Veganism can actually be a positive force in enhancing your travel experiences, and appreciation for local culture & food.
Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan debunks the myth that being vegan will negatively affect your travels and shares her tips on how you can prepare for a trip as a vegan traveler.
We speak about nutritional needs, scouting for food in countries with predominantly meat based diets, as well as vegetarian and vegan cuisines around the world and the culinary experiences they can still offer.
Lots of valuable insights and travel tips for vegan and vegetarian travelers.
- 04:40: Starting Vegan Travel
- 06:26: Why choose travel by boat?
- 10:50: Methods to find vegan food places
- 12:55: Understanding local food and ingredients
- 15:40: Being a vegan enhances culture understanding
- 17:40: Importance of positive attitude
- 20:25: Finding Vegan food in South America
- 27:05: Nutritional considerations as a Vegan
- 31:10: Cost of travel as a vegan foodie
- 36:30: Diversity of vegetarian cuisines around the world
- 45:00: Tips on traveling with non-vegans
- 49:15: Snacks to bring along when traveling
- 51:50: Tips for vegan travel
FOLLOW MORE PODCAST EPISODES HERE:
FIND WENDY HERE:
The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
How long have you been traveling as a vegan?
I’ve been traveling for a long time now; basically, my whole adult life, so more than 20 years. I’ve been traveling 20 something years, living a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle. I became vegan about seven and a half years ago. I don’t know precisely how many countries I’ve been to since becoming vegan; I’m thinking maybe 30. I have traveled to lots of different continents. I’ve been to Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe as a vegan. I have a lot of tips and tricks that I can share with people.
Why did you choose to become vegan?
I grew up eating everything; my family was not vegetarian or vegan. I started looking into it in 2014. It was initially for health reasons that I started becoming interested in plant-based nutrition.
I wasn’t having any particular health problems myself. Still, my father had recently passed away from complications from type two diabetes. He was in a terrible situation for the last couple of months of his life; he was completely bedridden. I saw that and thought, I don’t want to end up like that, and that’s when it hit me. I started thinking more about my own lifestyle choices and what kind of changes and decisions I could take to improve my health and have a long healthy life. That’s how I stumbled upon plant-based nutrition and veganism; I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know any vegans; I’d never met a vegan before.
Through the internet and listening to different podcast interviews like this with other experts, I found out about the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. I continued to research and found out about the environmental impacts of our food choices and the enormous environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture. I also discovered the terrible things happening to animals in the meat industry and egg and dairy industries.
I’m an animal lover. I’ve always considered myself as someone who loves animals. I just realized that this was a decision that I needed to make to live in alignment with my values. It didn’t make sense to say that I love animals and then be eating them. It was a transition period of a few months. I didn’t go from one day eating everything and then the next day being vegan. It was a gradual transition. I went vegetarian pretty early on and then gradually cut out other animal products as well. I wanted to go fully vegan, but one of the biggest things holding me back was that I was afraid it would ruin my travel.
Travel was a big part of my life and still is. I didn’t know if it was possible to find vegan food in some places that I wanted to go to on my wish list. It was scary to think that I might not visit these places if I could commit to being vegan. So I decided to do a trial run for vegan travel; my husband and I had already booked a three-week trip to Greece. I decided I would eat only vegan for the three weeks that we were in Greece. If I could do that, I would reevaluate my ideas about how easy or hard vegan travel was.
So basically, I never looked back; the day I became vegan was when my plane arrived in Greece. That was September 10, 2014; I can tell you the exact date because it was much easier than expected. I was surprised at how many vegan dishes there were in traditional Greek cuisine. I thought that I would be missing out on experiencing the local specialty dishes; I wouldn’t be able to try all these things. Some local specialties contain animal products, so I didn’t try those. But there were so many others that were vegan that I had never heard of. I researched beforehand and got to delve into the local cuisine and learn about it from a vegan perspective.
It opened up this whole new world. In addition to becoming a vegan traveler, I also became a foodie traveler. Food wasn’t that important to me previously when I was traveling; I would just eat cheap, easy, and available. Now I do more research and find out what the local specialties are and which ones to try. I looked for the best vegan, vegetarian or vegan-friendly restaurants to go to. I had wonderful culinary experiences during my travels that I hadn’t had before. It enriched my travels and made it even better for me.
Do you do a lot of research before you travel, on places to eat etc?
I do some research beforehand, and I recommend that people do that because the trip goes a lot more smoothly that way. I wasn’t a foodie traveler, and I didn’t grow up as a foodie at all. In my family, no one really cooked. My parents or mom mostly prepared meals for us when I was young, but it wasn’t home cooking. It mainly came out of a box or microwave dinners when I got a bit older. Food wasn’t a priority in my household, and I didn’t grow up with much appreciation for food.
Being vegan did give me that appreciation for food; it became a big part of my travel. When I said that I was worried that veganism would ruin my travel, it was more just that I didn’t know if it would be possible. I didn’t know if there was anything that I could eat, and traveling to certain places would mean starving, but that’s not the case at all. Like I’ll just tell everyone right now, you can be any you can be vegan anywhere. I’ve done it in many different places, some more vegan-friendly than others, and some areas are easier than others.
There are places where you may not have many options, and the food might not be the most exciting part of the trip, but it’s possible. So don’t ever think that being vegan has to be a limitation, and it has to stop you from going to where you want to go.
What are some ways that you research on where to eat before a trip?
The number one resource that I recommend is an app and website called Happy Cow. It’s a crowdsource worldwide directory of vegan, vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants. It also has other valuable businesses for travelers, for example, vegan or vegan-friendly B&Bs, and different types of accommodation. Sometimes they’ll list health food stores or organic food stores where you can find more vegan specialty products. Happy Cow is the first thing that I check when planning a trip to a new destination.
Depending on the destination, that might be all the research I do. I get a massive list of restaurants where I can eat, and then the problem becomes choosing which are the best ones and which ones I want to try. That’s becoming more and more the case, especially I’d say in Europe. I live in Lisbon, Portugal, so I do a lot of traveling around Europe. In most cities and towns in Europe, you have many options, whether purely vegetarian or vegan restaurants or restaurants adding vegan options to their menus because they see that the demand is growing. They’re responding to that and catering to that demand.
There are other locations where you won’t see as many options in Happy Cow. It does not mean that there is no vegan food in that particular destination. It means that you’re going somewhere that’s off the beaten track where not many travelers have been to before. Because it’s a crowdsourced directory, there will be fewer people adding entries in for that location, so you might need to do a bit more research on your own.
I would then suggest researching the local cuisine and finding out what people eat there. That’s not hard to do on the internet for any country’s cuisine; you can find out what the popular dishes are and what kind of ingredients are used. That gives you an idea of what you can ask for in a restaurant and what to avoid. For example, in Thailand, you may see lots of dishes that look like it’s just vegetables, tofu, and rice. Still, they’ve got some shrimp paste or some kind of fish sauce added into the mix when they were creating the sauce. So it’s a good idea to learn the words for those particular ingredients in the local language.
Ask someone who speaks that language to type out one or two sentences explaining what you don’t eat and what you do eat. You can suggest a few things you can eat, but if you’re very demanding and pushy about it, they might be less likely to help you. If you smile and are friendly, then they’re probably going to be nice back.
Has vegan traveling helped you understand other cultures?
It has become a way for me to learn more about the culture, and it’s opened this new window to places and cultures. It has helped me to learn more about it in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. It’s also a conversation starter.
I love learning different languages and speaking the local language. Still, I’m also timid and not competent in my language skills, and shy about talking to the locals. But if I have to get this information across, I need to tell them I am vegan; this is what it means. Then that gets the conversation started, and they are curious about it. They want to know why I eat this way, so I get the opportunity to have conversations with local people and learn more about the places.
I believe that so much of it comes down to attitude. Your experience is mainly going to be shaped by the mindset that you bring to the experience. If you go in with a very negative attitude and think this will be so difficult, you will not get anything. People will be rude to you.
If you go into it with an open and positive attitude, you will get more out of the experience. I think the law of attraction has a huge impact. Two different people can look at the same menu, and one person would think they only have one vegan option; that’s terrible. But how many options do you need if you’re eating one meal there? You just need one. Be thankful that they do have a vegan option on their menu; some places won’t. But that also doesn’t mean that they can’t make a vegan meal for you, or there may be options listed that are vegan; they just haven’t marked them that way because they’re not thinking about it that way.
If you research the cuisine and the dishes, then once you see the name of a dish that you recognize, you can ask them, what does this have? Does it have cheese on it? Could you leave off the cheese? So I think attitude makes or breaks the experience, not just in the sense of traveling as a vegan, but the whole travel experience. The entire experience of life comes down to our attitude.
Are there any countries you have found it challenging to find vegan foods?
It can vary a lot from one country to the next. One country might be very different from even the neighboring country.
My most recent trip to South America was to Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Brazil was probably the easiest, which would surprise many people because they think meat is a huge part of Brazilian culture, cuisine, and economy. It’s a big part of their identity, but there is also a growing vegan movement. Especially in the big cities, like Rio de Janeiro, you’ll find many vegan and vegetarian restaurants and smaller cities like Ichiban, which is in the south. There were lots of veggie restaurants there, too.
The biggest tip for Brazil that I can give people is to go to the lowkey restaurants because it’s a pay-by-weight buffet. These are popular all over Brazil, you’ll find them everywhere. You get to choose which dishes you want to put on your plate; they always have beans and rice, a standard staple food in Brazil. You can easily make up a full, balanced healthy meal out of that.
Occasionally, you’ll find that they’ve added little bits of meat to the beans, so you need to look and make sure; they are generally easy places to eat. If you don’t find anything on Happy Cow that looks like it’s specifically vegan friendly, I would say go to one of these kilo restaurants.
Also, Brazil is a vast country, but it has an excellent bus network and some of the most comfortable buses I’ve ever traveled on. I’d say Argentina and Brazil have some of the best places in the world; I traveled the countries entirely by bus.
I didn’t take any flights. I went from San Luigi in the North to Panthenol in the South. When the buses stopped for meals, they would stop at one of these kilo restaurants. You would only get 20 minutes to eat a meal, so you have to eat quickly with whatever’s there. It might be more limited in other countries, but I found that it wasn’t a problem in Brazil.
Paraguay was probably the most difficult, but it’s not a very popular destination anyway. There’s not a lot to see in Paraguay. I went because I want to go everywhere and I’m curious about the world in general. There’s nowhere that I don’t want to go because I think everywhere is interesting. There aren’t many tourism sites that would attract people to Paraguay.
The local cuisine doesn’t have many plant-based dishes, but there was one restaurant in the capital. It had a whole vegan section of the menu with some wonderful dishes. They even had some vegan versions of Paraguayan dishes, so I did get to try the local specialties. In most places that I’ve been to, it’s becoming more and more common.
When I first became vegan seven years ago, there weren’t nearly as many options as there are now. The movement is growing, and lots of places are offering vegetarian and vegan versions of their local specialty dishes.
That’s what you’ll find in Happy Cow, so I recommend downloading that app because you won’t find those dishes everywhere. If you know which specific restaurants are offering these vegan specialties, then you can go check them out.
Do you have any concerns about getting the nutrients your body needs?
B12 is the one nutrient that is not available in plants. It’s not available in animals as well. It comes from bacteria in animal-based foods. I won’t go into the scientific details, but the bottom line is that you need to take B12 supplements as a vegan.
I do that at home and when I’m traveling. You can buy them cheaply, and it’s a small pill. Most of the time, you take it two or three times a week. So that’s something every vegan should do.
As far as having a more balanced and healthy diet generally, many people are concerned about protein. We don’t need as much protein as the animal agriculture industry wants us to think we do. A lot of people in the West get too much animal protein. It is an underlying cause of many major health issues for people in the United States and other countries.
I don’t worry too much about protein, but I try to make sure I have at least one meal a day with a high protein intake. That could be any legume beans, chickpeas, lentils, or tofu. If you’re in an Asian country, then tempeh as well. Seitan, which is from wheat gluten, is not as common to find, but you’ll see it sometimes in Asia as well.
You probably won’t be eating quite as balanced or healthy of a diet as you would be at home. Or maybe you just eat vegan junk food at home all the time because that’s also really easy to do these days. There are all kinds of vegan foods available that are not healthy at all.
You probably will be eating pretty healthily because it’s largely whole foods that are available to you. Those foods are available everywhere. Whereas vegan junk food is a niche market that you’re more likely to have access to at home, but not when you’re traveling to off-the-beaten-track places.
Do you bring B12 supplements with you when you are traveling?
I’ve always brought it with me just to be safe. I think that’s the easiest thing to do. You probably can find it in most places, but I think it’s a good idea just to bring it with you.
Has traveling as a vegan affected your traveling costs?
My cost probably did go up because becoming vegan coincided with me being more interested in food and having better gastronomical experiences while traveling. Whereas before, I would have gone to McDonald’s all the time. When I became vegan, that wasn’t an option.
If I were to eat out in restaurants, it would be more expensive than the previously chosen options. I was going for whatever was cheap and inconvenient. So that is a consideration, but it is dirt cheap to buy beans, vegetables, and rice if you cook for yourself. It’s a shame that there’s such a markup because it’s the same foods being sold in the restaurants. But because it’s trendy, they can get away with raising their prices.
It doesn’t happen in all restaurants. I have been to vegan and vegetarian restaurants that are very reasonably priced. I hope to see more of that, but it’s a mix. Some places are a bit pricier. I don’t go to really fancy gourmet restaurants. That’s not the kind of experience that I’m looking for. Sometimes the restaurants are a bit more expensive than what I would have chosen in the past.
Meals with meat cost more. In terms of the environmental impact, it’s a very inefficient way to produce food. Because you have to produce a lot more grain to feed the animal and then eat the animal than if you were just producing the grain to eat that grain yourself.
Then different types of pollution come with it. So it should cost more; unfortunately, a lot of countries subsidize their animal agriculture, and so the price for those products is artificially low. That gets reflected in the prices in the restaurants as well.
I think that’s something that’s going to have to change very soon because the current worldwide consumption of meat is not sustainable. I believe that is one reason we see a growing interest in vegan and vegetarian lifestyles because people realize the environmental impact of this industry and want to live in an environmentally friendly way.
Tell us a bit more about your experiences with different cuisine?
Many countries do have a tradition and history of eating vegan or vegetarian, in some cases, dating back hundreds, if not 1000s of years, relating to the Buddhist religion or the Hindu religion and other Asian religions.
It may not be that everyone in that country eats a vegetarian or vegan diet all the time, but they still have this tradition. It may be just the monks eat in this way, and the laypeople do it at certain times of the year for festivals. You have it in Orthodox Christian countries; in Eastern Europe, Greece, Ethiopia, and Africa have the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In those countries, they have what they refer to as fasting. When I say fasting in English, typically, that means eating nothing at all. But in this sense, that’s not what it means. They still eat, but they just don’t eat certain foods.
It varies a little bit from country to country as to what the rules are for fasting, but it’s pretty much a vegan diet or an almost vegan diet.
That’s an easy shortcut you can take if you’re traveling in Eastern Europe, Greece, Russia, or Ethiopia. You can ask for fasting food, which was one of the first things I learned when I was on a Greece trip in 2014. When I was trying to be a vegan traveler for the first time, people didn’t know the word vegan in Greece; I think now, it’s changed a lot. I don’t think I ever ate in a fully vegan restaurant in Greece. I think I ate in a vegetarian restaurant only once. The rest of the time, I was just in mainstream restaurants. I could say the Greek word for fasting food, and they would tell me what they had. There were lots of options. The fasting tradition in the Orthodox countries means lots of plant-based dishes have been created within that cuisine.
India is the best country in the world to be vegetarian. I would say vegan is a little bit trickier because they use a lot of milk products, especially in the north of India, not so much in the south. They’re more likely to use coconut milk rather than cow’s milk. There are plenty of options in the north, but you have to be clear that you don’t want any milk products, and it’s best to list them individually. But other than that, the food in India is fantastic; I adore Indian food.
Taiwan is another place that has a massive variety of food. They have so many different kinds of dishes and a long tradition of vegan and vegetarian eating for religious reasons. There is a pretty strong animal rights-based vegan movement among the younger generations. So Taiwan is terrific for vegan travel.
That’s probably one of my favorite places and all of China. It’s just that if you don’t speak Chinese, it’s harder to communicate in China than it is in Taiwan. They’re not as familiar with veganism, whereas the Taiwanese are pretty familiar with veganism.
You travel with your husband regularly; is he vegan?
He didn’t go vegan at the same time that I did. Initially, we were traveling together with just me being vegan. That was a little bit more of a challenge. We had to compromise, which you always have to do in relationships.
He would want to go to a traditional local place to try the local foods, but they wouldn’t have many options for me. One of us would choose where to go for lunch, and then the other decide where to eat for dinner. We made it work that way.
I will admit it’s a lot easier now we’re both vegans. Now we want the same things. We can look on Happy Cow and see which restaurants seem the best options for vegan food.
If you’re traveling with non-vegans, then you have to compromise. I don’t mean a compromise in the sense that you’re going to have to eat non-vegan food sometimes. You can still stay vegan yourself, but you might not get to eat where you want or your preferred place for every meal.
If you’re traveling with non-vegan friends and planning a trip together, I suggest you talk about it beforehand. And make it clear what your needs are and your expectations, and set boundaries. Maybe put a rule like you choose the place for lunch. I decide the place for dinner or maybe your friend is perfectly happy to eat vegan along with you. Still, it is something that you should probably talk about beforehand.
Do you bring along any spices for cooking or vegan snacks?
I usually bring an emergency snack stash, so I know that I always have something. Usually, these days, it’s not necessary. I might not end up eating any of that food, but it just gives me peace of mind to know that it’s there then I know that I’m not going to starve.
I always know that I have something in my bag that I can eat. I would recommend doing that. It can be snacks like quinoa bars or raw date snack bars. They are handy for traveling.
Our most recent trip was walking the Camino de Santiago through Spain and Portugal, which we do every year. We walk a different route from the Camino de Santiago; this was our fifth one. We were walking through remote areas in Spain and Portugal on the one that we did this year. So I did carry more food than I would typically, and sometimes we needed it. It really came in handy.
We carried things like fried fava beans, which is a pretty common snack food in Portugal. You can buy them where you would buy nuts and potato chips. You’ll often see bags of fried fava beans which are nutritious. They’re a good source of protein and are pretty filling. The fried part makes them a bit less healthy, but there’s still good nutrition in them. We don’t tend to cook very often when we travel; we eat out for most meals. So we don’t usually bring spices.
We took salt and pepper when we were on the Camino to make sandwiches; we could at least use it to give a little bit more flavor. That depends on the individual traveler. Some people may want to do a lot more cooking, whether to keep the cost down or because they enjoy cooking. In that case, I think it does make sense to bring a few spices and things like that with you.
What are your best tips for vegan travel?
I’ve already talked about doing some research beforehand. I think that is important. Happy Cow, the website is happycow.net, and you can access all the information there for free, or you can download the app, which I think might cost a few dollars, but it’s worth it. It’s one of the best investments to make if you’re looking to find vegan or vegetarian food while you’re traveling.
And attitude we talked about as well, I think that’s crucial; going into the whole experience with a positive attitude.
I’ve got several more tips that I wrote and compiled together in an ebook, which you can download for free on my website. It’s called Nine Steps for Easy Vegan Travel. If you go to the my blog, you’ll find a picture of the book on the homepage. You can click it and download it totally for free.