Traveling, especially around the holidays, can be difficult. Even more so if traveling involves air travel. Now add on dietary restrictions and you can see how this can nudge the anxiety level up a notch.
For Thanksgiving, Matt and I flew down to Florida for what’s becoming our annual holiday visit. During the hectic airport scene of people struggling with toddlers and the giant strollers they’ve brought, the occasional couple/ family running to catch their plane, and the dog or two mixed into the crowd, sometimes a moment happens that casts light onto your experience. I collected these moments as they happened and ended up in a sort of zen state of mind about being a traveling vegan.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you know the traveling part is just the beginning. Once at the home of friends or family, it becomes a daily if not per-meal reaction to “What can I feed you? What can you eat?”.
So in reflection to all of the traveling we just endured, and the holiday season of being thankful, I wanted to recognize the five things I have been thankful for as a traveling vegan.
1. Websites Listing Restaurants’ Vegan Items
Okay, mostly this is a shout-out to PETA. Every time we’re out, and I get asked, “Can you eat anything here?” I turn to the internet. Nearly every time I look for a vegan menu or ingredient list for a popular (chain) restaurant, PETA pops up with all the answers. There are cases where the restaurants themselves have listed ingredients or offered a secondary menu for vegetarians and vegans, or blogs who have checked with the restaurant, and those resources are just as wonderful.
There seems to be a growing source of this information, so if a few sites pop up I’ll cross-check their lists and go from there. It makes the guessing game of “Can I eat here?” so much easier.
2. Customer-Facing Personnel in the Food Industry
Seriously, these people are CHAMPIONS. Once I figure out I can eat somewhere, or least know I can make a few edits to some of the dishes, it all comes down to who takes the order. At sit-down restaurants, I’ve had some wonderful people go back and forth between me and their chefs, checking on items and ingredients, and figuring out how they can change things to accommodate me (shout-out to those who check to make sure their black bean burgers don’t have egg in them). Also, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who puts up with my swapping, changing, and nixing things when I order (“Can I get the Cheesy Burrito without, erm, cheese? Or meat? Just the veggies? And can I add extra avocado to that?”).
Even on the airplane, I’ve encountered kindness. On our flight to London, I slept the majority of the nearly ten-hour plane ride. On the return flight, however, I was wide awake. We didn’t realize that when booking long flights, you can request a vegan meal. So instead of serving me pretzels and peanuts for a meal, a kind flight attendant loaded me up on side salads. It was comical, he laughed with us about it, but I was so grateful to have something to eat.
To avoid this happening, look for an area when booking your tickets asking for special options or you can request this on the airline’s web page after you already have booked your flight. Most airlines ask that you make this request 24 – 72 hours before departure.
In airports, I have encountered the most patient darlings who listen to all my questions, answer them, or even run to the back to check ingredients or possible changes. If you’re ever in a bind, remember to ask. The question “Do you have anything vegan?” is usually met with a blank stare, so ask more specific things like “Does that come with cheese in it?” or “Do you know if the dough has dairy or egg in it?” since these are the types of questions I’ve found are much easier to get an answer to.
3. Being with People who Speak Up
Okay. So maybe you’re just exhausted. You’ve looked to see if a place has vegan items, it doesn’t or you can’t find any definitive answers, and the last thing you want to do is ask every place what their ingredients are. I get it. I’ve been there so many times, especially in the first few months of going vegan. I groan and say I’ll just eat fries or salad or grab an eight dollar trail mix from one of the shops in the airport. I’ll fill up on water or coffee and eat real food when we get to our final destination. Then the amazing tends to happen. Someone I’m with, be it my significant other, friend, or family member, takes on the battle for me. They put their foot down and insist on me eating something. Then off they go, from place to place, asking about every item on their menu.
Should they come back triumphant, the look of accomplishment they have always makes me laugh. On the other hand, this can end with them finding nothing, but the effort on my behalf always makes me feel better about the situation. In either case, someone in my life gets to experience a moment in my shoes – being in a world dominated with meat and diary. It lets them see a glimpse into my daily life, and I find that it helps with their understanding of the challenges I face.
These moments always makes me adore this person in my life a little more.
4. Family and Friends who are as Accommodating as Possible
Ah, yes. In this category belongs the countless calls from family checking and rechecking the dishes they plan on making for you, texts asking to send over approved recipes to make, and the surprises of “we made sure to make/get you something” once you arrive.
When we flew into Orlando, we initially stayed with good friends. They planned dinner around us the night we got in and listed places nearby in case we needed to grab something we’d want over what they offered for the next two days (Publix, we missed you).
Then there’s the family. Planning meals for Matt and I can be confusing, since he’s vegetarian (lacto-ovo) and I’m vegan. Instead of buying prepackaged items or leaving it up to us to prepare our own meals, our families have gone out of their way time and time again to find recipes and cook with ingredients that are foreign to them. For Thanksgiving, I had my own little vegan area with Daiya cheese and tofu lasagna, two different bean salads, and dairy-free mashed potatoes. Even though this seems small compared to offerings one normally chooses from at Thanksgiving, each item was made specifically with me in mind – and that means more to me than an entire table full of options.
5. Being Confident in Your Self-Sufficiency
So far, I’ve listed being thankful for all the things other people have done to make eating while traveling easier for me. I’m grateful for all those who help, but in the end I know that I’ll be able to make it on my own – making my own meals or knowing places to go if cooking for myself isn’t an option.
Before a flight, I pack my own snacks if possible. I know I will like them and there’s no guessing game for if I’ll have something to eat or not. If you aren’t able to bring a snack with you, many grab-and-go stalls at the airport have Kind bars, fruit, fruit cups, and/or salads.
For longer periods of time such as layovers, when I know I’ll need a meal, I’m beginning to have a go-to list while traveling. An easy one for me is Starbucks. Nearly all US airports will have at least one, there are a number of drinks that can be made vegan with non-dairy milk, and their plain bagels are vegan. They only offer honey or cream cheese, so it’s off to find jam from another place near by. If time allows, Mexican restaurants in airports usually offer meals that are easy to customize.
Outside the airport, finding sufficient food can still be trying – especially in small towns that haven’t embraced healthier options. Matt and I (mostly) stopped eating at fast food chains years ago, so if we’re on the road for a long period of time we’ll stop at a grocery store. This time, we did pick me up hash browns from Dunkin’ Donuts, and Panera and Starbucks are stops we’ll make if needed. Consequently, I knew places I could stop at and didn’t worry much about food at airports. While with friends and family I kept thinking, I can just go to the store, grab a few things, and make a meal no problem. This has come out of me testing recipes over the past eight months and having an itinerary of easy things to make for myself.
My personal calm for our most recent trip was noticeable to myself. In every situation, I knew I’d find a solution. I’m constantly thankful for being able to rely on myself.
After initially switching to vegetarian I found myself carried away with worry about where my next meal was coming from. After a while, I got used to the diet and wasn’t worried. Being vegan has stirred up these old anxieties but, again, as time progresses they’re fading away.
Keep these things in mind when you travel and have some restaurants/ recipes in your back pocket if you need them. Knowing you can find a solution and that people are willing to help if you just ask brings the focus of why you’re traveling back into the picture – spending time with friends and family.