Parents often complain about how tough it is to travel with young kids, but traveling with a child who has severe allergies is even harder. Not only does the parent need to bring along all the food the child will need, but with very severe allergies, even sitting near someone who is eating an allergen can be dangerous. To make matters worse, Airlines, Flight Attendants and other passengers aren't always sensitive to special needs. While I don't have firsthand experience with this issue, I asked for feedback from parents, doctors and travel professionals about this issue, and I was delighted to get tons of real-world advice from people who have experience visiting destinations as far-reaching as France and Morocco with their children. Here is the first in the series of articles I will publish based on that research... their best tips for traveling with children who have life threatening food allergies:
Check The Airline Policy
Each airline's policy with regards to tree nuts and peanuts is different. For example, Southwest will serve pretzels instead of peanuts if you notify them of an allergy. Some airlines still serve peanuts as a snack, but a few will help you set up a peanut free zone around your child by moving passengers who had planned to eat nuts on the flight and serving non-nut snacks in that area. Other airlines do not serve peanuts, but may serve tree nuts or items that contain tree nuts or peanuts. No airline can promise a nut-free flight because of the possibility that other passengers will bring nuts on board.
Decide what level of assistance you need before you book your flights. Many airlines post their policy on their website, usually in a section called "Special Needs." As an example, here is a link to Delta's policy. Another good starting place is FAAN's travel page which lists information about several US carriers. When in doubt, call the airline, and ask them to fax or mail you a written copy of their policy.
Inform The Airline
If you will need help from airline staff, call ahead when you book your tickets, and inform them about the allergy. Keep a record of all correspondence, and whenever possible have them fax or email you their response (It's good to keep a printed copy of airline policy too). You should call again the day before the flight and bring the issue up again when you check in at the gate. Despite all this checking, you may find that there has been a mixup with the snacks available on the plane, so talk to the first flight attendant you see (before the doors have closed) and make sure that they'll be able to honor your requests.
Don't Be Afraid To Help Yourself
It's nice to have a flight attendant's help if you need to, for example, set up a nut free zone around your child, but there's nothing wrong with politely explaining your situation to the passengers near you and asking that they either eat something different or trade seats with someone further away.
A nice way to help things along is to bring extra non-allergic snacks. Affix a note to each one that says "Hi, my name is
I also liked the idea of giving the situation some levity by dressing your child in a cute shirt from Jeeto's Allergy Collection. What a great way to make other passengers think twice before handing your child a snack!
Bring Your Own Food
For long flights, many airlines provide allergy-sensitive meals. However, if your child has a severe allergy, it's less risky to serve your own food instead (you never know about cross-contamination in airport kitchens). On shorter flights (and during flight delays), the snacks you bring might be the only thing available for your child to eat.
Be careful that the food you bring onboard a flight does not include liquids and gels in excess of the amount allowed by TSA. You'll also want to avoid common standbys like oatmeal and dehydrated noodles onboard because Airline tap water, even when it's piping hot, isn't safe to drink
You'll have to forgo those freezer gel-packs too (except when used to keep medicine cold), but you can pack food in insulated carriers and ask for ice at a concession stand before you board your plane.
If your child can only drink an alternative milk, you can try bringing it through security with a doctor's note. There is no official policy on soy milk, but along with the doctor's note and a polite explaination most TSA officers would probably consider it "baby milk" or "medically necessary." Also, remember that Starbucks, some Smoothie places, and many other coffee shops sell soy milk after you have cleared security.
If you expect that it will be difficult to find the foods you need at your destination, pack shelf-stable items in your checked bag, or ship a box of safe foods ahead to your destination. Most hotels and rental homes will accept deliveries that arrive before you do as long as you have a confirmed reservation. Shipping can be cheaper than you think, one mom told me that when she traveled to Spain last year, she shipped whole box for about $45. For her, it was worth every penny.
Carry On The Meds
Bring any medication you need (including Benadryl) in your carry on bag to avoid having it lost or damaged in transit. Before you pack, carefully check the expiration dates and quantity of each container. Make sure that you have a doctor's note as well as the prescription label from the pharmacy or original packaging. Medications do not need to fit in a regulation sized ziplock, but do place everything in a large, clear bag so that it is easy to show at the security checkpoint. If you are traveling outside of the country, it can be useful to bring along copies of your prescriptions too.
Isolate Your Child
A middle seat between parents or a window seat can keep a nut-allergic child away from someone who is eating food that might harm her. Want to keep more distance? Before you board, ask the flight attendants to help you set up a nut-free zone around your seat.
It's no secret that short turnaround times make it difficult for cleaning crews to thoroughly clean the plane between flights. Wipe down the seat and tray table with baby wipes before your child sits down to ensure that all the peanut oil is gone. Check the floor around your seat and any areas (e.g. between seat cushions) that you think your curious child might explore). Still worried? You can cover the seat with a beach towel or a lightweight beach sarong. One mom also recommend taking flights early in the day because the plane will have had a more thorough cleaning during the night.
Eating At Your Destination
Most families have a routine that works when they want to eat out, but traveling out of town or in a foreign country brings new challenges.
- At your destination, rent a hotel with a kitchenette, or better yet an apartment. That way you can shop at local markets and prepare safe, nutritious meals for your allergic child before you head out for the day. Apartments also have more space (usually) than hotel rooms, and we always think that they are a great bet for traveling families. If you've never rented an apartment before, here are some Tips for Choosing A Vacation Rental
- Several people told me that they use a printed Chef Card that tells the chef what foods the child is allergic to. Some parents paste a picture of the food onto the card or have it translated into whatever languages they will need on their trip. SelectWisley also sells international versions of chef cards with language translations you select. Keep one laminated copy of the card in your wallet and consider having additional (non-laminated) copies that can be sent back to the kitchen.
- When my family travels, we often make friends with restaurant owners and find ourselves back in the kitchen learning how they make a few local dishes. It's a fine line between being welcomed into someone's kitchen and intruding, but if you are staying in one place for a while it can be worthwhile to get to know the local restaurant and bakery owners. You never know what allergen-free snack you might turn up, and it is also a great way to learn more about the local culture and food.
- Many chain restaurants list their allergen info online. You can print out information about the restaurants you plan to visit on your information and bring it with you on your trip (or make notes about what dishes are safe at each restaurant). AllergyKidConnection has a list of popular restaurant chains and links to the allergy information on their websites.
- Some child friendly theme parks and resorts include menu items that are specially prepared and packaged to be allergy free, and some even have nutritional coordinators you can contact ahead of time. Others may not have menus that accommodate allergies, but will allow food to be brought in to the park for an allergic child. Call ahead to find out exactly what the policy is at the park you will be visiting. Several parents specifically mentioned experiences where Disney did a wonderful job of accommodating children with allergies.
- One mom recommended ordering nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free pastries from a company called Divvies who will deliver the treats to your destination. Their cupcakes look delicious.
- Pasta is a popular choice for kids with severe food allergies, but there are two things you should watch out for: 1) better restaurants often use fresh pasta made with egg. If your child has an egg allergy, be sure to ask what the pasta ingredients are. 2) restaurants often speed things up by using the same boiling water over and over to cook different dishes, and the risk of cross contamination is high. If you are ordering something that will be boiled, be sure to ask for new boiling water.
- Don't assume that all versions of a packaged product have the same ingredients. For example, some hot dogs have egg in them and some sorbets have dairy. When in doubt, check the label or ask the wait staff for help.
Don't Forget the Written Documents and Translations
Before you go, create an Emergency Contact Sheet with all the information you might need to contact someone back home, medical records, and emergency contact information at your destination. Ask your doctor to help you find the name of a pediatric allergist at your destination. Keep a copy with you and a backup copy at your hotel.
If you plan to leave your child in someone else's care during your vacation (including at a resort's activity area), bring along written forms describing allergies, treatments and precautions. Need help? Forms4Parents sells a set of forms that can be used for this purpose, or you can make your own.
If you are traveling to a country where English is not the first language, be sure to bring written translations of any important information you want to communicate. You will also want to bring the translated names of any ingredients you need to avoid. Automated tools like Google Translate work great for single words and simple phrases, but for anything longer you'll want to get a human translation.
In addition to "Chef Cards," you will also want to make sure that you can communicate the right information right away if your child has an allergic reaction. Carry a written card that says "I have just eaten
Make sure that you understand what your health insurance covers (and does not cover) when you travel. If you are visiting a remote location, for example, you might consider evacuation insurance. If you think there is a risk that health issues might cause you to miss part of your trip, travel insurance might be a good idea.
Get A Cell Phone
Make arrangements before you go to unlock your cell phone for international use or rent a phone at your destination. You will be more comfortable knowing that you always have a phone nearby, and having a cell phone makes it easy to coordinate when the family splits up.
Make Your Voice Heard
Many businesses, airlines, etc do not realize how much business they are losing by turning away customers with allergies. Don't be afraid to let them know with a polite phone call or letter. If you feel that you have been discriminated against, you can also file a complaint with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division
You might be more likely to get a real response than you think... One mom told me that after complaining to US Airways they followed up with a personal phone call letting her know when their policy changed.
Please Add Your Comments: If you have tips, advice, or experiences to share about traveling with a child who has severe food allergies, please share them with other parents by adding a comment!Related Links:
Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN)
TSA: Traveling With A Medical Condition
DeliciousBaby: Why I Write About Kids With Severe Food Allergies
Food Allergy Initiative
I had a lot of help on this article. I want to thank Shannon Hutton, M.Ed., M.P.A. of Believer in Balance, Ellen Gerstein of ConfessionsOfAnITGirl, Susan Mussaffi of OrganicCottontail, Paula Werne from Holiday World, Stephanie Martin, Lois Whittaker at GoodiesForMom, Patrick and Kathy Wilson, Amy Friedman, Jenny Reed of OurCruisePlanner, Erin Geisler, Alice Hohl, Carrie Weir of Bilingual In The Boonies, Tracy Zimmerman, and Sophia Van czaus