It was hard to believe that after spending a year planning our wedding weekend it was over and I was officially married! My husband and I were headed to South Africa for our two-week honeymoon, a trip filled with urban exploration, wine tasting and a wildlife safari. I couldn’t wait.
When most people travel, they bring suitcases packed with items they will need to have a relaxing, stress-free vacation. When my husband and I travel, we bring extra baggage with a lot of snacks. The reason? Food allergies.
My husband has life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, while I am gluten intolerant. This puts many foods off-limits. While planning our honeymoon, what was more important to me than anything else was that we’d stay places that would be able to accommodate our dietary restrictions.
After an 18-hour journey, we finally landed in South Africa for the first night of our honeymoon. We opted for a low-key dinner at our hotel. Before ordering his meal, my husband informed the waiter of his nut and peanut allergies and requested a steak and French fries, a dish our waiter was confident would be safe. Jetlagged and hungry, we quickly began eating once our food arrived.
Life seemed pretty amazing: newly married, a candlelit dinner in Johannesburg, what more could anyone want? After a few bites my husband noticed a sauce drizzled over his steak that hadn’t been noted on the menu. I took a bite – it was pesto. In that moment, our night took a sharp turn.
With food allergies, there’s a certain look you come to fear. It’s the flushed, eyes-darting face of a waiter making his way back to your table to tell you that, despite all your warnings and clearly worded requests, something didn’t go as planned.
Some sauce or dressing that contains the ingredient you’re allergic to has made its way onto your plate. In this case, a pesto containing almonds. Dread replaces hunger in the pit of your stomach. Not only are you now dealing with a potentially life-threatening situation, you’re doing so thousands of miles from home.
Unsure whether my husband needed an epinephrine auto-injector, we waited for the doctor who had been immediately summoned to the hotel, and he did indeed give my husband the shot. He urged us to wait in our room and monitor for additional symptoms, as the hospital was only five minutes away and he felt we’d be more comfortable at the hotel. The following six hours were some of the worst of my life. We tried to distract ourselves with the hope that my husband’s mild symptoms would not escalate.
Thankfully after seven hours, we felt comfortable that the “storm” had passed; the allergic reaction was only minor due to swift treatment. Still, the next morning we changed hotels, as we were incredibly upset that this incident occurred despite multiple warnings about our food allergies.
My husband and I love to travel, so we made a promise not to let the experience spoil the rest of our trip. We had a fabulous adventure, which included a safari – and plenty of safe food. But once we returned home, I reflected on how to prevent this type of situation from happening in future. In order to be safe and continue our travels, we’ve made some changes to the way we travel.
For starters, instead of staying at a hotel, we try to rent an apartment with a kitchen as that allows us to cook safe food. We always pack high-protein snacks in case we are unable to find a nut-free or gluten free meal. Additional, higher-level travel health insurance is a must in the event that we require medical assistance.
When ordering food out, we now know to ask again about a dish before starting to eat, and never assume that it’s safe without that second confirmation. If an allergen has been ingested, rather than waiting for the doctor, we would now administer epinephrine without hesitation. In addition to speaking to the waiter about our allergies, we also always carry chef cards in the native language of the country we’re visiting – to ensure nothing gets lost in translation between the waiter and the chef.
With the proper research, preparation and communication, travel with food allergies is quite manageable. As a couple who has visited all the continents with the exception of Antarctica (it’s on our list), we’re living proof that you can safely see the world – while toting along a serious food allergy.
Fiona Boyce is a blogger who lives in New York City. Visit her website at Theallergyfreelife.com.