How to Travel when You Have Dietary Restrictions and No Car
Photo courtesy of Kate Ter Haar.

How to Travel when You Have Dietary Restrictions and No Car

Written by Emilie

Topics: Traveling

I’m sitting on the patio of a fancy touristy hotel, overlooking the historic district of the oldest city in the United States, St Augustine, Florida. I’m staying a few blocks away, at the local hostel, which (though lacking a coffee shop), is cozier, and far more amenable to my needs.

One of the coolest things about running a Renaissance Business, is that you can take the party on the road and work from anywhere with an internet connection. I did it last fall, on my six week trip down the West Coast. There were challenges productivity-wise, but I made it work by maintaining my strict morning work rituals.

While getting “time off work” is not an issue for self-employed multipotentialites, there are other things about my lifestyle that make traveling a more difficult. The first is that I don’t own a car. (I’m from Montreal. The rush to get a drivers license and buy a car at an early age is just not part of our culture. It’s not necessary either, because public transportation rocks and parking/snow shoveling sucks.) For some reason that mentality has stuck with me, even since moving to Portland. So anyway, no car.

The second issue is that I’m on a very unusual diet. Without getting into too many details, I’ve been dealing with a lot of digestive issues these past few years, and I ended up cutting a lot of foods out of my diet. I finally got some answers a few weeks ago, and it turns out I have celiac disease (and despite being gluten free for some time, I’ve been poisoning myself with trace amounts of gluten that were in my hair products– crazy!)

Anyway, not only does this means that the usual junk food travel diet is out, but I also need to avoid eating a lot of otherwise healthy foods. My system is so out of wack, that for now, I can’t even eat at healthy restaurants. Basically I prepare all of my meals myself, which I’ve been doing for the last two years.

You might think that the need to prepare all your own meals would make traveling impossible, and to be honest, it makes it a lot harder. You spend a lot of time hunting down grocery stores. But it is not impossible.

Making it work has more to do with your attitude than anything. You need to learn how to calm yourself down and maintain a positive frame of mind. Traveling with dietary restrictions is actually not so different from having food restrictions at home. Focusing on how much your situation sucks, will only make it harder. Your mindset just needs to be: this is just how things are. You do what you need to do.

Here are some tips that will help you stay healthy while traveling, whether you have serious food restrictions like me, or you simply want to eat well on the road.

1. Make sure that your accommodations have a kitchen you can use

Hostels are a great option, since they usually have a kitchen where you can prepare your food. However, be careful because some hostels have certain hours when you can’t access the kitchen and other hostels don’t let you use the kitchen at all. Make sure to double check with them before booking. Oh and label your food well!

Couch surfing is another great option. Just be sure to let your host know in advance. But hopefully you will get the “my kitchen is your kitchen (as long as you clean up after yourself)” green light. The hosts I’ve stayed with have been great about this. People on that site tend to be more open-minded and more understanding about dietary needs than the staff at hostels.

Another good option is Airbnb. When doing your search, just check off “kitchen” and “wireless internet” (if you need it) in the Amenities section.

Finally, some hotels have kitchens in the rooms, or will at the very least bring a small fridge up to your room for fee. The line “it’s for my medications,” helps too. ;)

2. Make sure that your accommodations are within walking/biking distance of a large grocery store

The next thing I do when researching a place to stay, is I locate the nearest large grocery store. I do this by using the Google Maps “Search Nearby” function. If it looks like there’s a grocery store that’s accessible without a car, then you’re good to go.

On rare occasions, you might be hit with a rude awakening when you arrive and realize the grocery store isn’t as close or accessible as you thought. I actually had this problem here in St Augustine. The closest grocery store was two miles away, down a highway. When this happens, I check for public buses, take taxis or charm someone at the hostel to bring me along on their grocery trips (another reason to stay at hostels where you’ll meet people, and develop your confidence/social skills). It turns out that taxis are ridiculously cheap in this town. I’ve taken three cabs already, and they cost around $3.50 each!

3. Whole Foods is Your best friend (farmers’ markets, and local health food stores are good too)

Another thing to look up on Google Maps is the nearest Whole Foods or local health food store. When you find one, stock up on your specialty items. Grab those Brazil Nuts or some coconut kefir. Whatever your thing is, stock up.

When I was in Vegas last fall, Whole Foods saved my life. I couldn’t afford to stay at any hotels that had kitchens, so I stayed at a hotel where they would at least rent me a fridge (for a ridiculous fee) and then I took the bus to Whole Foods to pick up a plain roasted chicken and a bunch of veggies. That held me for the two days I was there. If you don’t do meat, but you eat grains and sugar, there are lots of snacks you can grab at health food stores.

I know it’s a giant corporation, and I get that there’s a lot of marketing and psychological tactics going on here, but I will admit that I find it comforting walking into a Whole Foods market. It feels safe and familiar. That familiarity meant a lot to me in a place like Las Vegas, where I felt totally disconnected from the “culture.” It sounds silly, but that store really felt like a safe haven.

4. Compartmentalize your packing system

I travel with three bags: one small back pack a tote bag, and a fabric grocery bag.

Last fall, I challenged myself to go minimalist with my packing, and bring a day pack, instead of a big backpackers backpack or a large suitcase. It’s not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. You just roll your clothes up, bring as few bulky items like sweaters and shoes as possible, and do laundry more often. It’s like my aunt says, “all you really need is underwear and a credit card.

Next I have a small tote bag that contains my work stuff: a laptop, cell phone, wallet, and important documents.

The third bag is for food and vitamins. You might not even need a separate bag for this, if your dietary issues aren’t as extreme as mine.

Find a system that works for you. If you like the big backpack method or the rolling suitcase, go for it. But this system works for me because I like knowing exactly where everything is. There’s no need to go digging through my luggage. My backpack is my wardrobe, my tote bag’s my office, and my grocery bag’s my kitchen. Easy.

5. Bring Tupperware

Every time you cook, try to make big portions and then save some for future meals. In addition to a couple well-sealed tupperware containers, you’re also going to want a plastic fork and a small folding knife (remember to check it in your luggage when you hop on any airplanes).

6. Learn to love (or at least tolerate) the Greyhound

In terms of getting around, certainly try Amtrak, look for flight deals, check out local buses, and search for Craigslist ride shares. But spending your time researching transportation options can be a black pit of hell. Greyhound goes most places. It’s not comfy, but it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to travel without a car.

Finally, there are some places that are really just inaccessible without a car. In these situations, try to buddy up with someone who has a car, but if it really feels like it just isn’t meant to be, let it go. For instance, don’t attempt to go to Big Sur “at all costs,” and ignore your intuition, because you could end up stranded by the side of the highway with people you can’t stand…

Having a good system will free you up to focus on your multipotentialite adventures

I hope these tips have been helpful. I hope they’ve shown that if someone with as serious dietary and transportation restrictions as me can travel happily, then so can you.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but once you routinize your transportation and dietary needs and find your rhythm, it just becomes “what you do.” Try out some of these tips, modify them to meet your needs, and come up with your own system. That way you can stop thinking so hard about your basic needs, and go enjoy those multipotentialite adventures.

Your Turn

How have you dealt with any challenges or limitations while traveling?

28 Comments

  1. Excellent post! We’ve more or less given up travelling with a young child who has one set of food needs, me with another set and a normally eating husband. But I have this fantasy that one day… I’ll save up some money and go on a holiday by myself, just me… and do my own thing (with my own dietary needs) One day…

    • Emilie says:

      You totally have to do it, Catherine! I’ve developed a real taste for traveling alone. All kinds of serendipitous things seem to happen, and you meet a lot of interesting people.

      Glad you enjoyed the tips. :)

  2. JocelynBrown says:

    Emilie, those are great tips and ones I use myself! I am gluten-free and I live in a city with tons of great restaurants that have GF options…. but when I travel, some places don’t even know what gluten-free means. I usually prefer renting condos or staying in hotels with kitchenettes, so that I can make my own food. I also always have some digestive enzymes with me, to take whenever I eat out. You never know. Happy travels!

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Jocelyn,

      Yeah, I live in Portland, which (second possibly to Asheville), is amazing for gluten-free options. Not so true in other parts of the country… :)

  3. Lesley says:

    Oh Emilie, you know all too well that I’ve been doing this journey pretty much right alongside you, at least for the past year or so. I *just* got back on Sunday from a 3-day wedding weekend I had to be in 4 hours away, and the hotel didn’t have fridges, and there was a LOT of ‘okay now we’re going to get our nails done and then go straight to the rehearsal dinner where there will be Italian food’ and the day of the wedding it was like 7 hours without any food for all of us, much less me. Needless to say I was hoarding coconut almond KIND bars in my purse and I feel like I ate so much coconut and granola I was going to pop to ‘get through it’.

    Sitting at a table with 11 other people eating an Italian feast while drinking water wasn’t one of my happiest moments haha. But I know how this all goes. I hunted down a grocery store and bought cold cut meat and corn chips…and I had a cooler with me that had some homemade applesauce and a salad in it. I think the tips you’ve outlined here are so important for people with as many restrictions as ours (and I think at this point you have more than I do. I’m able to have some sugar, though I’m super paranoid about it every time I eat it).

    It’s hard to not rely on chips, granola, other kind of not-so-great-for-you things when traveling. You really have to think ahead for every single activity you’re doing, how long you’ll be gone, if there will be food, if you need to bring it, and if so, if it needs to be kept cold, etc.

    The words ‘mini fridge’ and ‘microwave’ on a hotel room description give me the biggest sigh of relief haha.

    I feel for you. I hope that now that you’ve been diagnosed you can start healing and hopefully gluten will end up being the only thing you’ll have to avoid! I get re-tested for all of my allergies in July and I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get to have a few things back. You’re so right that it’s all in the mindset, and I do find myself slipping more than I’d like into feeling sad or resentful about it. I’m trying to remember to appreciate what I have, that I have the ‘luxury’ of being able to shop at whole foods if I need to, etc.

    <3

    • Marial Shea says:

      Emilie, your advice is right on target, thanks. I’m gluten sensitive and I don’t eat dairy, fried foods or hot spices, due to autoimmune gut issues. I’m also type 1 diabetic (insulin dependent), so I eat a fairly low-carb diet. Good times!

      I went away last summer for the first time in 15 years. I did just what you’ve suggested and found a place through AirBNB that had a kitchen and was two blocks from a food co-op. This worked really well for me.

      While eating out is a fun break for people with normal diets, it’s more often a source of anxiety for people like me who have “food issues.” I was so relieved to be able to prepare my own food and totally enjoy my holiday, free of restaurant stress.

      Shopping for food was also a great way to experience local culture. Instead of hanging out with other tourists, I was there in the produce section, alongside the locals, or visiting the farmer’s markets seeing what the region had to offer.

      It took me years to work up the courage to take my complicated food show on the road, and I’m so glad I did.

      Another resource that might be useful to those of you who identify as “highly sensitive persons” is Elaine Aron’s website (http://www.hsperson.com/index.html). She’s got some great articles on traveling as an HSP.

      • Emilie says:

        Great tips, Marial! Thanks for sharing. I totally agree about eating out being a source of anxiety. I think the social aspect of changing my diet was the hardest part. All socializing seems to revolve around meals or drinks.

        But you know, I’ve found that these restrictions actually make you more creative, both with your cooking at home, and with finding activities to do with friends. Silver lining. (Though I suppose health is another silver lining. I haven’t had a cold in 2 years. :)

    • Emilie says:

      Oh ouch! That sounds like a nightmare, Lesley. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

      But it sounds like you had a really good attitude about it. I’ve od’ed on salad before for the same reason– only thing I could eat for many hours… Not fun.

      We’ll get through it. :)

      *hugs*

  4. Ann-Sofi says:

    Even though I´m one of those lucky people who can eat everything (AND have a driving licence) I think there´s tons of reasons to do what you recommend. I totally prefer staying in an appartment (rented or with friends) or hostel before choosing a hotel, much because of the kitchen possibility. I think eating out is nice as a change, but it quickly get´s boring, stressful (and expensive!) when you´re forced to do it all the time, so having the possibility to buy the stuff I like and prepaire it myself really makes travelling much nicer from my point of view. And, like Marial Shea said, it also makes you experience the place you´re staying in a more “real” way, and not so much as a tourist. And I find it so much more relaxing to travel by train or bus compaired to driving a car. From the moment you´re on you can read or sleep or whatever, instead of constantly concentrating on the road. And with a small child it´s heaven to be able to move around a little compared to having to be all fastened in our seatbelts. Also it´s better for the environment, and best of all – the buss/train never gets lost;)

    • Emilie says:

      Very true, Ann-Sofi. I hadn’t thought of the advantage of buses and “home-cooked” meals when traveling with small children. But that makes a lot of sense. There were quite a few families at the hostel I was staying at. Thanks for throwing in your 2 cents. :)

    • Layla says:

      Great points about being more eco-friendly and other benefits!! :)

      I don’t want to have a car (hopefully, ever!) (only if I’d really really need it) it’s so much nicer travelling with other people!! :)

      You can get to know many interesting people you otherwise wouldn’t, or reconnect with old friends etc. :)

  5. Nathan Agin says:

    FANTASTIC article Emilie! Great tips (many of which I use :)!

    Honestly, taking a little bit of time to research where you’re going will make all the difference. If you can afford, get the hotel concierge to do it – just do it!

    All too often, when we travel our health is at the bottom of our to-do list – if it’s on there at all!

    Another big piece is just COMMITTING. If we make a 100% commitment to eating veggies, then I think we’ll make sure we find where we can get ‘em! And it’s also about making the highest choice when choices are limited (or not): you can still get a salad at most fast food places – it might not be the most nutrient-dense or farm-fresh, but it’s definitely better than anything out of their deep fryer!

    I’m also a big fan of Whole Foods: you can count on their consistency, and you know what you’re getting. But before we get all “big-bad corporation,” they are one of the more conscious biz’s out there, and John Mackey (CEO) has done much to transform his stores and his customers (like their Health Starts Here campaign).

    Glad you finally found the culprit – I have no doubt that you can continue to travel very well without gluten! :)

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks Nathan! As I was writing this, I kept thinking “I hope this meets Nathan’s standards.” :)

      You’re coming to WDS this year, right? I’ve got a big beautiful kitchen now. We should make some food and hang out!

  6. Rob says:

    7 weeks backpacking Europe with Celiacs/gluten and dairy issues. Never fun. But I did what you did as well! Found places with kitchens, washed all cutlery and pots/pans thoroughly, found myself grocery stores and previously google-translated “tofu” “gluten-free” and “wheat” into the local tongue in case I needed to ask, and had brought a large supply of gluten-free dried fruit and nuts with me.

    I always managed to find myself ample supplies of yogurt, fresh fruit, salads, rice and meats throughout my journeys. Made for an interesting adventure!

    • Emilie says:

      I don’t know how you handled Denmark man. I was so malnourished living there. The West Coast of North America is a much better situation for me. :)

      p.s. hi Rob!

  7. I’m vegan so I definitely hear you. In situations where you have to go to restaurants it’s great to keep a light attitude with the wait people. If you approach them in a serious way you may get some eyes rolling. I always make it clear to wait people what I don’t want on my plate. I always do it with a smile and sometimes a joke. If the waitperson thinks you are nice, then they are more likely to stick up for you in the kitchen and make sure your order is clean and clear:)

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, that’s tough. It depends where you are too. Ironically, I found menu modification requests to be much easier when I stopped in LA last fall. I guess they’re used to all the crazy picky people. Heh.

  8. Layla says:

    Great post.

    I’m gluten-free too, have done some of these things too.. (plus hitchhiking or car-sharing is cool where I live, most of the time :)

    There’s a website where you can print out cards in different languages to show in restaurants http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/
    (maybe some small typos here and there, otherwise possibly great help!)

    If you google ‘gluten free cards restaurant’ a bunch more sites come up, and there are support forums where people can exchange tips etc.

    PS I’ve heard from a lady recently that someone she knows recovered from Celiac, so who knows? :)

    • Emilie says:

      Great suggestions, Layla. Thanks! I’ll keep that site in mind the next time I travel in a non-English speaking country. Very useful. And yup, the internet is pretty solid for those gluten-free listings.

  9. Wonderful article Emilie. I grew up near Orlando and there were several hostels there. Hanging out downtown at some of the little indie places, I got to know a few of the regular travelers. One girl was there from Sweden and had backpacked all over the world; I dreamt of traveling around Europe for weeks after that.

    My daughter and I share very sensitive allergies to tree nuts and coconut. (peanuts are ok, they grow in the ground) Checking everything is habitual for us and, until recently, made traveling difficult as EVERYONE had some kind of nut-byproduct in close proximity or on the foods we wanted to eat. More people take the allergy seriously now though, it seems, as we find more restaurants are aware of things like cross-contamination and how to handle allergens. My mother has just recently gone gluten-free so I do not envy anyone having to deal with Celiac. That said, you are all in my thoughts and prayers. The more raw the better! As I have systemic Lymphedema and, subsequently, Type 2 Diabetes, we have been focusing more on portions and going raw.

    ::still dreaming of a Whole Foods store locally::

    By the way, we were just in Saint Augustine on the 30th! :) My husband and I had our honeymoon there 6 months ago. Once we realized that we were less than 2 hours south, we wondered why we didn’t go up more often and have promised each other to make more day trips this year.

    • Emilie says:

      Wow, I can’t imagine what you must have to deal with (well, I can imagine it. But it doesn’t sound like fun). It sounds like you’ve got a great attitude about it though.

      On the airplane the other day, the only snack they were offering were peanuts. I was shocked. Really? Peanuts?! Still? Talk about a potential disaster on an airplane…

  10. Sami says:

    I literally just moved out of St Augustine! Isn’t it lovely? Did you stay at the Pirate place? I love those rooms more than any other staying places in the City. The problem with the grocery store is ongoing; when I was going to the college there, and lived on campus, we’d have to plan these Oregon Trail trips–one car, eight people, all shopping for at least a month, then hauling it all back! There is a small market across the street from the school, but it’s extremely limited and with food issues it might not work. Neither would the semi-market at the gas station at the entrance to downtown.

    ~:)

    • Emilie says:

      Ah I think I know the semi-market/gas station you’re talking about. They had avocados and grapefruits. I was impressed by that. :)

      Also, I spent quite a bit of time at the Present Moment cafe down the street. Great kale salad!

  11. Love the article, Emilie! Very helpful, and also very familiar!

    I’ve been super looked-after this past week. I travelled interstate to a family camp – the kind where you sleep in bunks and go on a bungee trampoline and flying fox. The people who were catering (aka. angels) completely took my needs in their stride (I had emailed a list to them ahead of time) and fed me all week! Such a treat!

    (For the record, I am gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free (including honey and artificial sweeteners but not maple syrup), and low FODMAPs!)

  12. Gisele says:

    Great suggestions!
    Last year I went to an all-inclusive reosrt for the first (and last) time ever. It was a huge miserable fail. I always think that I am easy to feed – the only thing I can’t have is gluten – but it was impossible. From now on I will only ever travel where I am able to take care of my own food myself. The stress of eating out every meal for a week just ruined the whole trip for me (and my travelling companion).

  13. Erin says:

    I love this post! I have crazy digestive issues as well, including a long list of things I can’t eat. Gluten, thankfully, isn’t one of them, but corn (and its byproducts) is. That pretty effectively knocks out all prepackaged food, at least in the US. I do travel with a bag of food always and have some go-to snacks I bring with me everywhere they might be needed. I end up seeking out Whole Foods-type stores a lot but haven’t ever thought of planning accommodations around them — brilliant! I also love the idea of packing tupperware. So many great tips here, thank you for sharing them!

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