Quick Guide to Food Safety While Traveling in the U.S.

By Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Car Driving across U.S. - Quick Guide to Food Safety While Traveling in the U.S.


On the road again? Traveling can be exciting, educational, exhausting and energizing, and the food you enjoy while traveling can be delicious and memorable. However, culinary excursions while traveling can be a hazard to your health if you're not paying attention to proper food safety practices.

Food poisoning doesn't just occur in the home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die due to foodborne diseases. Don't spoil your trip and become part of these food safety statistics!

The golden rule when it comes to food safety anytime, anywhere is proper hand-washing. Wash your hands with soap and water before you eat and after you use the bathroom. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available. Pack it so you have it.

There's plenty more that you can do to fend off food safety risks. When eating and drinking while traveling, follow these tips for making it the safest culinary adventure you can.

Packing Food for the Car, Bus or RV Trip

  • Keep cold food cold. Place cold food in coolers with frozen gel packs or ice. Stashing it at 40°F or below prevents bacterial growth. Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another since you are likely to grab beverages most often.
  • Keep hot food hot. That means your best bet when packing is to take a pass on hot food unless you have a portable heating unit that can be used safely.
  • Rinse all fresh produce under running tap water before packing it in a cooler, including produce with peel-away skins or rinds.

Restaurants and Rest Stops

  • Beware of buffets. There's always the potential that food has not been held at proper temperatures or was mishandled by people with unclean hands.
  • Choose cold or hot foods, and steer clear of any food that's served at room temperature — that's within the temperature "danger zone" where bacteria can thrive.
  • Be safe with water. Water is regulated and tested throughout the U.S., but, when in doubt, don't drink the tap or well water. This also goes for anything made with water, such as ice or fountain drinks. Stick with sealed, bottled beverages if you have any concerns about the local water supply.

Food on Planes and Trains

  • Clean your hands before you eat. Even if you don't need to use the restroom, you'll still want to wash away germs you picked up in the airport or train station with soap and water or hand sanitizer.
  • Remember the two-hour rule. If you buy cold or hot food at the airport or train station, eat it within two hours of purchasing so bacteria doesn't have excess time to multiply. (In hot weather, the safe time limit is one hour.) Set a timer on your watch or phone to remind you.
  • Think before eating. Clean off your tray table before you use it with disinfectant wipes that you've packed and never set food directly on the tray table. If hot food is served on the plane or train, make sure it is, indeed, hot.

Eating at Your Destination

  • Don't take a vacation from food safety rules just because you're traveling. Fish, shellfish, meat and eggs are still unsafe to eat when raw, even at a fancy hotel.
  • Though the aromas may be tempting, consider skipping food from unknown street vendors. The safest strategy is to stick to tried-and-true dining establishments.
  • Be adventurous ... but not overly venturesome with meat selections. Just say "no thanks" to wild meat such as monkeys, bats and unusual game meat.

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