Five Tips for Eating Vegetarian While Traveling

Many people are vegetarian for a variety of reasons, including for health, the environment, and religion. I fall somewhere in between all these categories. When I travel, I often worry about being able to eat vegetarian, particularly in remote places where it’s less common and more misunderstood. That fear even includes the United States, where I’m from! Here are some tricks I’ve used to stay comfortable and happy while maintaining my vegetarian diet while traveling.

Find a Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurant

This is the most obvious approach to vegetarian travel: eating only at vegetarian or vegan restaurants. This strategy works well in cities, which usually have a variety of food options, but not so much where you’re driving through a tiny mountainside village in Sicily at nightfall.

One next-best option is to find a restaurant that’s at least vegetarian-friendly, if you know where to look. These places should have at least SOMEthing on the menu that you can eat. Here’s an example of some cuisines that I look out for because they’re almost always vegetarian-friendly, no matter where you are in the world:

  • Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese: in these regions, meat is less commonly eaten for religious reasons, so it’s easier to find vegetarian options.
  • Middle Eastern: you can find falafel and hummus all over the world!
  • Italian: pizza and pasta are vegetarian heaven.
  • Ethiopian or Eritrean: there’s often a veggie combo on these types of menus.

Whether you’re in South Carolina or Shanghai, finding a restaurant that has one of the above cuisines will help ensure that you’ll find something vegetarian friendly on the menu.

Indian Curry in Cambridge, England

Learn the Food-Related Words in the Local Language

Once I was traveling through South Carolina for work. We were in a rural area, and I my colleagues and I stopped at a strip mall for dinner. We chose a Mexican place, which made me happy, because I thought, “Beans and rice! Veggie heaven and a complete protein to boot.” Lo and behold, when we settled into our seats I spotted a vegetarian section on the menu, and I was thrilled.

Just to be sure, I asked whether the beans were cooked in lard. “What do you mean?” said our waiter. I pointed out that other sections of the menu had beans cooked in lard, so I figured I’d ask. “I’ll check,” he said.

He came back, and it turns out the beans were in fact cooked in animal fat. I asked whether that included the beans in the vegetarian section. “Yes, it does,” he said. Go figure: even the vegetarian food on the menu had meat!

The moral of the story is, even in your native country, eating vegetarian can be really really hard! Now imaging having to go through that exchange, but without knowing the language at all. Tough, right?

The best way to address this problem when traveling is to learn the specific words you need in your toolbox to explain your dietary restrictions. For me, that means learning how to say “no chicken, beef, or pork.” The word “vegetarian” means many things in many different languages, so if you want to be 100% sure, it’s best to learn the words for the things you can’t eat, and explain your situation literally to your servers. I once ordered a vegetarian dish in Shanghai, only to realize that it had been garnished with pork. It pays to learn how to describe exactly what you need!

Avocado Toast in Palm Springs, California

If You Can’t Learn It, Write It

In 2012 I traveled by myself through Beijing, knowing about ten words of Mandarin Chinese. It would have been nice to have a more vocabulary under my belt, but I simply didn’t have the time before I left.

Thankfully, a dear friend of mine who is fluent in Mandarin wrote out the phrase, “I don’t eat beef, pork, or chicken,” on a piece of paper before I left, which I folded up and kept safely in my pocked the entire time. Yes, most people laughed when I showed it to them, but it actually worked!

Nowadays you can use Google translate to create your own dietary restriction “card” or image that you can show vendors to help you out. Simply type a few sentences explaining your food restrictions (it always helps to have a polite “Hello!” at the beginning) and enter it into Google translate. Be sure to also include the common regional dishes you CAN eat, so that your servers aren’t scrambling or confused. Then take a screenshot of your results and you can use it any time, even without WiFi. The vendors you interact with will appreciate it, and it will be very helpful when you’re in a tricky spot and not sure how to order.

Mushroom soup in Mexico City, Mexico

Ask for a Simple Dish with Specific Instructions

Sometimes, you’ll be traveling in an area with no vegetarian restaurants and no vegetarian food for miles. You’ll be surrounded by meat and won’t know what to do.

My good friend B and I were once stuck at a truck stop in the middle of the southern Peruvian desert with no civilization in sight (minus our other travel companions). We quickly realized our lunch was going to be a bit more complicated than we had planned.

After we perused the all-meat menu on the wall, B had an idea: why even order from the menu at all? She leaned over the counter and asked for two plates of eggs cooked in vegetable oil with tomatoes and plain rice. After a puzzled look, the server nodded to us in agreement. A few minutes later, two plates of vegetarian, gluten-free food emerged from the kitchen, and we dug into our delicious lunch.

Sometimes, you have to get creative if you’re truly in a pinch. Don’t be afraid to ask for something off the menu! If it’s something basic and grounded in local cuisine, the vendor can probably make it for you.

Bruschetta in Sicily, Italy

Cook Your Own Food

This is one of the hardest options, because when traveling you often don’t control where or how you eat your food, much less whether you can cook it. Hotels don’t usually offer kitchens, and hostel kitchens are not guaranteed, or may be crowded or otherwise uncomfortable to cook in. However, if you’re able to find lodging such as an AirBnB that offers a private kitchen, this may be one of the best options to accommodate your dietary restrictions. You can go to a local grocery store or market, and buy whatever items you like to cook at home.

“But, what if I’m constantly on the go while traveling?” you ask? This option can still work for you. We suggest buying tupperware, sandwich bags, or other reusable and sealable containers, and you can carry your lunch with you just like you would at home. Depending on what types of ingredients are available in the country you’re traveling to, you can even make your own trail mix or granola bars in your kitchen!

Jeremy buying olives in Palermo, Sicily

We hope these suggestions help you on your travels, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or have other dietary restrictions. Happy eating!

2 thoughts on “Five Tips for Eating Vegetarian While Traveling

  1. david sacks

    You have repeatedly found ways to express no beef, no pork, no chicken. Seafood has not been mentioned (or insects for that matter).

    • Daniela

      Great point! Generally when traveling, we’ve found that meat and poultry products are extremely widespread in nearly every cuisine and socioeconomic level, while encountering seafood and insects hidden in dishes is less common. I also eat most fish, which helps!

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