From seafood-obsessed Japan to kebab-loving Iran, I’ve learnt that thriving as a vegan traveller is an acquired art. Behold, all my vegan travel tips.
I’ve travelled to over thirty countries since I turned vegan 3.5 years ago, including seafood-obsessed Japan, kebab-loving Iran and tribal regions of Myanmar, where every kind of animal is relished.
Sticking with my commitment to not consume any animal products, I’ve learnt along the way that surviving – nay thriving – as a vegan on the road is an acquired art. The more well-researched, adventurous and creative I am, the more likely I am to find incredible vegan food, sample the local cuisine and build lasting friendships through the common love of good food.
Behold, all my vegan travel tips for vegans who wants to travel the world, keep their taste buds (and nutrition levels) satiated and immerse deeply in the local culture:
- Keep an open mind but a rigid determination
- Research the local cuisine
- Get HappyCow – the most essential vegan travel app
- Learn how to ask for vegan food in the local language
- Connect with vegans in the country
- Stock up on snacks and energy bars to make vegan travel easier
- Stay with local hosts and inform them of your food choices
- Get a travel blender (a vegan travel secret)
- Get creative with menus
- Stay in an independent Airbnb and get access to a kitchen
- Talk about your choices in a respectful way
- Have you considered vegan travel? What are your biggest challenges and how do you overcome them?
Keep an open mind but a rigid determination
While planning my trip to Japan, I was certain I wanted to spend the majority of my time in small villages, explore remote islands and experience countryside living.
While bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have become vegan-friendly over the years, a Facebook group of local foodies in Japan warned me that travelling as a vegan on the Japanese countryside was going to be “mission frickin impossible!” I took their concern seriously, but I was neither willing to compromise my style of offbeat travelling, nor my commitment to veganism.
I think half the battle of travelling as a vegan is in the mind. If we set our minds to finding vegan food no matter what, we’ll find ways to make it happen. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves that it’s okay to compromise on our vegan beliefs once in a while on the road, we’ll be less prepared, less creative and less adventurous.
Once I set my mind to vegan travel on the Japanese countryside for a month, I got down to work. I thoroughly researched the cuisine. Got a Japanese friend to write a long note explaining my food preferences. Learnt which dishes could be customized. Raided supermarkets for avocados and fresh veggies, and carried back-up food. Surrendered myself to the kindness of local chefs. And indulged in many bento boxes.
Believe it or not, I ended up having incredible vegan food through most of my Japan trip!
Research the local cuisine
We’re lucky to be living in a world where we can learn everything about local cuisines from around the world with a simple google search.
That means before I set out for Georgia in the Caucasus region, I already knew that local dishes like lobia (kidney beans stew), lobiani (bread stuffed with mashed kidney beans) and badrajani nigswitz (eggplant with walnut paste) are accidentally vegan, thanks to the orthodox Christianity beliefs of locals.
Before I set out for Ethiopia, I knew that vegan travel would be easy. I could be anywhere in the country and still feast on beyayenetu – a delightful vegan platter with injera, chickpeas, lentils and veggies.
When I’ve zeroed in on a new destination, I read about the local cuisine on wikitravel or other general websites, and try to analyse which dishes are free from animal products and which can be customized to be vegan. I pour over vegan blogs (of which Mostly Amelie, Vegan Food Quest and The Nomadic Vegan are some of my favorites) and forums to draw on the experiences of past vegan travellers.
Having an idea of what I can and can’t eat when I arrive in a country makes it easier to scan menus, order food, speak to local chefs and start treating my tastebuds right away.
Get HappyCow – the most essential vegan travel app
HappyCow is the most essential vegan travel app. It maps out all the vegan / vegan-friendly spots (restaurants, cafes, accommodations, stores) near you, along with reviews from past travellers.
It was thanks to HappyCow that I landed up at GustaV, the first and only entirely vegan restaurant in Salzburg (Austria) and feasted on vegan Tyrolian dumplings that I otherwise could’ve never tried.
In Switzerland, the accommodation listing on HappyCow led me to stay with a vegan Swiss family in a dreamy little village, where I feasted on carob brownies and vegan rosti.
Looking for vegan spots recommended on HappyCow, I’ve found myself in neighbourhoods I wouldn’t otherwise have explored and met passionate vegan owners I wouldn’t otherwise have met. Who knew the search for great vegan food can begin right in your palm!
Learn how to ask for vegan food in the local language
This is almost a no-brainer, yet it took me a while to master it. The trick is often not to directly ask for plant-based food, nor to explain what you can’t eat. Because many people who haven’t entertained vegans / vegetarians before tend to think that all we can eat is
After cringing upon being offered a boring salad too many times, I’ve learnt that I have to lay out all possible options of what I can eat.
So when I travel to a country where English is not the primary language, I try to learn the names of several ingredients in the local language, based on what’s available locally, including what I can’t eat but also what I CAN eat. When I arrive, I also find a kind local to help me write it accurately in the local script on my phone.
In Japan for instance, a newfound local friend helped me write in polite Kanji, that while I can’t meat, seafood (including fish dashi – very common in Japanese food), eggs and dairy products, I can have rice, tofu, yam, soya sauce, soya milk, cold soba noodles, miso, vegetables and legumes – all of them staples in Japanese cuisine. In most restaurants, the staff initially got very worried when I asked for vegan food, but upon seeing my note, whipped up some delicious vegan feasts!
In Iran, I was able to get a friend to write that while I can’t eat animal products, I can eat lentils, beans, potato, eggplant, rice and vegetables – all part of Persian cuisine.
In Myanmar, a local friend taught me to say t-t-lo (pronounced त त लो like in Hindi), which indicates Buddhist vegan food in Burmese!
Connect with vegans in the country
Harnessing the power of social media has led me to some truly unforgettable vegan travel experiences around the world.
Most recently, in Iran, I stumbled upon the Instagram profile of a guesthouse set up by a team of passionate Iranian vegans – and ended up being their first vegan guest!
After three weeks of sustaining mostly on local dishes like do pyaz alo (stir-fried potatoes and onions) and dal adasi (yellow lentils), I was treated to elements of Persian cuisine that no one else had been willing to veganise. Think vegan dizi (mashed beans with broth), vegan kebabs (made with sprouted wheat and unbelievably delicious) and vegan chocolate desserts inspired by Instagram!
On their recommendation, I went on to live with a beautiful vegan Iranian family in Tabriz, where even HappyCow doesn’t have a single listing.
In Japan, using Airbnb Experiences, I landed up in the home of a vegan Japanese family to learn macrobiotic cooking that balances yin and yang – and left with a tummy satiated by incredible food and a heart filled with the warmth of a new friendship.
And in Chiang Mai, I ended up joining my first “Cube of truth” after connecting with the local chapter of Anonymous for the Voiceless – a powerful outreach experience.
As the vegan movement grows around the world, it opens up a world of experiences for vegan travellers. Experiences that are rooted in the common love for animals, conscious living and good food.
Stock up on snacks and energy bars to make vegan travel easier
I used to judge others for carrying their own food on a train or flight. Now, I am that person, and I don’t give two hoots about anyone who judges me 😉
Since I turned vegan – and a bigger foodie than I’ve ever been before – I never leave it up to chance to be fed well.
In the tribal Chin state of Myanmar, where locals eat everything from monkeys to mithuns (cross between a buffalo and yak), I sustained myself over 3 days with bread and avocados. There was an avocado tree in the backyard of my guesthouse!
On long bus journeys and flights, I always pack a vegan meal to keep me satiated, for vegan food on board (always indicate vegan food preferences online beforehand) is often bland and boring. And in my bags, there’s always some vegan chocolate, chia / basil seeds to whip up a quick treat and snacks to munch on.
Stay with local hosts and inform them of your food choices
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I try to seek out local accommodations wherever I go. If it’s a place that offers meals, I make it a point to inform my hosts well in advance that I’m vegan, including what I can and can’t eat. Some lead time always helps!
In the Lake District in the UK, I was the first vegan to stay at a newly established B&B. At the time of booking, the hosts seemed unsure of what vegan breakfast they could offer – but between the time I booked and showed up, they had come up with an entire vegan breakfast menu that they planned to offer other guests too!
In Tokyo, when I checked in to a guesthouse, my Japanese host told me, quite amused, that he couldn’t think of anything vegan he could offer me for breakfast. The next morning, as I was getting ready to head out, he stopped me and said he had done some research online, and whipped up a vegan breakfast of miso soup and tofu steak! And he was so satisfied with his creation that he planned to add “vegan-friendly” to all his online listings.
As more vegans travel, more hosts and accommodations will become familiar with veganism, and the world in turn will become more friendly for vegan travel!
Be conscious of your nutrition
If you’ve been vegan for a while, you probably already know that there are plenty of plant-based sources to get protein, calcium and other essential nutrients. (If you’re unsure, read this).
But while on the road, I’m often dependent on other people to feed me. When I’m travelling to countries that don’t seem familiar with veganism, I try to figure out what kind of nutrition I’ll able to get from the vegan version of the local cuisine. Will I be able to get lentils, kidney beans, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and plenty of vegetables and fruits along the way?
While preparing to travel to Iran for instance, many vegan and vegetarian travellers wrote that they survived entirely on deep-fried falafels! I had no desire to eat that, so I carried plenty of protein bars and planned to get the rest of my nutrition at supermarkets. Much to my surprise though, I was able to find lentils in many places, and the old Persian bazaars were teeming with all kinds of affordable dates, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices.
I also always carry supplements of Vitamin B12 and D3 – something most people, vegan or not, are deficient in – as well as lysine supplements for when my diet has too much soy and too little lentils / kidney beans, which can cause an imbalance of essential amino acids (read here).
Get a travel blender (a vegan travel secret)
The best gadget I’ve acquired in recent times is a Vitamer travel blender (available only on Amazon US), which is light, easy to carry, battery-operated, charges with USB and allows me to have smoothies / smoothie bowls wherever in the world I am.
When invited to a conference in Belfast last year, I couldn’t bear to have the drab hotel breakfast with only jam and bread as vegan options. So I went to the nearby supermarket, picked up a bunch of fruits, got some raw cacao, pumpkin and sunflower seeds from my bag and made myself some hearty smoothies!
Get creative with menus
As vegan travellers, we can’t rely only on restaurant menus with vegan options marked – for the vegan movement hasn’t yet reached many cities around the world, and certainly not the rural countryside of most countries. Over the years, I’ve learnt to study menus, mix and match ingredients, get creative and explain to chefs what I’d love to eat. It works 80% of the time!
While staying at a guesthouse run by an Italian guy in Zanzibar, I really wanted to eat a pesto pasta. After great restraint, I convinced him to try making pesto without parmesan cheese – almost blasphemous for an Italian! At the end of the endeavour, he was rather surprised that it tasted almost the same – delicious.
Similarly while eating cafe-style food in a non vegan friendly place, I scan the menu to swap dairy products like cheese and mayo with vegan dressings like hummus, tahini, pesto (if made fresh without cheese), balsamic vinegar and chilli oil.
Stay in an independent Airbnb and get access to a kitchen
I’m writing this post from a sweet Stalin-era abode in Yerevan, Armenia, which will be home for the next month. I can’t quite explain the delight of having access to a kitchen after many weeks on the road in Iran.
No matter where in the world I am, I love to begin my day with smoothies, chia seed puddings, sauteed mushrooms with broccoli, chickpea pancake (besan chila), hummus and avocados on toast, open-face sandwiches and whatever else that is quick and easy to make!
Having an independent space with a kitchen – even if for a few days – is a refreshing change from eating all meals out, and a chance to treat myself to some comfort food and get better nutrition. Besides, as I figure out farmers markets, vegan-friendly stores, local bakeries and organic groceries, I really end up experiencing a place like a local.
Talk about your choices in a respectful way
We’ve all seen the jokes about vegans who try to shove their lifestyle choices down the throats of others. I don’t know who they are, for on my part, the vegans that I’ve met are rather aware that everyone’s on their own journey.
Anyway, no matter where I travel, I’ve seldom shared a meal with someone – friend or stranger – without being asked why I don’t consume animal products.
I try to talk about my personal journey, as well as the cruelty, health and environmental aspects of veganism. I recommend powerful films like Cowspiracy, Earthlings, What the Health and Okja. I talk about all the amazing food I’ve eaten while being vegan, but also some of the challenges of vegan travel. I try to plant the seed of veganism by encouraging people to decide for themselves, rather than forcing my choices on them.
A few months ago, I heard from a host I had stayed with a couple of years ago, who had initially been wary of offering me vegan meals. Much to my surprise, she told me that she had recently transitioned from eating meat to a plant-based diet!
I’ve begun to believe that wherever in the world we travel, we need to keep planting these seeds. For we never know who’ll be lucky enough to taste the fruit.
Have you considered vegan travel? What are your biggest challenges and how do you overcome them?
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I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.