How to Stay Vegan When you Travel

In an earlier post I covered our tips for traveling on the cheap while vegan. However based on some of the things I find across the net (sad stories of how so-and-so had to start eating fish, or gave up veganism because of travel) I decided it was time to give our tips for staying vegan.

  • Try. This sounds condescending, but I came across so many stories about how people “just couldn’t” stay vegetarian in situation x, y or z, in places we cruised through. Each to their own and I’m not judging these people (well, a little, maybe), but if you really want to stay veg, it is probably possible in most situations. Try, think outside the box, and plan. No, you can’t get vegan cheese and sausages everywhere, but there’s usually enough to get by with if you look. (Please note I am thinking about urban areas here – in less populated areas, or very poor areas, having control over your food is a way bigger issue for the traveler and the locals).
  • Ask. If there is nothing on the menu, ask what can be done. We found tofu and three vegan dishes at a seafood restaurant in Micronesia. It was always there (the owner makes it for Japanese tourists) but not on the menu, and no vegetarian had ever asked.
  • As per the cheapo tips, take peanut butter if you’re not allergic. It adds protein and fat to your diet when other sources are thin on the ground, its often easy to find, they let you take it through customs (though not into the cabin of the plane – its a gel) and can supplement whatever you find in restaurants.
  • Learn the words for eggs, milk, dairy, butter, cheese, margarine, whey, meat, animal fat, chicken, beef, pork, bacon, and gelatine in the languages of your destinations. Or just write them down, especially if they are in a non-roman alphabet. This is invaluable for reading labels in supermarkets and avoiding yucky surprises – such as chicken fat in your lentils, or butter in your biscuits. It doesn’t matter if you can’t read the rest of the ingredients – you care what isn’t there, not what is.
  • Understand that global brands change their recipes in different markets. For example, McVities Digestives are generally vegan in Australia, France and Italy, but were not vegan in the UK. This means reading the labels even for things that are familiar.
  • Use the power of the Google map. If you are looking for a restaurant in walking distance, pop your location into a Google map, then state the destination as “vegan”.  Then click the “did you mean another vegan” link for a list of options. It searches restaurant info as well as reviews, so have a quick read through to make sure it didn’t give you “Beef Shack” because of a review that said they had no vegan food.  If that doesn’t work, try Indian food, or felafel. Google knows nearly all.
  • Ask ahead. Get involved in an online forum, such a Veggie Boards, Thorn Tree or Couch Surfing, and either ask the board or send an individual email to another vegan, asking about good places to eat. They will know what is good, and what is actually closed, where ancient Happy Cow references don’t.
  • Read up on the local food. It’s easier not to get duped if you know in advance that “cuisines” on the label in Paris means the lentils have chicken fat, that Ma Po Tofu usually has pork, and all the potato soups of the word have animal-based stock.
  • Make a list of local foods that are usually vegan in the place you are visiting, and keep on the look out for them.
  • Try to find places to stay where you can access a kitchen. Where you can’t, find out what you have access to and shop accordingly. Lots of hotels and hostels have a kettle, a microwave and/or a toaster, either in your room or in a central kitchen. Also night staff frequently let you use the staff one if you ask nicely. Veggies are microwaveable in a freezer bag with a sprinkle of water, and there’s often a veg noodle soup packet, or a tin of beans that can be reheated, available in the supermarket. Add some bread and hommus or some chips and salsa, and some chocolate for dessert, and dinner can be had just about anywhere.
  • Carry your own breakfast materials. Vegan breaky is hard to come by, and is usually proteinless. We take our own cereal and soy milk, and oats in particular make a good, filling breakfast. Add a scoop of peanut butter, some chopped fruit, and you’ll be set.
  • Always have a plan B, such as a close-by felafel place, some bread and dip in you room, or just some chocolate in your handbag – because no matter how often you explain, or how much you research, things will be closed and new friends will try to feed you fish.
  • Check and re-chek the meal on the flight, and then call again the night before and ask at the counter. They always lose your VGML preference, and then they don’t have anything to replace it with. Add to that sparse pickings in airports, and the fact that you cant get hommus onto a plane (also considered a gel), and this becomes very important. We have a situation with our tickets (Fuck you, United Airlines) that means we always have to re-book our whole ticket AT THE AIRPORT just before the flight, so we haven’t gotten our vegan meal since New York. We mostly eat biscuits, bread, nuts, and fruit instead, which we take with us.
  • Ask about ingredients – if you don’t want to “slip up” and have the lovely lactose-intolerant-by-lack-of-practice gastro fun that abounds, check, and check again. Ask if milk is in the pizza base, ask if egg is in the glaze on the pastry, ask if the soup has beef stock.
  • Try to ask questions where the right answer is “no” – lots of cultures  have an emphasis on hospitality and service and people want to make you happy. Frequently you’ll get a “yes yes” from someone who doesn’t understand what you said but wants to make you happy. If you ask, “does this have milk?”, or “is this real leather?” you’re more likely to get a truthful answer, than if you ask “is this dairy free?”.
  • Realise that you will slip up, and that icky animal foods will get in to your diet one way or another. Then let it go. I accidentally poisoned Mr with butter (lactose makes us both sick now) because I didn’t notice it in the Italian ingredients list. A restaurant once gave me turkey bacon in Singapore, and told me it was vegan (they got confused about no meat versus no pork) – I was exhausted and just picked it out. We’re pretty sure that at some point we were fed some non-veg ramen noodle falvouring, more than once there was yoghurt on our felafel even though we said no (we wiped it off), and we don’t concern ourselves with what emulsifiers might be in otherwise vegan bread in foreign bakeries (unless there’s an ingredients list). Its hard work, and no one is perfect, but you can get close.

What are your tips for staying vegan (or vegetarian) during your travels? Leave me a comment if you have ideas – I always love to hear them :)

Ease of being vegan around the world (in order of easiest to most difficult place to be vegan based on my totally subjective experience of being an English-speaking, relatively wealthy, white, traveler):

  1. USA – there is vegan food absolutely everywhere here, available 24/7. Corner stores, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, aeroplanes, everywhere. A traveler could easily stay vegan here, and food is much cheaper than in Australia.
  2. Georgia – Once you know what to ask for, ready made vegan food is plentiful in Georgia, despite the severe lack of tofu.
  3. Italy – Italy would tie with Georgia for the availability of accidentally vegan food, and it has more tofu (barely), but the vegan options aren’t as calorific or proteiny (even awesome pasta can’t beat eggplant stuffed with walnuts for nutrition).
  4. Singapore – Similar to Malaysia, easier only because English is a lot more common (being the official language and all).
  5. Malaysia – Between the Buddhist restaurants and Indian restaurants, Malaysia has got you covered. Add lots of fresh fruit, supermarkets sporting tofu-desserts, and soy bean drink available everywhere, and this is a pretty easy to place to be vegan. Please note that the islands are an exception – Tioman had no vegetarian protein at all, so keep your stay short.
  6. France – The hardest thing about being vegan in France is the price, followed by the fact that there is pastry everywhere and you can’t have any. Vegan food is available though, and the shops cater well for us.
  7. Australia – Yes, its dead easy to be vegan in Melbourne or Sydney, but have you traveled/lived in smaller places? If you are traveling vegan in non-city Oz, make sure you have access to a knife, because you’ll be bringing your own supermarket-bought tofu to add protein to the pasta with tomato, chef salad, stir fried vegies, and avacado sandwiches you’ll be eating.
  8. UK – The cities have veg restaurants and shops, and across Scotland you can find vegan sausages and soy milk in supermarkets. It is very difficult to find tofu, or a veg meal once you get outside the big cities though, and the variety of vegetables in not what we lucky Aussies are used to.
  9. Micronesia – it is easy to live vegan in Micronesia, but as a traveler it would be more difficult with limited options to eat out, and very little protein. Pack your peanut butter, turn down meals at the houses of new friends, and learn to enjoy cold tofu.
  10. Denmark – difficult, difficult, lemon difficult (which only makes sense if you’ve seen In The Loop). Unfortunately vegans are not very well catered for in Copenhagen, so make sure you have access to a kitchen.


16 Comments

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16 responses to “How to Stay Vegan When you Travel

  1. I am surprised you have the UK lower than france (an Australia) – as a vegetarian I found france one of the harder countries to find decent food but I found the UK really easy though I am not sure how easy it is to eat vegan as I think I ended up eating cheese and onion pasties in Greggs a lot.

    Being vegetarian has its challenges with travelling and I once found myself eating beef stew when people were so kind to me but didn’t speak enough english to explain why I wouldn’t eat it – I did love finding great fruit and veg markets on my travels. I wish I had had your tips before travelling.

    • I know what you mean about not wanting to be impolite!

      The UK difficulties could be because we were in Scotland, and mostly out of cities. That said, the vegetarian options we came across on menus were never ever vegan, or veganisable – things like quiche, tart, cheesy lasagne,so we always had to cook at home (except in Edinburgh).

      In France I was only in Paris so maybe not a fair comparison. There was a fair amount of vegan ingredients, so again, we mostly cooked at home, but it was much easy to find tofu, tempeh, vegan cheese, etc in France.

  2. this is an excellent post! i am planning to make a post (hopefully this comprehensive) about being vegan/vegetarian in china, and contrasting living here versus travelling through. later in my stay, though. i’ve definitely lost my vegan (and vegetarian) powers a few times in the five weeks i’ve been here so far. never intentionally going in, but like you say, sometimes you just have to be flexible and that means dealing with a situation where you know it’s not vegan.

    i love the advice to ask questions where the correct answer is no. the problem with that in china is the interpretation of that no – the question ‘does this contain meat’ with the answer ‘no’ may in fact have an answer of ‘that’s not meat, that’s flavouring’. vegetarian food (素菜) is understood as a dish that doesn’t use meat as a main ingredient, so a vegetarian dish of beans and chilli might involve flavouring of garlic and ground pork, for example.

    i would recommend not using the term ‘dairy’ – in many languages it doesn’t have a direct translation.

    i would add a caveat to malaysia – often the juices that you can buy in supermarkets have cow milk in them – but why would you buy them from the supermarket when you can buy them fresh in a plastic bag? :oD

    • Thanks for the extra tips. I had wondered why ground pork got ignored as a meat!

      I didn’t know that about juice in Malaysia, but I have never bought it from the supermarket, because as you say there’s fresh stuff everywhere :)

    • Oh, and your upcoming posts sound really interesting, I look forward to them :)

  3. Danielle

    “Try. This sounds condescending, but I came across so many stories about how people “just couldn’t” stay vegetarian in situation x, y or z, in places we cruised through.”

    Not quite managing vegan I can understand, I have more than once found myself picking cheese out of my meal, or picking a meal out of the cheese, and I’ve been accidentally creamed, buttered and egged numerous times, but not managing to be vegetarian? [The English seem very big on butter and eggs in places we've just stopped using them in Australia.]

    Actually in Spain I once accidentally ate crab because it was hidden in my supposedly garden salad. Also once some sort of fishball thing that looked like a potato in my vegetarian meal. And one my lifelong-vegetarian friend threw up due to surprise bacon (he’d never eaten meat before). Yeah, there’s something wrong with Spain.

    Funniest conversation though was probably in Istanbul:
    – I want no cheese.
    – No cheese?
    – No cheese.
    – Maybe just a little bit of cheese?
    – No cheese!

    • Yeah, I was referring more to the many accounts of people visiting of living in the Micronesia who started eated fish due to, “lack of variety” available at restaurants.

      It is understandable that slips happen when you don’t speak the language, or know the culture, and are not making your own food.

      That Istanbul conversation is funny, and soooo common :)

      • Danielle

        Oh, I see what you mean.

        Next time I have to stay anywhere for more than a week I’m asking for a self-maintained apartment rather than a hotel. There’s only so much dahl, Pizza Express “roast veggies no cheese” and M&S “superfoods” salads you can eat before you begin to go a little batty.

        Although this reminds me of my pro travel tip (which has stopped me starving many times in regional Australia), and works knifeless, because everywhere has a Coles or a Woolworths. One tub of hommus, one bag of prepackaged green salad and one bag of buns. Open top of salad bag, add water, shake, drain. Poke a hole in the bun with your fingers, smear in hommus, stuff in salad. Eat.

      • I like your tip. I used to do that a bit when I worked for a union, which had me driving through country Victoria all the time. So much hommus consumed.

  4. Brilliant post! Travel is always a little daunting I must admit – last trip I was vegetarian and have since become vegan so I know it will get more complicated (but not impossible) from here on in. Being prepared is key even when dining out in Australia – I’m learning phone ahead, check the options, let them know you’re coming :)

    • Thanks :)
      Has that been working for you in Australia? We phone ahead whenever we have a work or family thing at a non-veg restaurant, and I find it usually turns out pretty well (except at big functions where it often sucks).

      Its possible, I promise! It just takes some work and a bit of research before you go.

      • Phoning ahead mostly does work – last weekend I attended a birthday bash out in the country which consisted of a spit roast, some coleslaw with mayo, potatoes and bread rolls, followed by chocolate cupcakes…I thought this may be the case and I knew they weren’t I aware I had changed diet so I made sure I had something to eat an hour before the party started. If it wasn’t as far away I would have probably made some dishes to contribute but time didn’t permit this time around. I have another family gathering this weekend at a restaurant which has a “set menu” afternoon tea with nothing vegan on it so I am definitely phoning ahead to see if they can make me something separate. If not I will eat before I go and just have a soy latte so I can at least look busy ;)

      • I have found that smaller places are more helpful in making me something special. Often we have gotten really good food this way. The bigger the place (or the swankier), the worse the veg option often is. Good luck!

        I’ll often get a soy coffee or other soy drink, so I can feel at least a little fuller. Sometimes I’ll even take some nuts of something to add to a salad, to make it a bit more filling :)

  5. Mel

    This is such a helpful post, I’m bookmarking it to read over before travelling in the future. A few years ago I did a trip to the Top End and found that vegetarian options were pretty limited so we survived off more veggie pizzas than we cared for. This experience made me pretty nervous about travelling as a vegan so I took a lot of food along when I went to Far North Queensland this year. I also booked some of the accommodation with cooking facilities and wished I had done it for the whole trip!

    • Thanks :) Cooking facilities definitely help, and so does bringing a bit of protein food with you to add to the veg pizaa with no cheese, or the salad or whatever. Most places can make a vegetable dish, so you just need some cold tofu, some of those vegan space sausages (no fridge required), or nuts, and you can turn what you get into a semi-decent meal.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I like to travel & on a recent overseas trip it was difficult sticking to this new lifestyle.

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