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The Parents’ Guide to Flying Safely with Food Allergies

Inside a plane
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In August of this year, 4-year-old Fae suffered from anaphylactic shock on her flight home from a family vacation. She stopped breathing and lost consciousness 20 minutes into the flight, after a fellow passenger opened a bag of peanuts four rows away. The most disheartening part of the story is that this passenger, along with all the guests on board, was given three clear warnings from the airline to not consume peanuts on that flight.

Parents of children who suffer from food allergies experience a lot of fear. I would know because I too have a 4-year-old with severe food allergies. Though she has thankfully not had a potentially lethal anaphylactic reaction, there have been severe incidents. Thus, we have to take a lot of precautions, especially when traveling. As most allergy parents know, you just never know when, or if, a life-threatening reaction will happen.

The easiest way for me to manage my daughter’s food allergies is to control her environment, especially while she is so young. But when you’re traveling, the environment is the most unpredictable factor. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that allergens can lurk anywhere from greasy public tables, to airplane armrests, to your row mate’s afternoon snack. Last year, we took our young daughter with us on a family vacation to Hawaii and Hong Kong. I am happy to say we made it through healthy and with our sanity mostly intact. Here are some of my takeaways from the experience about the do’s and don’ts of managing allergies when traveling on an airplane:

Before Leaving for the Airport

1. Call ahead of time

Call the airline a few days before your flight to inform them of your child’s food allergies for each leg of your trip. Most airlines deal with food allergies every day and are very helpful and knowledgeable in accommodating your needs. It’s okay to wait until you arrive to tell your flight attendants, but it helps to have your needs noted on your itinerary, just in case. The key to helping your trip go smoothly is to be proactive.

If your flight includes a meal, make sure to special-order allergy-friendly choices when booking. Most airlines do not carry “allergy-friendly” meals specifically, but their vegan selection is typically safe from most allergens.

 2. Pack snacks. LOTS of snacks

Foods: Reserve one of your carry-on bags just for food. This is especially necessary if you’re traveling long distance or internationally. There is no guarantee that the in-flight snacks or even the vegan meal will be safe. In fact, most of the time they are not. No one wants to deal with a hungry (read: cranky) child on a long flight, so make sure to pack extras. In general, a good rule of thumb is to bring twice as much as you think you will need.

Pro-tip: Make sure to pack allergy-friendly snacks for yourself as well, because as any parent knows – if you’re eating it, your little one is probably going to want a taste.

Liquids: Finding allergy-safe beverages is usually not a problem, but if you need to bring a special formula or supplement and are traveling with an infant, you can. Because you have a special need, the airline and security check points will accommodate you, but there are things you need to be aware of and plan for:

  • Expect to be held up in security Every. Single. Time. You will all likely have to be pat down. Yes, even your baby.
  • Security will likely perform additional testing on some or all of the liquids you bring with you.
  • Pack your bags in a way that they will be easy to unpack and re-pack during the security checks.
  • Anticipate having to explain and re-explain yourself many times to many different people. Having an assertive but patient attitude will help you the most.
  • If you are flying internationally, expect the possibility of additional security checkpoints during layovers or plane changes, even if you haven’t left the airport.
  • Plan your itinerary to include time for hang-ups in security.

Extra Precautions: Along with food, it is a good idea to pack lot of disposable hand wipes. Hand sanitizer is great for killing germs, but it does not always work on food proteins. Washing hands with soap and water is ideal, but hand wipes are the next best thing in wiping away offending foods from hands and surfaces when you are on the go. And of course, don’t forget to pack your epinephrine auto- injectors (bring more than one if you are able) and medicines.

At the Airport

1. Research airport restaurants

I didn’t do this, but I wish I had researched the restaurants and shops at each airport we visited. Even with packing double the amount of snacks, we ran low on supplies just before the last leg of flights. We had to scour a huge airport for allergy-friendly foods. Luckily, we had a long layover, but that’s not always the case. So save yourself some trouble and do a quick search beforehand so you know where to replenish your allergy-friendly stash in a pinch.

2. Pre-board

Most airlines consider food allergies a special need or disability, so when you arrive at the gate, ask the flight attendant if it is possible to pre-board. This will give you the chance to wipe down your seats and check for any leftover food crumbs or trash that may not be safe.

3. Make friends with your flight attendant

Your flight attendants are there to help! Get to know them and inform them of your situation. Almost every flight attendant we have worked with has gone above and beyond to make sure our daughter was safe and taken care of. Approaching them with a proactive and positive attitude is the best way to get the help you need to keep your child safe.

4. Be an advocate

Whether you are traveling near or far, the wise adage applies: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. If you hit any snags during your travels, you will thank yourself a million times for doing the hard work beforehand, and you will actually be able to enjoy your trip!

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