What it’s like to travel with kids with allergies. Ryan Flynn and Hillary Paparo enjoy taking their kids on family holidays but, for them, the planning involves more than just choosing a nice resort or spontaneously trying some local street food. These two families both have kids with allergies that prevent them from throwing caution to the wind and traveling without a fixed, pre-booked itinerary. And yet still these parents have ventured beyond their hometowns and are taking their kids to see the world, one trip a month, one destination at a time. They tell suitcases&strollers about the realities of traveling with children with allergies.
Ryan and Bonnie Flynn have two kids: Jack (7) and Nick (5). Jack is allergic to almost all nuts and is intolerant of milk products and eggs. While he thankfully hasn’t experienced anaphylaxis, his allergies do sometimes result in hives, swelling, redness and some shortness of breath. Despite these challenges the family have traveled all over the western U.S. and to Europe including The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Mark and Hillary Paparo have three kids: Zander (13), Jonathan (11) and Emma (5 ). Jonathan’s nut allergies are quite severe. As an infant he experienced an anaphylactic reaction and multiple times his eyes have swollen shut just from contact with nuts. Yet the Paparos are adventurous too and have taken their kids on family holidays all over the U.S. and to the Caribbean, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro and France.
Here are Ryan and Hillary’s experiences of how to deal with traveling with children’s allergies.
What was your first experience traveling with kids with allergies and what were some of your allergy related worries at that time?
Ryan: The first trip that really required diligent preparation was our trip from the U.S. to The Netherlands. Our worries included what Jack would eat on the 10-hour flight from Portland to Amsterdam and would The Netherlands food labeling truly be as robust as we had read in advance of the trip. We also worried about whether we would be able to find restaurants that would accommodate him once we landed. Finally, in the circumstance where he had a reaction, how would we contact medical assistance and would they be responsive?
We researched local doctors and hospitals and the Dutch 911 equivalent but, nonetheless, because we were in a new country there was uncertainty as to the medical processes and response scenario.
Hillary: Jonathan has traveled in the U.S. since he was born but our first trip outside the U.S. was on a cruise in the Caribbean. Our worries were that we would be in an isolated environment without immediate extensive medical care in case a severe reaction did occur.
How did you prepare for those family holidays to deal with those worries about your kids’ allergies?
Ryan: We took a few preventive measures. First, we updated all EpiPen and allergy related prescriptions in advance of our departure. (EpiPen prescriptions tend to be only for a year.) Second, we communicated with the airline to ensure that any meal was nut-free. Third, we made sure that Jack was well fed prior to boarding but with plenty of time to ensure no reaction occurred. Fourth, we brought several snacks that we were confident he could have. And fifth, once at our host location, I worked with our consultant to establish a relationship with a local doctor. In retrospect, I should have established the relationship prior to departure.
Hillary: We spoke with the cruise ship concerning medical care on board and [about the] precautions [they were taking] with food preparation for his allergies.
How many of those worries really became a reality?
Ryan: The Dutch/E.U. food labeling is as robust – if not more so – than in the U.S. so that is no longer a concern [for us]. Restaurants are also extremely diligent with allergies in The Netherlands. There are many options for kids to eat.
In addition, I am now confident in the Dutch medical system and process. While the Dutch have a reputation for not taking prompt medical action, that is only in the context of non-life threatening scenarios. Their emergency response – I have come to understand – is what would be expected in the U.S.
Hillary: Speaking with the cruise line, our waiter/staff and allergist all helped to prepare us. We measured it as a success as there wasn’t a reaction or emergency while on vacation.
What are some of the precautions you take these days when traveling with kids with allergies?
Ryan: We engage in extensive planning so that we have a general idea of what food options are available in any given location. Traveling with kids our age requires planning to begin with. Now, part of that plan includes scoping out grocery stores and restaurants using the Internet (e.g. TripAdvisor) and Google Maps prior to arrival. If necessary, I will reach out directly to various eating establishments in advance to gauge diligence.
I will also locate all Subway and McDonald’s establishments. For Jack, these familiar establishments provide the following benefits: a consistent menu from location to location, we will have multiple nut and dairy free options, they have several locations throughout Europe, it is fast and the kids like it. Would I have said that as a 21-year-old backpacking around Europe? Not a chance! But now, as a parent traveling with a child with allergies, these establishments are a blessing.
With respect to the plane trip, if the flight is less than 3 hours we will not consume food on the plane unless it is individually wrapped and we are confident in the ingredients and labeling. For unexpected flight delays or other unexpected circumstances, I will always carry snacks that I know are safe (e.g. certain fruit bars, carrots, potato chips). We also carry up to 3 EpiPens, Benadryl and a prescription steroid at all times.
Finally, with regards to foreign countries with new cuisines, we will generally stick with what we know. For example, Italian cuisine is generally safe, so whether in Italy, Belgium, France or Thailand, we will seek out Italian restaurants.
Hillary: Planning is key. We make sure that we have notified the airline prior to departure and also remind them of his severe allergies prior to boarding. We board ahead of time to wipe down Jonathan’s seating area as well.
On the recommendation of our allergist, we carry 4 EpiPens with us, Benadryl and his inhalers. If the flight is less than 5 hours, Jonathan doesn’t eat anything on board. He eats just prior to boarding. On longer flights this is unavoidable so we pre-pack meals and snacks for him that are known safe.
Concerning eating out at our destinations, we try to pre-plan as many of our meals as possible with restaurants that we feel are safe. This is made easier by menus that are viewable online. Pre-planning helps take the anxiety out of trying to find a safe place to eat at the last moment.
What is your back up emergency plan should the allergies flare up while you are traveling with kids with allergies?
Ryan: The back up plan is the preparation. I will contact the hotel directly [before we travel] to understand the country emergency code and the closest emergency resource. Of course, we also carry up to 3 EpiPens, Benadryl and a prescription steroid.
Are there are places you wouldn't go, or things you wouldn't do, while traveling because of your kid’s allergies?
Ryan: We struggle as a family not to limit our travel experiences because of Jack’s allergies. That is not fair to him. It is a big world out there and he needs to have the skills to manage through it (albeit, in a more challenging way than someone without an allergy).
Having said that, as a general rule, we avoid isolated locations. For example, we stayed a night in the very northern part of Holland and on the Amalfi Coast. In both instances the closest emergency resource was 30 minutes away. As a result, I was extremely diligent with food selection and we did not vary much with respect to the establishments where we ate.
We are currently debating whether a cruise is something we are comfortable doing with Jack. If there were an emergency scenario, what would our options be in such an isolated circumstance?
Finally, we make it a general rule to stay at places with guest services, such as a hotel and avoid Airbnb-type stays or bed and breakfasts. It provides me comfort knowing that I have a local resource available at a hotel in an emergency scenario, unlike at a rental property.
Hillary: We try not to limit Jonathan’s experiences based on his allergies; however, he is old enough to understand that sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks in certain situations.
Are there any products, websites or resources you recommend to other parents who have kids with allergies that they should consult before planning their next family holiday?
Ryan: I found TripAdvisor to be very helpful. Several people have likely traveled to your intended destination with similar allergies and can offer all manner of advice.
I also have found various allergy translation apps very helpful. There are several options. One tip is to take a picture of the translation card produced by the app so that you do not need connectivity to upload the translation at the restaurant.
Finally, we also rely on friends and other families that deal with the same situations, such as the Paparo family. Sharing hints and experiences among other families with similar challenges is probably the most helpful resource.
What are your top 3 tips for parents traveling with kids with allergies on family vacation?
· Advocate for your child before and during your trip with hotels, restaurants and airline staff. Reach out and share your circumstance. You are likely not the first family they have encountered traveling with children with allergies. If they are worth their salt, they will be helpful in explaining to you what they can and cannot achieve.
· If you are comfortable with an eating situation, stick with it. Do not feel compelled to vary what or where you eat. Food is only a small part of your family’s traveling experience and, if you have a successful trip, their best memories will not be the food.
· Familiarise yourself with the local medical response scenario. This will give you comfort and will allow you to have a great trip, wherever it may be.
Hillary: Planning is key. [Research information about what to do in an] emergency, places to eat that are safe and the medication you have on hand. It helps relieve the anxiety of traveling into the unknown.
Communicate with airline/cruise personnel prior to your trip so that they have time to make modifications.
Once the planning and research is done, try to relax and enjoy the experience.
Images: Michelle Leung