Allergic? Be Prepared, But Don't Stay Home

Those with allergies must take special precautions when vacationing.

May 7, 2008— -- After presenting his card at the restaurant in China, Robert Haru Fisher gave very specific instructions to the waiter on cooking his food. The waiter said he understood before going to the kitchen.

But the waiter didn't understand, Fisher knows, because shortly after his meal arrived, he had to be rushed to the emergency room.

The card Fisher presents at restaurants throughout the world — as he has done as a travel writer for nearly 50 years — is not his business card, but a card noting his allergies to peanuts and peas, written in the native tongue.

"Many cases abroad, I presented my card in the local language, and that's the first time they've ever heard of it," said Fisher.

While his work as a travel writer makes him a trailblazer for tourists looking for the best places to go, the fact that he has done so despite his food allergies make him a pioneer for a growing number of people who suffer the same ailments.

With 12 million Americans living with food allergies — and 3 million of them children, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) — many are now globetrotting while dealing with their own dietary limitations. And by doing so, they've picked up a number of tricks to help them make these trips smoothly.

While the rise in food allergies has led to a wider awareness of them, Fisher remembers a time when a waiter in Key West told him that his allergies were all in his head.

"I thought of how many times I'd been hospitalized and wondered if it was still in my head or not," said Fisher.

Fisher still works as a travel writer, currently as a columnist and contributing editor for Frommer's. He said that he has had his allergy cards translated into 35-40 languages, including Lithuanian, Polish, Thai, Vietnamese and Czech. Still, he estimates that he goes to the emergency room once every four or five years.

Speaking Up

Those problems have led him to be cautious, but they haven't kept Fisher from eating out, whether it be abroad or at the Chinese restaurant around the corner from his Manhattan apartment, where he is known as "Mr. Peanut" and where he still presents his allergy card as he would at any other restaurant.

"I always like it when the cook comes out," he said. "It's a good sign that they're taking it seriously."

That kind of personal attention is appreciated as much by a well-traveled writer as it is by a mother taking her allergic son out to eat for the first time.

Gina Clowes of Cranberry Township, Pa., remembers taking her son, Daniel, then 3, to his first restaurant meal at Disneyland's Grand Californian. Daniel is allergic to milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts.

"The chef came out and took our order. No rolled eyes. I had his full attention," Clowes, who founded the Web site, said. "I was in heaven watching my 3-year-old take part in this 'normal' part of life that most of us take for granted."

Disneyland and Disney World have been featured in a number of magazines for people with allergies because of its accommodative policies for them, as well as vegetarians and people who keep kosher. (Disclosure: ABC News is owned by The Walt Disney Co.)

Caroline Barnes of Brookline, Mass., founder of Brookline Families with Food Allergies (, said that Disney's policy is the reason why she is currently planning a trip to Disney World with her family; two of her three children have food allergies.

Turbulent Travel

Barnes, whose mother is French and whose husband is Australian, has traveled to Australia and Canada with her children, and has generally been able to find foods her children can eat.

But not all of Barnes's travel experiences have been so positive.

She recalls a 12-hour flight she took to Sydney to visit her father-in-law in Queensland, Australia, when her oldest son was 3. The airline had a standard in-flight snack of peanuts, and made the family sign a waiver before they would allow Barnes and her family to board.

"Instead of trying to work with us, their reaction was, 'Well, that's the standard snack,'" said Barnes.

She spent the entire flight in her seat afraid to take her son anywhere else on the plane. But, she recalls, the flight staff was very accommodating, asking those around her family to have another snack instead of peanuts.

"The people at the gate and the people on the phone were the ones asking us to sign waivers," Barnes said.

Clowes recalls when she brought her son to an amusement park where she was told that one stand served nut- and dairy-free treats.

"The one place in the park that had a "safe" frozen treat also sold roasted peanuts — same clerk, same cash register. We couldn't risk it," she said.

Always Plan Ahead

Because of the unexpected problems, allergy doctors recommend plenty of preparation before traveling, including bringing your own food.

"The big thing when people [with allergies] travel is that they need to be prepared," said Sandra Gawchik, a doctor of osteopathy at Asthma and Allergy Associates in Upland, Pa. "You always have to call in advance for what you want."

Allergy doctors cite the need to eat out more when traveling — along with allergens from pets, chemicals and smoking in hotel rooms — among the biggest potential problems when traveling with allergies.

Gawchik made several recommendations when traveling by air, including flying first thing in the morning, when the planes have just been cleaned, and bringing wipes to clean the seat. Allergy patients should always have their adrenaline or epinephrine needles on them, with labels, along with a doctor's note to show to TSA.

Some parents of allergic children avoid flying altogether.

"We don't fly because we're fearful of even traces of peanuts on a plane," said Lenore Collins of Port Washington, N.Y., whose 5-year-old daughter's allergies include peanuts, dogs, cats and pollen.

In addition to driving to all destinations, Collins calls amusement parks in advance to ensure she can bring in food for her daughter, and even checks to the distance to the nearest hospital.

Clowes uses online maps to find supermarkets with allergen-free foods near their hotel. She also does a similar check to find area restaurants. Meanwhile, Collins won't even hazard a trip to a restaurant with her daughter, eating food entirely from supermarkets.

"I would never encourage anybody not to be as careful as they want to be," said Dr. Andy Nish, president of Allergy and Asthma Care Center in Gainesville, Ga. "If there is any question that you don't know what's in something, then it's best not to eat it."

But he feels that allergic travelers who want to eat out should take that opportunity.

"I wouldn't say you have to bring your own food to anywhere … There's a balance between being careless and being so concerned about it that it takes away all their fun," Nish said.

Many allergic travelers manage to strike that balance. Fisher said he has met a number of people in the travel industry with food allergies, including an editor who has many of the same he has. Despite these obstacles, Fisher and other allergy sufferers continue to travel the globe, sample the cuisine, and write about it. Food allergies haven't stopped their travel.

"If I were a purist," Fisher said, "I'd carry my own food wherever I went, I suppose. But I've been traveling this way for 49 years."

ABC News' Lara Salahi contributed to this story.