Travel with a Peanut Allergy

How to Travel with a Peanut Allergy and See the World

Julie Travel Advice 143 Comments

Do you want to travel more but have a peanut allergy that is holding you back? Stepping foot into a foreign country, a place where peanuts are served and you don’t speak the language, can be a terrifying experience. We traveled around the world with our peanut allergic son and want share our experiences with you. We want to show you how you can travel with a peanut allergy and stay safe.

About Us

Tyler

 

Meet Tyler. Tyler was diagnosed with a life threatening peanut allergy when he was one year old. He also has milder reactions to several tree nuts.

Tim, Kara, and I do not have allergies to peanuts or tree nuts (although I am very allergic to stevia). We are fortunate, especially in this world where food allergies are becoming more prevalent.

The four of us traveled around the world, visiting 35 countries in 13 months, without one single serious allergic reaction. In total, we have visited 69 countries across six continents. It is possible to travel with food allergies and stay safe.

For those with peanut allergies or other food allergies who are contemplating traveling overseas, I know that it can be a nerve-wracking experience. Before we started our travels, I would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified of what it would be like to travel through Asia with Tyler. Horrible images of serious allergic reactions, anaphylaxis, and hospital visits in 3rd world countries would keep me awake at night. I kept thinking to myself, are my fears overblown? Or am I really an irresponsible mother for thinking we could safely travel with a peanut allergic child?

Most of my fears were unfounded. As we traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Vietnam, and many more places, we realized that finding safe food for Tyler was easy and convenient. Traveling with a peanut allergy was not as scary as I thought it would be.

Sometimes, our biggest fears are fears of the unknown. Hopefully, by the time you are finished reading this article, you will learn that it is possible to travel well with a peanut allergy.

Food Allergy Statistics

  • 15 million Americans have food allergies.
  • 1% of the US population is allergic to peanuts.
  • The incidence of food allergies in the US doubled between 1997 and 2011.
  • 1 in 13 children have a food allergy, which is about 2 kids in every classroom.
  • Australia and Europe have similar statistics.

Basically, food allergies are on the rise and affect not only those with the allergies, but also the general population as well. Unfortunately, this is not a problem that is going to magically disappear.

Background Information on Who We Are and What We Have Done

TylerTyler is 16 years old and has lived with a peanut allergy since the age of 1. We carry Epi-Pen auto injectors everywhere we go.

I worked as a physician assistant for 18 years (until running this travel blog full time). Although I did not work directly with food allergies (I worked primarily in Orthopedics and in the operating room) I do have extensive medical training and experience. My medical background, combined with managing Tyler’s peanut allergy for fourteen years and our extensive travel resume gives us some credibility on providing advice how to travel with a peanut allergy. Even so, I do not proclaim to be an expert on food allergies. You should always consult your physician if you have any questions.

We have traveled to 69 countries across six continents. During our 13 months around the world, we spent nine of them in Asia. Yes, we traveled to Thailand, Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, and more, and had a fabulous experience. Tyler’s peanut allergy was always a concern but it did not take away from the enjoyment while traveling.

How To Travel With a Peanut Allergy and See the World

Here are our best tips and tricks on how to travel with a peanut allergy. Learn from our experiences about how to stay safe.

General Advice

Notify your physician when and where you will be traveling. Your allergist may be able to provide advice for the area you will be visiting.

Make sure your food allergy is covered by your travel insurance. In the unlikely event that you will need to visit a hospital you want to make sure the costs are covered.

Bring more medicine than you think you will need. It is much easier carrying extra medication than scrambling to find it in a foreign country. We traveled with 8 Epi-Pens for a 13-month trip. It was excessive but we took no chances. And we never needed any of them.

Airplane Flights with a Peanut Allergy

This can be terrifying, especially the first few times you do it. Traveling at 40,000 feet, trapped inside an airplane with people munching on peanuts all around you…just the thought of this keeps some people from even boarding an airplane. Flying is especially stressful for parents of toddlers with peanut allergies. We’ve been there and done that! Here are tips and tricks to keep you safe on the airplane.

Some airlines no longer serve peanuts. Consider using these airlines if possible. Foodallergies.about.com has a list of airlines and their peanut policies.

If an airline does serve peanuts, you can request a “peanut free” snack to be served instead. Some airlines will fulfill your request, some won’t. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.

When booking your flight, contact the airline about the meals being served. They can usually inform you about the menu and the ingredients. This will help you plan whether or not you choose to eat the prepared meal or bring your own food.

Bring your own food. Sometimes it is just not worth taking the risk and eating airline food.

Airplanes are usually cleaned at the end of the day. Flights in the morning are more likely to be free of peanuts and crumbs, making this the safer time to book your flight.

At the gate, notify the flight agents of your peanut allergy.

Wipe down your seat and surrounding area to eliminate any peanut crumbs or residue. Some airlines will allow you to pre-board in order to do this.

Don’t put anything into the seat back pocket since empty peanut wrappers usually get stuffed into here and it becomes a collection ground for peanut dust.

Always carry your Epi-Pen with you. We also carried a medical letter of necessity obtained from our allergist that would explain to security personnel and flight attendants why we needed to have this medication available on the flight. It was rarely an issue getting our stash of Epi-Pens through security.  

Do you wonder if passing your Epi-Pen through the X-ray scanner at the airport changes the effectiveness of the medication? Take a look at this article on FoodAllergy.com.

Eating at Restaurants

Eating Fried RiceEating at restaurants in the United States with a food allergy is a much different experience than eating in other countries. In the US, restaurants understand the nature of food allergies, speak your language, and in some cases, even have menus labeled with food allergy warnings. Things are not so easy in other countries. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid them.

Food allergies, though they exist in Asia, Africa, and South America, occur at a lower incidence than they do in the US, UK, Europe, and Australia. In certain countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, for example, many people are not even aware of what a peanut allergy is. This can make conveying your concerns to the restaurant staff difficult. Add in the language barrier and things get to be almost impossible.

 

So, how do you handle eating out in foreign countries?

Pad ThaiResearch the main ingredients used in the country you are visiting. There are many destinations where peanuts are rarely used, such as Japan. However, peanut oil can be used here, so you also have to research what type of cooking oils are used.

Other places, like China and Thailand, peanuts are used frequently. The first time you travel overseas you might want to visit a country where peanuts are not so plentiful. It is good to “practice” traveling with a peanut allergy in a country where you speak the language and feel comfortable. After traveling for a little while, you will get more comfortable dealing with the unknowns of foreign countries and later can visit Myanmar, China, or Cambodia.

In countries that cook with a lot of peanuts, stick with “western style” restaurants. In some restaurants, peanuts may not be in the dish you want to order, but there is the risk of cross-contamination during the cooking process. We skipped the local restaurants in some countries. Fortunately, it is easy to find McDonald’s and Pizza Hut all around the world. We would get Tyler his dinner at one of these chain restaurants and then Tim, Kara, and I would eat the local food. I know that fast food is not the healthiest option, but it is much safer than playing Russian roulette with the local food in some locales.

Most larger towns and cities will have at least a small assortment of western style restaurants. Here, you can get spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and other similar dishes. In many cities, we were surprised at the large numbers of restaurants serving Mexican, Italian, and “continental” foods, giving us numerous dining options to keep Tyler safe.

If you are interested in trying the local fare, go on a food tour. Many tour companies have staff that speaks English. With the growing incidence of food allergies around the world, these food tour companies usually understand the implications of traveling with a peanut allergy. We did this several times and never had an issue. Our guide helped us choose which foods were safe for Tyler to eat. You do have to trust your guide, but it’s a nice option if you want to try local foods as safely as possible.

Snacks in ChinaThis next tip may be counterintuitive but it is an important one. If you are sitting at a restaurant and your waiter does not speak English very well, do not even verbally mention your peanut allergy. Why? Most likely, they won’t really understand what you are saying. They will only hear “peanut” and think you actually want them to add peanuts to your dish. This happened to us on more than one occasion!! We were able to convey our meaning better before they brought out the dish; but still, it was eye opening for us. For the remainder of our travels, if our waiter did not speak English well, we did not even mention Tyler’s peanut allergy when ordering. However, once the food was served, we asked if it contained peanuts.

Bring translation cards. A translation card is a card with a message written in the language of the country you are visiting, explaining your food allergy. Include one or two sentences explaining your allergy and your reaction. Show this card to your waiter before you order. Having these cards is a huge help. You can get translations online and write the card out yourself, have hotel staff help write a card for you, or you can visit Allergy Translation and they will print the cards for you.

Use Google Translate. This is an indispensable tool to use while traveling. Some things do get lost in translation but Google Translate makes it possible to communicate when you cannot speak the language.

Bring your own food. When in doubt, eat your own stash of food. If traveling for 10 days or less, it’s easy to bring a supply of healthy snacks just in case you don’t feel comfortable eating at certain restaurants.

How To Travel with a Peanut Allergy Region by Region

Here is a brief overview of which countries are easy to visit with a peanut allergy and which ones are difficult.

Countries Where Peanuts are less of a Concern

The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. These three countries have a lot in common…English speaking, similar incidence of peanut allergies, similar diet. It is easy to convey the nature of your allergy to restaurant staff and easy to avoid the restaurants that may pose a threat.

Europe. In general, peanuts are not used much in European cooking. There are actually articles written on how hard it is to find peanut butter in Europe. There may be a language barrier here, but use those translation cards and you should have a great experience! On our most recent trips through Europe, we were pleasantly surprised to see than many restaurants listed allergens for each dish on their menu.

Japan. This is another country that seldom uses peanuts but has a large language barrier. However, peanut oil can be used during cooking. 

India. It was rare to come across peanuts in India. What we did have to watch out for were tree nuts. Tyler did have two mild allergic reactions to cashews that were used in the dishes we ordered. Both times, Tyler spent several hours with a stomachache and nausea that gradually faded. Fortunately, this has been the extent of our food allergic reactions while traveling.

Africa. We spent six weeks in southern Africa. Our experiences here were very similar to traveling in the US or Australia, in that English was the official language and it was easy to find restaurants serving continental food. If traveling to other destinations, such as Kenya or Morocco, do some research first.

Countries where Peanuts are more of a concern

Southeast Asia. This is the biggest threat for travelers with peanut allergies. We spent three solid, uneventful months here. During this time, we learned that it is remarkably easy to eat great meals without being terrified of the consequences. In larger cities (Bangkok, Singapore, Yangon, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and in Bali) there is a plethora of western style restaurants. There are also many more McDonald’s, Subway’s, Starbuck’s, and Papa John’s Pizza joints than you may be aware of. You do not have to starve or live in fear while on vacation in Southeast Asia…there are safe restaurant choices everywhere. Even off the beaten path we were able to find restaurants where English was spoken and pizza or sandwiches were served.

For us, the hardest country in Southeast Asia was Myanmar. Peanuts are farmed here and can be found in many dishes. At times, it was hard to communicate with the restaurant staff, which made us nervous at times, and had Tyler skipping a few meals.

Peanut farmer in Myanmar

Peanuts in Myanmar

The easiest country in Southeast Asia…Thailand. Surprised? We were too! Thailand is the most advanced country in Southeast Asia when it comes to catering for tourists. With that comes a multitude of restaurants geared towards the western traveler with little to no threat of a peanut allergy reaction. Yes, you may have to pass on eating the local food, but at least you still get to see all of the other amazing things that Thailand has to offer.

By the way, some of the street food of Thailand can be ordered without peanuts. For example, when cooking Pad Thai, peanuts are added at the very end of the cooking and are easy to omit. What you do have to be aware of is cross contamination and the use of unrefined peanut oil. Stay away from Papaya Salad…that is prepared with peanuts.

Street food in Bangkok

Street Food in Bangkok

China. For us, China was difficult. The language barrier is huge, we couldn’t read the menus, and peanuts are frequently used in meal preparation. This is the country where we utilized fast food chains and our own food the most. Tyler would eat his own meal of Subway and Tim, Kara, and I would eat Chinese food. In the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, we were able to communicate with the restaurant staff and Tyler could sample Chinese food.

Subway in Shanghai

South America. It is thought that peanuts originated either in Peru or Brazil. There is no doubt that they make their way into the foods here. In 2012, Tim and I visited Peru without Tyler and Kara, terrified to bring Tyler here because of his peanut allergy. So yes, we know what it’s like to avoid traveling due to a food allergy. Tim and I arrived in Peru, expecting to see peanuts sprinkled on everything, but that was not the case at all. In fact, we almost never saw peanuts used in cooking and we were left regretting not bringing Tyler along.

This was a learning experience for us. Sitting at home, we tended to imagine the worst scenarios. Once we were traveling, we learned that most of our fears were excessive. Since that trip in 2012, we have included Tyler in every international destination without any issues.

In 2016, we visited Chile and Argentina. Tyler’s peanut allergy was not an issue in either country.

Links to Food Allergy Websites:

My final word of advice is to always err on the side of caution. If you don’t feel comfortable with a certain restaurant or a certain dish, avoid it. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

By writing this post, I am hoping to allay your fears if you are considering traveling with a peanut allergy. Traveling with a peanut allergy may be easier than you think.


Do you have any questions or comments? Do you have any information or personal travel experience you would like to share with our readers? Comment below.

You Might Also Like:

 

 

Travel Peanut Allergy

Comments 143

  1. Great article. In the EU, if they list “may contain nuts,” does that mean only tree nuts? Or might it contain peanuts? Thanks!

    1. Post
      Author

      Many restaurant menus distinguish between peanuts and tree nuts. But to be on the safe side, if you see a label that states “may contain nuts,” I would assume that this includes peanuts and tree nuts.

  2. Hi Julie,
    thanks for the great blog, we have a daughter (same name as yours) that has a severe peanut allergy. The problem we are more worried about is the use of peanut oil. A friend of ours is a chef in Italy and he says that peanut oil is commonly used for cooking but will rarely be listed (it also comes up on a google search of Italy). Did you find in general that people whom could speak or understand would also be aware of the oil used? nuts in the dishes are more obvious but often wait staff wont check the oils. We even had this in the US at a friends house where we caught it just in time.

    1. Post
      Author

      I think that peanut oil is starting to be used more frequently. As far as asking about it, I really just think that depends on where you go. Internationally, not only will you have the language barrier but just also the knowledge of the staff. In Europe, restaurants seem to be very knowledgeable about food allergies. Recently, a lot of menus list the allergens for each dish, which is helpful. But we always double check by talking to the waiter or chef (and we have not come across peanut oil in Europe, yet). However, it’s now been 4 years since we’ve been to Asia and Africa, and it can be more challenging there, simply because food allergies aren’t common there. In each situation, you have to use your best judgement. Cheers, Julie

  3. Hi have you been to Delhi in India? What restaurants or hotels worked for you? Also do you carry home food through customs? Has that worked

    1. Post
      Author

      Yes, we have been to Delhi but it has been 5 years and I can’t recall any specific restaurants. Yes, we carry snacks through customs: energy bars, cookies, crackers, but no produce, meat, etc and we have not had a problem. In India, there are lots of small grocery stores that sell snack foods that are safe to eat. Plus, in India, I do recall Tyler eating at Subway and McDonalds and Dominoes. Not the healthiest but better than having a reaction. We didn’t come across peanuts very often but he also has a mild cashew allergy and cashews are used much more frequently, at least in our experience. Cheers, Julie

  4. I have a big peanut and all other nuts allergy…. I traveled trough Indonesia and I learned that they use kemiri (candle nut) in sauces…. now I am planning to go to Mexico travel around and I read that they use peanut butter in for example their famous mole? Does anyone has an experience with peanuts and other nuts in Mexico?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Loraine. We have not been to Mexico yet (other than very quick visits to Tulum and Cabo San Lucas over 10 years ago) but hopefully someone else will be able to answer your question. Cheers, Julie

  5. This is a fantastic resource ty ty! What about traveling to a place where hospitals may not be nearby? My 13 year old- with a peanut allergy – and I want to go on a safari but I’m worried if he has an accidental exposure. What are your thoughts?

    1. Post
      Author

      We thought a lot about that too. In those circumstances, we were particularly careful about what Tyler ate, had an arsenal of Epi-Pens and Benadryl, and brought along safe food for him to eat. Cheers, Julie

  6. Hi Julie, thank you for this post. Soon we are traveling to Thailand with our two young children (3 and 6 years) who both of them have peanut allergy. While I am really looking forward this trip, on the other side I am terrified about peanuts being used widely in Thailand. Our plan is to visit Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ko Samui and Ko Phangan. Can you please give some advise where you have taken your son in this places for lunch? What about sticky rice, did he tried it? Ice cream? What about convenience stores in Thailand, are the allergens marked clearly? Would you advise to bring some food from home? Any help is appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Maja

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Maja. I was also very worried about taking Tyler to Thailand but it was one of the easiest Asian countries for him. He ate very little of the local food, instead eating at Subway, Pizza Hut, and the abundance of “western-style” restaurants we saw everywhere we went. However, I do not have first hand experience in Ko Phangan or Ko Samui, but most likely, you won’t have too much trouble finding “safe” restaurants. Yes, I think it’s a good idea to bring food from home. In the convenience stores, we saw a lot of the same foods we buy at home (Oreos, Ritz crackers etc). Not the healthiest, but OK in the short term. He did not try sticky rice and as for ice cream, that will depend on where you buy it. But I think once you get there, you’ll see you have a lot of options for food. Cheers, Julie

  7. Hi,
    My question is about cross-contamination. My son also has a severe peanut allergy and we were hoping to travel to Germany. I speak German fluently and am not as worried about the language barrier but to my understanding European companies only have to label the ingredients, not if it’s produced in a facility that could have cross-contamination. How did you navigate this, especially in Asian countries?

    1. Post
      Author

      It can be tricky. For countries that use peanuts a lot in their cooking (Myanmar, Malaysia, parts of China, etc) or in places where there is a big language barrier, Tyler didn’t eat at local restaurants. He ate at McDonalds, Subway, etc. As for food packaging, we only bought him foods with English labels. We found a fair amount of American or European or Australian produced foods with labels that we could read. As far as cross-contamination, at the advice of our allergist, we were told not to worry about it. He said that the chance of cross contamination is so low that it is not worth eliminating all of these foods. So Tyler will occasionally eat foods packaged in a facility that also uses peanuts and we have not had an issue. So, traveling abroad, we didn’t worry about it either. Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or your allergist told you otherwise, then you should avoid these foods. But I was amazed at how many Oreos, Frito-Lay potato chips, and Ritz crackers we found in stores throughout Asia. Not the healthiest option, but it’s OK in the short term in order to stay safe. Cheers, Julie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *