vegan travel tips
With a little finesse, any trip can be a delicious, veg-friendly adventure. I've traveled often throughout most of the 18 years that I have practiced a plant-based lifestyle. Especially lately, my work and personal life both have me on the road often, and some of the places I visit more frequently are neither used to nor particularly accommodating of plant-based lifestyles (my husband's and my stateside families are mostly from Alabama; see here for local attitudes re: herbivorous folk). Work trips usually have time or logistical constraints that forbid me from employing some of the more obvious vegan strategies (i.e. "go to the grocery store and cook all of your own meals at your lodging" / "eat only at vegan restaurants to be sure the food is 'safe'"). Additionally, there is nary a plant-based person among my husband, family, and business associates, so I've also had to learn how to navigate new locales not only as a vegan, but as a vegan alongside others who generally do not make eating plant-based a priority.
With all of this practice has come much learning, and I hope the many lessons my adventures have bestowed upon me may be of benefit, whether you are vegetarian, vegan, or simply wish to eat more plants while traveling.
Tip 1: Research local cuisine, transit options, and convenience shops.
Food is so deeply entwined with culture and geography that I find it is one of the most intimate manners in which to connect with a place. When planning a trip, whether for business or pleasure, it can be hugely beneficial to do even a little research on some of the city or region's local dishes and crops. The results are often pleasantly surprising; for example, while Turkey may be famous for its meat kebabs with vegetarianism little practiced, it is also a country of "veggie eaters" (in the words of a Turkish business associate). From lentil-based soups and flavorful, varied greens (pictured above) to often-vegetarian Çiğ Köfte (bulgur-based vegetarian "meatballs"), hummus, ezme (tomato-pepper spread), and more, I have found it very easy to eat vegan in even very basic, traditional Turkish eateries. In Hong Kong, I dined sumptuously at a beautiful Buddhist temple, where the food is vegetarian for religious reasons; it was a wonderful way to connect with a facet of the local culture.
Even when a signature local dish is typically made with animal products, it can be a fun challenge to seek out vegan-friendly eateries that create plant-based versions. One of my favorite memories of traveling through Okinawa was the opportunity to try a veganized version of local "taco rice," which typically contains ground beef, at a vegetarian cafe. Another nice culinary travel memory was the falafel burger sans-dairy-sauces from Fergburger in Queenstown, New Zealand, which allowed my husband and me to equally enjoy one of the town's most famous restaurants. (Both the taco rice and burger are pictured below; apologies for the poorly-lit photos from cell phones past.) HappyCow.net is an amazing resource for seeking out these opportunities, as well as generally finding explicitly vegan, vegetarian, and "veg-friendly" restaurants. The veg-friendly category has been particularly helpful for me when traveling with people who do not wish to eat vegetarian or vegan.
In addition to researching food options at your destination, I also recommend looking into what is available for the journey. Airport and train station websites often list their food options by terminal (burrito shops are vegan airport gold), and particularly for longer and/or international flights, many airlines offer vegan or "strict vegetarian" meal choices (however, see my "portable protein" tip below for the common instances when these meals are refined-carbohydrate-heavy); this varies, however, so contact your airline for information.
Finally, while "convenience food" may evoke images of greasy burgers for the US-dwellers among us, convenience shops like fast food joints and gas stations may have hidden treasures elsewhere. In Turkey, walnuts, hazelnuts, and dried chickpeas are protein-rich, inexpensive snack options widely available in small markets. In Japan, the ubiquitous "konbinis" not only sell US-style convenience store staples like sweets and potato chips, but many also carry high-quality prepared foods such as salads and onigiri (rice balls). With these konbini offerings, I was often able to put together fast, easy "happy desk lunches" (such as the one pictured below, with a salad, aduki bean onigiri, and pumpkin soup) for less than $10 USD.
In sum, when it comes to local cuisine, food options on the journey, and convenience stores, it pays to know before you go.
Tip 2: Pack an awesome snack bag.
While eating locally is always my first choice (see above), there are sometimes situations where substantial vegan options are not readily available... snack bag to the rescue! While my snack bags have occasionally been excessive (hello to the TSA agent who pulled me over to question the number of nuts and seeds I was flying across state lines), over time, I have optimized the art.
Before you pack, look into the customs and border rules for where you are traveling. Many places are fairly relaxed and allow all but a few (usually animal-based) foods, but some are very strict, such as New Zealand (my husband and I had to throw out everything edible, even our instant ramen noodles, when traveling there).
As long as there is no strict rule in place, I always make sure to pack a variety of travel-hardy snacks, instant coffee, and tea packets. The size and contents vary based on the length of the trip and destination, but some items I have found it beneficial to include are:
- "durable" fruits... meaning fruits such as apples and oranges which do not strictly require refrigeration and do not bruise terribly easily
- nut butter (which can be really nice with the fruit); if I am driving or able to check a bag, I throw a whole jar into my suitcase to minimize waste, but if I'm flying carry-on, Justin's almond and peanut butter packets are very helpful (see Tip 3)
- low-glycemic salty snacks, such as roasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, or (if space is not an issue) kale chips or seaweed snacks
- a few pieces of dark chocolate, because I love it; I never regret throwing a few pieces of Go Raw into my snack bag
- miso soup packets (these make a satisfying "holdover" snack between meals and can be prepared with just a hot water kettle)
- off-brand Kind Bars for a sweet fix and/or light breakfast on-the-go (note that regular Kind Bars contain honey)
- Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee packets, because why not sneak in some adaptogens while getting over jet lag?
- tea, tea, and more tea... my must-haves include ginger and peppermint teas (for deliciousness and to soothe stomach upset), chamomile (for its possible, but not scientifically conclusive, aid with sleep... also deliciousness), and this delightful Tulsi rose tea (because I just love it). I also confess that I am notorious for swiping yummy-looking tea bags from airport lounges and hotel buffets... shh...
Tip 3: Portable protein is your friend.
I know, I know... the herbivore humans reading are so over hearing about protein, because generally, it's not actually a big issue for us. However, in places where animal-free options can be restricted to pasta, bread-based foods, and salads, intentionally keeping protein sources in your handy-dandy snack bag can help in not becoming hangry and reducing the glycemic load of a refined-carb-heavy meal (NOT being conscious of protein and glycemic load, specifically this one business trip in France where I subsisted almost exclusively on baguettes, protein-lacking veggie sandwiches, and rice dishes, was likely a big part of how my acne got so bad last year). If there is room in your bag, I highly recommend bringing along a Blender Bottle (mine pictured above), vegan protein shake packets (I use these, though they seem to be cheaper at the store), and perhaps some instant coffee (if you're into that) for an easy, just-add-water protein fix. Otherwise, my favorite portable proteins are chickpeas, nuts and seeds, dried edamame, and best of all for rounding out eggy breakfast buffets, Justin's nut butter packets. I also intentionally seek out protein-rich snacks in markets and convenience stores, such as nuts.
Tip 4: Intentionally plan your trip with animal welfare in mind.
While this particular tip may not be as practicable on business trips, some of my favorite travel experiences have happened not in spite of, but specifically because I live an intentionally pro-animal lifestyle and seek experiences in line with these ethics. In 2014, I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, an animal sanctuary run by passionate animal activist and vegan, Lek Chailert. While I made some vegan friends there (hi Nikita and Danni!), most of the other volunteers came not because they were animal rights activists but because they wished to get close to elephants in a way that is not harmful to them, such as riding. The sprawling vegan breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets were divine, and I heard no one -- not even meat-eaters -- complain about the food.
In short, plan your trips with kindness to animals in mind, and beautiful adventures can happen.
Tip 5: Research the local language and food culture.
In addition to researching local dishes (see Tip 1), it pays to learn how to courteously communicate regarding food. For the English speakers reading, yes, this language is more widely spoken than ever, but in terms of being a courteous traveler, a little "s'il vous plaît" and "merci" can go a very long way, as can learning how to explain dietary restrictions in the local language. Also worth researching, however, is local food culture. Asking a restaurant to modify a dish to suit your restrictions is generally acceptable in the US and UK, but it can be considered offensive elsewhere. Do your homework; plan accordingly.
Tip 6: Keep things in perspective with an open mind and heart.
As is likely apparent from the very existence of this blog, eating plant-based is very important to me for its positive impact on the environment and our fellow earthlings, and it may be important to you, too. However, wherever your travels take you, keep in mind that being able to choose what to eat and when is a privilege unavailable to many people in this world. Keep this especially in mind when traveling in places where poverty, war, and/or food scarcity are present or exist in recent memory. Practicing a vegan lifestyle means different things to different people, but I try to be mindful that its overarching purpose is to make a positive, big-picture impact through compassionate everyday choices. I believe firmly in including the people we interact while guests in different places in this compassion and in being mindful that choice is relative to circumstance.
This may or may not be a popular opinion in the vegan community, but while I support doing one's personal best to maintain on the road, I also support keeping matters in perspective. In places where throwing away food may be more offensive than in the abundant yet shamefully wasteful United States, especially where language and culture barriers are also present, I find it helps on many levels to be a little flexible and "pick my battles" where food is concerned. If there is any medical dimension to your dietary restrictions, be prepared: I avoid dairy for ethical reasons but am also lactose intolerant, so in the event of a situation where I cannot feasibly confirm that a dish does not contain dairy, I keep lactase pills on hand. Creating a confusing scene because "that one vegetarian thing on the menu had cheese on it even though I asked about it and they nodded" in a country where voluntary dietary restrictions are unheard of and I do not speak the language can do more damage than just scraping off the cheese and moving on. It is unfortunate that the "hostile vegan" is a stereotype, and it is on us to crush it by practicing compassion and courtesy on all levels, wherever we travel.
In closing, Mark Twain once wrote that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." In traveling, be aware of the prejudices and hypocrisy we may hold due to our own respective cultures, even if these prejudices typically manifest as positive features where we are from. For those reading who do choose to eat meat, keep in mind that the animal species eaten in other places are a result of culture and circumstance; as cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff writes, "all . . . mammals, are sentient beings who share the same neural architecture underlying their emotional lives and who experience a wide spectrum of emotions including the capacity to feel pain and to suffer." As of 2015, people in the US consumed the second-most meat per capita of any country in the world. Additionally, American livestock production is a major climate change aggravator, and the grass-fed beef touted by the "wellness" community is no better for the environment than conventionally farmed. Accordingly, where animal suffering and environmental destruction are concerned, we Americans should really check ourselves before casting judgment on the practices of people in other countries. On the subject of climate change, while traveling is one of the most wonderful things about being alive, air travel is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, air travel is a necessary evil for many of us to efficiently conduct business and see our families in the modern world, but it is again something to keep in mind when tempted to cast judgment.
In sum, I wish you all the best in your travels. May they be opportunities for learning, adventure, kindness, and plant-based deliciousness.
☼ Elizabeth, VLGL