Vegetarian and vegan travel: 10 tips for easier plant-based eating abroad
Since I decided to stop eating meat when I was twelve, one of the most common questions I've received from curious friends and acquaintances is "Isn't it hard?". No, it really isn't. I love food, and I can still eat some of my favourite things in the world - peanut butter, chocolate, coffee, pancakes, apricots, popcorn, avocado toast, nectarines, sour gums, bananas, coconut, nachos, cupcakes. The only time when my decision to adopt a plant-based diet proves to be an issue is when I'm travelling.
At home, I know what meals I like to make and what ingredients I need. I have favourite brunch places, coffee shops, takeaway restaurants and dinner spots. I can easily get my hands on yummy veggie burgers, plant-based taco-stuffers and even vegan yoghurts and milks.
When I'm travelling, it's all new and unknown.
When I'm abroad, I have to quickly scan menus and eat things that I don't feel like eating (being a vegetarian/vegan doesn't mean you automatically love salads, okay). Sometimes, I have to settle for bland food when I know how amazing meat-free dishes can be. I worry about being a burden to the people I'm travelling with, who could have just sat down at a random restaurant and ordered anything on the menu, but now have to check and see that I won't have to survive on leaves.
It's been a challenge, but I've learnt some things on the way that have made travelling easier. Whether you're new to eating plant-based food (hi!) or are looking for a way to improve your travels as a veggie, here are my tips for making your future journeys more yum and less meh:
Before your trip:
Brush up on your veggie vocab
If you're travelling to a country that speaks a different language, learn how to say "I'm a vegetarian/vegan," "I don't eat meat," and "Does this have meat?" in the local tongue. I would also suggest memorising the words for common animal products (beef, fish, lamb, chicken, eggs, etc.) so that you can easily spot them on a menu.
Of course, there will be situations where there is a kind of meat that isn't in your vocab (crab, prawns, veal, etc.) but at least you'll be able to screen out the main ones. Then you can use your newly learnt vocab (or your Google Translate app) to get you the rest of the way.
Research the food scene
Research vegan and vegetarian friendly restaurants in the places you'll be visiting, so you don't wander around for hours asking to see the menu when you're hungry and irritated. TripAdvisor and Zomato can help you with this, and Happy Cow is a great resource as it specifically focuses on where to find plant-based food, with helpful reviews and photos.
Social media is great for research too. I follow a number of vegan / vegetarian bloggers on Instagram, so I've also found some amazing spots just by going through their feeds. When they post about somewhere cool they've found on their travels, I save the photo to the 'collections' section of my account so I can research and remember it later.
Stock up on snacks
Buy some of your favourite snacks to take with you for the days when the only thing you can find is a sad, lettuce-infested salad. Some countries don't allow certain kinds of food through customs, but the more packaged, sealed and processed items are usually okay.
I stock up on cereal bars and energy bites before I travel (particularly ones with nuts, seeds or dried fruit as they're more substantial if you're in-between meals) and buy some fruit from a local grocery store once I'm on the ground.
If you want to be super prepared, you can also take along a bag of powdered soy milk for your morning coffee, or, if they're available, you can buy small cartons of dairy free milk to keep in your hotel mini fridge.
Don't starve in the sky
Remember to book a special meal for your flight, or pack your own. Log in and manage your booking at least a few days before your trip, so you can request a vegetarian or vegan meal if they're available.
Some airlines have a number of options that may work for you (strict vegetarian/vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian, Asian vegetarian) and many even bring your food out first (yay!). Just make sure you don't switch seats on the plane and confuse the system.
On your trip:
Talk to your travelling companions
If you're travelling with an omnivore, make sure you discuss the food aspect up front and try to alternate responsibility for choosing where to eat. If you're in a seaside town and they are keen to try the local fishy delicacy in a seafood place, you could compromise by going along and having an average salad or soup that night, on the condition that they come with you to an awesome veggie-friendly brunch spot tomorrow.
If they really want to go somewhere with no options for you, split up, or have a drink while they eat and go track down a takeaway sandwich for yourself when they're done. Trying to find a place that suits everyone can lead to fights and bad moods all round (especially if you're really hungry, under tight budget constraints, or travelling somewhere without many meat-free meal choices), so try to avoid this by establishing some ground rules at the start of your trip.
Don't assume 'veggie' abroad is the same as back home
Keep in mind that some countries have different ideas of what "vegetarian" is, or won't understand what you mean by "vegan". Some may consider lamb or beef to be "meat" while chicken or seafood is not. For example, I once requested a vegetarian meal in France and was served salmon, because they assumed I was a pescatarian or didn't classify fish as "meat".
Always double check the ingredients list when buying packaged salads or sandwiches, or clarify with your waiter if you're unsure.
Savour the starters
Don't skip through the starter section on the menu at restaurants. While many places will only have one or no meat-free main meals, there are usually a number of veggie-friendly appetizers or sides.
I've asked about vegetarian options at a restaurant in Qatar and been told "No... but there are some salads" when in fact, there was lentil soup, spreads like hummus and babaghanoush, and a number of flat breads too - they just weren't acknowledged because they aren't main dishes. You can often combine a few starters and munch away happily.
Become a menu-reading expert
If you visit a restaurant that doesn't clearly indicate meat-free options on their menu and you don't speak the language, look out for clues about where they could be listed. Typically, meals are arranged by price, so because the vegan/vegetarian one is usually the cheapest, it will be first or last in the list. I've found that Asian restaurants tend to group dishes by meat type (seafood, beef, etc.) so the vegetarian options are in their own section at the end, sometimes grouped with the rice and noodles.
If you're really not sure, you can just point at things on the menu and ask your waiter "Is this vegan/vegetarian?" until the answer is "yes." If there isn't anything at all that you can eat, find a dish where the meat can be easily excluded (chicken stir fry without the chicken, a cheese burger without the patty, breakfast without the sausage, etc.) or bulk up a light salad with a side dish, like sweet potato fries.
Stay calm and consider a compromise
If you really struggle to find food, don't get irritated and ruin your trip or berate yourself for causing hassle for your travel partners. It's not your fault - some countries and cities are just easier than others for plant-based people!
Decide where you will be persistent, where you can find a work-around, and where you will suck it up and eat boring breads and salads. It's all part of the adventure.
Don't stress about not having the 'full' foodie experience
Don't worry about missing out on local delicacies because of your diet preferences. Even if you ate meat, you might still not want to eat foreign favourites like octopus, sting ray, crocodile or snails, or certain parts of the animal (head, feet, etc).
In a world of different food allergies, intolerances and religious beliefs, it may even be easier for you than it would be for some meat eaters who have to avoid pork, gluten, milk or nuts. And there will still be many veggie-friendly things you can eat... especially drinks and desserts!
I've found vegetable paella in Spain, chowed delicious falafel wraps in Doha, slurped mountains of gelato in Italy, ate vegetable tagine in Morocco, scoffed bagels in New York and devoured soy bean curd in Singapore. Trust me, you'll still get to try new and interesting tastes on your trip!