines increasing the availability & quality of their gluten free offerings, it’s still a good idea to take a packed lunch with you.
Some short-haul budget airlines don’t allow outside food on their aircraft, but this is more of a profit maximising scheme than anything else. To date, I haven’t seen a long-haul airline banning outside food so you should be fine to bring your own snack box along for the flight.
Having a packed lunch, or at least some handy snacks, is a great backup in case your meal goes missing, gets dropped or simply isn’t enough to fill you up.
Airliners often have lots of standard meals leftover as overstock or trays that simply weren’t served, but they rarely carry extra gluten free meals. As trusted as my favourite airlines are, I have been let down a couple of times, so backup food is always a good idea.
When packing your own food for a long haul flight, there are a few very important things to keep in mind.
Firstly, remember you can’t pack large amounts of liquid. A small bottle of salad dressing may be ok, but I like to stay safe and take no liquids at all.
This also applies to your food: don’t pack soups or stew type dishes. Stick to solid foods or you’ll risk having your lunch confiscated by airport security.
Lastly, make sure you don’t take any prohibited foods into another country. The easiest way to avoid doing so is by eating everything you bring or throwing away the waste before passing through customs on the other side.
In many long haul destinations you can face heavy fines for bringing seemingly innocent foods into the country with you. Read more about that here.
See our snack box recipes for quick ideas or pickup some gluten free energy bars before you fly.
5. If you haven’t pre-booked gluten free meals, be very wary
Cooking deliciously thick sauces, gravies, soups and stews takes a lot of time and quality ingredients. Cheap airline food can’t afford either of these, and so often uses wheat flour as a quick ‘n easy thickener.
See related: Why are gluten free products so expensive?
If you haven’t selected a gluten free meal option but the dish sounds like it may be ok, be very careful before making assumptions.
Tomato soup may sound ok when compared to your homemade recipe, but prepackaged food can be a whole different story.
Flying long haul is already uncomfortable enough without also making yourself ill during the flight. I learnt this lesson the hard way on a flight to South Korea, resulting in a very fast and extremely uncomfortable eczema breakout.
Depending on the severity of your reaction to gluten exposure, you could risk being sick during your vacation or business trip.
In my humble opinion: Going hungry is better than exposing yourself to harmful gluten. It takes a lot longer to heal your gut than a few hours sat hungry on a plane.
6. Eat before you leave
Proper planning is key if you want to enjoy your travels without worrying over the food you’ll eat on the plane.
A quick and simple way to reduce the level of food you’ll need in the air is to have a hearty meal before leaving for the airport.
After timely check-in and security queues you’re bound to get hungry at some point on the flight, but giving yourself a head start can help ease frustrations later down the line.
This tip is so incredibly simple and I almost didn’t put it in the list, but in the rush of excitement to get to the airport it’s easy to forget about eating or finding the time to cook.
Remember: planning is key to ensuring you stay healthy throughout your trip.
7. Know what you can and can’t eat
Brushing up on your knowledge of grain containing foods & gluten-laced cooking methods is never a bad idea, especially when it can help you stay healthy.
Take a minute today and check out this post on 25 foods you didn’t know contained gluten or this post on 15 code-words for gluten exposure.
Before your trip a little menu-reconnaissance can go a long way. When it comes to long haul travel, many airlines publish current menus on their websites. Looking up these menus before you travel can give you time to figure out which menu items will be safe to eat.
Outside of travelling long-haul, knowing what you can and can’t eat as a coeliac will help you avoid gluten exposure every single day.
8. Last resort: Ask for drinks and fruit
The best planning in the world gets thrown out of the window when it comes to spur-of-the-moment flights, last minute deals and unfortunate emergencies.
If you find yourself in a situation with no time to pre-order food, check the menu or make your own packed lunch, don’t let it get you down. The chances are you have to take the flight no matter your food situation, so make sure you go with a positive mindset and don’t let tiredness or hunger make you give in to gluten-exposure. It’s not worth it in the long run.
Even with the most last minute of flights, you should still have time to browse the airport shops for some added snacks. But even this can be difficult in small airports. I’ve travelled from many small city airports in Asia and frequently find the only food offerings to be wheat noodles and gluten-filled chocolate bars.
So what do you do when this happens? Drink plenty of water and ask the flight attendants what foods they do have. At the very least they should have some fruit, which may not be the most substantial of meals, but it is certainly better than making yourself sick or being hungry. Failing that? Try to get some sleep.
Long haul travel sucks enough as it is, without needing to worry about the food you or your child are going to eat. But what’s important is always minimising (or completely removing) your risk of gluten exposure.
As the old adage goes: Failing to plan is planning to fail. With these 8 tips you have everything you need to approach long haul travel with the same positivity and excitement as anyone else.
- Remember to book your meals in advance: doing so can be the difference between a hearty gluten free meal or picking between bits of leftover fruit.
- If at all possible, stick with airlines you’ve already had good GF experiences with. After all, this is your long term health that is at risk.
- Don’t let short haul food worry you. Long haul airliners typically provide a good range of food for special dietary needs (but make sure you book ‘em!)
- Take a packed lunch. You don’t need to worry about food being gluten free or substantial if you made it yourself. Just avoid taking liquids.
- Don’t eat regular plane food. Regular plane food is filled with cheap gluten-based ingredients.
- If you’ve been unable to pre-book coeliac friendly dishes, be very wary of standard in-flight food.
- Eat a hearty meal before you leave. A very simple but effective way to reduce your reliance on airline foods.
- Know what’s good and what’s not. Check the airline’s menus before you leave.
- If all else fails: stick to fruit & water. Gluten exposure is not worth the risk. If there is no other choice on your airplane, just ask for some fruit and water.
Other than that, happy travels! Remember to never let coeliac disease of gluten-sensitivity get in your way of having a good time.
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