If you’re among the estimated 8 million vegetarians and 1 million vegans in the United States, don’t think that you have to stick close to home to maintain a plant-based diet. A growing number of resources online and on the ground, as well as changes in the hospitality industry, are making veg-friendly travel easier than ever before.
“I actually believe that travel is more fun as a vegan,” said Wendy Werneth, a native Alabamian who has lived in Europe since 1999, first in Switzerland and now in Portugal. “For one thing, vegan travel is like a treasure hunt, a fun challenge. At first, I thought I’d starve looking for sustenance, but the reality is I find too many things to try them all.”
Werneth initially feared that traveling while vegan would be difficult and stressful. During a trial vegan trip to Greece in 2014, she discovered that vegan travel was not only doable, it was enjoyable. “Since I had all these fears and misconceptions, I knew that other people out there had the same concerns,” said Werneth, who guides fellow travelers with insights and tips at the Nomadic Vegan, a blog for practicing and aspiring vegans.
Here are some trends and tips from Werneth and others.
Get the app: Since HappyCow.net started in 1999 as a primitive website, it has grown to become the world’s top directory of vegan, vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants around the world. Travelers can use it for advance planning and, while on the road, let HappyCow’s mobile app steer them to the nearest options.
The Santa Monica, California-based site, with 157,000 registered members who have left more than 212,000 reviews, continues to grow by about 20 percent each year, said spokesman Ken Spector. HappyCow’s nearly 57,000 listings also include retreats and lodging, bakeries and farmers markets. It recently teamed up with Werneth to publish the site’s free guide, “9 Steps for Easy Vegan Travel.”
Splurge: High-end hotels, while they might not mention “the V-word,” are increasingly catering to their vegetarian and vegan customers. “Without a doubt, there’s more movement in that direction,” said Paul Eyers, who with his wife, Caryl, writes the blog Vegan Food Quest, which includes luxury hotel reviews. The couple left Britain for Southeast Asia four years ago and are now based in Cambodia. “You’ve already got eastern religion and western animal compassion,” he said, “and now people are turning to veganism because of health and environmental concerns.”
Eyers, who also advises properties (and their restaurants) on catering to vegans, says that little things can go a long way. “High-end hotels, which usually ask for your preferences ahead of time, should know you’re vegan, so they shouldn’t leave chocolate on pillows or milk in the fridge,” he said. “If I go into a room and there’s fruit, soy milk and a butter alternative, I know they understand my diet, and that makes me confident in the hotel in general.”
Research local cuisine: Even cuisines that have a reputation for being extraordinarily difficult for vegans and vegetarians still dish up plenty of surprises if you dig deep enough, Werneth said. Spain, for example – known for its cured meats and seafood – has gazpacho, vegetable paella and a huge selection of vegan tapas. France – famous for cheese and rich beef flavors – has vegan specialties such as socca, a savory pancake made from chickpea flour that is hugely popular in the southern part of the country.
Researching vegan options, she said, offered her a new way to approach different cultures and cuisines, many of which she explores in her recently published book “Veggie Planet: Uncover the Vegan Treasures Hiding in Your Favorite World Cuisines.” “For instance,” she said, “there are a lot of what I call accidentally vegan dishes in the Greek cuisine because of religious restrictions in the Greek Orthodox Church.”
Network: Werneth, Spector and Eyers all recommend that travelers research destinations before traveling, including connecting with local vegans via such outlets as Facebook, Couchsurfing, Airbnb, Meetup, local blogs and vegan restaurants and festivals.
State your needs: Once at your destination, introduce yourself as vegan wherever you stay and eat. When confronting a language barrier, Spector recommended using Google Translate’s photo scanner (for menus) and also showing pictures of veg-friendly dishes. In case you run out of options, bring your own vegan snacks and a stash of vitamins and also carry containers, plastic bags and minimal eating utensils to set up your own kitchen.
Above all, the experts say, bring an open mind and an open heart, staying curious, respectful and positive, especially when eating fully vegan is not possible. “The whole point of the vegan movement is to create a more peaceful and compassionate world,” Werneth said. “I think it’s counterproductive to negatively focus on those small things that might not be vegan. I’d rather that 98 percent of what I’m eating is vegan and that I’m setting a positive example in the hopes that that is going to encourage more people to give veganism a try. That’s going to help a lot more animals in the end.”
Book a vegan tour: Donna Zeigfinger, who is celebrating 20 years of running Green Earth Travel in Cabin John, Maryland, recently pored over her notes to prepare an anniversary timeline. “Wow, has it gotten so much easier to find vegan options,” she said. “Still, some people think they’re going to starve to death if they travel vegan and they’re freaked out. That’s where I come in.”
About 40 percent of Zeigfinger’s work these days is arranging custom vegetarian and vegan-friendly trips. For the rest, she collaborates with vegan tour and cruise companies with jaunts to destinations including Indonesia, India, Croatia, Italy and Ireland. Closer to home, she’s offering a package-deal trip to the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles baseball game on Sept. 26 for PNC Park’s first vegan event.
Werneth, meanwhile, next year will lead tours in Italy and Portugal with Veg Jaunts and Journeys, a new company based in Asheville, North Carolina, whose trips often include vegan cooking classes and festivals, as well as visits to vegan-friendly stores. Owner Kim Giovacco also offers customized travel planning.
Pick veg-friendly destinations: HappyCow recently released its first Top-10 list of vegan-friendly cities worldwide determined by number of offerings, population density and the staff’s impression of the “overall vegan-friendliness” of the city. Winners, starting with first place, are: Berlin; Los Angeles; Warsaw, Poland; Taipei, Taiwan; New York City; Singapore; London; Tel Aviv, Israel; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco.
“I think Europe has seen the most tremendous growth,” Spector said. “Berlin has had a massive explosion, and of really high quality. In Warsaw, Poland, I had some of the best vegan food I’ve had in Europe. They have two vegan sushi restaurants that are phenomenal. I’m even speaking at a vegan event in Kiev.”
Spector, a frequent visit to the District of Columbia, noted that the Washington area has considerable room for growth, but he praised several spots, including HipCityVeg, NuVegan Cafe, Shouk and Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats.
HappyCow has been invited to dozens of vegan fairs and festivals around the world, which Spector said are growing in number and size. “I remember going to vegan events with 200 or maybe 500 people; now it’s up to 30,000,” he said. “I’m going to vegan event in China; they’re expecting 35,000.”
Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.