6 tips for allergy-friendly air travel, including getting through TSA with groceries
Traveling with family members who have food allergies can be stressful. The fear is magnified when you board the confined quarters of an airplane. However, with careful planning, you can minimize your worries.
1/Choose your airline carefully
Before booking your flight, research the airline’s allergy policy and find out how other passengers with food allergies have been treated by that particular company.
For those traveling with severe nut allergies, be aware that even if an airline doesn’t serve nuts, no airline can force other passengers to refrain from eating nuts that they bring with them. For most people with nut allergies, this isn’t a problem, but for those with severe contact or airborne allergies, it may be. Still, there are things you can do to minimize risk of exposure. Read on.
Photo courtesy: Steven Coffey
2/Pre-boarding & other precautions
Most airlines will gladly allow you to pre-board with others needing extra time or assistance. Tell the agent at check-in that you wish to do this. Take advantage of the extra time to use wet wipes to wipe down your family’s seating area, including seatbelts, tray tables, and armrests. If you have young children who still put everything that they find in their mouths, don’t forget to clean between and under seats where peanuts and other food can get lodged. Get your luggage stowed and make sure you have easy, constant access to your rescue medication and the meals and snacks that you plan to eat on the flight.
If your kids are contact allergic, consider dressing them in long sleeves and long pants when they fly. If they have severe reactions due to airborne allergens, find out if the airline’s policy includes creating buffer zones (rows surrounding your seating area where passengers are asked to refrain from eating products containing your child’s allergens, usually nuts) or if a flight attendant will make an announcement, asking all passengers to refrain from eating nuts, for example.
Never go anywhere without at least two unexpired epinephrine auto injectors, even if you have never used one before. If you normally treat minor reactions with Benadryl, bring it; but understand that even minor reactions can become life-threatening without warning, and only epinephrine can reverse the effects of anaphylaxis. If your child has asthma, make sure her inhaler is full and not nearing expiration.
Photo courtesy: Chris Brignola
Even if you call ahead and find out what ingredients are in a meal or if you can order a special meal that seems safe, it doesn't mean that it’s the meal that you will get. Ingredients change, mix-ups happen, and once you're in-flight, there are no alternatives. Taking a chance that an in-flight meal is free of my children’s allergens while 30,000 feet in the air is a risk that I’m not willing to take. So we only eat meals and snacks that we’ve brought with us. Keep in mind that liquids and wet foods like applesauce are subject to the TSA 3-1-1 rule.
4/Getting through TSA with food
You can bring quite a lot of food for your trip when flying, even if you don’t check any luggage. TSA will allow you to bring food in your carry-on bags, even wet foods like soups and sauces, as long as anything liquid or gel-like and over 3.4 ounces is frozen solid when you go through security; the same goes for ice packs. I have successfully brought a hard-shell freezer pack through TSA several times without issue, but frozen meals will do the job of an ice pack without taking up precious cargo space.
What kind of frozen food have we brought through TSA on domestic flights? Sloppy joes, turkey pot pies, chicken stir fry, meatballs in marinara sauce, deli meat, sausages, and vegan butter. So far, nothing has been confiscated by TSA, and after a full day of traveling, everything was still frozen or had only just begun to defrost. Use freezer bags and then pack them tightly in a soft-side insulated cooler or tote bag, minimizing the number of times that you open it en route.
We’ve also brought washed fruits and veggies, keeping easily bruised items like plums and tomatoes in sturdy plastic containers with lids. The free space in our luggage holds durable pantry items like portioned-out rice and pasta, instant oatmeal, canned chicken, jerky, snacks, and seasonings. We keep wet foods like ketchup packets and salad dressing in containers less than 3.4 ounces, sealed in one quart-size plastic bag, just like our toiletries. And we’re really careful with breads, chips, and desserts, so they don’t get smooshed.
Kidtripster Tip: Allow for extra time to go through airport security. When we bring food, our luggage is always personally inspected by TSA agents after being x-rayed. Nothing has yet been confiscated or damaged, but it does take a few extra minutes for the inspection and for repacking. Not sure if something will make it through security? Use the TSA’s “Can I bring?” tool.
Photo courtesy: Michael Gaida
5/Know what is & isn’t allowed through customs
Meats, fruits, and vegetables are generally allowed when flying domestically with some exceptions. We learned the hard way that fresh produce is not allowed out of Hawaii, even if it’s what you packed for your child to eat on the plane. Gate agents confiscated half of my son’s lunch and wouldn't even let him stand there and eat it before boarding. It was a hard lesson to learn. Do your research and know before you go.
International travelers aren't allowed to bring produce or meats through U.S. Customs withsome exceptions. Returning from Korea, we were told by the customs agent that we would have been allowed to keep our pork jerky, if it were still in the original, sealed packaging. For a list of foods allowed through U.S. Customs, click here.
6/Allergic to dogs or cats?
Did you know that most airlines will now allow small pets in the cabin with their owners? This is great news for pet owners, but not so good if cat dander triggers your child’s asthma. Last summer, we spent 11 hours on a flight, sitting behind a woman with a cat. My son ended up having an severe asthma attack; it’s a terrifying experience while you're in-flight and thousands of miles away from a hospital! Ever since then, we always notify the airline of his allergy when we book our tickets and ask that we be seated far away from any cats. We repeat this request to the ticket agents at check-in, where they can see on the manifest if any small pets will be on board.
Click here to read trip planning tips for families with food allergies and here for tips on road trips and cooking meals in hotels without kitchens.
Elizabeth Ely Moreno is the mother of two children with anaphylactic food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Her youngest is also allergic to dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, and more. Even though they manage food allergies, her family still loves to travel. So far, her kids have visited the Bahamas, Korea, Mexico, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, Washington D.C., and up and down the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle. Next stop, Alaska!