Hello everyone! I am back from our European island vacation. It was the best vacation yet and I’m already missing it. Gluten free was fantastic on the Canary Islands–but that will be covered in a different post. But first, I would like to share my experience with flying to the Canary Islands on Iberia Airlines.
Ordering a Gluten Free Meal
When we first booked our vacation package, I immediately called Iberia Airlines to inform them of requiring a gluten free meal on the transatlantic flight. This was in early March 2016. I was told that the gluten free meal was on my record immediately. I was quite pleased at how easy that was!
Next step, I pretty much stalked Iberia Airlines for the safeness of their gluten free options. I noticed that on their website they stated that their special meals (ex. nut free, gluten free, dairy free, vegan) are not recommended for those with allergies because they can’t guarantee and allergen free environment. From their website: “We offer a wide range of special meals to attend to intolerances but we cannot guarantee that the cabin is completely allergenic-free. Our dishes are prepared with the highest-quality ingredients, and we make every effort to attend to individuals with food allergies and intolerances. However, some traces may remain in our meals. If you suffer from an allergy, we recommend you bring your own food aboard.” Okay, I admit it: I freaked out! I was going to be in transit for roughly 15 hours!! Sure, I could pack PB&J sandwiches but with customs and TSA, how could I make it through??
Then I remembered…the vast majority of restaurants that offer gluten free food items but are not a dedicated gluten free facility state pretty much the same thing. “Although we strive to make gluten free entrees, there is always a risk of cross contamination. Please eat based on your medical needs.” Now..how many times have I seen this at restaurants?? ALL THE TIME. How about other airlines? Turns out…this statement is quite common. KLM and British Airways states that their meals may not be suitable for allergies…..And British Airways is highly highly praised by many celiacs across the internet and is ranked one of the best gluten free meals! WHAT. To me, this appeared to be more of a legal thing. These meals are not made in a dedicated gluten free facility (or nut free or dairy free) so there is always a risk of cross contamination, as with any non-100% gluten free restaurant. Okay then…I’ll breathe. What do other celiacs think of Iberia airlines? I turned to the online celiac community of course! My Life with Food Allergies had an article where Chynna (known as College Celiac) discussed her positive experience with Iberia airlines and their gluten free meals. Triumpth Dining also had a great article . This was just a few of the reviews I have read. I couldn’t find any negative reviews posted and celiacs seem to be handling the meals well.
Confirming My Gluten Free Meal
I called several times: 1) Upon booking 2) 1 month before 3) 2 weeks before 4) 1 week before 5-10) 48 hr before 11) 24 hr before. This may seem excessive….but it actually saved my gluten free butt! For instances 1-3, when I called, an Iberia representative assured me that there was a gluten free meal on file, although my online reservation said I had no meal requested. Okay…I get there can be glitches. So I called a week before (Time #4). Suddenly…they had no record of me ever ordering gluten free!! WHAT!!! Quickly, they adjusted my account and attached a gluten free meal request. They even emailed me a confirmation stating that I required a gluten free meal on my flight from New York to Madrid and back.
However, I felt uneasy…how could a meal magically disappear? When I called 48 hrs before (Time #5), my meal was missing again and they refused to help me. I had to call 5 times. One representative told me “Call back later. I don’t know how to help you.” Another said “It’s not that long of a flight.” I had an e-mail confirmation from them from less than 5 days before stating I would have gluten free. The representatives refused to acknowledge this e-mail. They were extremely rude and insensitive. One representative even hung up on me! I asked to be transferred to someone else and their response “I don’t know to transfer.” You work for a major airlines…and you don’t know how to transfer a call? Another agent told me that she put a note for her supervisor to call me back within an hour. I never received a call back. Thus, I called several more times and was told that the Iberia system would not allow them to enter a gluten free meal now…and they told me I needed to call American Airlines because they claim it was an AA flight. Wrong. It was a codeshare flight, yes. But it was operated by Iberia. The Iberia agent even admitted this and said “Well. I can’t help. Try American Airlines.” Which I did…American Airlines was fantastic! And tried to contact Iberia and make a note. but their help didn’t go far….because it was an Iberia operated flight not American! Iberia had to make the changes. American Airlines went out of their way to try to help and I can’t thank them enough. Finally, I spoke with someone at Iberia who was ridiculously helpful. He was able to add back the gluten free meal after speaking with a supervisor. He expedited the process and sent me confirmation. After many tears, I would have my gluten free meal! I called 24 hrs before and my meal was still in their system. Phew!
Receiving My Gluten Free Meal On the Plane
We arrive at JFK Airport to find that Iberia switched our seats (which we paid for). Although we still had seats next to each other thankfully, this seat change was still problematic as my meal was assigned to my seat. Immediately upon arriving at my gate, I waited for an Iberia agent to arrive so that I could confirm my meal. The agent arrived 15 minutes before boarding was supposed to begin (yes, only 15 minutes). Luckily, I was smart and had plopped myself right in front of the booth so I was first when she arrived–there was a HUGE line of many many unhappy passengers. Thankfully, they were able to transfer my meal despite the unexpected last minute seat change. I WOULD HAVE MY MEAL!
And this is where the story turns around…Immediately upon boarding, before I even buckled my seat belt, a flight attendant approached me and said “You have a gluten free meal, correct?” YES!!!! Shortly after take off, my meal was brought to me FIRST before anyone else! And everything was clearly labeled GFML (their code for gluten free!).
My dinner consisted of grilled chicken over rice with cooked veggies (peas, carrots, corn). I had a side salad and a cup of fruit. Instead of bread as the other passengers received, I had rice cakes. My meal was served with vegetable butter (non-dairy) and none of my meal had any dairy. The meal was honestly delicious!! The chicken was well cooked and the meal was filling. However, every item was labeled gluten free. I honestly didn’t feel like I was missing out compared to the other passengers–except for Ry because he was able to eat his meal and a nearby passenger’s meal who didn’t want hers. Double meal for Ryan!
For breakfast, I was given rice cakes, fruit, and juice. It was a little lacking compared to the pastries, sandwiches, and snacks that Ry received in his, but I was just happy to get anything.
On our return flight, I was immediately approached about having a gluten free meal upon boarding and was given my meal first. YAY! Everything was clearly labeled once again. We were given lunch (I think? It was an awkward time of day so it could have been dinner?). Anyway, it was FANTASTIC! As an entree, I had baked chicken over spinach with grilled veggies (potato, carrots, tomato, zucchini). I also had a side salad and cup of fruit. But this time..I had gluten free bread!!!! All ingredients were listed and the bread was DELICIOUS!!! I was so happy with this meal.
Finally, we had a snack, which far surpassed the breakfast on the flight from JFK to Madrid. The magical gluten free bread returned (success!). I also had a salad with fresh mozzarella–apparently this meal was not dairy free which is fine with me. The classic fruit cup returned as well.
Best of all..none of my meals glutened me. 😀
My Overall Impression of Gluten Free on Iberia Airlines
Overall Food quality: 1) JFK to Madrid: B+ 2) Madrid to JFK: A (Ryan would like to tell everyone that their non-gluten free is the absolute best!!!). I really loved how Iberia made the meal feel like a “normal” meal. Fruits, veggies, protein, and something “bread-y.” The meals were delightful–with the flight back being superior. I really appreciated the care that the flight attendants themselves took to give me the correct meal. Checking in with me upon boarding and giving me my food first was a huge relief. I loved the labeling and how everything was covered which prevents other meals from dropping in.
Would I fly Iberia again? Maybe, but probably not for a while. Their customer service was the worst and caused much more stress than really needed. Having to call over 10 times to confirm a gluten free meal is pretty ridiculous. I never received an apology for them losing my gluten free meal…TWICE. Instead, I was met with rudeness. Hanging up on a customer or talking down to a customer is not okay. Gluten free traveling is stressful enough…without all of this. Mistakes do happen, but taking responsibility for those mistakes and trying to help is necessary!
Have you flown Iberia? What is your experience with international flights and gluten free? Which airlines do you recommend and which would you advise against?