Going on an overnight school trip can be an exciting experience and gives you a chance to be independent and explore a new place! If you have food allergies, however, it can be a little more complicated. In the past three years, I've gone on overnight school trips to Dallas, Washington DC, and New York City, which ranged from two to five days. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way to help the trips run smoothly with food allergies!
Before The Trip
Communicate With the Trip Leader, Chaperone, or Tour Company
One of the most important things for you to do is to reach out to whomever is leading your trip - this could be a chaperone, a tour company, or a trip leader. A month in advance, I recommend a quick email or a phone call, so you can learn what the plan is in terms of meals, determine what your support will look like from them, and understand your next steps. Reaching out early will give you time to make follow-up calls to restaurants, hotels, and other places you’ll be visiting. Some potential topics/questions to ask include:
Roommates Selection: if you’re looking for specific people who are already familiar with your allergies/medicine, you’ll want to mention that.
Travel Plans: itinerary information, where meals will be held, and what you’ll have access to for meal preparation (such as a mini-fridge, microwave, etc.)
What Support You Need: If you need anything specific, be upfront about how they can best support you on the trip (such as a mini-fridge or microwave in a hotel, help at restaurants or contacting the hotel, someone to carry your food, etc.)
On my trips, my support has ranged from teachers who were hands on, helped me at restaurants, and carried my food, to tour companies who were unable to provide much support or information, leaving me and my parents to call hotels and restaurants on our own.
1. Identify Your Advocate
Your advocate on the trip will be a trusted adult who is aware of your allergies and plans for the trip. For me, that person has been my homeroom advisor, school counselor, and my mom. You’ll most likely want to set up a meeting with them pre-trip to inform them of your food plans and any problems you may anticipate. Having someone who understands your situation can help you create a plan, check-in, and advocate for your needs.
2. Train and Set Up Expectations with Roommates
Being upfront about how serious your allergies are and how you plan to manage them on the trip will help your roommates know what to expect. Before each trip, I met with my roommates and explained my allergies, trained them on my allergy action plan and medication, and discussed ways that they could help me, such as washing hands and not eating in the bed. I also brought snacks that my roommates liked, such as popcorn and fruit snacks.
3. Consider the Mode of Transportation
Before making a plan for packing, it’s important to consider your mode of transportation and the restrictions it can bring. If you’re traveling on a bus, will your bag be stuck under a hot bus for hours? Can you bring only a small duffel bag, or can you bring something larger? If you’re traveling on a plane, are you only allowed to bring a carry-on, or can you check a bag? Does your meal plan involve a limited amount of liquids, so you can pass through security?
4. Research Restaurants, Hotels, and Potential Meal Options
Once you have the itinerary for your trip, take a look at where you’ll be staying and visiting. There may be options available for you that you weren’t originally expecting, such as a restaurant with allergy-friendly options, or packaged food at a grab-and-go breakfast bar. You can look on websites that contain food allergy restaurant reviews and the websites for restaurants you’ll visit, and call the manager to ask questions during off-peak hours. If a restaurant from the trip has a location where you live, you can consider doing a “test run” to see what you’ll need to say/do.
5. Plan Your Meals in Advance
One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself pre-trip is to create a meal plan, especially if you are planning on only eating your own food. It can simply be a table with your breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans, and the ingredients/prep needed. If you need to bring containers, plates, utensils, or an insulated container, write that down on your packing list. This can help you stay organized, know what to buy, and be able to judge when to use/conserve food, especially for multi-day trips. Some meal/snack ideas I have used have been salad, instant rice, beans, a sunbutter sandwich, freeze-dried/microwave meals, beef jerky, fruit, and crackers!
If you have access to a microwave (most likely during breakfast), eat a big meal that will fill you for a while, since you may not eat as much food for the rest of the day. If you have the option, you can consider making a grocery delivery to the hotel for fresh food- you’ll need to contact the hotel and your trip leader to arrange this. Make sure to not pack anything you haven’t tried before, to avoid accidental reactions. In addition, be sure to pack lots of snacks. If you’re feeling tired of eating the same thing, or didn’t eat enough, snacks can be a lifesaver. I found that having a big snack bag in my backpack was helpful, as I could feed myself and my friends.
If you’re traveling with a large group, most meals will likely be eaten buffet-style, which can be difficult with food allergies. One thing that was helpful for me was to bring paper bowls, plates, utensils, and napkins, so I could avoid cross-contact with allergens on dishes. If you would like a dish from the buffet restaurant, you’ll need to check with a server to see if you could get one from the kitchen that hasn’t been touched by other food.
6. Pack Your Bags
The final thing you’ll do before you depart on your trip is pack everything you need. In most cases, you’ll probably have an overnight bag (duffel, suitcase, etc.) and a bus/carry-on bag (backpack, etc.). You’ll probably have limited access to your overnight bag, so be sure to pack your medication and food for two days in your carry-on, in case of lost luggage. Depending on the length of the trip, you may have more food than other belongings, so prioritize what you need to bring in terms of non-food items. For me, this meant a suitcase of mostly food, and a backpack of clothes and food for two days. Be sure to check tsa.gov for food you can bring through airport security. Finally, if you’ll be doing a lot of sightseeing, you may want to have a smaller bag within your bag for bringing to a tour site.
7. Decide Whether a Medical Alert Tag/Jewelry Would Be Helpful
If you have severe allergies, or want more peace of mind, you can consider getting a medical alert bracelet/necklace/tag for your trip. This jewelry would include information such as your name, allergies, and information about the medicine you use. They are readily available from various online shops, come in a variety of designs, and often link back to databases where others can access additional medical information in case of an emergency.
During The Trip
You’ve set yourself up for success on your trip! Here are some tips for making sure your trip goes smoothly once you’ve arrived.
1. Wearing and Managing Your Medications
During the trip, it is likely that you will be completely responsible for all of your medication. Finding a comfortable way to manage and wear your medications will be essential to having less stress on the trip. There are a variety of options, including a waist pack, purse, pocket, and more. Keep in mind that you will likely be wearing this on your person for several hours at a time, so choose a method where it will be comfortable for you, and cannot be easily left behind or stolen. In addition, remember to communicate with your trip leader and roommates about how you will be carrying your medications. I chose to wear my medications in a waist pack that I wore all the time, except when it went through security or when I was sleeping.
2. Preparing Food Throughout the Trip
While on the trip, you’ll have to prepare for each meal, likely the night before. This can mean packing your bag, making food, and refilling snacks. You can try and do this while roommates are showering/packing too, so you won’t miss out on any of the fun! If you’ve adjusted your meal plan during the day, make sure to edit any future meals that would have been changed. I kept all of the ingredients for specific days in plastic bags, so I would be organized and need less time to prepare, leaving more time to spend with friends!
3. Advocating for Yourself and Dealing with the Unexpected
Throughout the trip, you’ll most likely be on your own in terms of your food allergies, so it’s important to take steps to advocate for yourself to the trip leader and people you meet. Remember to speak loudly, clearly state what you need, and thank whomever is helping you out. If you’re struggling to order food at a restaurant, or feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to ask for an adult to help you.
Sometimes, the unexpected happens- you forget your food, your plan goes off track, or you’re stuck in a crowded restaurant and can't communicate with the manager. First, try and stay calm: take a few deep breaths and look at the situation carefully. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can (most likely) go to a quieter area, such as a bathroom or hallway. If something happens that you can’t fix on your own, or aren’t sure what to do, communicate with your trip leader or person most informed about your food allergies.
4. And Most Importantly… Have Fun!
Managing your food allergies on an overnight school trip can feel stressful and overwhelming, and that’s okay. It’s also important to remember what the trip was all about: having fun and seeing a new place! Unless it’s a culinary-based trip, you’ll most likely be spending a lot of time in non-food locations, which will take some of the pressure off. Just remember to have fun, enjoy yourself, and make some memories you’ll never forget!
After The Trip
You’ve done it! You’ve had an amazing trip, and now you’re ready for the next one. Here are a few quick post-trip to-dos.
1. Send Thank-You Notes
After your trip, it’s important to thank the people who helped make this trip easier for you. This can include chaperones, roommates, people in the tour company, and more. Letting them know that you appreciate their help is a nice way to end the trip for both of you.
2. Store Supplies for the Next Trip
Put away any trip-specific supplies for next time, and hang on to any plans you made. Take a look at what worked and what didn’t, so you’ll have a head start on your next trip!
While planning for an overnight school trip can feel daunting, all of your hard work planning will pay off during the trip! Good luck, and have an amazing time!