A few months before my 21st birthday, back in the summer of 2004 (so a very long time ago) I spent 8 weeks travelling around South East Asia. At the time I was vegetarian but experimenting with a low-dairy diet due to some allergies, and I felt a little left out as my friends were presented with plates of freshly cooked delicious looking and smelling food while my daily dinners were usually plain tofu with rice or noodles.
I had an amazing time, but remember feeling like food was such an important part of culture across the world that my travel experience would be significantly limited as a vegetarian. I had no idea that vegan travel would become such a significant part of my future, nor how easy and affordable I would find it to be.
I went vegan a few months later and over the years, thanks to my naturally anxious nature, I developed a bit of a cautious approach, expecting that food options would be severely limited anywhere but large cities. Vegan travel wasn’t something that I found, it was something that I had to take with me wherever I went: on a cruise around Norway I stuffed my suitcase full of vegan jerky and powdered soya milk, and I took my own (dried) falafel and sausage mix on a road trip across South Africa, you know, just in case.
The funny thing is, despite my worst fears, I never struggled to find food. In South Africa we ditched the gross falafel mix and cooked fresh vegetables from the local market on bbqs (baby aubergines stuffed with chilli and garlic became a favourite pretty quickly) and ate vegan bunny chow curries from hole-in-the-wall shacks. I dare to think how different my experience would have been if I’d spent my evenings frying sad falafel in the hostel kitchen. I genuinely don’t think there’s any part of the world that you can’t visit as a vegan, and, in fact, how crazy would it be if there was, because, well, everywhere has bread and vegetables.
If you don’t put the work in and do your research then yes, you can end up eating the same bland dinners every night, but thanks to a little bit of hard work I’ve managed to avoid that ever since that fateful 2004 trip. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt, I hope you find them useful, and if you have any extra tips then do get in touch!
1. Get Inspired
I am literally always planning my next holiday, and I’m always keeping my eyes open for new inspirations for the next trip. Every time I see something that I like the look of I jot it down – I have a few pages in my bullet journal dedicated to “places to go” and have Feedly set up on my phone with some great travel blogs. I also religiously use Evernote to save articles, blogs and photos as well as newspaper and magazine clippings. This doesn’t mean that I have to visit any of these places, it just means that inspiration is always very close by. It also means that connecting the dots when it comes to actual travel planning is that little bit easier.
2. Decide what’s important, and be flexible about everything else
Every holiday has a purpose, right? You might want to do nothing other than lie in the sun for a week, or soak up some culture, explore a particular region of the world, or eat a whole heap of junk food. It sounds pretty obvious, but deciding what you actually want to do on a holiday is something that I sometimes never got around to thinking about; I was a bit too focussed on planning the best version of the holiday that I could for some unknown other, the best aggregate holiday based on what the guide books and the internet told me.
Since then I’ve firmly binned off the idea of what I call “tickbox tourism”, which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t travel with a list of things to do, just make sure that the list reflects you. The best bit of travelling, in my opinion, is allowing space for the unknown, and not being so totally tied to a schedule that you end up missing out on some really great opportunities. You absolutely need to allow space and time for these accidents to happen.
One of my favourite ways to plan a holiday is to pick a destination almost entirely by accident. I am a massive fan of the Skyscanner website (and app) because you can type in your travel dates (with as much flexibility as you want) and add “everywhere” as your destination. Skyscanner will pull details of all the locations that you can visit during those dates, with flight prices ordered from cheapest to most expensive. We’ve booked the vast majority of our weekend breaks this way, and ended up in some locations that we’ve absolutely fallen in love with as a result, like Tallinn in Estonia and Wroclaw in Poland.
3. Research everything
Once I’ve decided where I’m going on my holidays then the research stage begins. What I’m looking for completely depends on where I’m going, but I usually start with a few internet searches for “vegan” and the name of the place I’m visiting and will dedicate a bit of time to scouring Pinterest and Instagram as well.
I’ll save blog posts, make notes and lists of whatever pops up, and just start to build up an idea of how vegan friendly the destination might be. As well as looking for restaurants I’ll look for bars, breweries, farmers’ markets, shops, art galleries and museums, or anything else I know I’ll be interested in during my visit.
It’s worth remembering that while food is pretty/vvvv important, it’s not the be all and end all of a trip, so make time for the rest. I remember when we visited New York a few years ago and were so excited about all the food options that we pretty much forgot to plan anything else besides how much vegan pizza we were going to eat in Brooklyn and where we were going to get donuts from.
4. Happy Cow is your best friend – but she can get a little overexcited
The Happy Cow app has saved my facon on many occasions, but I’ve also learnt to be wary of her too. I see it as a bit like the TripAdvisor of the vegan world; a helpful starting point, but not the be-all-and-end-all of what’s good (or conversely, what’s not). Put it this way, the vegan community is incredibly supportive and enthusiastic, which is amazing, but it means that restaurant reviews can be a little, well, biased. Read the reviews with caution, do your research, cross check the information.
In my experience the absolute best way to decide whether a restaurant or cafe is for you is to read the menu, so track this down (most are available online) and make your own mind up. The community is also dependent on input from users, so even if a vegan place exists, it doesn’t get on Happy Cow unless a user or business owner adds it as a listing. I’ve also found that some places have closed down, or moved, or the locations on the app are plain just wrong.
For that reason I always use Happy Cow as part of my research arsenal, but never my only “go-to” for food tips. (I’ve also made a commitment to adding listings if they don’t already exist, particularly for omni venues with good veg*an options that may not know that this resource exists.). One of my favourite dining experiences was at Bror in Copenhagen, where we dined on a fully vegan 8 course “new nordic” feast. Bror isn’t vegan but was so happy to cater for us, and we were very grateful that they were!
5. Map It
For storing all this info I’m absolutely in love with Foursquare. I’ll make a list for the destination I’m looking at and save all of the places I’m interested in under that list. There’s a really neat option within the app to show all places in a list on a single map, with icons showing whether the location is a shop, restaurant, wine bar, museum etc.. This gives a really helpful visual of which areas of the destination are likely to pique your interest.
Not only is this information invaluable in deciding where to stay, but it also means that when you’re on your amazing holiday and struggling for something to eat or do or whatever, you just load up your map, find the nearest pin and off you go!
6. Pick your ‘hood
My style of travelling is to get all of the planning done up front so that when I’m “on location” I can sit back and enjoy myself. Perfect evenings are spent in a local bar or cafe drinking Aperol or a locally-brewed beer, eating some good food, and soaking up the uniqueness of the place I’m in. And this is important in deciding where your accommodation will be, because you don’t want to schlep for miles to get to where you want to be; you want to stay where the action is, right?
The whole point of doing your research is finding where those places are so that when you’re on vacay you can spend your time doing what you want to do rather than sitting on public transport (hey, unless that’s your thing).
What this also means is that you don’t always default to staying in the tourist centre of a place, and might end up a little bit outside of the centre, nearer to where the locals do their everyday (and night) things. You might discover a part of the city that’s a little more off the beaten track and a little more up-and-coming, as we did in Kalamaja in Tallinn, Vesterbro in Copenhagen, Sodermalm in Stockholm and Uzupis in Vilnius.
7. Always know where the market is
The minute you arrive it is your duty to find your nearest stockist of fresh fruit, lunch-appropriate sandwich fillings, pickles and flapjacks. The best lunches are made of little more – a freshly baked baguette, some tomato, basil leaves and whatever vegan meat or cheese you can find to jam in there. Or just bread dipped in hummus. Eating al fresco is the best.
8. Always carry snacks and hot sauce
No vegan wants to get caught short, so travel prepared. Use your newly acquired market-finding skill to ensure your backpack always has a good selection of snack bars, fruit and bread based products in. If you find somewhere that sells vegan donuts, you’ve hit the jackpot and buy extra for later.
If you’re travelling a little more remotely then a bottle of your favourite hot sauce can be a life saver, as it immediately turns a plain old bowl of rice into something a little more spectacular. Dried fruit, nuts and seeds are also good “catch-all” provisions as they keep for ages and can be added to most dishes to liven them up a little bit, as well as being good snacks.
9. Stay in a hotel or a hostel
I’ll fully admit to having been a bit of an AirBnB addict in the past, but I’m trying to break old habits. If you can ignore (which I can’t) the issues that AirBnB is causing in relation to rising rent prices across the world, then be assured that hotels are actually nicer places to stay, plus the beds are always a lot comfier and you get more than one pillow each.
“But what about meals?” I hear you say. Well, for starters, no hotel breakfast is completely non-vegan. If you need to stock up on extras like plant milk or peanut butter from the local supermarket then go for it. Trust me, it will be better than whatever you can rustle up in a poorly kitted out kitchen, plus you won’t have to waste time cooking it and washing up when you’ve got much better things to do on your holiday.
Think about it – hotels (and hostels) are made for travellers; they’re staffed by people who work in the tourism industry and who are excited to show you their city/town/region. There is always someone on hand to give you tips for places to eat and drink and things to do, and they will even make dinner and daytrip reservations for you, as well as be able to communicate really clearly to the restaurant or tour company that you’re vegan. A hotel will also let you make sandwiches for your day trip, or lend you plates and cutlery so you can chow down on whatever goodies you’ve picked up that day.
Backpacker hostels are also great options for vegans; not only are they great value, but most have communal kitchens. I’ve made some great friendships in hostel kitchens and dining rooms (which mostly start with “woah that food looks great what is it”) and it’s a great forum for sharing travel tips and ideas with fellow travellers.
10. Learn how to ask for help
I’ve always been one of those timid vegan travellers, feeling a little bit ashamed of my dietary requirements and absolutely terrified to ask a restaurant to sub out dairy or eggs or whatever else I just don’t want to eat. But mates, comes on, we need to get over this. Whenever I’ve plucked up the courage to declare my veganism, most people really don’t care that much and just want to bring me food that I can eat. Yes, there’s been the odd eye-roll or smirk, but who cares. I’m here to have the best darn time that I can and as long as I’m not offending anyone by committing a grave cultural faux-pas (you can check but this isn’t a thing) then go ahead and demand your vegan dinner.
To make this process a little bit easier it’s a really good idea to learn a bit of the local language. The old school vegans will know all about the Vegan Passport, which has a description of veganism set out in pretty much every language in the world. I also recently treated myself to a great little zine by Jojo Huxter (EthicalVeganLife on Instagram) called “European Vegan” which has details of pretty much every animal product you might find in 32 European languages. I tried learning a bit of Italian a few years ago and the only phrase that stuck was “I am vegan is it possible to have something without cheese please” and it’s actually been amazingly useful.
So there you have it, my top tips for making the most of your travels as a vegan. I think what I’m trying to get at, and I really hope it’s apparent, is that as vegans we don’t need to retreat to our own little safe spaces and places, that it really is pretty simple finding cruelty-free food anywhere, you just might have to work that little bit harder. Travel experiences do absolutely not need to be compromised just because you want to live a cruelty-free lifestyle.