The Vegan Backpacker Masterpost

Probably the most common question I get next to "how do you afford to travel?" is:

"How do you stay vegan when you travel?"

The answer is, simply. 

The ironic thing is that if I weren't looking to pinch pennies for every trip I take, it may actually be a bit harder to be vegan abroad; after all, it's hard enough already going out to eat in the U.S., let alone Eritrea or Uruguay. Saving money as a backpacker usually involves cooking and preparing my own food instead of eating out at restaurant after restaurant. This allows me to save money while also being very much in control of what I'm eating.

What About Missing out on Cultural Experiences?

I've heard from close friends that they find it amusing that now I almost exclusively eat my own cooked/prepared food when I'm traveling, because before I went vegan I was the person who always eagerly stepped up to try the local delicacies: scorpion and snake on a stick, fried spiders, live grubs, sheep brain, straight goat blood (still warm from the jugular), deep fried guinea pig, llama tartar, putrified shark and puffin... to be honest, the list could go on for awhile. I also thoroughly enjoyed the more westernized cuisines, such as buttery croissants and oozing eclairs in Paris, or seafood platters the size of a small car along the Mediterranean, or cheese fondues with a full-fat cappuccino in the Swiss Alps. Initially when I went vegan back in 2013, I was concerned that suddenly I'd feel deprived without trying all these different kinds of food around the globe, but all it took was a solid perspective shift for me. The devastating environmental impact of eating animal products, not to mention the inexcusable cruelty, does not magically disappear while on vacation. While I do think that one of the best ways to experience a culture is through their cuisines, I hold myself to the mindset that ethics don't bend for a momentary meal; and plus, you'd be surprised how many cuisines around the world are mostly plant-based, or can be made plant-based.

That being said, some of my favorite vegan meals have been abroad: couscous in a heavy vegetable stew, called tagine, in Morocco; falafel gyros stuffed with tahini sauce and paprika fries in Turkey and Greece; heaps of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil, garlic, toasted bread, and sea salt in practically every seaside country along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts; plates piled high with gallo pinto (rice and beans stewed together with fresh herbs and spices), sweet plantains, and fresh salads in Costa Rica; avocado smoothies and yuca fries dipped in mouth-wateringly flavorful sauces in West Africa; dark chocolate roasted with hazelnuts in Switzerland; vegan wienerschnitzel in Austria and dairy-free gelato in Rome; all the curries and matars and naans and samosas and chutneys in India and Nepal; fresh, steaming vegetable dumplings in bustling Shanghai markets. 

It's a whole other part of the world -- and part of traveling -- to get to know.

What About Offending People Who Offer You Food?

An extremely valid concern for vegan or vegetarian travelers is what to do in the situation when a local offers you some sort of food that isn't vegan. This is where a gray area arrises.

Let's use an example of when I ended up at a family's home in rural northern Nepal, in a village somewhere along the border to Tibet. I had recently transitioned to vegan, and wasn't sure what to do when I heard some rummaging in the kitchen, and the mother of the house suddenly appeared in front of me with a big, heaping bowl of something. Something with hunks of bone, cheese, and what I'm sure was roped intestine floating in a thick brown stew. Not to mention a cup of Tibetan butter tea filled to the brim. (Butter tea is made from three ingredients: tea leaves, salt, and butter from a yak).

Now, my extent of the Tibetan language is hello and goodbye, so any attempt I made to communicate that animal products would upset my stomach wasn't exactly translating. In a perfect world, I'd know how to communicate that meat and dairy makes me sick (because at that point I really was concerned that my body would react poorly to having a sudden huge intake of what I'd ridded from my diet three months prior), but that didn't seem to be in the cards. 

And she was kneeling there, smiling and eager, and so I accepted it, and I drank it all, slurped it all, make plenty of delicious! moaning sounds and belly-rubs, and was grateful.

And that's it.

There will be plenty of occasions while traveling where I can politely decline a meal because I can't eat what's being offered to me and there is no offense taken (usually when there's ample communication and they understand that you truly may get sick), but there are also occasions (particularly during home-stays) where someone has truly and earnestly cooked something for me, and to decline it would be disrespectful beyond anything you or I could imagine. Sometimes you'll be in a position where you have to accept food that's offered, and I encourage you to be gracious, courteous, and to never forget the privilege it is for someone to provide nourishment for you; even if it's not the nourishment you're used to getting.

(Also, yes, for those of you wondering: I did get sick from the butter tea and intestine stew. But now it's a story to tell, and no one was offended in the process).

Favorite Vegan Traveler Meals and Tips
  • When it comes to breakfast, most hostels will offer some kind of complimentary fare that will consist mostly of non-vegan foods, but there are always a few gems. Scope out the breads, peanut butter, jams and marmalades, fruit, vegetables, and margarine. You may even get lucky and find Heinz baked beans (vegan) or oatmeal (ask if it was made with milk or water) at hostels that offer a more full English breakfast. However, even at the most bare-bones breakfasts, you are guaranteed to find bread and jam at the very least. (And honestly, you're better off eating that than instant-eggs and canned sausages, anyway). 
  • If your hostel does not offer breakfast, some favorite backpacker breakfasts of mine are: banana and peanut butter on bread/toast, fruit salads, instant oatmeal bought at a grocery store with a handful of nuts or dried fruits, apples and pears, cereal with almond or soy milk, or leftovers from what I made the night before (note: cold pasta, stir fries, and pizza tastes awesome the next morning straight out of the fridge)
  • Before leaving on your trip, consider stocking up on a dozen or so hearty and nutritious granola bars that can fill in for a meal or snack when no vegan options are available, such as Cliff bars, Pro Meal bars, or Luna Bars. That way, you can at least guarantee you'll never be hungry.
  • For lunch, a bag of bread, jam, and peanut butter offers a whole week’s worth of lunches for barely a dollar each. And when PB&J sandwiches get tiring, other quick and awesomely cheap lunch ideas are: bean salad (buy canned beans and veggies – such as kidney beans, chickpeas, green beans, corn, peas, canneli beans, mushrooms, and whatever else you find, drain the liquid from the cans, and mix whichever veggies & beans you want together with a splash or two of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or tomato sauce), veggie sandwiches (slice some sweet peppers, cucumber, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, and throw them on two mustard-slathered pieces of bread, and voila- also the perk of this is that mustard can go for a few days with refrigeration and stay edible, as opposed to hummus or condiments from animal products which need refrigeration)
  • For dinner, some more ideas are: pasta with tomato sauce, and to bulk it up, throw in a can or two of veggies or beans (I personally like peas, mushrooms, and chickpeas in my backpacker pastas); rice with lentils/beans/veg; stir fry; stews and soups (grab some veggie broth, veggies, beans, grains such as barley, and cheap spices to make a hearty few meals); curries; veggie ramen; veggie hot-dogs, which are surprisingly common to find and quick to prepare; if there’s an oven or you’re cooking over an open flame, take advantage and make roasted veggies by mixing them with olive oil and salt, or wrap up veggies, corn, and potatoes in tin foil to roast over a fire.
  • If you’re going to be staying somewhere with a freezer, use that opportunity to buy frozen veggies to add to your dinner for a variation from canned veggies (more nutritional content in frozen veg)
  • If you’re in a region where avocados are everywhere, take advantage and make guacamole, or smashed avocado sandwiches/toast with salt and pepper. If you want to get fancy, throw in chopped onions, tomato, and lettuce. 
  • In bigger Western cities, it’s common now to find plant milks at big supermarkets (such as rice or soy milk); look out for that if you have a hankering for cereal and you have a place to refrigerate the milk.
  • Learn how to say vegetarian/vegan, milk, cheese, butter, egg, and no in the local language, or at the very least, write them down and keep them on you! If you’re eating out and are unsure if something contains animal products, you’ll be able to ask. 
  • If you have a fridge and you find hummus at the local market, stock up on that and make some hummus veggie sandwiches. 
  • Snacks that can endure long travel days without spoiling or bruising: apples, pears and bananas as long as they're a bit underripe, carrots/peppers/cucumbers, pretzels (check for whey in the ingredients), dark chocolate (usually 75% cacao or more is vegan but check anyway), granola bars, nuts and dried fruits, potato chips, pickles (I may be weird about that but I love pickles and they last forever)

AND is an excellent resource for finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants (or at least restaurants that offer veg options) in most cities around the world.

Happy carrot munching and globe trotting!