My First Trip as a Food-Allergic Teen Was an Eye-Opener

I was excited about my first trip with classmates. But through minor allergic reactions and going hungry, I learned a lot about managing food allergies on the road.

6 December 2022
By Eshnavi Kovvuri

For most people, traveling is a time to relax and not worry about their next meal. Unfortunately for me, that’s not the case. You see, I am allergic to wheat, eggs, tree nuts and sesame seeds.

Until recently, my family and I rarely traveled. With so many risks for me in new places with unfamiliar foods, we seldom ventured out. The few times we did take trips, we went to familiar places, like visits to my grandparents and aunt in nearby cities. Plus, we went to Disney World, which is known for having allergy-friendly food.

Other than those outings, it was like I lived inside an unbreakable bubble. I watched as the outside world happily dined out without fear, while my parents kept me safe from public mishaps and allergic emergencies.

This all changed last summer, before the start of high school. I had the opportunity to go on a 10-day Eastern Seaboard trip with my 8th grade class. At age 14, this was the first time I would be responsible for my food allergies entirely on my own. This first trip without parents would turn out to be nothing like I expected. 

Prior to the trip, I was confident that managing my food allergies would be easy. My mom, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck. She listed off all the safe foods I needed to take, just in case, and everything that could go wrong. 

Our top priority was to ensure the travel agency, the trip sponsor, and the class chaperones were aware of my allergies. We called the travel agency to get a list of restaurants we’d stop at on the trip. Unfortunately, many of our meal stops were unplanned, so the agency could not provide such a list. This did not ease my mom’s apprehension.

First Solo Trip: Food Court Reaction

Yet this was a big graduating class trip for me – I was determined to go. I assumed there would be many stops along the way near familiar restaurants to find allergy-friendly foods. As we started to pack, I could feel my excitement growing. 

Students were only allowed to take one carry-on suitcase and a backpack on the trip. Most of the space in my carry-on was used for clothes and toiletries to last the nine days of the trip. This left little room for “the essentials” on Mom’s list. We had to get creative to make room for three gallon-size Ziploc bags with allergy-friendly trail mix and oatmeal bites, as well as packaged oatmeal, a breakfast alternative. 

I also had a small sling bag to wear at all times on my first solo trip. It held my allergy action plan, allergy cards to explain my food allergies to restaurant staff, epinephrine auto-injectors and antihistamines.

The initial stop on the trip was Boston, where we visited Boston Harbor. It was exciting to be there but, unfortunately, this is where I experienced my first-ever reaction at a food court. Despite informing the server of my allergies, my simple order of fish and rice was cross-contaminated. After a few bites, I felt symptoms of a reaction starting. I immediately stopped eating and took antihistamines. Fortunately, the reaction resolved without requiring epinephrine.

My parents have always been fearful of cross-contamination at food courts. This is understandable since the workers may not understand the concept of cross-contact with allergens in a kitchen, such as on utensils. Plus, they may not be completely familiar with ingredients. 

Going Hungry and Learning Lessons

The food court close call was just a taste of how the rest of my first trip without parents would turn out. We had most of our meals at food courts or there was street food in isolated locations without an alternative in sight. As well, many of these places specialized in foods I am allergic to. Simply finding allergy-friendly food proved my biggest difficulty during the trip. 

On many occasions while the group ate meals, I would instead make do with convenience store snacks (allergy-friendly pretzels and chips) or I’d order a light salad. (I skipped the croutons and dressings, as they contained egg.) Breakfast was served at the hotels, but the food served was off-limits for me. It consisted of baked goods, toast, eggs, and other foods that I could not touch. I had coffee and fruit, if it was offered. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t use the packaged oatmeal I’d brought for such occasions, since there were no microwaves in the dining hall. Later, I learned that microwaves could be in other locations inside the hotel, such as break rooms. If only I’d known sooner!

I had to skip too many meals, and the lack of sustenance took its toll. At first, I felt lethargic, but by the seventh day, I felt downright sick with hunger. On the eighth day at a cheesesteak restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania, I became desperate and bought some French fries. As I began to eat, I realized they were coated in wheat! I rushed to take antihistamines, and was ready to use my auto-injector. But I didn’t have to.

Travel is Worth It!

Although I had several issues on this first trip and it was no dining delight, I don’t regret it. I saw beautiful parts of the northeast and had memorable moments with friends. The trip taught me that food allergy travel isn’t easy, and I learned more than I could have imagined. I plan to continue that learning and adopt ways of becoming a successful allergic traveler

I’ve already discovered some helpful tricks. For instance, asking for microwave access in other locations in a hotel would have kept me much better fed. When the chance arises, I now know to stock up on as much food as possible at convenience and grocery stores. (These became lifesavers when meals were not available.) 

Through my first trip without parents, I became more used to speaking up about my food allergies. It also opened my eyes to why travel is worth it – even for someone who will have to do much more work than the average carefree traveler. 

I’d never imagined there was so much outside of my allergy bubble. Now that my bubble has burst, I cannot wait to explore and experience more adventures with a little caution and a lot more confidence!

Eshnavi Kovvuri. 14, is a high school student in Austin, Texas. She hopes to travel to Netherlands and Japan someday. 

Related Reading:
Overnight School Trip: Like Bootcamp for Allergic Teens
An In-Flight Reaction, Then Off to Europe
Studying Abroad with Food Allergies: An Experience Not To Be Missed