A Beginner’s Guide to Traveling as a Vegan

by Maya Shlayen on December 31, 2011

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Traveling can seem intimidating to those of us who are new to it. From jet lag, to language barriers, to culture shock, there’s a seemingly endless list of things to worry about. Being a vegan may seem like yet another challenge – but it doesn’t have to be!

Although it’s important to do your research and plan ahead, most issues can be very easily resolved if you keep in mind that it is your own responsibility to see to it that your needs are met.

As you head off to explore new places, a bit of extra planning and forethought can help you overcome the small inconveniences that you may encounter.

With that in mind, here are some basic tips to help get you started…

Knowledge is Power

Before you leave, it’s a good idea to do some research about your destination. Is seafood a dietary staple in that part of the world? Are you headed off to a country that eats a great deal of dairy?

Note: If your planned destination is particularly non-vegan-friendly (such as many countries with extreme climates), it might be a good idea to reassess whether it’s a place you’d feel comfortable visiting. Sure, animal products are used all over the world, but there are places where exploitation is more blatant, and being vegan can be more or less challenging from place to place.

Understanding the local cuisine gives you a huge advantage in knowing what to look out for – especially with regards to ‘hidden’ ingredients in food. For example, in many countries in East Asia, dishes that appear to be vegan – noodles, tofu, and so on – are often cooked in fish broth. In Eastern and Central Europe, dairy butter is used to cook most meals. In India, ‘ghee’ or clarified butter is often used in vegetable dishes that would otherwise be vegan. Since many meals can be ‘veganized’ (see below), knowing how food is traditionally prepared can help you ensure that the food on your plate is, in fact, vegan.

If you’re traveling to any major cities, spend a little time online to find out whether there are vegan restaurants or health food stores in the area. Mapping out stops where you can either enjoy a delicious vegan meal or at least stock up on supplies can be a huge help once you’re there.

Even knowing when you’ll next be able to visit a supermarket can be an invaluable step toward making sure you have access to fresh fruit and veggies. (Look for dark green salad mixes in the produce section – they often have pre-washed spinach and other ‘instant’ salads that can provide some much-needed nutrition on the go. Pre-packaged spirulina smoothies can be found in certain grocery stores as well.)

Websites such as HappyCow offer listings of vegan restaurants and businesses around the world. However, their listings also include food outlets that are not vegan, so make sure you read the information carefully. Also, since restaurant entries are largely user-submitted, it’s important to double-check for accuracy. If you find a discrepancy, make sure you inform the site’s moderators so they can edit it accordingly.

Plan Ahead

Unless you’ve made arrangements in advance, never take it for granted that vegan food will be available for you. Although it’s possible to find vegan options in various food outlets around the world (including some fast food places and convenience stops), the variety can still be scant in places.

Always make sure you have snack foods on hand (see below) that will help tide you over until your next meal. Low blood sugar can be your worst enemy when you’re out of your comfort zone.

If you’re traveling by car, it’s easy to bring along your own snacks and meals to eat on-the-go, and even a backpack can allow you to carry certain packaged foods (which you might be very grateful for in a pinch!)

Pretzels, nuts, dried fruits, and vegan granola bars make for healthy snacks, even if you’re backpacking around; canned soups, chilies, and pita sandwiches can make for convenient, on-the-go meals. Hummus and other bean dips are also often available and can provide a quick, healthy lunch along with either vegan breads, chips or veggie sticks.

On many trips (including backpacking ones), bringing some supplements, condiments, and other ingredients that are easy to pack and carry can also prove to be extremely helpful. Examples include:

  • non-dairy creamer for coffee and tea (make sure it’s actually vegan, and doesn’t contain casein)
  • a small container with a mix of nutritional yeast and herb salt for instant seasoning
  • non-dairy milk in juice box-style containers
  • sachets of fortified smoothie mix or chlorophyll-rich powder made from leafy dark greens (these can be mixed with fruit juice and provide essential nutrients when no fresh produce is available)
  • mustard and other condiments that contain vinegar (these can be stored without refrigeration, and a small amount can go a long way toward adding flavor to anything savory)
  • don’t forget your vitamin B12, vegan DHA, and even a quality multi-vitamin, since it can be hard to eat properly when you’re outside of your own home.

Learn to communicate the basics

If you’re going to a country where another language is spoken, learning a few words and phrases can go a long way. The word ‘vegan’ is not universally understood, so learning to communicate the actual definition is essential. Learning how to explain veganism specifically (as opposed to listing individual animal products) is beneficial, as it spares you the bother of stumbling over your words every time you have to ask what’s in something.

The Vegan Society in the UK also publishes a Vegan Passport that contains words and phrases in dozens of languages. If you’re going to a part of the world where a rare language is spoken (one that is not covered by the passport), or if you don’t want to purchase anything, it would be wise to find somebody who knows the language and can help you learn some essential words and phrases before you leave.

Taking the time to learn how to describe simple dishes such as a green salad with an oil and vinegar dressing, grilled vegetables, and eggless pasta dishes (not cooked with butter, cheese, or cream) might prove invaluable down the line, as these are examples of simple meals that can be obtained almost anywhere.

Most of all, it’s essential to always be patient – especially in parts of the world where strict veganism is not particularly well understood. Give yourself the time to explain exactly what you do not eat (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products of any kind, honey, etc). If you have the opportunity to call ahead to restaurants you will be visiting, making arrangements beforehand can save you from trying to speak in a foreign language when you’re already hungry.

On the plane

Most airlines offer special meals (including vegan ones) for passengers. Some Eastern airlines even offer an option specifically for passengers who subscribe to Jainism, which (theoretically) should be 100% vegan. Some airlines also offer a fruit plate, but watch out for fruits that appear to be served from a can, since they are sometimes steeped in syrup made from sugar which may not be vegan.

Whichever airline you’re traveling with, it’s important to call at least a week in advance to ask for a vegan meal – and be sure to explain what ‘vegan’ means. Some airlines call it the ‘non-dairy vegetarian’ option. If they offer a vegetarian meal option but not a vegan one, be sure to ask what exactly is included (or not) in order to avoid problems later.

Either way, it’s a good idea to at least bring some of your own snacks, and preferably substantial sandwiches or a proper meal (neatly-packed), as even meals that are labeled ‘vegan’ can, unfortunately, be served to you covered in cheese.

Consider your living arrangement options

If you have the opportunity, staying with a host family can be a great way to experience more of the local culture, as well as providing you with a place where you can settle in to a ‘home away from home’ while traveling in a foreign country.

Resources such as “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms” (WWOOF), HelpExchange, Couch Surfing, and others, can help you find vegan-friendly hosts in many different countries around the world.

It’s essential to inform your prospective hosts that you’re a vegan when you’re making arrangements with them, as well as ensuring they know what this means and that they’re happy and able to meet your needs. Always thank your hosts for accommodating you, and (if appropriate) offer to help them with cooking and food preparation. This can be a great way to demonstrate your gratitude, as well as helping them to learn a bit more about vegan food. Baking them a delicious vegan treat (or sharing something special from a health food store) can go a long way as well!

If your budget allows for it, many cities also have apartment units for rent on a daily or weekly basis. If you’re traveling with others, or simply do not feel comfortable living with strangers, this option allows you to buy and cook your own meals.

Note: Bring your own toiletries. Even if you’re staying with a host family, do not expect that they will provide you with vegan options for cosmetics or toiletries. Vegan soap, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, insect repellent, deodorant, and other necessary personal care items may not be readily available in the country you’re visiting (or may be significantly more expensive).

Finally: Be sure about your veganism

Traveling in a foreign country will expose you to sights, sounds and smells that you’ve never experienced before. It’s possible that certain unknown foods might be ‘enticing’ to you, even if those foods are obviously not vegan. If you’re not 100% sure of your own commitment to veganism, you might find such experiences to be a test of your resolve.

In addition, when faced with the challenge of finding appropriate food in an unfamiliar environment where you don’t speak the language, it may seem tempting to occasionally ‘cheat’ for the sake of convenience. But don’t forget that what may be for you a few moments of inconvenience – or a matter of taste – for animals, is really a matter of life or death.

Remember that the trivial ‘sacrifices’ that you might occasionally make cannot compare to what is gained in return. Non-vegan choices deprive sentient beings of life and freedom, and you of the peace of mind that comes from your commitment to non-violence.

Don’t be afraid to travel as a vegan, but make sure you pack your ethics in a safe place, where there’s no danger of losing them along the way!

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