Peanut-allergy friendly travel options from Boston to Detroit?
December 4, 2011 9:15 PM   Subscribe

I need to travel from Boston, MA to Detroit, MI to visit my family this Christmas break. I'm faced with three options - fly, bus, or drive. I have a severe peanut allergy, so I'm trying to choose the safest option for me (with a preference for shorter travel times). In particular, how safe might Greyhound bus and United Airlines be for the peanut-allergic? Fellow allergics, would wearing a surgical mask help? Personal stories welcome.

My allergy is severe, but merely a whiff won't send me into shock. Prolonged exposure will make me feel ill at the very least, and this is not something I want to happen in an enclosed space. I will of course have my epi-pen, but that's a last resort.

Delta, which seems to offer the most flights from BOS to DTW, serves peanuts and is therefore not an option. United seems like the only one which is remotely allergy-friendly, of the ones that service this trip (Delta, United, American Airlines, US Airways). Amtrak is slow and very pricey. If anyone has information to the contrary, or any options I have not considered I would also love to hear it.
posted by Earl the Polliwog to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total)
A friend of mine is severely peanut-allergic on the scale you are, and regularly flies on multiple different airlines - she just contacts the airline in advance, makes them aware of this, and generally is able to arrange for the seats immediately around her to be served non-peanut snack options. For example, this is the Delta site for their "Services for Travelers with Disabilities," which explicitly covers their peanut allergy policy. My friend got a Delta flight originating out of Detroit earlier this year and specifically mentioned that she had no problems arranging a safe trip.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:23 PM on December 4, 2011

I would not feel comfortable being on a flight where the snack was peanuts for everyone besides those within a couple rows of myself. I suppose it couldn't hurt to contact them, but their website and other personal stories I've read were discouraging.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 9:28 PM on December 4, 2011

If you are trying to choose the safest method, drive. You control what goes in your vehicle. If it is a combiniation of safety, time and money, well only you can decide that trade-off.

Driving is probably the 2nd fastest too. Google maps says it is 720 miles and should take 12.5 hours. I think you can do it in 10.5 to 11. (11 hours would be averaging 65mph which is the speed limit most of the way.) If gas costs $3.50/gal and your vehicle gets 25 mpg on the highway it will cost you about $105 each way. Add whatever you think for wear and tear or rental fee. I would guess tolls of about $25 each way too just to be safe. The drive will probably be a little more than 2x as long as flying door to door.

Or, call the airlines like Tomorrowful suggests and see if they can "protect" you.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:29 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would not feel comfortable being on a flight where the snack was peanuts for everyone besides those within a couple rows of myself. I suppose it couldn't hurt to contact them, but their website and other personal stories I've read were discouraging.

If you're looking for that much of a peanut-free environment then I'd definitely suggest contacting all of the possible airlines and asking about their current snack options. At least a few don't serve peanuts, but I'd advise against relying too much on anecdotes and personal accounts because policies and in-flight menus do change and information that's at all out of date might be inaccurate today (eg, an airline might have moved to pretzels-only on account of allergies.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:33 PM on December 4, 2011

Even if the airline can serve an alternate snack other passengers can still carry them on board.
I carry granola bars and those have peanut butter sometimes. I nearly always carry a bag of mixed nuts.

posted by 26.2 at 9:36 PM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've been on planes where they marked out the seats around an allergic kid and didn't serve peanuts to anyone in those rows. It was on Delta, I think, or American, the last time I saw this. The flight attendant was very matter-of-fact about it, and it didn't seem to bother anyone else. Certainly didn't bother me.

I will say that I fly United the most often, and can't remember the last time I was given peanuts. Well, or any free food at all...
posted by gingerbeer at 9:51 PM on December 4, 2011

I would be careful of driving or busing it at this time of year. I used to do the Boston to Detroit route VERY regularly around Christmas time and there were often serious snow conditions between Boston and Detroit (the Erie area was always brutal and don't even try going through Canada). I think United sounds like the best option.

This may be an ignorant question, but could you bring a mask just in case?
posted by superfille at 9:52 PM on December 4, 2011

I'm not sure about a mask - how much it would help, even. I'm hoping there's someone here who's tried it.

If we drove, we would go around Canada due to my gf's visa not being valid for re-entry into the US.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 9:57 PM on December 4, 2011

I have a fairly bad peanut allergy and fly regularly. Note - my allergy is bad enough that I will feel nauseous and oozy if I'm in a space where people are eating peanuts, but that alone has never been enough to cause anaphylaxsis. As others have noted, you have most safety and control in your own car. Nonetheless, none of the United flights I've been on lately (and I've been on at least a dozen in the last year) have been peanuty. And it is certainly reasonable (though I don't actually bother) to call the airline in advance and ask them to not serve peanuts. One caveat - you have to give them plenty of notice (at least a week) because if you tell them at the last minute they won't have time to adjust their food plans and may not let you on the flight because of the liability risk. However, you can't control what people sitting next to you bring on the plane for themselves. Do you feel comfortable leaning over the seat and saying, "Excuse me, I'm sorry but I have a very bad peanut allergy and your snack could make me ill - would you mind saving that for after the flight?" (You could bring some extra snacks and offer to share them instead, etc. if that would make it less awkward...)

I'm not sure how much a mask would help - they're not advised for all airborne irritants (e.g., smoke) because they can actually trap particles on the inside and keep you breathing them longer. I think it would be more helpful to take some allergy medicine before getting on the plane (zyrtec, allegra, etc.) to keep potential reactions in check.

And as a side note, never fly Southwest - just getting on one of their planes is enough to make my eyes and nose start running, no matter what they serve on a particular flight. (Incidentally, I haven't had problems on American or Delta recently either, but I fly those much less often nowadays so it's a smaller sample size.)
posted by unsub at 10:03 PM on December 4, 2011

To clarify my mask suggestion, I am proposing an N95 mask, which should provide you with more protection.

Oh and as for the driving route, I would say the Erie, PA area can be just as risky as Canada because of the possibility of lake-effect snow. Historically, I have found that area problematic from Dec-Feb, but you never know.
posted by superfille at 10:10 PM on December 4, 2011

I don't recommend Greyhound. It takes as long as driving, and there is absolutely no expectation of Greyhound to supervise the bus passengers. The Greyhound staff on your bus consists of the driver, and that is all.

Airlines, on the other hand, have a lot of rules and great deal authority over the behavior of the passengers. Assigned seats only. Nothing sharp in your bag. No cell phone use, must wear your seatbelt, no loitering in the aisles, bag must fit underneath seat, behavior that may annoy passengers (loud or drunk or getting too romantic or not fitting into your seat) can get you in trouble. Beverages and food subject to a LOT of limitations, and the hassle of airport security means that most people don't risk arguing with a TSA agent about whether their PBJ counts as a gel or liquid and must therefore be in a 3 oz container.

Let the airline know about your allergy, and fly in good conscience. Honestly, peanuts aren't such a precious commodity that your allergy is denying people in your row something special. No-one looks around to see what other people got as a snack, and at least a quarter of the time they seem to run out of one snack halfway through the cabin anyway.
posted by desuetude at 10:30 PM on December 4, 2011

If you are worried to the point where it would be problematic for you if someone 15 feet away were eating peanuts driving is the only reasonable option.
posted by Justinian at 12:37 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

When you say you will have your epi-pen, you mean you will have it AND an antihistamine, right? :)
posted by Metasyntactic at 1:07 AM on December 5, 2011

I fly United regularly and I've never had or seen peanuts on a flight.

But I do the Boston-Columbus, OH drive every Christmas and just adjust down to I-80 through PA if I need to -- the lake effect generally doesn't reach down there. I do prefer the I-90 route, though.
posted by olinerd at 4:30 AM on December 5, 2011

I vote for you driving. You (a) get to control exactly what enters your vehicle and (b) don't have to worry about getting groped by the TSA.
posted by AMSBoethius at 5:01 AM on December 5, 2011

Go for United and contact the airline to let them know ahead of time. I haven't seen them serve anything but pretzels as a snack in years and the flight attendants will also be able to address the nearby passengers. Do Not take the greyhound bus. The driver (even if they are exceptionally kind) will not be able to help you on this and people on long awful bus rides may totally ignore your allergy.
posted by boobjob at 6:21 AM on December 5, 2011

With the caveat that I haven't flown in several years, I would be cautious about using a mask. I sometimes wear a surgical mask in public for different reasons than this, and have been harrassed by airline personnel who thought I might be carrying something contagious onto the plane, and told in one case that I had to remove the mask once on the plane for security reasons (becasue they needed to be able to see my face). If I was going to try that again, I would be sure to have a note from my doctor explaning the need for it.
posted by not that girl at 6:37 AM on December 5, 2011

How long can you be safely exposed to airborne allergens?

Flights from Boston to Detroit are about 2.5 hours, and flights back are shorter. If airborne exposure is a matter mostly of discomfort up to the point where it becomes dangerous to your health, you might still prefer that to driving for 12 hours each way. Especially if the airline has standard procedures for minimizing exposure.

I've driven between Boston and Erie many times, Erie and Detroit many times, and Boston and Detroit a few times. It can be an enjoyable roadtrip in the summertime if you have the leisure to take it easy, but otherwise it's just work and in the winter can require good snow driving skills. I'd recommend flying instead if at all possible.
posted by ardgedee at 6:50 AM on December 5, 2011

Honestly, all the flights I've been on recently (past several years even) haven't offered peanuts. I haven't flown Delta in awhile, but I think it's somewhat rare these days for airlines to have peanuts on them (if they even give you a snack at all, which is also getting rarer). So I think flying, and calling the airline to ask for no peanuts on the flight should be perfectly fine. 99% of the people aren't going to care whether they get peanuts or not, it's not like it's the worlds greatest snack or anything. Driving is safer I guess, but I don't know that it's necessary.
posted by katers890 at 8:23 AM on December 5, 2011

I flew Delta in October and was given peanuts without being asked.
posted by ardgedee at 9:06 AM on December 5, 2011

United first class serves warm mixed nuts still. I haven't flown Southwest in a long time, but I assume they still have their peanut packages and I know there's at least one other airline that serves a snack pack with peanuts in it.

That being said, I fly (a lot) and it's not all that unusual to have the purser announce that there is a passenger with a severe peanut allergy on board and as a result there are no peanut products on board during that flight. As a passenger it can be a bit of a bummer on flights where nothing else is available, but it's just one of those things. Besides, BOS > DTW is not that long of a flight so there should be minimal grumbling.

Of course, there is still the possibility that someone near you may have brought peanuts on board and that's outside of the airline's control.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:43 AM on December 5, 2011

Just as a point of reference, a friend of mine who has a severe peanut allergy moved out of the USA to a country that one has to fly to, and he manages to survive despite traveling back and forth between the US and his adopted home country. So it's possible to be a regular airline passenger with a severe peanut allergy.
posted by deanc at 10:53 AM on December 5, 2011

I figure if there's just one or two people eating something with peanuts it won't be an issue unless they're right next to me, and in that case I'd just ask them to hold off. I think a whole plane full of nut snacks would be a bit risky.

And yeah, I always have some diphenhydramine with me in addition to the epi-pen. Haven't had to use it for years now!
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:54 AM on December 5, 2011

And as a side note, never fly Southwest - just getting on one of their planes is enough to make my eyes and nose start running, no matter what they serve on a particular flight.

That's because every single time I've been on Southwest, they've been serving peanuts. Every. Time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:02 PM on December 5, 2011

First-hand experience with Southwest, less than a week old: When I flew from Irvine to Oakland last Thursday, one of the preflight announcements as we were waiting to take off was that "Because we have a passenger with a peanut allergy, there will be no peanuts served on this flight. Thanks for your understanding."
posted by Lexica at 1:04 PM on December 5, 2011

one of the preflight announcements as we were waiting to take off was that "Because we have a passenger with a peanut allergy, there will be no peanuts served on this flight.

That's just so bizarre and unnecessary. FWIW, I've never heard such a thing on any other airlines.
posted by desuetude at 7:24 PM on December 5, 2011

Why? It's Southwest and people are expecting their "frills" bag o'peanuts. Even on an hour long 6am flight Southwest gives out nuts. It's probably easier to just tell everyone that there will be no nuts than to explain it row by row as people ask.

I've heard that announcement on Southwest and in first class on American where they still serve mixed nuts.
posted by 26.2 at 7:41 PM on December 5, 2011

I was almost resigned to driving, but we wound up reserving a United flight. They promised me that United serves no peanut products.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:44 PM on December 10, 2011

The flights went well. It was clear to me from one person's comment I overheard on the flight that there are people who don't really care, but one or two people eating something small isn't a huge problem. I'm not very nervous about my next visit home now, and will probably fly rather than drive.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 8:05 PM on January 5, 2012

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