Travelling Gluten Free

When I was first diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, I was really worried about what I would do when it came to traveling outside of the comfort zone of my local neighborhood, where I at least knew the places that I could safely eat, and improvise with known snack foods if needed.  However, I was determined not to let my new gluten free diet restrict wherever I wanted to go, and decided that research was the best and smartest thing to do when I embarked on a birthday trip to Fiji last December. I knew that I would be traveling from London to Fiji for at least 49 hours including transfers, and that I’d need to check things like:

  • Would the resort I was going to have gluten free options?

  • Would the airlines I was flying with provide gluten free meals?

  • Would I have access to gluten free food at various airports?

  • Make sure I packed some gluten free snacks that travelled well in my luggage

  • Make sure I packed sachets of peppermint and camomile tea should I get ‘glutened’

So how did I go about this?

I tried to figure out where people would be discussing things like gluten free options in seaside resorts, and gluten free options on different airlines.  The best place I found was Trip Adviser.  I did a keyword search for “gluten free Fiji” , and came up with a whole load of posts where various travellers discussed the gluten free options available at different places, from buffets, to menus at bars and restaurants, to having gluten free options with room service.  While looking at traveller reviews, I also came across specific requirements needed for Coeliac travellers who are trying to bring pre-packed gluten free food in their luggage through customs.  Usually if you explain nicely to the customs officers, they will let you through, however, there will be some cases where, if you have additional medication, you may need to make sure it bears your name if it is on prescription.

In the end, I went with the lovely Sofitel Fiji Resort And Spa, which is on the Beachfront, on Denarau Island, Nadi, Fiji. They offered a gluten free buffet, restaurant and room service options, with a nicely labelled menu in all cases, some very knowledgeable staff (and a wonderfully decorated gluten free birthday cake when my birthday arrived (!)).

With my hotel chosen and booked, I went about finding what gluten free options I would get on-board my 3 flights to Fiji.  Different airlines have different policies, and although you can sometimes choose meal options when booking, it is always a good idea to send an additional email to the airline to make sure that they are fully aware of your needs on the flight(s).  I came across the very helpful advice given by GlutenFreePassport.com, that not only gives you good basic tips, but explains what all the different food allergy codes and notification policies are for each airline. In my case, I was guaranteed a gluten free meal with almost every flight from London to Singapore, from Singapore to Sydney, and then back again, all apart from my final flight, which was a short 50min flight from Frankfurt to London.  The good thing is that by going through all my flight itineraries thoroughly before travelling, I was able to compensate for this by packing some gluten free snacks (some gluten free crackers, Eat Natural bars and cashew nuts) in my hand luggage.

On the flight(s) to Fiji, I noticed that in order to make sure any special requirements weren’t mixed up with the rest of the food, the airline would always serve me my wonderful smelling food at least 20mins before everyone else(!) Great, one would think, but also a little awkward, as I had the dilemma of eating straight away while everyone was hungry, or waiting until everyone else was served.  Not the best of situations, but depending on how hungry or polite you are, it is still really nice to know that your needs are being catered for.

Not everything was smooth-sailing however.  My agent had forgotten to inform me that there was a 22 hour wait between flights in Sydney before my final flight to Fiji.  Not knowing this, I had neglected to organise the appropriate visa to cross customs, and stay in a hotel until the next morning – the airport was not a 24/7 one, and although I was eventually able to negotiate a seat on an earlier flight – I still faced a 9 hour wait in the airport. And to top it all off, although I had snacks with me, the store I had highlighted as a great place for gluten free food was closed for refurbishment (!)

What to do, what to do?  My tired brain remembered that almost every large international airport has a McDonalds, and although the bun that comes with the hamburger in McDonalds is a no, no (well apart from Spain where you can ask for a gluten free bun) – in Australia, the burger, fries and toppings are absolutely fine.  For the first time in my life I was really happy to have a not so healthy McDonald’s meal (twice) during my 9 hour wait, as it gave me enough gluten free fuel to keep going and stay calm while I sorted out my luggage transfers and earlier arrival at my resort (Thank-you McDonalds!).

Apart from that little hiccup, everything else went really smoothly.  The head chef, room service and waiting staff at the Sofitel Resort were all very knowledgeable about my Coeliac diet – they had my name on a special list at the restaurant to make sure I was served the right food.  The head chef would often come out himself and take me on a tour of their awesome buffet (whose theme changed every night), and show me all the foods I could choose that were safe for me.  He told me that they started baking their exquisite gluten free bread every night at midnight, so that it would be ready, fresh and delightfully tasty the next morning for the buffet and room service.  They also created a great selection of gluten free desserts, had a tasty few options at the beach front bar, and when it came to my birthday, completely surprised me by baking an amazing chocolate-covered and decorated gluten free birthday cake!  I could not have asked for a better, relaxed and lovely holiday, with no worries about being glutened.

I guess the main things to think about when travelling to another country, are what access you’ll have to gluten free food, and if there is limited access, finding out what are the rules for you taking gluten free food with you in your luggage (again, some customs regulations will be fine with this, but there are some countries that will require you to also have a doctor’s note explaining why you need to take this food into the country with you).  When travelling for short trips to Europe, and even to smaller towns/cities where I live in the UK, I usually set aside an hour to Google a few gluten free cafes, stores, hotels and restaurants in the area, and print out a few maps, opening times and addresses so I have a few options when out and about.  Doing this and making sure you have a few small snacks in your bag for those moments when you’re caught short, really does make for peace of mind.

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