I had an opportunity to talk with Robert Fisher, professional travel writer and editor at Frommers.com. Bob and I could have been separated at birth we have so many allergies in common, but most inspiring is how he's safely traveled the world for the past 30 or so years with allergies. For anyone who has allergies or is the parent of a child with allergies, you know how frightening it can be to eat somewhere new, leaving your safe home base. Below, Robert tells me some of his experiences, both the good, the bad and the itchy.
SLOANE MILLER: What are your allergies?
RF: Yes and prednisone as well.
SM: We're like twins! I have the same medications in my purse and I always carry them with me. At what point in your life did you realize you had these allergies?
RF: As a child, I had asthma and eczema. In those days, they used to treat asthma by having the patient inhale a burned powder substance like Moxa (a substance used in Chinese herbal medicine). Also, when I was a child I would get blisters on my mouth, but we didn't think much about it. I was the only one in my family with asthma or eczema and no one thought about allergies or anaphylaxis.
When I was in college I lived in India for a year on an exchange program. And again I would get blisters on my mouth when I ate certain foods, but they would go away eventually so I didn't look into it.
I had my first allergy test in London. I had sought some treatment for my asthma, and peanuts were on the list to avoid, but I had no big episodes until my 30s.
Then, at 31, when I was already a professional writer, I was traveling to Miami, by mistake I ate something that had peanuts in it. My lips swelled up but I had to get to my destination. So, I boarded my flight and sucked on ice cubes until we landed. After that experience I went to see a doctor to get a full diagnosis.
SM: That's sounds very scary. Have you had other experiences like this?
RF: Once on a domestic flight, I had pre-ordered the peanut-free meal. However, the moment I took my first bite I realized something was wrong: it had peanuts in it. I immediately drank some liquid Benedryl and injected my thigh with the Epi-Pen. I informed the airline stewardess of the situation and luckily didn't feel the need to ask them to land the plane. We landed and I went home, self-medicated and rested and it went away. However, over the last 30 years, I've had about 12-15 Emergency Room experiences related to my allergies.
SM: If this was me, and I had just one of those experiences, I'd never want to leave the safety of home again. How do you do it?
RF: It probably helped that these severe reactions to peanuts didn't happen until I was already an adult in my 30s. I already knew what I wanted to do in my life, which was travel and write. I wasn't going to let anything stop me, not even a life threatening allergy. I love what I do; I love seeing what's around the next corner.
SM: OK, so if I do want to travel, what countries are particularly good for allergic travelers?
RF: In my experience, both Canada and the United Kingdom are great for people with food allergies as they have very strict food allergen labeling laws. After that, you're pretty much playing Russian Roulette with other countries.
SM: What is your favorite place to travel where you feel safe eating?
RF: Japan is one of my favorite countries. They don't use peanuts in their cuisine so it's easy to dine well there. Additionally in Japan, restaurants serve one thing and do that one thing very well. There's no notion of "surf and turf" like we have here in the States so the possibility of cross contamination is much lower.
SM: What are you top 5 tips for eating out at home or abroad with allergies?
1. Bring allergy cards with you anytime you eat out. For free, Babelfish can provide you with a translation of your allergies into many languages and you can make cards on your computer.
Select Wisely will make laminated cards for you custom fit to order, for a small charge.
2. Avoid restaurants that specialize in foods you are allergic to. For peanut allergies, I avoid Thai and Indonesian cuisines, for instance.
3. Once in a restaurant, show your allergy card immediately to the waiter and ask the waiter to show the card to the chef. If the waiter replies, "It's all OK" without talking to the chef, insist the chef be consulted.
4. If the chef comes out to see you, you're going to be taken seriously. Frequently, the waitperson hands the card to the chef and the next thing you know, the food arrives. Don't be satisfied with the waiter's reply of, "I gave the card to the chef". Insist on a response, that what you ordered is safe or is not.
5. If you get attentive service, tip generously, to make the waiter inclined to view the next person with an allergy card a welcome guest, not a pain in the neck problem.
SM: Great advice, thank you!
Now a contributor to Frommers.com, Robert Fisher is a former editor-in-chief at Fodor's, and contributor to many publications including Sports Illustrated, Life, Travel + Leisure and the Washington Post, to mention only a few. Professionally, his credits include being past president of the Society of American Travel Writers and a director of the British Guild of Travel Writers. He has lived and worked in Tokyo, London and India.
Read tips from Bob on traveling and eating abroad with food allergies.
Read Sloane's SharePost on Traveling with Food Allergies.