No Need to Fear Flying: Gluten-Free Air Travel Does Exist!

airplane-windowGluten-free travel requires some extra thinking, sure. So does gluten-free living in general. And while airplane food may strike fear into all our hearts, there’s really no need to fret: with some advanced planning the friendly skies can be yours to fly.

Last week I flew from New York to Madrid, and then onwards to Milan, on Iberia Air. Iberia is one of the many carriers who offer gluten-free airplane meals, and so the process was quite easy. All I had to do was select the gluten-free option from a pull-down menu as I was booking my ticket, when prompted. Still, some pointers to ensure the best possible airline experience:

If you can order a gluten-free airplane meal, do! Remember when Continental eliminated its gluten-free airplane meals on international flights – and when, thanks to some well-organized support, they were reinstated? The more people avail themselves of airlines’ gluten-free options, the more airlines will pay attention to our demographic.

Check In. You chose the correct option when you booked your ticket, but it’s wise to reconfirm 48 hours before your flight. And again when you get to the airport.

My gluten-free airplane dinner on Iberia: Notice the ricecake substitution!
My gluten-free airplane dinner on Iberia: Notice the ricecake substitution!

Mistakes happen, so give the airline every chance to avoid making one with your meal. On another transatlantic flight, I found out that they had no record of my gluten-free request. The agent was apologetic, but more importantly she managed to find a gluten-free meal for me and get it onto the plane.

Be aware. A little bit of caution always goes a long way. Flight attendants will not necessarily know the specifics of a gluten-free diet, and may offer you something gluten-full without realizing it. If some part of your meal looks suspect, ask! If you aren’t convinced that it’s gluten-free, do yourself a favor and avoid it. I like to keep one of the Gluten-Free Dining Cards handy, especially on an international flight, just to make communicating with the flight attendant a little easier.

Bring Help. You should be safe, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like what they give you. Consider packing a few light-weight extras to transform your airline meal from palatable to pleasant:

Packets of peanut butter and/or jelly

Single-serving Nutella

Nuts or trail mix for adding to yogurt

Mini vial of hot sauce

And my next-morning gluten-free airplane breakfast.
And my next-morning gluten-free airplane breakfast.

Play it safe. It’s a good idea to have a little something on you, for worst-case scenarios. Remember, you don’t need to pack a full picnic: just enough to see you through until landing. Think of your favorite gluten-free snack bar as insurance against Murphy’s Law.

Have you had any memorable gluten-free airplane meals? What are your favorite take-alongs?


18 thoughts on “No Need to Fear Flying: Gluten-Free Air Travel Does Exist!”

  1. I have had good experiences with gluten free meals on International flights. Did follow the suggestions of confirming 48 hours in advance and upon check-in.
    My brother & his wife travel extensively and have sometimes found no restaurants open when their “clock” is on mealtime. They pack for “famine meals.” One of my favorites is packages (not cans) of seasoned tuna and crackers. The tuna is flavorful enough (especially the sweet and spicy) that no mayo or other condiments are needed. I also like Nature Valley GF roasted nut crunch bars.

  2. I have had good experiences with gluten free meals on International flights. Did follow the suggestions of confirming 48 hours in advance and upon check-in.
    My brother & his wife travel extensively and have sometimes found no restaurants open when their “clock” is on mealtime. They pack for “famine meals.” One of my favorites is packages (not cans) of seasoned tuna and crackers. The tuna is flavorful enough (especially the sweet and spicy) that no mayo or other condiments are needed. I also like Nature Valley GF roasted nut crunch bars.

  3. I like to bring sliced strawberries and cucumbers in a container. I also make a whole batch of pancakes and bring those because they are just fine at room temperature. I’ve tried to bring single servings of applesauce and peanut butter, but those got thrown out at security. :-(

    I also bring tea bags in an empty water bottle, and I add water and ice (always free!) after I get through security. :-)

  4. I like to bring sliced strawberries and cucumbers in a container. I also make a whole batch of pancakes and bring those because they are just fine at room temperature. I’ve tried to bring single servings of applesauce and peanut butter, but those got thrown out at security. :-(

    I also bring tea bags in an empty water bottle, and I add water and ice (always free!) after I get through security. :-)

  5. I was one of the Triumph Dining readers and frequent fliers who wrote to Continental Airlines’ CEO about continuing to provide GF meals, and was so pleased to hear that they would be available again. However, my experience of late has not been so good… I am once again traveling internationally with them, and have found that special meals are “not available” on any of my flights for this trip. When queried, a stewardess explained that the airline intends to begin charging extra fees for such meals in the near future, assuming they are able to provide them at all. I’m sad that what seemed like a big victory is short-lived, since the airlines have figured out they can gain nearly 20% in earnings for charging additional fees during these “hard times” they are having (see http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2010/07/air_fares_are_up_so_are_airlin.html or http://www.bnet.com/blog/airline-business/flying-higher-united-airlines-february-revenues-way-up/1575 FMI).

  6. I was one of the Triumph Dining readers and frequent fliers who wrote to Continental Airlines’ CEO about continuing to provide GF meals, and was so pleased to hear that they would be available again. However, my experience of late has not been so good… I am once again traveling internationally with them, and have found that special meals are “not available” on any of my flights for this trip. When queried, a stewardess explained that the airline intends to begin charging extra fees for such meals in the near future, assuming they are able to provide them at all. I’m sad that what seemed like a big victory is short-lived, since the airlines have figured out they can gain nearly 20% in earnings for charging additional fees during these “hard times” they are having (see http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2010/07/air_fares_are_up_so_are_airlin.html or http://www.bnet.com/blog/airline-business/flying-higher-united-airlines-february-revenues-way-up/1575 FMI).

  7. I was just on a 7 hour flight going cross America and brought an entire meal. I saved half a salad from the previous night and brought a packaged salad dressing, cut up celery and carrots, rice crackers, and nuts. The drinks offered twice were what I took, especially with the low blood sugars I was having.

  8. I was just on a 7 hour flight going cross America and brought an entire meal. I saved half a salad from the previous night and brought a packaged salad dressing, cut up celery and carrots, rice crackers, and nuts. The drinks offered twice were what I took, especially with the low blood sugars I was having.

  9. I flew Delta this summer – having booked gluten free, and confirmed 48 hours in advance. I was flying internationally – to Brazil and back. On the flight down my “gluten free” breakfast consisted of cornflakes – second ingredient listed ? Wheat! the worst part was the flight attendants “oh isn’t that just too bad” reaction – with no other response or attempt to find me something else to eat. The flight back from Brazil was much better – not surprising, Brazil’s gluten labeling and awareness seems much higher than here in the states. I feel fortunate that the Brazilians were so careful. I had packed many snacks – but after 2 weeks, I was out of them!

  10. I flew Delta this summer – having booked gluten free, and confirmed 48 hours in advance. I was flying internationally – to Brazil and back. On the flight down my “gluten free” breakfast consisted of cornflakes – second ingredient listed ? Wheat! the worst part was the flight attendants “oh isn’t that just too bad” reaction – with no other response or attempt to find me something else to eat. The flight back from Brazil was much better – not surprising, Brazil’s gluten labeling and awareness seems much higher than here in the states. I feel fortunate that the Brazilians were so careful. I had packed many snacks – but after 2 weeks, I was out of them!

  11. Old Wisconsin makes some gf pepperoni sticks. They add a little protein to that salad you have to accept when nothing else is available. And pepperoni sticks travel in your purse quite easily. Old Wisconsin actually puts the words “gluten free” on the labels for these! Watch for it!

  12. Old Wisconsin makes some gf pepperoni sticks. They add a little protein to that salad you have to accept when nothing else is available. And pepperoni sticks travel in your purse quite easily. Old Wisconsin actually puts the words “gluten free” on the labels for these! Watch for it!

  13. I have to agree with the above poster about single-serve packets of peanut butter. I wouldn’t suggest that as an option to take, as TSA seems to vary wildly on its acceptance. (Same with homemade guacamole I brought once, although the screener joked that she was just going to keep it to eat!)

    Whole strawberries caused suspicion once in Europe, too. In general, I avoid jellies, yogurts, nut butters, spreads — anything that’s semi-liquid has the equally semi-good chance of being chucked at security :(

    Also, for those who fly (or get lucky enough to fly) Biz Class or higher, forget ordering gluten-free (unless you have celiac) and bring some GF crackers or bread with you instead. The gluten-free options are nasty and bland — while the other entrees are fab, and almost always use rice or potatoes instead of pasta as the carb.

  14. I have to agree with the above poster about single-serve packets of peanut butter. I wouldn’t suggest that as an option to take, as TSA seems to vary wildly on its acceptance. (Same with homemade guacamole I brought once, although the screener joked that she was just going to keep it to eat!)

    Whole strawberries caused suspicion once in Europe, too. In general, I avoid jellies, yogurts, nut butters, spreads — anything that’s semi-liquid has the equally semi-good chance of being chucked at security :(

    Also, for those who fly (or get lucky enough to fly) Biz Class or higher, forget ordering gluten-free (unless you have celiac) and bring some GF crackers or bread with you instead. The gluten-free options are nasty and bland — while the other entrees are fab, and almost always use rice or potatoes instead of pasta as the carb.

  15. I have pretty good experiences with ordering gluten-free meals on flights. I got the same Corn Flakes that Sue got on a flight from JFK to London, so I got out a Lara bar and all was fine. I go to Africa quite a bit for business, and have definitely found that even African countries have been able to figure out gluten-free better than the US. My Kenya Airways meal was a delicious fish and tomatoes over rice, which looked better than the regular meal. Delta has done a decent job on flights to Johannesburg – though the bland chicken, rice and veggies with rice cakes meal isn’t superb, it’s better that suffering while already sitting in coach on a 16 hour flight.

    Interesting note: They are also better about labeling gluten on groceries in African countries, and have more variety, which I certainly appreciate – and they don’t just require labels about wheat, but also require gluten warnings if it contains barley, malt, rye, etc, which we don’t even get in the US. I actually stock up on some things while I’m there to bring back to the US – quite the opposite of what I think should be the case. It’s refreshing to turn over a box of cereal that contains malt and see “Warning: Contains gluten.”

    It’s hard to get your point across about gluten-free meals to airline employees who don’t regulary speak much English. Ethiopian Airways had no idea what I was talking about. Not sure if anyone has had a similar experience with foregin airlines.

  16. I have pretty good experiences with ordering gluten-free meals on flights. I got the same Corn Flakes that Sue got on a flight from JFK to London, so I got out a Lara bar and all was fine. I go to Africa quite a bit for business, and have definitely found that even African countries have been able to figure out gluten-free better than the US. My Kenya Airways meal was a delicious fish and tomatoes over rice, which looked better than the regular meal. Delta has done a decent job on flights to Johannesburg – though the bland chicken, rice and veggies with rice cakes meal isn’t superb, it’s better that suffering while already sitting in coach on a 16 hour flight.

    Interesting note: They are also better about labeling gluten on groceries in African countries, and have more variety, which I certainly appreciate – and they don’t just require labels about wheat, but also require gluten warnings if it contains barley, malt, rye, etc, which we don’t even get in the US. I actually stock up on some things while I’m there to bring back to the US – quite the opposite of what I think should be the case. It’s refreshing to turn over a box of cereal that contains malt and see “Warning: Contains gluten.”

    It’s hard to get your point across about gluten-free meals to airline employees who don’t regulary speak much English. Ethiopian Airways had no idea what I was talking about. Not sure if anyone has had a similar experience with foregin airlines.

  17. I have taken little boxes of raisins, GF crackers / cookies. In the future I will include tuna pouches for protein and Eco-Planet packs of instant GF hot cereal (just add hot water). In January will be taking the Bob & Ruth’s New Zealand trip and will see if Air New Zealand gets it right with GF meals.

  18. I have taken little boxes of raisins, GF crackers / cookies. In the future I will include tuna pouches for protein and Eco-Planet packs of instant GF hot cereal (just add hot water). In January will be taking the Bob & Ruth’s New Zealand trip and will see if Air New Zealand gets it right with GF meals.

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