It is now safe to move about the cabin…tips for air travel with an ice chest full of food.

It’s late as I begin to write this post…tucked away in the corner seat of a Southwest Airlines flight on my way back to San Antonio. The fasten seatbelt sign is off and electronic devices and laptops are now allowed to be pulled out and used. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to start jotting down a few notes to share my recently-acquired travel tips for checking a 45-quart ice chest full of food onto your next flight.

RTIC Cooler

This might sound cumbersome or too complicated (it’s funny the things we shy away from in life simply because they might be different and out of our comfort zone), I know this is how I originally felt about the idea of taking my own food with me on vacation. I thought about all the red tape that surrounds air travel. It’s already difficult enough to get through airport security (it was a hard lesson to learn to not bring my chainsaw with me in my carry-on bag for my lumberjacking trip…) and in my head, I “knew” that it would just be too difficult and stressful to pack a week’s worth of food and get it safely to my destination.

Luckily for me, my voice of reason (which is actually my fiancé, Jeff), didn’t leave any room for discussion…next trip, we were packing my food and bringing it with. This was decided after our week-long trip to New York City for New Year’s Eve earlier this year. I originally thought that once we landed, we could stop by a grocery store and buy me a few staples (like yogurt, cheese, and tuna) to stock in our hotel fridge. Then, I figured that as long as I was careful about eating out (stay away from most vegetables, search out grass-fed foods, and ask for everything to be simplified when ordering from the menu) then surely I would be OK for a week. Not so. We tried to buy a few food items to keep in the hotel, but the grocery store didn’t have everything I wanted nor the brands I knew would be good for me. Ordering off the menu was trickier than I thought, too. I’ve found it’s fine on occasion, but when it’s a daily occurrence for me, the effects are detrimental. You never really know what kinds of cooking oil they’re using, the quality of the meats, etc. Long story short, by about day five of the trip to New York City, I basically walked around everywhere feeling like I had a knife jammed into my abdomen. As soon as we made it back home after the trip, I flooded my digestive system with sauerkraut, kefir, tuna, grass-fed meats, butter, and eggs; all the foods that are now staples in my diet. Thankfully, I avoided a Crohn’s flare up and the decision to pack my food on the next trip was made.

If you (or a family member, loved one, etc.) suffer from digestive or other health issues from which you are finding relief through your diet, I encourage you to take the extra effort to plan ahead and pack your own food for your next trip. I know many people look forward to eating their way through a new city in order to experience it, but when you dread food and can’t eat without consequence, that particular experience is not very appealing. For me, knowing that I can be on vacation without any pain or digestive distress AND also be both energetic and happy is all I need to keep me on this path. To heck with eating my way through a city…bring on my tupperware of sauerkraut and water bottle filled with kefir.

Here are the tips I’ve learned from packing a cooler full of food with me on my most recent trips to Salt Lake City and Fort Lauderdale:

  1. Fly Southwest. If you can, fly Southwest Airlines…they still allow you to check two bags per traveler, free. This means you can check your cooler as one bag and still be able to check an actual suitcase 🙂
  2. Stay at the Hyatt House. I’ve always received great customer service staying at Hyatt hotels, but recently we started staying at the Hyatt House line of hotels and I’ve become obsessed with them. Just as it sounds, a Hyatt House hotel is set up to be a home-like living experience. It’s usually a small studio or tiny apartment-like floor plan with a small kitchen (including a full fridge, small stove, oven, microwave, sink, and even dishwasher), a living area (sometimes a separate room), small dining area, bedroom and bathroom. It sounds silly, but I can’t describe how happy I feel when we check into a Hyatt House and I can unpack my cooler and stock up the fridge with everything I’ll be eating for our stay there.
  3. A cooler. This is obvious, but I wanted to have a section to explain what works best for me 🙂 I have used both high quality and low quality coolers to travel with. If you’re planning your stay somewhere with a fridge, then a high quality cooler will be less important since your food won’t be staying in it the entire time. However, high quality coolers will keep your food colder for longer periods of time (an important consideration when your travel time is going to be all day or multiple days) and stand up to more wear and tear. I personally use an RTIC 45-quart cooler. I was worried at first because the cooler itself weighs about 25 pounds. So, throw in a five pound block of dry ice and you’re already more than halfway to the weight limit. No need to fear though, I’ve found on both occasions, my food doesn’t actually weigh that much and I haven’t gone over the limit. Even if you do go over the limit, consider the minimal cost of paying an overage fee versus the miserable cost of spending your vacation in pain and in a bad mood. Plus, you’ll be saving money on food when you’re there. Practice changing your mindset and putting your health first. Finally, I like to use a yoga strap (no different than a luggage strap, except yoga straps only cost a few dollars and I already had one at my house) to wrap around the cooler, just to make sure the lid doesn’t flip open. You can, of course, also use TSA-approved locks if your cooler has holes for locking down the lid.
  4. Dry ice. Make sure you check with the airline for the amount of dry ice you can pack. Southwest Airlines has a limit of 5.5 pounds of dry ice per container. I used to be worried about the gasses from dry ice and build up of pressure…Jeff just laughed at me. It’s not enough dry ice to cause a problem, also cheaper coolers are not air tight and higher-end coolers are typically dry-ice approved, just make sure they have a vent if you’re not sure. This may also be obvious, but it’s a mistake I made, don’t pack any vegetables or fruits directly next to or near the dry ice…they will get freezer burn and may become unpalatable. Keep frozen food and dry ice on top, the cold air will sink to the bottom and your food will be happy.
  5. Pre-pack your food. I use small 8 oz. and 12 oz. plastic food containers to pre-pack and portion my food. If I’m taking avocados or hard boiled eggs, I’ll put those in a larger, hard plastic food container to pack to protect them. I’ve also found the tiny, 8 oz. water bottles to be perfect for packing any liquids I want to take (kefir or kombucha beverages). I freeze any bone broth I’m taking with, because it’s easy to thaw at room temperature once I’m at my destination, but I don’t freeze anything else (make sure not to freeze your probiotic foods, you don’t want to kill the bacteria in them).
  6. Carry-on bag with food. If you’re going to be traveling for a long time and don’t want to eat airport food or go hungry, then I encourage you to pack a small travel, lunch-type cooler bag with some frozen blue ice (don’t use regular ice, because it will melt and turn into water, then you run into security issues). TSA allows food through the checkpoint, just not liquid. So, I’ve found it easiest to carry foods like avocados, hard boiled eggs, nuts, and cheese with me for a long day of traveling.
  7. Carry food with you at all times. One benefit of taking a carry-on lunch bag of food is that you’ll have it when you’re on vacation. I like to pack a few additional gel ice packs with me so that I can freeze those every night and then pack a lunch to take with me the next day, wherever our adventures take us. On this most-recent trip to Fort Lauderdale, I had a backpack picnic-style bag where the main pouch is insulated. This worked great to take my food with me during the day without having to sling extra bags over my shoulder…the backpack style also gave me extra room to put my wallet and other items in. It was a win-win.
    Backpack Cooler
    Backpack Cooler open
  8. Ask forgiveness, not permission, when in restaurants. This one might sound bold, but I’ve taken my own food with me into restaurants. I have not tried this in super-fancy, high-end restaurants (they usually have good quality food I can eat anyway), but I have done this in a variety of chain-style restaurants. Chances are, at some point on vacation, the other people you’re with will want to eat out. If you don’t want to eat every meal out, give this a try. Bring your lunchbox and just don’t draw attention to it. I try to sit in the corner and eat as discretely as I can (i.e. I don’t spread out my array of food containers blatantly in front of my servers). And, since I do this in a group, everyone else is ordering food and I’ll usually order a drink, so the servers tend to not care when one person doesn’t order (I’ve even done this when it was just Jeff and I). I figure that by the time someone catches me and tells me I can’t bring my own food in, then by the time the manager comes out, I will have already eaten most or all of the food anyway. If it becomes a problem, a simple apology and promise to never return should suffice. What’s the worst that could happen? The staff insists I put my food away… No big deal.
  9. Pack foods you enjoy! This should really be listed as item “8a” as an add-on to eating in restaurants, because it has to do with the idea of watching other people eat. I’ll admit that at times, especially if it’s a long vacation, it can be somewhat sad to continue watching people eat wonderful foods and desserts that are not on my diet. For the most part, it’s easy to pass on food because I’ve lived for so long being miserable and curled up on the floor in excruciating pain as a result of eating food. Knowing that my current diet keeps me feeling great makes it easy to do what I do. The best way I’ve found to combat feeling sad about what other people are eating is to make sure I either know what I can order or what I can pack with me that I truly enjoy and will leave me not feeling like I’ve missed out. For example, a great glass of wine and a steak are two of my most favorite things. Also, I carry with me a simple little bite-sized snack that Jeff jokingly nicknamed a “pro-treat” one afternoon, since it contains protein powder and sweetener. I eat one when I want something dessert-like to finish my meal. I focus on what I can have, not what I can’t have. It takes time and practice, but it does get easier.

Do I wish I didn’t have Crohn’s Disease and could eat whatever I wanted…of course. But, the fact is, I have it and I will always have it. I am thankful to be in remission and thankful I can choose to focus on the foods I enjoy that don’t upset my system. I hope that what I’ve learned can help people better deal with their own digestive ailments and give hope in the battle with Crohn’s or Colitis. If you don’t suffer from disease, perhaps my posts will encourage you to simply step-up your own efforts for better health and wellness.

Despite having Crohn’s and radically changing my life with regard to food, I can honestly say these are the happiest and best years of my life. Make your health a priority and surround yourself with people who support that. Your family should, hopefully, already do that, but this includes friends and other travel partners. It’s OK to be a little selfish sometimes and I think that you’ll find most people are happy to be supportive and encouraging of your efforts, too.

Safe travels!

If you have your own tips for traveling with food, please share them in the comments below.

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