Traveling with a peanut allergy can be challenging. Advance planning can really relieve some of the stress and help make your trip enjoyable.
If you know me and read my blog, you know that I love Chinese food. Yet Chinese food is also ripe with potential for peanuts. Peanut products may be hidden in marinades and sauces or folded into the dim sum. That’s part of the reason I have so much motivation to make my own dim sum. Control.
Here are 8 tips that I used to reduce the risk of exposure to peanuts on our recent trip to China.
1. Airplane tips for traveling with a peanut allergy
I have not found Canadian airlines helpful regarding traveling with a peanut allergy. However, the introduction of fee-based a la carte food service from a menu has been a godsend for allergy sufferers. The packaged meals all come with complete ingredient labels, unlike the unlabelled mystery meals that used to be automatically served as part of the fee for your flight. Even better, many of the packages bear a “peanut free” symbol. On the domestic flights in China, unlabelled meals and snacks were served. Here is how I approach food on airplanes:
- Bring your epi-pen/medications on board
- Carry some of your own food so you can snack on a long flight if you are uncertain of the airplane food.
- Bring an N95 mask. There is a lot of debate in the allergy community as to whether airborne exposure to peanut particles can trigger an allergic reaction. All I know is that my eyes swell up and my breathing gets a bit tight if I am surrounded on a plane by people eating peanuts. Is it a minor allergic reaction? Is it psychosomatic? I don’t know, but if wearing an N95 mask makes me feel better, then wear the mask.
2. Bring more epi-pens and other medication then you think you will need
Bring a copy of the prescription with you. I have never had a problem with border guards questioning my allergy medication, but it could happen. Some countries restrict medications that you can bring across their border, including some products that are normal over the counter anti-histamines in Canada. I bring a doctor’s letter that covers both the epi-pens and the anti-histamines and advises that I am traveling with a peanut allergy. This, of course, presumes that the border guards can read English, but I have never been asked to produce it.
3. Bring a peanut allergy warning message in the local language
I have heard anecdotes about serving staff who mock fussy foreigners when presented with an allergy warning message. My experience is quite the opposite. Serving staff have gone out of their way to accommodate me once they understand that I am traveling with a peanut allergy.
On the very first day of our first trip to China ten years ago, I handed my peanut warning card to the cheerful young waiter at a modern, bright and sparkling clean dim sum restaurant in Shanghai. They knew no English.
The staff gathered around and discussed it. Then they started bringing out all the ingredients they were going to use – cans, bottles, fresh produce – and piled them on the table for me to inspect. All the Chinese packaged goods had English language ingredient labeling (amongst other languages). They mimed the international sign of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” for each ingredient until we had gone through the whole pile.
While they went out of their way to accommodate me, they didn’t bring my warning card back. I had no way of communicating that I needed it back.
I mimed giving and receiving the card. The entire staff was gathered around by that point, completely mystified by this crazy foreign lady prancing about and gesticulating wildly.
I never did get my card back. As a result, I had to spend the rest of the trip eating from my stash of camping food, pressing my nose against the windows of restaurants where I couldn’t eat. Lesson learned. Put the message on your electronic device (this happened before iPhones existed) and print numerous copies of it.
Here is my peanut warning message in Chinese, if you want to cut and paste it for your own use. The message says that you are traveling with a peanut allergy which could be fatal. It asks the serving staff to help select menu items that do not include peanuts, peanut oil or peanut butter.
4. Waygo for translating signs
For signs, menus or food packaging without English, try the Waygo app. Waygo uses your phone’s camera to translate from graphics such as text on signs or labels. It works better on plain typefaces of the kind you find in an ingredient list label than it does on decorative type fonts in ads or logos. Waygo provides 10 free translations per day.
5. Download the Google Translate app
The free Google Translate app does a surprisingly good job for the relatively simple communication required in a restaurant. You can type in your language and hand the phone to the serving staff who can type back in their language. At one point, a waiter typed, “OK, you’re trying to order the scallops with mixed vegetable, right? It doesn’t have peanuts.” That kind of communication gives you confidence that the staff understand your needs and are taking your issue seriously.
Don’t rely on the normal Google Translate web interface, which is blocked in China. Download the app before you go. Once the app is downloaded it will not be blocked and you do not need internet access to translate typed messages. However, the voice translation service will be unavailable.
WeChat is a Chinese social media platform that has translation features. Everybody but everybody has WeChat in China. You have to establish a contact with the other person to be able to communicate with them directly. To establish contact, service people in hotels and restaurants would just take my phone, scan a code with their phone and then the contact would be established allowing us to text each other with translation features.
The hotel staff would also tell us to use WeChat to contact them if we got lost and needed help getting home. WeChat is also useful for maintaining contact with the people back home when you are in situations where Google and other non-Chinese platforms are blocked. Ask your key contacts at home to download it and establish a WeChat connection with you before you leave.
7. Upgrade to access the hotel Club service
This is a pricey option but can be a really effective tool to help manage the risks of traveling with a peanut allergy. It is more cost effective if you have a family that will use the service for multiple meals.
I wrote to each hotel in advance to advise that I was traveling with a peanut allergy. The club floor staff were all ready and waiting for me.
Club floors are generally organized as buffets, which is a risk factor for people traveling with a peanut allergy. However, they all offered to make peanut-free options without further charge to accommodate me. Club floors also provided take-out containers and peanut-free packed lunches for the family, all without further charge.
8. Bring your own peanut-free food
I brought a range of instant food as a last resort, including peanut-free camping food, tuna in foil packets (lighter than cans) and peanut-free granola bars. Every room in China has an electric kettle, so select instant options that only require boiling water.