I admit, while I love traveling, I was a little nervous the first time I decided to take a trip abroad after adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet. Sure I was an old pro at navigating the restaurants in my town, but how would I manage in a place where I didn’t speak the language? Could I even find plant-based options in other countries?
Yes, absolutely! I’ve traveled to over 40 places since adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet, and I’ve been able to find plant-based fare everywhere I went.
Sure, it involved a little creativity and patience at times, but I always succeeded. Even destinations where friends joked I’d starve, given the culture’s propensity for meat and cheese, I fared beautifully. In fact, some of the countries I was most worried about (like Germany and Finland, for example) had some of the best and most abundant options.
Additionally, when researching overseas for my cookbook Happy Herbivore Abroad, I was pleasantly surprised just how many traditional recipes are naturally plant based. On reflection, this makes perfect sense: most traditional and cultural recipes are based around meals that were created by peasants. In other words, people who were unable to afford meat and dairy products with any regularity and therefore made use of grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Here’s my advice for planning your next trip abroad!
1. Plan Ahead
Planning ahead is the secret ingredient for plant-based success at home and abroad. Before you travel, spend a little time doing online research. While modern travel books at the bookstore sometimes include a mention of vegetarian options (or vegetarian restaurants), there is a wealth of more comprehensive information online for free. A popular website for finding veg-friendly fare is Happy Cow.
I also find doing a simple Internet search using the word “vegan” and the name of the city where I’m going to be extremely helpful. For example, I would search “vegan + Milan” or “vegan + Belize City” and see what options came up. Many official tourism websites have a special listing for vegan or vegetarian restaurants, or restaurants that offer vegan or vegetarian menu items.
I also highly recommend stopping at a tourism office when you arrive and asking for help or suggestions. Many student travelers are vegetarian, and vegan is becoming increasingly more popular and widely known, so your question won’t be out of the ordinary. The tourism professional may not understand what you mean by vegan, plant based, or raw, but everyone tends to know vegetarian, and you can work from there. Once you’re at an establishment that caters to vegetarians, you can often adapt the dishes to be whole-food, plant-based.
Research tip: If a website you stumble upon isn’t in English, open the page using the Google Chrome browser, as Google can translate the entire webpage into English for you.
2. Learn the Language
Phrase books can be helpful, but most tend to fall short in the food and special diet phrase category. You want to be as clear as possible when communicating your dietary needs.
I recommend looking up the word for every food you plan to avoid eating. You also want to be very specific. For example, instead of looking up the generalized term dairy, look up milk, butter, and cheese. Also look up fish in addition to meat, as many cultures don’t consider fish to be meat. This WikiHow article is also helpful.
3. Use Grocery Stores and Fresh Markets
What we know as “farmers markets” are common abroad. Make use of them. Also visit the local grocery shops. You should be able to identify most staples (grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables) by sight, even if you can’t speak or read the language. Many accommodations, particularly budget ones, have kitchens you can use, too.
4. Have Patience
Have patience; breathe deeply. Remember that not every meal has to be a feast. Steamed vegetables and rice are perfectly acceptable. I’ve also managed with bread, jam, and nut butter, which is delightful on a long train ride. Most international flights now offer a vegan plate, or have vegan snack options, and food carts on trains have some vegan choices too, though they are not always the healthiest, so plan ahead and bring your own when possible.
5. Don’t Make Your Trip About Food
Remember that you’re going for the experience — the sights, memories, and connections. Make your vacation about more than eating and thinking about food. I was at a wedding last year where there was nothing I could eat. I reminded myself I was there to watch one of my best friends marry the love of his life. I wasn’t there for the food. I keep that in mind with my travels, too, and if there is a dish I really find fascinating, I’ll make a whole-food, plant-based version at home, and relive my travels and experiences all over again.
Finally, saying please and thank you (in their language) and being gracious with a smile goes a long, long way.
For more tips on traveling, please check out my travel eBook, Broke Backpacker.