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My Experience of Travelling with Severe Allergies

A while back I did a post about writing characters with severe allergies. Since then, I’ve stumbled across a lot of online queries about living with anaphylaxis, from sufferers or concerned guardians. One of the most difficult topics is travelling. I touched on this briefly on the previous post, but as I’ve gained more experience I’ve got more to say.

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As I said before, flying is pretty much a no-go. Due to the confined space and circulated air, it’s pretty much the ideal site for a reaction. Some people will risk it, but this is often with a lot of anxiety.

Airlines themselves aren’t hugely helpful. Most sell nuts on board, and they can’t actually stop anyone bringing any in. EasyJet recently claimed to have banned nuts on its flights, which seemed like a step forward. However, once you read the small print, they still cannot guarantee that the environment will be nut free, so it’s still not a safe option for people with super severe allergies like me.

Personally, I usually tend to go by train. It’s quite often more predictable than going by car or bus, not to mention more planet-friendly. I’ve successfully managed to get from the UK to Paris, various cities in Spain, Germany and Amsterdam by train.

Knowing the language of the country that I’m visiting is usually the most helpful thing. In both France and Spain, I was able to read packaged food to determine whether or not it was safe, as I speak both of these up to A level.

It gets shiftier when you don’t speak the language. This was a new experience for me when I went to Amsterdam in January, and I was quite ashamed that I had succumbed to the English stereotype of hoping they spoke my own language. Luckily, most packets had either French or English on them, but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get by on English alone.

A trick I used was to find the supermarket’s website and translate the ingredients for a product into English before buying it in the store. While this may make the Duolingo owl cry, it’s a better alternative to guessing if the food is safe.

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Just in case, I compiled list cards of each nut in the required language, giving them to the other people I traveled with. This helped speed up shopping – it would have taken a while on my own.

Surprisingly, Europe seems to have a large variety of nut free junk food that we can’t get in the UK, such as Prince biscuits and cartons of chocolate pudding. However, there were some less yummy surprises – a lot of frozen food in Amsterdam had may contain warnings, whereas over here there’s a bigger nut free selection.

Eating out abroad isn’t something I’d usually risk, although there are lots of people who do so successfully. I’m much happier if I can prepare my own food, so I tend to rent a flat with a kitchen when I go away. Even if communication isn’t an issue, different cultures have different understandings of allergies. The first time I tried it, a restaurant in the south of France said they could feed me, just not from the menu. My nut free main was fish and vegetables, which was nice enough but nothing compared to the meals my family were eating around me. My nut free desert? Strawberries served in a glass bowl over a plate of pistachios. Yep, pistachios. Funnily enough, that caused a reaction. Since then, I’ve been wary of trying again. It’s difficult enough here, where I know the standards relating to allergies.

In Germany, I was lucky enough to stay with a bilingual family, who helped me check everything. This included determining that the local Lidl bakery was nut free, and even communicating with a restaurant to ensure that they could feed me. Thankfully, this went much more smoothly than the incident in France. This setup wasn’t without disadvantages, though; there were points when they were very inconvenienced by having to provide a nut free environment, and others where I felt really awkward having to explain procedures that can sound ridiculous to somebody new to them. Not everyone would have been so understanding. Because of this, I would still recommend staying in an apartment over relying on someone else.

All of this means that food just doesn’t register as something that I travel for, like it may do for some people. I miss out on a whole aspect of culture. In Spain, I ate a large number of microwave meals. As sad as that is to some gourmet travellers, it’s not something that I dwell on. There’s so much else out there that I usually barely notice what I’m missing.

Overall, my biggest tips for traveling with a severe allergy are:

1. Take the train

2. Learn the language

3. Stay in an apartment rather than a hotel

4. Shop at a supermarket that has online listings

5. Be very wary when eating out – if you even choose to do so

But most importantly, don’t let it ruin anything. Sure, there are restrictions and processes that other people don’t have to worry about, but that’s true of everyday life.

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