10 Tips for Traveling with a Child with Special Needs
The rewards of traveling with your family are myriad, and include time together, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and fond memories. (Even plans that go horribly awry provide fodder for some of the best stories!)
But let's not kid ourselves. There are challenges, too. Kids of all ages can get tired, bored, hungry, cranky, and demanding. And if you're traveling with a child with special needs, the challenges can be even greater.
If you're the parent of a child with special needs, you may have already found yourself wrestling with the transportation of wheelchairs or special medical devices, or dealing with sensory issues, restricted diets, incontinence or social fears. Perhaps hyperactivity or behavioral issues have led to a meltdown at the worst possible moment (like when your plane is stuck on the runway for two hours).
As you've probably learned, preparation is your best offense and defense. To help make your next trip a little simpler, we've put together a list of things to consider when planning your vacation and packing. We can't guarantee smooth sailing, but following these suggestions just might make that family cruise around the Bahamas a bit more enjoyable.
Tips for booking your trip:
- Consider using a travel agency that specializes in helping people with special needs. Flying Wheels Travel (flyingwheelstravel.com), for example, helps people with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses experience accessible travel around the world. Autism on the Seas (www.autismontheseas.com) offers cruises for people with autism, Down syndrome and other related disabilities.
- Choose a destination that caters to people with disabilities. Morgan's Wonderland (morganswonderland.com) in San Antonio, Texas is a theme park designed to accommodate children of all abilities. Every ride is accessible to guests with disabilities. Many major state beach destinations now offer free or low-cost beach wheelchairs rentals.
- Check out your seat options on Seat Guru (seatguru.com). This site lets you evaluate seating based on legroom, seat width, and overhead storage capacity, as well as DC power, food and Internet accessibility. This will help you determine where your child might do best on the plane. You'll also want to consider proximity to the restroom and whether a window, middle or aisle seat will work best.
- When figuring out the best time of day to travel, weigh as many factors as you can. It's important to identify the time of day your child travels best, but don't forget to factor in other dynamics. For example, if flying at night when your child is normally asleep sounds like a good plan, will you be more exhausted? Will you need to wake your child to deplane for layovers? Will a later flight be more susceptible to cancellation or overbooking?
- Get a note from your doctor. A letter from your pediatrician explaining your child's condition/disease/disorder can be helpful when you're asking for special accommodations (e.g., being seated together when a flight is nearly full) or upgrading. Offer to fax or email the letter to the airline or travel agency, and carry a copy with you as you travel.
Before your trip:
- Review the airline's (and TSA's) rules in advance. You don't want any surprises if you're traveling with assistive devices or wheelchairs, and you may even learn that there are special baggage claim areas or check-ins, like the TSA's Precheck lane. Check-in online at home if possible.
- Evaluate medications. Plan so you won't run out of medications while you're on vacation or immediately after returning home.
- Identify pediatricians, specialists, or urgent care facilities in your destination city before you need them. If you suddenly need to seek medical assistance for your child while on vacation, it's best to know in advance where you can go-especially at night or on weekends.
- Practice the travel routine at home. You can read a book about going on a plane, practice the procedures at home with a "mock flight," or even visit the airport in advance to get your child used to the sights and sounds.
- What to pack:
Besides medications, you'll need to consider your child's specific medical, behavioral, dietary and emotional needs. Must-pack items may include:
- Headphones to drown out noise
- Soothing music
- A tablet, smartphone, laptop or other technology with games, music, and movies that don't require Internet access.
- Wipes and hand sanitizer
- A copy of your child's birth certificate and immunizations (in case they get hurt on the trip or will be in daycare)
- A favorite blanket and/or stuffed animal
- A sweater or coat
- A change of underwear or Pull-Up, if necessary
- Books and quiet, no-mess toys and art supplies
- Stroller and car seat
- EarPlanes (to relieve air pressure discomfort)
- Dramamine for kids (for motion sickness)
- A favorite sippy cup or bottle (though there are restrictions to bringing liquid on planes)
- Postcards and stamps
- Sunscreen, sunglasses and sun hats
Make a list of the five or so things you HAVE to bring (e.g., medications, passports, tickets) with the assumption that other things can be purchased on the trip if necessarily. The more preparation you put into the trip, the more you and your family can enjoy it!
Do you have a tip or trick that helps you travel with your child with special needs? Please share below in the comments to help other moms!