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Traveling while on an elimination diet like the Autoimmune Protocol can be challenging at best. In this series, I will be covering three areas of travel with AIP – road trips, plane trips, and international trips. (If you are more interested in learning about traveling by car, read the first installment of this series on road trips!).
Part 2: Plane Travel
This article will serve as a resource for those who are traveling by plane. Because of space limitations and added complexities going through airport security, traveling by plane can be tricky for those who are on a healing diet. Added to that is the over-stimulation, stress, and exposure to illness that is common during plane travel. Hopefully you’ll find some tips here to both set yourself up food-wise as well as keep yourself healthy.
Why can flying be difficult for those with autoimmune disease?
Less packing space. It’s a pretty obvious observation, but you have way less space when traveling by plane than by car. More and more airlines are charging to check bags and reducing the space overhead and underneath seats. This makes it challenging to bring everything you need to keep yourself feeling well during a trip.
Getting through security. In order to board a plane, you have to go through security where many items are restricted. The biggest barrier for those of us on AIP is going to be the restriction on liquids. This means that it can be difficult (or impossible) to bring certain foods, supplements, or medications with you on the plane. We’ll chat more about this later!
No easy access to food. Most airports have very little options in the way of allergen-friendly food options, even in their convenience sections. At best, you can find a kombucha and some dried fruit. This isn’t going to sustain you if you need to take a cross-country trip though, so some planning ahead is a must.
Overstimulation, lack of space, and exposure to sick people. A lot of people with autoimmune disease (myself included!) are very sensitive to noise and catch illnesses easily when exposed to sick people. In addition, being in a cramped, uncomfortable space without the opportunity to move or stretch can cause flares of swelling, joint pain, and muscle tension.
This list isn’t meant to convince you not to travel by plane – in many cases, the benefits of flying outweigh the downsides (like you get to your destination really quickly in the case of a cross-country flight!). As much as I prefer traveling by car, I still fly 5-10 times per year to work with Angie, speak at conferences, and visit my family, and I think I have a pretty good routine for managing these downsides.
Planning Your Trip
Before we get into a discussion of tools for plane travel and what kind of snacks to pack, there are some things you should think about before you even start planning. Here are some things I consider early on:
Will my accomodation have a kitchen? AirBnBand VRBO are two websites that I use regularly to rent apartments and houses when I travel, paying careful attention to the kitchen and provided tools. I am way more picky about the rental kitchen awaiting me when I fly, since I won’t be able to bring any of my own cooking tools like I do on some road trips. It needs to have a well-equipped kitchen if I plan on doing any cooking.
What kind of grocery store options are available in my travel area and how will I get there? If you are not planning on renting a car, or don’t want to go too out of your way to get ingredients, this should be a big factor in your planning. A lot of big cities have a Whole Foods, which I have found is a consistent place to get ingredients to make AIP meals and I might plan to rent a place close by so I have easy access.
Will I need to bring any of my own ingredients? You won’t be able to pack a lot if you are flying, but especially if you are checking a bag, you can bring some basic cooking ingredients like single-serving packets of coconut oil from Trader Joes and some sea salt. Most rentals don’t have high-quality cooking oils or sea salt, so this can be helpful.
Will I be eating out at all during my stay? If I know there are some restaurants where I am going that can accomodate AIP, this will decrease the amount I’ll need to rely on my own cooking. I investigate options before my trip so that I know what to expect and can pack appropriately.
Things I Always Pack for Plane Travel
I tend to be pretty minimalist and very rarely check a bag, but I do have a few items I love to take with me when I travel by plane.
Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Before I got my Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones, I simply brought a good pair of earplugs to wear on the plane. I can’t tell you how much cutting down on noise improves my travel experience!
Stainless-steel meal container. I usually bring a meal with me on the plane, and my favorite container is the Yeti Rambler 18oz because it keeps food warm or cold for hours and easily fits in my backpack water bottle slot (it does look like a water bottle though, so be prepared to show them your goods as you pass through security). It then doubles as a container for water or tea once you reach your destination.
Food containers. I generally use glass for food storage at home, but I like BPA-free plastic for air travel because it is less weight to carry. If I bring any food items that don’t need to be kept hot or cold, I’ll use these containers.
Reusable bags. You likely have these for grocery shopping, but I like bringing one of the small Baggu bags on the plane with me to carry my meal and snacks.
What food options should I bring on the plane with me?
If I’m flying across the country, I like to bring one “real meal” and an assortment of snack options. I’m not usually a picky eater but I find that I get nauseous easily on planes and like to have at least a couple of snack options in case something doesn’t sound good to me.
My favorite AIP-compliant snacks to bring on the plane:
- Sweet potato chips
- Pork rinds
- Coconut chips
- Kale chips
- Power balls
- Cranberry-bison Epic bars
- Plantain chips
- Fruit (apple, orange, grapes, berries)
- Vegetable slices (carrot, celery, cucumber)
- Gelatin gummies
- Smoked salmon
- Herbal tea bags
For your travel meal to eat on the plane, you’ll want to bring something that doesn’t even closely resemble a liquid so you can easily get it past security. A lot of you have contacted me really worrying that your food is going to get taken away, but I’ve never once had this happen.
Here are the two options I usually fly with:
- Meat and veggies – I usually bring a cooked protein (like ground beef, pork, or lamb, roast chicken, or sliced steak) along with some sauteed veggies. Avoid anything with sauces and instead stick to big, identifiable veggies (like roasted root vegetables, sauteed broccoli, or sauteed kale). Season your meal with dry spices instead of sauces to avoid confusion at security.
- A hardy dressed salad – You won’t want to dress a salad with any tender greens, but you can make a dressed salad with more hardy greens like kale, cabbage, or brussels sprouts and bring it on the plane to eat already dressed.
But how do you really handle security? Here are my tips for the best chance of getting past security with all of your food.
- Show them the goods upfront. Take all of your food out of your bags and tell the agents upfront that you are carrying food with you. I usually do this before my items go through the X-ray because my container looks like a water bottle. I usually say “Don’t worry, that’s food, and I’m happy to show it to you if I need to.” Usually this will avoid having all of your bags searched on the other end of the line.
- Be nice and explain your case. The one time I had an agent try and take away my meal, I calmly explained that I have a medical condition that makes it impossible for me to eat at airport restaurants or the meals provided on planes. Usually this explanation, in addition to showing them the food will help them decide in your favor.
- Give yourself extra time. If you are worried about being searched or having a confrontation, make sure you get to the airport with time to spare. That way if you have to explain your food, you won’t feel rushed and stressed.
Staying Healthy While Traveling by Plane
- Stay hydrated! Most people get dehydrated while traveling because of the restriction on liquids getting through security, and not wanting to go to the bathroom multiple times while in the air. I can tell you from experience though, that making an effort to stay on top of hydration helps keep the aches and inflammation down. Plus, those bathroom breaks get you up and moving. I always buy a couple of water bottles in the airport before taking off because they never give you enough on the plane.
- Get up to stretch and walk around. This is especially important for those who have a history of blood clots, but it benefits everyone to try and get up once every hour or two for a little stand/stretch/walk break.
- Do some self-lymphatic massage. This video from Massage By Heather demonstrates a technique I always use when I am traveling. It only takes 5-10 minutes to do a sequence, and I usually repeat every few hours while traveling to encourage lymph drainage from my head and neck, which always gets congested during flights.
- Dress for comfort. I know dressing up to travel is a thing, but I am so much happier when I opt to be as comfortable as possible. I love merino layers and yoga pants for maximum comfort and temperature variation.
- Supplement wisely. I always make sure to take extra vitamin D and C on travel days to keep my immune system in tip-top shape in case I encounter any sick people while I’m traveling (inevitable, right?). Sometimes I’ll also add some magnesium to help manage the stress and relax my muscles for the long flights.
Shopping and Cooking Once You Get to Your Destination
Once your travel day is over, it is time to assess the situation where you are staying and procure some ingredients to cook meals during your stay.
Like I said above, you should have already identified what kind of grocery options are available to you. Once you know what you are dealing with as far as kitchen setup, you’ll want to visit the store to do your shop.
Here is a list of items I usually get to cook at rentals:
- Meat to cook (ground beef, chicken thighs, salmon fillet, etc.)
- Easy cured protein options (prosciutto, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Compliant rotisserie chicken (check ingredients carefully here)
- Pre-washed lettuce/greens
- Beverages (kombucha, water kefir, sparkling water)
- Fresh fruit
- Veggies for cooking (carrots, kale, zucchini etc.)
- Bone broth
I don’t like to worry too much about making complex recipes when I travel – I stick to the basics, a meat option, some veggies, and some fermented veggies/beverage to round things out. I much prefer spending my time exploring!
I hope this article has helped open your mind to the possibilities of plane travel while on AIP. When I branched out from road trips to plane trips after my health crisis, I remember feeling overwhelmed and quite stressed at the idea. Like many other aspects of AIP, once I developed a routine it didn’t seem so difficult anymore, and being able to travel by plane to either recharge my batteries or see friends and family that I love had a positive effect on my wellbeing.
Next month, I’ll be back with the third article of this series devoted to international travel!
Don’t miss the first article in this series, The Guide to AIP Travel: Road Trips.