By Anna Sonnenberg of Gluten-Free Jet Set
Whether you’re taking off on a short hop or on a long overseas flight, flying gluten-free can be challenging. While gluten-free travelers should always pack safe and healthy snacks for a flight of any length, the good news is that more and more airlines are able to accommodate special food requests, especially on longer flights. There may not be any 100% gluten-free airlines quite yet, but some airlines are much friendlier to gluten-free travelers than others.
Out of 80+ major airlines worldwide, over three-quarters offer a gluten-free meal on long-haul flights, but passengers should be sure to read the fine print. Some of these meals are actually noted “low gluten” or “not suitable for people with celiac disease.” Snacks on shorter flights or between meals, however, are a different story. Only one major airline regularly offers complimentary gluten-free snacks, and just about a dozen airlines offer gluten-free snacks for purchase. Read on for your best and worst airline options, and take some of the guesswork out of flying gluten-free.
Gluten-Free Airline Options: North America
In North America, JetBlue stands out as the only airline to reliably provide complimentary gluten-free snacks (Popcorners chips), along with some of the healthiest plant-based foods for purchase. Other North American carriers offering snacks for purchase include Air Canada (gluten-free crackers and cheese), Alaska Airlines (Mediterranean tapas selection), Delta (Mrs. May’s Nut Crunch), United (Two Degrees bars), and Virgin America (Udi’s granola and Crunchmaster crackers).
Many North American airlines offer gluten-free meals on international or transcontinental flights, with a few exceptions. If you’re planning a long flight on Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, or Virgin America, be sure to pack extra snacks, as these airlines do not offer gluten-free meals.
Gluten-Free Airline Options: South America
In South America, Aerolineas, Avianca, LAN Airlines, and TAM Airlines all offer gluten-free meals, but travelers should clarify meal options before flying with these carriers. Gluten-free options are often listed as “meals low in wheat and gluten,” which does not inspire confidence. Copa Airlines, based in Brazil, does not offer gluten-free options on any flights.
Gluten-Free Airline Options: Europe
Many European airlines offer gluten-free snacks for purchase in flight. Air Berlin (Germany-based) offers a menu of small meals including an Indian curry and Asian vegetables, Air Europa (Spain-based) offers savories like almonds and cured sausages, Easyjet (UK-based) offers an Eat Natural Bar and Mrs. Crimble’s macaroons, and Ryanair (Ireland-based) has Heinz soup and olives.
Most major European airlines offer gluten-free meals on longer flights, but similar to North American carriers, some of these meals are not actually gluten-free. Iberia (Spain-based) and KLM (Netherlands-based), for instance, cannot guarantee that their meals are gluten-free. Others, like Croatia Airlines, Finnair (Finland-based), and Virgin Atlantic (UK-based), specify that their meals are indeed suitable for people with celiac disease. Some Eastern European airlines, including Blue Air (Romania-based), S7 (Russia-based), and TAROM (Romania-based) do not offer any gluten-free options.
Gluten-Free Airline Options: Middle East and Africa
In the Middle East and Africa, Etihad (UAE-based), Emirates (UAE-based), and Qatar Airways set the bar high with lengthy descriptions of omitted ingredients and statements that their meals are appropriate for “passengers who are allergic or intolerant to gluten (a protein of wheat, barley, oats, or rye).” On the other end of the spectrum, El Al (Israel-based) offers a gluten-free meal not suitable for people with celiac disease, and Egypt Air serves its standard low-fat meal to gluten-free passengers.
Gluten-Free Airline Options: Asia and Australia
In Asia and Australia, ANA (Japan-based) scores major points for providing meals that are free of either seven or twenty-five allergens, great for travelers with extensive food restrictions. Other Asian airlines serving meals suitable for people with celiac disease include JAL (Japan-based), EVA Air (Taiwan-based), Korean Air, and Singapore Airlines. Carriers whose meals people with celiac disease should avoid include Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong-based), Vietnam Airlines, and Virgin Australia, which offer meals not suitable for passengers with allergies or intolerances.
Gluten-free travelers should note that all special meals must be ordered in advance. If you do choose to order a special meal, place your order when booking your ticket or at least a week ahead of time. Then follow up with the airline twice: 48 hours before your flight and when arriving at your gate. Also note that options available for purchase onboard may or may not be available on a specific flight, so be sure to pack adequate backup snacks for your trip.
Note: It is important to double check ingredient labels on all food products to ensure it is gluten-free. Be sure to get in touch with airlines prior to travel, as policies and practices may change over time. For in-flight meals, be sure to discuss the preparation practices to ensure cross-contact has not occurred.
Anna Sonnenberg is an avid traveler, always on the lookout for delicious, healthy and safe gluten-free food. After being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012, she launched the website Gluten-Free Jet Set to share restaurant reviews and healthy travel tips with the gluten-free community. Anna is currently based in Washington, DC and is planning her second gluten-free trip around the world.