Do you remember the last time you took a trip somewhere?
Maybe you found yourself hiking the ancient ruins of cities thousands of years old, watching the waves crash on the shores of a pristine beach, or sweating in the oppressive, unyielding heat of the desert.
Wherever you were, you’d probably agree that traveling is an exhilarating experience.
Nothing gets that heart-pumping adrenaline flowing like an unfamiliar adventure. You discover fascinating places, people, and situations – all of which you’ve never before encountered.
It all sounds so exciting, and it is. But if you’re anything like me, there’s one thing that may trouble you.
Since travel is unpredictable by nature, how on earth are you supposed to stick to your vegan diet?
After all, one of the hallmarks of traveling is the complete lack of control. You’re forced to let go and let the stars dictate your path.
That can be tough as a vegan in a non-vegan world. I know. I’ve been there.
I can recall that anxious feeling in the early days of my switch to veganism, right when I was about to embark on a work trip to a meat-obsessed city in the middle of Texas.
I was afraid of not being able to find anything to eat and being stuck with a plain house salad – because let’s be honest, a plain house salad is 1) boring and 2) not going to fill you up.
Worse, I was afraid that I was going to be a horrible travel companion for my boss. I didn’t want to have to inconvenience her with my chosen diet, but I also didn’t want to have to compromise my own preferences and beliefs.
Yes, the food aspect of travel can be daunting for a newly minted vegan.
But as I quickly learned, with veganism on the rise in many countries worldwide and the growing popularity of plant-based diets in general, it’s actually never been a better time to be a traveling vegan.
All you have to do is prepare yourself by following the four tips below, and with a little patience and a healthy sense of humor, you can be sure you’ll never go hungry (or unsatisfied) while on the road.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask
Whether you’re out at an exotic restaurant abroad or in a town not far from home, you may find yourself frantically scanning the menu for something you can eat – to no avail.
There’s not a dish to be found that’s both meat-free and devoid of any cheese or creamy sauces.
I’ve been there more times than I can count. And I can promise you that the best thing to do in this situation is just ask.
Seriously, go ahead. Don’t be shy.
Ask the waitstaff if they have any vegan dishes they can prepare. It’s really that simple.
Oftentimes vegan dishes can easily be prepared with what’s on hand (think seasonal produce) or as an improvised version of a dish that’s already on the menu – for example, a pasta dish with alfredo sauce and cheese becomes pasta with olive oil or tomato sauce and fresh veggies.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
You’re afraid of becoming that annoying vegan that waitstaff hate to deal with. It’s why many of us don’t speak up at restaurants.
But here’s the thing – as long as you’re polite, accommodating and easygoing, you really have nothing to fear.
Remember – waitstaff are used to dealing with substitutions all day long, whether it’s for vegans, vegetarians, people with food allergies, or even picky eaters.
Also, you’re actually doing a good thing by calling attention to the lack of vegan food in the first place.
Well, if people were asking the waitstaff for vegan food all day, it wouldn’t be long before the restaurant came out with a few vegan entrees on the regular menu, right?
So your request is actually helping you and other vegans who could find themselves in the your shoes someday.
Of course, if you know where you’re going to be eating ahead of time, it’s much quicker to check out the menu online for something you can eat.
If nothing is listed or the menu isn’t available, go ahead and call the restaurant (at off-peak hours, if you can) and ask what your options are.
Traveling abroad? You can still ask the waitstaff to help you out. Really!
Of course, you’ll want to make sure you learn the word for ‘vegan’ (if there is one) in the local language.
You should also learn how to say ‘no meat/poultry’, ‘no seafood’, ‘no dairy’, and ‘no eggs, please’ just to be sure you can describe exactly what you need.
And remember – you can also apply this tip to places other than restaurants.
For example, if you ask for it, most airlines will arrange for a vegan meal for you on long haul flights.
Just be sure to contact them at least a week in advance (and bring a couple snacks with you in case they forget – I found that out the hard way!).
2. Know your back-up dishes
Of course, there are going to be times when you run the risk of being misunderstood (especially in a foreign country).
Whether you’re having communication issues with the staff or you’ve found yourself dining in a restaurant on a super busy night and don’t want to make an issue about your dietary choices, now is the time to pull out what I like to call ‘back-up dishes’.
They’re the dishes you know with 99.99% certainty are almost always vegan. You can pull them out of your back pocket and order them whenever the need arises.
You probably already know some common back-up dishes. French fries usually fall into this category, along with most salads (sans meat or cheese, and opt for lemon juice and olive oil in place of any creamy dressings).
Side note: if you’re a longtime vegan, chances are you’ve made a meal out of these two staples at some point. It’s basically an excuse to eat more fries (my guilty pleasure).
What else? Well, side plates (usually listed at the bottom of the menu, after the entrees) tend to make great back-up dishes.
For example, roasted vegetables are a common side dish, are usually vegan, and can actually be pretty delicious on their own. Combine them with each other, a side salad, or sourdough bread for a meal with real potential.
Traveling internationally? I’m jealous. It’s always a good idea to do your back-up dish research before heading out, but it’s especially helpful before a trip to another country where you may be unfamiliar with the language and food.
Most cultures DO have some kind of dish that’s unintentionally vegan (or vegetarian that’s easily veganized).
Don’t believe me?
You may remember Emilija from my vegan case study. While I was interviewing her about veganism in her country, she turned me on to some pretty delicious-looking, accidentally vegan dishes from her native Macedonia.
The point is, there’s always something. Just be prepared and know your back-up dishes. Keep them up your sleeve for your times of need.
3. Visit local markets and grocers
This is probably my favorite tip, because it’s the most fun.
When traveling, nothing lets you experience life as a local quite like visiting the same spots where they hang out.
So why not visit their markets and grocers, too?
Not only will it give you a glimpse into the everyday lives of the people around you and allow you to be immersed in their culture, but it’ll also open your eyes to all sorts of new and unique foods you’ve never been exposed to before.
The other advantage is that open-air markets and small, locally owned grocery stores are far more likely to cater to your vegan whimsies, with goodies like fresh produce, breads, condiments and chocolate on offer.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: But what if I’m staying at a hotel? How am I supposed to cook anything in a tiny hotel room with barely enough space for me and my suitcase?
To this, I have a two part answer.
First, you can always aim to book yourself an Airbnb or another similar setup. This way, you can truly experience the life of a local through their home comforts, as well as score yourself a kitchen to cook in while you’re traveling.
But if you’re set on a traditional hotel, don’t fret. Remember, being vegan means you can get away with eating basically anything raw. That’s going to work in your favor here.
Not sure where to start? Think picnic-style food – bread, a couple of condiments or spreads, fresh local veggies, some unique spice blends, fresh squeezed juices, dried fruit and nuts.
Look for prepared ‘to-go’ foods like antipasti, prepared salads, or ready-made dips like caponata, muhammara, or hummus. Throw in some fresh fruit, dark chocolate or whatever local specialty you may find to round out the meal.
Trust me – this tip will blow you away, and not just because it accommodates your veganism.
Markets are one of the best ways to get to know the place you’re visiting on an intimate level that not many travelers are brave enough to experience.
One of the best suppers I had while traveling in Israel was cobbled together from various market finds – creamy, perfect hummus, freshly baked pitas and flatbreads, za’atar pies, and sugary halva for dessert.
But beyond the delicious food, I was lucky enough to experience the lively, bustling Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem at sundown with the locals. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
And hey, you never know – you may find a new favorite food or spice to look for when you get back home! That’s what I call a win-win.
4. Bring your favorites if possible
So you’re away from home, and you’re having a great time on your trip, but what if you can’t help but miss all your favorite foods you left behind?
Maybe you’re a novice cook (as so many of us vegans are, out of necessity) and wish you could eat your own home-cooked meals, or you’re homesick for the vegan diner around the corner from where you live that serves up all your favorite dishes.
Bring it all with you!
One of the best ways to conquer those fears about taking your first trip post-veganism is to have your own personal safety net.
I’m not saying you need to pack every single meal, but it helps to have some favorites on hand in case of emergency – especially when you know you’re going somewhere where the vegan choices are going to be few and far between.
First up, air travel. Most airports will allow you to bring solid food through security, so use that to your advantage.
You’ll want to bring food that can be left out at room temperature without spoiling, like bread (use it to make sandwiches on the fly – see what I did there?), crackers, nuts, bananas, avocados, dates, apples, and instant oatmeal packets.
Sometimes, you may be able to bring ‘spreadables’ through security as well, such as peanut butter, hummus, cookie butter spreads, or even nut cheeses (you’ll want to eat those ASAP).
Since these types of foods straddle the line between solid and liquid, though, this won’t work everywhere. Yes, it’s likely that airport security isn’t going to be too interested in your single-serve packets of nut butter.
But just in case, bring an inexpensive spread if you can (like peanut butter) that you can attempt to replace if you’re forced to throw it out.
Try preparing your meals and snacks in advance, such as sandwiches, burritos, homemade granola, energy balls or cookies. That way, they’re ready to eat when you need them.
Does this sound like overkill? It’s not! I actually did this once for a work trip.
I didn’t know if I’d be able to find a vegan lunch while I was busy working and I didn’t want to have to deal with the hassle if I couldn’t (not to mention the hunger pangs).
So I made five peanut butter and banana sandwiches before I left home – one for each day I’d be away. I wrapped them in plastic wrap and tinfoil to avoid too much squishing in my carry-on and put them in the mini fridge in my hotel room upon arrival.
It was a great idea, because I had the option of ordering take-out or going out for lunch like everyone else, but just in case I couldn’t find anything (I really didn’t want plain salads five days in a row!) I always had my sandwiches as a back-up.
I also threw in a few packaged snacks, such as nuts, granola bars, and Hail Merry tarts (I am dead serious, I packed these) to round out the meal.
And speaking of packaged snacks – don’t discount them as a great option to use as building blocks to create a full meal.
While fresh food is of course more nutritionally dense and the healthier choice overall, you can’t be too picky when you’re traveling, and vegan packaged snacks typically abound in airport quick service restaurants and convenience stores.
Nuts, chips, pretzels, and energy bars that happen to be vegan are usually pretty easy to find, but also look for roasted chickpeas, popcorn, oat bars, and of course, chocolate.
Driving instead of flying? Even better – you don’t have to deal with security, and you can bring a cooler, which means more (delicious) options.
Fill it with pre-made overnight oats in jars, hummus (homemade or store-bought), nut cheeses, veggie sandwiches, sliced fresh fruit, even a salad made with hearty greens like spinach.
The sky’s the limit here. Plus, you’ll save money on eating out!
Remember: staying vegan while traveling can be a challenge, but it’s definitely not impossible. I’ve done it, both domestically and internationally, along with countless others.
The best thing you can do is prepare in advance as much as possible, but don’t sweat it if you find yourself in a situation where you haven’t. Simply communicate your needs clearly and politely and work with what you’ve got.
Outside of that, stick to these tips and you’ll find your travel experiences to be so much more enlightening, if only because they open your eyes to new foods you never would have tried before.
I can speak from personal experience here: the trips I have taken since becoming vegan have involved much better food than before. It’s because I knew exactly what I was looking for and how to find it. Research really does pay off!
Tell me: have you found it difficult traveling as a vegan? Where did you go and what did you eat?