Gluten-free travelers cannot eat regular airline meals, so some advance food preparation is required before traveling on planes. (At the bottom of this page you can share your opinion: Which airlines have the best (or the worst) gluten-free food?)
Gluten-Free Airline Meals
Many airlines offer special gluten-free meals (abbreviated in the airline food world as GFML). Especially if you are going on a long flight, it is worthwhile to choose one of these carriers. Some airlines only offer special meals on long-haul or cross-continental flights, so just because you had gluten-free meals on a flight from New York to London, for example, don’t assume the same airline will give you a gluten-free meal on your flight from New York to Dallas.
Reserve your gluten-free meal in advance. You cannot ask for the special meal at the last minute. You must request it anywhere from 24 to 96 hours before your flight. (Consequently, if you change your flight home at the last minute, you'll lose your gluten-free meal.) If I’ve made my reservation far in advance, I usually call back a few days before the flight to confirm that they’re preparing a gluten-free meal for me.
After you’ve boarded the plane, the flight crew will come to look for you to tell you they’ve got a special meal on board for you. If you’ve changed your seat at the last minute, they might look for you at your “old” seat, so let them know where you are.
Don't assume you can eat everything on the tray. The special meal will be wrapped and sealed; all the flight crew needs to do is warm it up and place it on your tray. You can safely eat whatever is sealed inside the package. The flight crew, however, cannot be expected to know the dietary guidelines of every disease for which special medical meals are provided. They may "generously" add the regular dessert to your tray, or a roll, or some other unsafe food item. Don’t assume that everything on your tray is gluten-free. Safe items will be sealed and labeled, and you’ll be unwrapping these by yourself. Everything else is questionable and you’ll need to read labels and use common sense.
Always bring along emergency food supplies. Unfortunately, despite the airline’s best efforts to provide a special gluten-free meal for you, things can still go wrong. If your flight is canceled and you’re placed on a different flight, or if something is wrong with your original aircraft and they switch your plane at the last minute (after the food service has already loaded the meals onto the original plane), your gluten-free meal is not going to follow you to the “new” plane. No matter how far in advance you planned and how many times you double-checked, there’s always a solid risk that you’ll end up on a plane without anything to eat… unless you’ve brought along some emergency food supplies. Never travel by plane without bringing some food along for yourself.
Bring-Your-Own Airline Meals
Many years ago, I read a suggestion that celiacs carry with them a letter from their doctor explaining their need to bring their own food along. I’ve carried such a letter and never had to use it, but it can’t hurt to have one in your purse or briefcase. Even with the new regulations limiting the amount of fluids you can bring past airport security, I’ve had no problems bringing food along for myself, even for flights as long as 12 or 13 hours.
Get yourself one of those soft-sided insulated lunch packs and a couple of reusable ice packs (the kind sold in drugstores for use on bruises), especially if you’re going on a long flight. You can put it inside one of your other carry-on bags if necessary. Before your flight home, chill the ice packs again in your hotel’s ice bucket, or ask the hotel to freeze them for you in their freezer.
Place everything in zip-lock bags, because cabin pressure changes can cause even well sealed items to leak. (Get as much air out as possible before zipping them closed.) The same guideline is true for any food you pack in your checked baggage.
Bring along snacks and light meals that require no extra preparation and can be eaten anywhere -– in the terminal, on the plane, etc. If you’re not sure you’ll be able to stock up on these items while you’re away, then remember to bring enough for your flight home, too.
These are good bring-along foods that require no preparation:
- Fresh fruits (grapes and bananas are especially convenient)
- Individual-size cans or packages of fruits (including those little individual packets of applesauce)
- Dried fruits
- Fresh vegetables
- Cold cereals
- Cookies, crackers and rice cakes
- Nuts and trail mixes
- Energy Bars
- Potato chips, corn chips, soy crisps
Don’t forget to bring along napkins, plastic utensils, etc.
If I have time before my trips, I like to bake some fresh corn or blueberry muffins to bring along for myself, or broil some chicken drumsticks or wings, and bring these along. Sometimes I’ll bring a fresh fruit or vegetable salad in a plastic container (one that fits into a large zip-lock bag), or some leftovers that can be eaten cold. Often I feel like I have a better meal than the people sitting next to me.