Tips for Traveling With Severe Allergies

Part of finding your family’s “new normal” with severe allergies is getting out of the protective bubble of home and back out in the world — whether it’s on a faraway adventure or just a train ride to Grandma’s. These strategies can help ensure a smooth trip.

Before You Go

Reach out to your network.

Find out if your friends or people in your online communities have traveled to the area where you’re headed. Even if it’s for a day trip, Jennifer of San Jose, Calif. — whose 4-year-old son Trevor has severe egg, peanut, and tree nut allergies — checks in beforehand with food allergy communities online. “I’ll ask, ‘Who has gone here? What was your experience? Where did you eat? How was your experience with this airline?’” Jennifer says. “Few can understand my concerns better than they do.”

Choose a place with a kitchen.

You can book a vacation home or apartment through websites like VRBO.com and Airbnb.com. If you’d rather go the hotel route, look for rooms with kitchenettes so you can cook your own meals.

Contact the airline.

Some airlines may be more allergy-friendly than others, so do some research before you book your ticket. Search online for an airline’s allergy policy and call them to inform them of your child’s allergy and hear what your options are, recommends Brian Schroer, M.D., a pediatric allergist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. Although some airlines are unwilling to make many accommodations, others offer to make an announcement to all passengers that someone with a severe allergy to peanuts (for example) is on board and ask people to refrain from eating any peanuts they may have brought. Some airlines allow flight attendants, upon request, to create a buffer zone of rows of seats around a peanut-allergic passenger where no peanuts are to be consumed. At least one advises that customers with peanut allergies book flights that leave early in the morning, since the planes are given a thorough cleaning at the end of the day.

Once you’ve chosen an air carrier, mention your child’s allergy as you make your reservation; this may allow you to pre-board in order to wipe down your seating area, or even, in some cases, lead to a change in the snack options served on your flight.

Evaluate travel insurance.

Some travel insurance firms will provide anaphylaxis-related insurance coverage, possibly with an extra premium, assuming you agree to carry your epinephrine auto-injectors with you at all times. This helps reduce financial risk in the event that allergy-related medical care or a conflict with an airline necessitates changes to your travel plans.

Notify the hotel.

“Items used at the hotel might expose your child to hidden allergens,” Schroer says. For instance, the cleaning staff may use latex gloves, or a welcome basket may contain nuts. If you’re heading to an all-inclusive resort, it’s crucial to speak with the chef or food director.

Create an allergy info card.

For international trips, use an online translator to put your child’s allergy information into the local language of the country you’ll be visiting, then hand out the cards to restaurant staff and others as needed to alert them to your child’s allergen(s) and the risk of cross-contact. SelectWisely.com is an online travel card service where you can order a laminated card with your translated allergy info; Allergytranslation.com is another service that allows you to download the card so you can print unlimited copies.

Pack epinephrine.

Make sure your epinephrine auto-injectors (EAIs) aren’t expiring soon, and consider having a backup pair in case one gets lost or improperly stored during your travels. As for any other medications your child takes (for asthma or other conditions), if you’re going to be gone long enough, you may need a prescription override from your insurance so you can stock up on the right amount of medicine to cover the length of your trip before you leave, Jennifer says.

En Route

Bring your own food.

“We’ve found that flight attendants really try to help us, but oftentimes they don’t have an ingredient list on hand to guarantee how a meal was prepared,” says Su, a mom in Redwood City, Calif., whose 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter have severe food allergies. “You may be better off bringing your own. The last thing you ever want is an in-flight emergency.” Bring extra food in case of any travel delays.

Have medicine accessible.

Whether you’re flying on a plane or road-tripping in a car, make sure your child’s medicine is easily in reach. For air travel, be sure to pack two epinephrine auto-injectors in your carry-on with a letter from your physician. (While doctors say you typically won’t encounter a problem at the security gate, play it safe by bringing a note.) Store the EAIs as according to the instructions that come with them because heat or light may affect the medicine, says Jonathan Spergel, M.D., chief of the allergy section at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Keep up the communication.

Even if you’ve informed the airline of your child’s allergy status at the time of booking the reservation, you may want to mention it again at the gate — where you can inquire about possible pre-boarding in order to sanitize your seating area — and again as soon as you board, at which point you can request a flight attendant’s assistance in creating an allergy-friendly zone for your child. Keep in mind that at each of these checkpoints, you may not get consistent responses. Carry a printed copy of the airline’s allergy policy with you in case you need to show it to a staff member who is not aware of the guidelines.

Give yourself the aisle seat.

To help protect your child from other fliers’ food choices, give him or her the window seat or the middle seat between parents.

Do a wipe-down.

As soon as you board a plane, train, or bus, use disinfecting wipes on everything your child might expose him- or herself to, including the seat and headrest, tray table, seat belt, seat back pocket (check to make sure it doesn’t contain any trashed food wrappers), and emergency instructions. “Assume everything may be contaminated,” Schroer says. “A splash of milk could have spilled from coffee, or peanut crumbs could have fallen on the seat.” You might consider bringing disposable plastic seat covers (or a fitted crib sheet to do the same job).

Enjoy your travels!

Spergel has two sons, one of whom has a sesame-seed allergy. “We’ve gone all over the world — to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa,” he says. “Don’t let severe allergies run your life. You can travel anywhere.”

Disclaimer: The experiences, opinions, and suggestions recounted in this article are not intended as medical advice. They are unique to the family depicted and do not necessarily represent the “typical” experience of families with a child who has severe allergies. Families should talk to their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of severe allergies.