I just received my brand spanky renewed passport in the mail this week. The crisp little blue booklet (thankfully with a fairly decent photo of my face inside) is desperate for a stamp or three. It's quite a relief knowing I am legit for travel again. Alas, my current employment/financial status prevents me from going anywhere. BUT! That doesn't mean I cannot obsess over traveling, talk about it ad nauseum, and pretend that I might go somewhere in the next half-decade. So let's talk about traveling abroad as a vegan.
For starters, I have to confess I have never traveled abroad as a vegan. I went vegan just a few weeks after my last trip overseas in 2006, to England, and I haven't made it anywhere since. But I have visited 17 countries in Europe as a semi-vegetarian (2000) and a lacto-ovo vegetarian (2002). I was lucky enough to travel with a Contiki tour group both times, and they offered a vegetarian meal plan. Since we were always on the go and a large group, they provided us with many of our meals, so trying to decipher foreign menus and find veg-friendly places was only sometimes required.
Still, I do have some tips and resources to share.
When I was in Europe I carried with me the Berlitz European Menu Reader: For Eating Out in Over 25 Countries, which gives you some essential phrases when eating out in a restaurant as well as lists hundreds of different foods translated into English from 15 other languages. While the Berlitz guide does not have vegetarian phrases, it really helped me figure out menus that weren't additionally in English.
Note: This book is out of print now, you might be able to find it used, or you can try what looks like a revised, smaller version, the Berlitz European Food and Drink Guide.
HappyCow.net has a fantastic "Vegetarian Guide to Restaurants and Health Food Stores", and they have listings for places all over the world. I used HappyCow.net to find a few vegetarian restaurants in Madrid when I was there in 2002. And in 2006, I used their resources to find vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants in London. Both trips were mighty successful and I highly recommend that you do just this little bit of research to find a couple of standby restaurant options in the areas you will be visiting. It can be hard to find a veg-friendly restaurant in a crunch- especially when dealing with unknown territory, foreign languages, and meat-oriented cultures. This little bit of research can make all the difference.
One of the things I did not have on my trips was these wicked cool little 'flash' cards from Select Wisely that have vegan phrases and photos of what vegans do not eat. You can get cards customized with the languages you need and the foods you avoid. These are great little tools for those of us with special diets or significant food allergies. You can even get them for non-food allergies or health conditions. Here's a sample of a vegan card.
Next time I travel somewhere, I am totally taking some of these cards.
Another item I didn't have but that would come in handy is the Vegan Passport, a vegan phrase book with 73 languages. It's the size of a passport, if not the width, and easily covers the necessary vegan phrases that the Berlitz European Menu Reader does not.
I myself would carry all of the above with me while traveling; the Berlitz European Menu Reader (assuming I am in Europe), printouts from HappyCow, the Select Wisely vegan cards, and the Vegan Passport. You just never know when you will run into someone who speaks a language other than that of your host country. If you are eating Thai food in France, well, your chef could speak more Thai than French!
A couple of websites put together a a list of vegetarian phrases in world languages. They don't really help you master pronunciation, but for those of you who travel with access to the internet, you might be able to pull up the websites and show the phrases to your food host. Or if you copy them down somewhere you can take them with you that way too.
International Vegetarian Union's Vegetarian Phrases in World Languages
HedWeb's Vegetarian Phrases in Other Languages
The long plane rides are also something to consider as many times the snacks you carry will only get you through for part of a long distance flight. When I flew to London in 2006 via Virgin Atlantic, I asked for the vegan meals and my trip-mate had the Vegetarian Asian. I think we had two meals and a couple of snacks each way. Airline food is airline food. Sometimes you get something remarkably good, and sometimes it just keeps you from starvation. That doesn't change with their vegan meals. One thing that can be said for ordering a special diet meal, you get served FIRST. Booya!
Anyway, HappyCow put together a handy list of the special diet meals you can order on airlines, and which airlines have them. I'd definitely choose an airline that offers a vegan meal for those long flights. (And I recommend flying non-stop if at all possible. It's worth the extra money, trust me.)
Air Travel: How to Get What You Want to Eat
VegGuide has a category for Airports on their "community-maintained, world-wide guide to vegetarian and vegan restaurants, grocers, and more", but it is not yet well developed. You might find some helpful information there depending on where you are going, but also take note of the veg-friendly places in airports and help spread the word for other travelers. In fact, please note and share whatever you can about the local vegan-friendly restaurants and stores in your own hometown on both HappyCow.net and VegGuide.org, as well as for anywhere you travel.
The number one rule of [vegan] travel is, ALWAYS bring some snackage and a bottle of water with you wherever you go. I always put several Cliff bars in my carry-on (and a few more in my suitcase) to get me through the first couple of days in a new place. They are only there just in case. Heck, I do this when I travel to California, which is a vegetarian Mecca with an uber veg-friendly grocery store and a vegan restaurant just a couple of miles from my grandparents' house. You just don't know what to expect if you don't know the lay of the land, and it's best to be prepared.
This doesn't mean you have to fill up your suitcase or backpack with food for your whole trip. No, no. Just start out with some snacks from home, and as you are traveling around, keep in mind the next meal could be delayed so pick up some new, local snacks or hang on to some leftovers from your last meal. There's nothing worse than traveling with someone who is cranky from low blood sugar and hunger. As someone with a special diet, it's not always easy to find something we want to eat nearby, but a few simple bits of planning ahead and you are good to go.
Another thing I recommend is bringing a vegan multi-vitamin. This will just cover you nutritionally if you find yourself lacking in a certain food category.
I like to be flexible when traveling, and go-with-the-flow. I mean, I always have a Plan A and a Plan B, but I am usually willing to ditch them both if some new opportunity comes along. Part of your Plan A should be locating local fare vegan-restaurants in the areas you are visiting as well as local groceries and farmers markets. There's nothing cooler than visiting a foreign grocery store and checking out the culture. My sister and I were in Madrid for four days before our tour started and there was a little grocery store down the street from our hotel. We went there every day. Two things we learned, one, they don't keep the hours our grocery stores do, and two, they expect you to bag your own groceries.
Part of your Plan B is knowing the American and International chains that are in an area and what you can eat there. For example, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Subway, and Pizza Hut are all international and have vegan foods. McDonald's even sells McVeggie Burgers overseas, like in India.
Wendys [plain baked potato, Deluxe Garden Salad minus the cheese with red Italian dressing, French fries]
Taco Bell [Fresco Bean Burrito]
Subway [Veggie Delite on Italian bread, minus cheese and mayo and sauces]
Pizza Hut [Thin 'n Crispy crust, regular sauce, and veggies, no cheese]
More Fast Food vegan options
You should always have a list of vegan-friendly restaurants, groceries, and farmers markets, their addresses and phone numbers and hours, and a street map with you for wherever you are visiting. You can and should do a bit of research online before you go. Check HappyCow and VegGuide, and google for specific information about the places to which you are traveling. Often there are vegans and/or ex-pats living there who will have insight for you on their blogs.
It's also a good idea to bring a little travel or camping set of silverware, and maybe a collapsible bowl and cup, in case you need to eat a picnic meal. Just know you'll need to check the silverware in with your luggage on the plane ride.
It's really not that hard traveling as a vegan, depending on the country, and most bad-food or no-food experiences are avoidable with just a little bit of research and planning.
I probably didn't cover everything, but it's a good, crucial start. If you want, buy me a plane ticket somewhere and I'll do a little reconaissance for you.
More Vegan Travel Resources
International Vegetarian Union (World Service Database)
Circle Our Earth: Vegan Travel (Good Links)
Amazon (Vegetarian and Vegan Travel Book Section)
Vegetarian Guides (Online Bookstore)
Veg Guide (A community-maintained, world-wide guide to vegetarian and vegan restaurants, grocers, and more)
World Vegan Network (World Directory)