Gluten-Free Airplane Travel: How to Eat When Flying

gluten-free airline meal
Long-haul flights usually offer gluten-free meals. Cheryl Chan / Getty Images

It's easier than ever to travel gluten-free — recent treks through airports and experiences on various flights show there are more options than ever for those with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

However, it's not quite a universally gluten-free experience just yet, and so if you're following the gluten-free diet and don't particularly want to feel hunger pains while traveling by airplane, you'll need to take steps to make certain you have enough to eat.

In many cases, you won't find gluten-free snacks onboard (just the ever-ubiquitous gluten-y pretzels), and for long-haul international flights, you can't always count on getting a gluten-free meal, even if you order one in advance.

Here's what you need to know about traveling gluten-free by air.

Ordering Gluten-Free Airline Meals

Most major airlines offer gluten-free meals (abbreviated in the airline food world as GFML) for those on long-haul international flights. To get one:

  • Reserve your gluten-free meal in advance. You can't just ask for the special meal at the last minute — you need to request it anywhere from 24 to 96 hours before your flight. It's best to do this online at the same time you book the flight. (Consequently, if you change your flight at the last minute, you'll lose your gluten-free meal.) 
  • Check with the flight crew after you've boarded the plane to claim your meal and to make sure they actually have it on board.
  • Don't assume you can eat everything on the tray. The special meal will be wrapped and sealed; all the flight crew needs to do is warm it up and place it on your tray. However, on occasion a flight attendant might add something you can't eat to your tray, such as crackers or cookies for dessert. Be cautious, and if something doesn't seem right, don't eat it.
  • Bring your own food. Unfortunately, despite your best efforts to order safe food (and the airline’s best efforts to provide it for you), your special gluten-free meal might not be on board after takeoff. Therefore, you always should bring something to keep you going until you land.

Bring-Your-Own Airline Meals

When you're deciding what food to take with you on your flight, you'll first need to consider what foods will pass the screening at security (hint: skip the pudding and the homemade smoothie). Here's a guide:

You'll also want to avoid foods that require refrigeration, since gel packs aren't permitted.

Here are some ideas for foods that are easy to prepare and easy to carry, and which won't suffer too much away from refrigeration:

  • fresh fruits (grapes and bananas are especially convenient)
  • dried fruits
  • fresh vegetables
  • cold cereals (you can purchase milk after going through security)
  • cookies, crackers and rice cakes
  • meats
  • nuts and trail mixes
  • candy
  • energy bars
  • potato chips, corn chips, soy crisps
  • muffins

Don’t forget to bring along napkins and plastic utensils if you'll need them.

If you're going on a long-haul flight, it's not a bad idea to pack something more substantial (such as a gluten-free sandwich or dinner salad), even if you've pre-ordered a gluten-free meal. If your meal appears as ordered, you'll have extra, or you can save some food for later.

If you know the airport well and there are gluten-free food options available there, you also can consider picking up some to-go food once you're through security. However, this can be risky: If you're delayed and find yourself sprinting for your flight, you might not have time to grab something, and could wind up on board and hungry.

(Edited by Jane Anderson)

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