Thursday, May 5, 2011

Vegetarians, vegans face special challenges while traveling

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Until recently, dining was my passion. While other travelers are drawn to museums, historic sites and cultural events, I had a favorite restaurant in every town and usually headed there as soon as my flight touched down. Friends, relatives and business associates always consulted my vast mental library of restaurants before their trips.

  • Hotel breakfast spreads can offer few options for vegan and vegetarian travelers. Looking up hotel menus in advance or requesting a refrigerator in the room can ease diet-restricted challenges.

    By Brett T. Roseman

    Hotel breakfast spreads can offer few options for vegan and vegetarian travelers. Looking up hotel menus in advance or requesting a refrigerator in the room can ease diet-restricted challenges.

By Brett T. Roseman

Hotel breakfast spreads can offer few options for vegan and vegetarian travelers. Looking up hotel menus in advance or requesting a refrigerator in the room can ease diet-restricted challenges.

That all changed two years ago. For a variety of health and other reasons, I decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Giving up sushi, pizza, filet mignon and hot fudge sundaes was manageable at home, but I soon discovered traveling on a restricted diet presents a more formidable challenge.

A recent poll by Harris Interactive and the Vegetarian Resource Group found that just 2.3% of Americans are vegetarian, eating no meat, fish or fowl, and only 1.4% are vegan, eating no animal products. Though vegans and vegetarians are a scant minority, if you include those with allergies, medical conditions and religious convictions that preclude them from ingesting certain foods, the number of people traveling on a restricted diet is substantial.

Most airlines offer an extensive array of special meals on their long-haul flights. Low fat, high fiber, low salt, gluten intolerant, kosher, Hindu and Moslem, are among the 25 special meals listed on Korean Airlines' website. But maintaining a restricted diet on the ground is not as easy.

Until I went vegan, I never realized how many foods contain animal or dairy products. Restaurant menus generally don't list all ingredients and waiters are often stumped when I ask if the pasta, risotto or salad dressing contains eggs, milk or butter.

Food and travel have always been inseparably linked for me. Now most items on the restaurant menu are no longer on my diet. Could I really visit Baltimore without eating crab cakes, forgo those Philly cheese steaks or abstain from Swiss chocolate?

Like an alcoholic, chocoholic, shopaholic or chain smoker going cold turkey, changing my diet required a major overhaul. I had to relinquish my old habits and find new places to eat on every trip.

I immediately axed buffets with endless variety, but often few if any vegan options. Now I skip those hotel breakfast spreads loaded with meats, cheeses and smoked fish and hope the room service menu offers more than bacon and eggs. Most desserts are also off limits for vegans, unless the restaurant serves fresh fruit or non-dairy sorbets.

Traveling on a restricted diet is easier when I'm alone with complete control of my itinerary. Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants offer the most vegan dishes. In London, I opted for Indian and Lebanese restaurants. In Barcelona, grilled vegetables and vegetarian paella became my staple diet.

Before booking hotels, I generally call to ask if refrigerators are available. With a refrigerator, I can often purchase juice, soy milk and fruit at a nearby market to fortify my will to resist a mini-bar loaded with cookies and candy bars. Finding soy milk at a market in Seoul was an adventure — unable to speak the language, I'm not completely certain I purchased the right product, though it tasted like soy milk and there were no cows on the carton.

I try to avoid arriving late at night when most restaurants are closed and all-night room service may have only a limited menu. Famished after a long flight delay en route to Phoenix, I was stuck with an all-night room service menu consisting solely of meat dishes and a few Mexican specialties. Could they hold the cheese on my nachos or prepare enchiladas minus the meat? In the end, dinner was a plate of tortilla chips and salsa.

Wherever possible, I book suite hotels with kitchens where I can prepare my own meals. I also seek neighborhoods where restaurants are plentiful, or rent a car if I anticipate having to travel far for vegan food.

Meetings and conferences often present big challenges for those on a restricted diet. In Kansas City, I found few restaurants near the convention center serving items I could eat, so I spent $30 on a taxi ride to and from the nearest supermarket to stock up.

All-day meetings and conferences don't always serve special meals. At hotel or convention-center banquets, I often request a vegetarian dish, but not all waiters or chefs understand the concepts of a vegan diet. So I often end up with the default vegetarian option, some kind of pasta with cheese, swimming in cream sauce. In these situations, I'll take the standard chicken dish and eat only the potatoes and vegetables.

Tofu, beans and nuts are my primary protein sources at home, but finding these items on the road isn't always easy. Sometimes the only vegan option may be French fries, which are a lot less healthy than many non-vegan foods.

In some ways, traveling on a restricted diet is easier today than at any previous time. Many hotels post their restaurant menus on their websites so travelers can check before booking. Many websites list restaurants that cater to restricted diets almost everywhere and they often include reviews and recommendations from diners with similar dietary requirements.

Even with the long list of special meals, air travel can still be a challenge for business travelers on a restricted diet, because not all meals are available on every flight and most special meals must be ordered well in advance. After splurging for a $200 last minute upgrade to first class on my US Airways flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco, I was dismayed to discover my only dinner choices were pork or chicken.

With so many hassles traveling on my vegan diet, I am sometimes tempted to revert to old habits (so far, I have not). But for those on restricted medical diets, this is more than a lifestyle choice, and the hospitality industry should do more to cater to their needs.

Travelers, do you have any advice for staying on a special diet while on the road? Please share your best tips in comments below.  

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at

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