For many, traveling is about new experiences, including plenty of new foods. From baklava in Greece to hot pot in China, hand pies in Australia to beignets in New Orleans, food defines a destination as much as a city’s museums, local markets, or historic buildings.
But when you have dietary restrictions—whether that’s allergies, celiac disease, or you’re vegan or vegetarian by choice—indulging in local delicacies far from home can feel stressful and sometimes downright frightening. After all, if one meal has the potential to derail your entire trip, you’re much less likely to indulge with abandon.
Fortunately, technology can make travel easier and more comfortable for those with just about any dietary restriction.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that it has completely changed the way we travel,” says Matt Hansen, founder of the travel blog Wheatless Wanderlust, and an adventurer with celiac disease that loves to eat. “The combination of social media, blogs, and new apps has transformed travel from ‘book a place with a kitchen and eat simple meals,’ to being able to take part in the food culture of places we visit.”
Let an app point you in the right direction
One easy way to search for local restaurants or shops that offer options for specialty diets is to download an app. There are plenty available depending on your dietary preferences. One of my favorites is Happy Cow (free for iOS and Android), a crowd-sourced platform that lists restaurants and stores around the world that cater to vegans and vegetarians. You can even search by the type of cuisine you’re craving, what’s open, and whether the restaurant is entirely vegan or just has options.
Hansen recommends Find Me Gluten Free (free for iOS and Android), an app that points him toward restaurants with gluten-free options. Travelers can search by type of cuisine and location, see menus, and even find out if the location has dedicated gluten-free operations for those with celiac.
Get some help from Google Translate
If you’re traveling internationally and don’t speak the language, Google Translate can be a lifesaver when you have special dietary needs and are trying to order or purchase food.
Available online or as an app for iOS and Android, you can scan packaging and labels at the grocery store, search for English translations to words and items on menus, and even type in phrases like “vegan,” “Is this gluten-free?” or “I’m allergic to nuts” so that the platform can translate it into the local language for you. Keep in mind that translating words using your camera is not always 100 percent accurate, so if something doesn’t make sense, try using the app to ask for help.
If you’re traveling in a region with limited or spotty Wi-Fi or cell service, you can also download a dictionary for offline translation.
Join local online groups
A great way to get local insight on the best places to eat, drink, and shop when you have dietary restrictions is to connect with the locals online before you arrive. An excellent way to do so is to search for phrases like “Vegan Budapest” or “Gluten-free Atlanta.” You’ll likely find a handful of web pages and groups made up largely of locals who have the same dietary needs and preferences that you do. Join one or two and jump into the conversation.
Ask for recommendations, tips and tricks, if there are any events happening soon, or even if anyone wants to meet up for lunch. Most locals with dietary restrictions are more than happy to offer mini dining guides to the city they live in and point you in the direction of gastronomic nirvana.
This can be especially helpful in regions where you’re entirely unfamiliar with the local food scene and culture. Vegetarians who live in Brussels, for example, may be able to point out which frite stands don’t fry their potatoes in lard. Those with celiac disease in Japan can tell you who makes sushi with imitation crab and who uses the gluten-free real thing. And Turkish hummus lovers with dairy allergies can inform you which restaurants add butter to their chickpeas and which don’t.
While searching, you may also find a number of travel blogs, which Hansen likes to consult for ideas and tips for dining at your destination. Articles and blog posts written by food lovers who either live or have recently visited where you’re going will likely be in abundance.
Search for tags on social media
Much like blogs and local online groups, social media can be a boon for finding delectable eats abroad.
On Instagram, tap the Explore button at the bottom left of your screen (the magnifying glass) and type in your keywords on the search bar at the top. Use “vegan,” “gluten-free,” “nut-free,” or any others that apply to you, plus the name of the city or neighborhood you’re at, and hit Search. On the results page, tap Places to see images people have posted directly from your location, or Tags to see what people have labeled. Continue to feast your eyes on an abundance of imagery before you feast in person.
On Twitter, you can also type in simpler search words like #vegan or #dairyfree and hit Search. On the next page you can scroll through the results or filter them—on the web, use the tools you’ll find to your right; but if you’re on the Twitter app, tap the toggle switches right next to the search bar. There, tap the bubble next to Near you to only see tweets that have been posted from your location. If you’re on the web, you can also click on the three-dot menu to the right of the search bar, and do an Advanced Search.
Map it out
One of Matt’s and my favorite things to do after researching and noting down all the restaurants we’d like to visit is to save the destinations on your map app of choice. That way, when you’re plotting a day of exploration, you can quickly see what restaurants are nearby other attractions we may be visiting.
On the Google Maps app, use the search bar to locate a destination. On the emerging card, scroll to the left under the listing details and tap Save. You can then add it to a list, tag it, and even make a note like “good brunch spot” or “famous for gnocchi.” That icon will then appear on your map.
On Apple Maps, search for a restaurant and simply select Add to Favorites at the bottom of the listing page. Its icon will then appear in the Favorites portion of the app’s main menu—drag up from the bottom to see it. When you need directions, tap the icon and Apple Maps will immediately plot a route.
Book a local food tour
Before you leave home, search online for food tours or cooking classes available in your destination that cater to your dietary restrictions. Doing a little web research before you arrive and booking an experience early in your trip can offer an opportunity to eat care-free with like-minded individuals. Food tours can also offer insight and education, often from a local, on the area’s food scene, which can, in turn, embolden you to venture out on your own to eat and explore.
Yes, venturing far from the comfort of home and familiar foods can be daunting, but with so many tools available to travelers these days, dietary restrictions are no reason to stay home. It may take more planning and research, but it only gets easier with time.
“The hardest part is saying ‘yes’ to that first trip,” Hansen says.
So the next time you head off to explore a new locale, whether it be across the state or around the world, don’t let the fear of what to eat stop you from filling your plate—and your belly.