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Flying with dietary restrictions? Increasingly, that’s not a problem

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When it was time for dinner on my July flight from Lisbon to New York, a flight attendant brought me my special-request gluten free meal.

I was found to have celiac disease almost three years ago, and this sort of request for what airlines describe as a special meal — in this case, steamed sea bass with vegetables, gluten free bread and fruit salad — has been a constant on my frequent air travels ever since.

A gluten free meal offered on Turkish Airlines: chicken breast over rice, with a caprese salad and chocolate mousse.
A gluten free meal offered on Turkish Airlines: chicken breast over rice, with a caprese salad and chocolate mousse.  (TURKISH AIRLINES)

But on that flight and on a slew of ones before it, I noticed that several other passengers, more than I had ever seen before, had also ordered special meals.

Both international and domestic airlines report an increase in special requests in recent years, and many are trying to accommodate them by broadening their special meals categories.

American Airlines expanded its category last July when it went from offering seven types of special meals to passengers on long-haul international flights to 14.

A low-sodium meal option was added, as was a halal meal prepared without any pork or alcohol, and a bland one prepared with limited seasonings for those with sensitive digestive systems.

Russ Brown, American’s director of in-flight services, said that the airline decided to offer more kinds of special meals because passengers were repeatedly asking for them.

“People are a lot more specific with their diets today and try to be healthier overall and kept requesting meals that we didn’t have,” he said.

Since the expansion, Brown said, the airline has had a 66 per cent increase in special meal orders: American served approximately 106,000 special meals from January to June 2017; for the same period this year, that number was close to 250,000.

For flights within the United States, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also expanded their special meals categories in response to customer requests.

International airlines, though, tend to have a more robust selection of special meals and have expanded them even more in the past several years.

Qatar Airways now has 17 types of special meals, while Tap Portugal and Turkish Airlines started offering 24 varieties last year, compared with the dozen or so before that. On Turkish, flyers can now order not only a vegetarian or vegan meal, they can request a raw-food vegan meal, or seafood- or fresh-fruit-only meals.

The airline has more than 10 menus for each meal type. In its gluten free category, entrees include lamb with sautéed spinach and rice, prawns with ratatouille, and herbed chicken with eggplant salad. Warm gluten free rolls and olive oil accompany every dish.

And on Tap Portugal, special meal orders have gone up more than 50 per cent in the last two years, according to Joel Fragata, the airline’s head of in-flight product.

Historically, flyers have ordered special meals because of religious or medical reasons. So why are they asking for them more today than they did before?

Airline experts say that it now may be a matter of personal taste and also because the current generation of travellers adhere to diets that have proliferated in popularity.

Michael Holtz, the owner of SmartFlyer, a global travel consultancy specializing in airlines and airfare, said that many of his clients follow diet plans such as no-carb, gluten free, low-carb and vegan and want to stick to these plans when they’re in the air. “I even have one person who prefers to drink only green juices and tried to order a green juice meal for a recent flight,” he said. “Needless to say, that wasn’t an option.”

SmartFlyer sells around 25,000 tickets each year, and in 2017, a few thousand of these came with special meal requests, Holtz said, compared with a few hundred in previous years.

There’s also a perception that special meals taste better, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and the founder of Atmosphere Research Group. “People think, especially those in economy class, that special meals are fresher, healthier and tastier,” he said.

But one flight attendant, who has worked for a major U.S. airline for more than three decades and requested anonymity to protect her job, said that special meals aren’t a step up from regular meals and are definitely not healthier.

“It’s all airplane food,” she said. “The gluten free and children’s meals are the most terrible. Gluten free is usually just a pile of pasta and bread without gluten, and kids get a few chicken tenders, a cookie and a measly portion of vegetables.”

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip

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(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled

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(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online

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(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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