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Trouble-free Travel for Families with Food-allergic Children

June 10, 2008



Traveling With Food Allergies

For families with food-allergic children, planning is essential for a relaxing retreat

By Beth Puliti

Vacation. The word itself sends the mind on a mini retreat, far away from the stressors of everyday life. If you have a child with food allergies, though, you might think a vacation to a dream destination would not be possible. For families managing food allergies, vacations are indeed possible, but planning is essential for a relaxing retreat. We've compiled the following tips and insights to help you make that impossible dream become a dream come true.

"With some well-thought out planning beforehand, your family vacation can truly be enjoyed by all," said Megan Carpenter, owner of Carpenter Travel in Arlington, Texas. Carpenter should know—a diagnosis of wheat, yeast, corn, milk, egg and soy allergies in 2004 hasn't kept her from vacationing at all. In fact, she's setting sail on her eighth cruise this coming December.

A strategy that includes proper preparation can work for all types of vacations. Whether it's a sandy beach, a tree-lined hiking path, a cruise or a thrilling amusement park you crave, make sure your next adventure is one to remember—for all the right reasons.

Ahead of Time

To start, hire a travel agent, meet with restaurant staff, secure a room with adequate cooking amenities and plan well for emergencies, suggested Carpenter.

Don't just settle for any travel agent; shop around for one who makes you feel comfortable. Check out the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) listings, or ask your allergist, family or friends if they have any recommendations.

If you do end up using a travel agent, make sure he is fully aware of your child's food allergies and reactions, so he can pass that information along to the correct people at your vacation destination. Travel agents can act as your spokesperson. "Your agent will know who to contact regarding your vacation and your food allergies," Carpenter said.

Airline travel with food allergic children
When traveling, make sure your child's medications are in their original containers with the prescription labels on the package.

If you are planning the vacation yourself, you should investigate your destination well ahead of time. For those taking land-based vacations, be sure your hotel room is equipped with a kitchenette or a full kitchen, she advised. If that's not an option, a refrigerator and microwave is the second-best alternative.


Despite your efforts to cook "safe" foods while you're away, your vacation may include some dining out. Pack along disposable placemats for tables, covers for high chairs and wipes to rid surface areas of food residue. High chair covers can double as shopping cart protectors if you plan on buying a few food essentials at your destination.

Carpenter searches online ahead of time for a natural food store in her destination and makes it a point to stop there and stock up on her special food needs once she's in town. She also researches what types of restaurants are in the area. "Are they the type of restaurants that everyone can eat at? For example, a steak house would be a great choice for me, but a Mexican or an Italian restaurant would not work," she noted.

Be sure to bring your own epinephrine autoinjectors, such as EpiPen® or Twinject®, and other emergency medications, as well as a written emergency action plan just to be safe. Take an extra supply of autoinjectors as a backup plan. Whether you travel by land, air or open water, make sure your child's medications are in their original containers with the prescription labels on the package.

It is also a good idea to carry a phone list of your children's doctors and an emergency contact number of someone near home who could answer questions about the children if you become ill and are unable to speak for them.

With current regulations on liquids, getting food and drinks for your child past airline security can be tricky. To help facilitate this process, be sure everything you pack is in original containers, including drinks and formulas. And if you have to keep your child's food cold, use hard blue ice packs instead of softer ice packs. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not allow sippy cups past security. Items such as individual boxes of rice milk will likely pass, but only with proper verification of your child's allergies. Many KFA parents who have flown with their children strongly recommend traveling with a doctor's note.

Though she believes fewer airlines serve peanuts nowadays, Carpenter recommended informing the airline well ahead of time if your child has a peanut allergy, just to be sure.

"I would alert them when making the reservation, then again when checking in at the airport and even again before boarding the plane," she said. "Never just assume that the information was passed on."

Millions of people fly on domestic airplanes each year. Pack a bed sheet, or cloth that is specifically made to fit an airplane seat (www.planesheets.com), to cover any food residue present on the seats.

Amusement Parks

For families who plan to seek adventure in amusement parks this summer, Carpenter forewarned some parks aren't set up to cater to special needs, even though eating in them is fun.

"Plan out what food items to pack in a cooler to take along," she advised. "A stop back at the car for a fun picnic-style lunch sure beats the alternative of taking a guess as to what is in some park food or how it was prepared."
Amusement park safety with food allergies
Bringing extra hand wipes to an amusement park can help prevent reactions since food is everywhere.

KFA parent Tanya Bumgardner likes to call ahead and let the amusement park staff know she is coming with a child with life-threatening food allergies and will be bringing food inside the park, as well as EpiPens. "We have taken our son to several zoos and amusement parks and I have never had any problem taking his own food or medication in. In addition to calling ahead, I also bring a note from his allergist confirming his allergies and keep it readily available to show to park staff if questioned," she said.

Bumgardner tours amusement parks with caution, since food can often be found everywhere—on the ground, on benches and even in lines. "At a lot of parks, people tend to eat while walking around or sitting on benches, and not in restaurants where the food is contained. I like to bring wipes to clean benches off to prevent reactions," she explained.

Cruising

Cruising, another popular vacation choice, can seem daunting for a family traveling with a food-allergic child. But many cruise lines are happy to cater to special dietary needs so families can travel successfully, in spite of the large amounts of food on board.

"The first thing most people think of when you mention a cruise is food—and lots of it! But I quickly found out that most cruise lines are very capable of handling the needs of someone with food allergies. I have never been hungry on board or in port, and I have never had an allergic reaction on a cruise," said Carpenter.

family cruise travel with food allergies
Many cruise lines are happy to cater to special dietary needs, including food allergies.

Her tried and true planning advice for families thinking of taking a cruise? Always call the cruise line ahead of time and meet with the Maitre d' of the formal dining room once you are on board. "I sit down with the dining room staff to go over my allergy list, the menu and how I need certain foods prepared," said Carpenter. She also suggests packing safe foods the cruise lines might not carry, such as rice milk.

Bumgardner recommended avoiding buffets where cross-contamination risk will be high. Instead, consider eating in the main dining room for meals. You will have the same waiter throughout the cruise who will become familiar with your child's dietary needs.

Cruise lines may also offer "kids' clubs" to entertain your children while you relax. Make sure the people in charge understand your child's restrictions and emergency procedures. And don't forget to ask about food offerings—including food-based arts and crafts items—at these gatherings.

Also, research emergency medical facilities on board. Most cruise lines are equipped to handle nearly all emergency situations on board until the next port can be reached. Find out if they carry epinephrine and what their emergency procedures are for anaphylactic reactions.

Enjoy Yourselves

Tips from a Traveling Expert!

With proper planning, your food-allergic child will never feel left out—or hungry—on your next vacation. Megan Carpenter, owner of Carpenter Travel, offered these suggestions for worry-free travel:

  1. Plan out meals ahead of time.
  2. Stay at hotels that offer kitchenettes so you can prepare foods in your room.
  3. Find a natural food store in the area.
  4. For those who need them, make sure you have a supply of epinephrine autoinjectors with you at all times, along with an emergency action plan. Keep them protected from excessive heat or cold during your trip.
  5. Make sure your child wears a medical identification bracelet in case he becomes lost or has an allergic reaction.
  6. Don't be afraid to speak out about your child's food allergies. Talk to managers at restaurants, hotels, etc., as to how food should be handled. When in doubt, walk out and find another place where you feel comfortable dining.
Once the planning is over, make sure your vacation remains relaxing by keeping the following suggestions in mind.

When Carpenter eats at a restaurant, she brings a food allergy card with her—and suggested you do the same for your child. Her card lists the foods she is allergic to in English on the front and in Spanish on the back.

"I alert our server to the fact that I have food allergies and hand the server my card to show to the chef. I ask them to alert the manager as well," she said. Though Carpenter brings her own salad dressings, condiments and even sea salt to restaurants, she expects her food to come prepared the way she ordered it. If it doesn't, she doesn't feel bad about sending it back.

By planning ahead and using a travel agent who is sympathetic to your situation, Carpenter believes a worry-free vacation is within reach.

From her experience, Disney does it best when it comes to food-allergic children. "They have this down pat. In the parks, the sit-down restaurants work with food-allergic travelers all the time. Let them know about the food allergies when you enter," she suggested.

No matter if it's the call of the seagulls, the call of the wild or the screams from the peak of a roller coaster, it is possible for your family to enjoy a vacation experience with advanced planning.

"With the proper precautions, anyone can enjoy a vacation. I am, in fact, living proof of that!" exclaimed Carpenter.

Beth Puliti is a professional writer for a national healthcare trade magazine.

Approved by KFA Medical Advisory Team June 2008. Revised November 2012.





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Page last updated 7/29/2012

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