Travel with special needs kids requires some extra attention, accommodations, and patience. I still wince when I think of the time my then five-year-old had such an out-of-control tantrum while inside a port-a-potty, I thought he might knock it over, with himself inside it! And that happened ten years ago! Parents of kids with special needs all probably have some travel horror stories to share, but guess what? So do ALL parents. It’s nearly family vacation time, and boy do we all need a getaway this year. Here are five family vacation tips custom-made for travel with special needs kids, to use when you decide the time is right for safe family travel:
Planning is key!
But there’s a catch: not only do we have to plan everything in advance, but we also have to be flexible in a pinch! Travel is, by nature, a fluid thing, and one of the gifts of travel is spontaneity. Kids can learn to adapt to new and different situations when we travel with them, whether our trip is to Grandma’s house in the same state or across the world. But for kids with special needs, ‘new’ and ‘different’ can feel overwhelming. Talk about your vacation weeks ahead of time, not only to get kids excited, but to start laying the groundwork of expectations. Allow older kids to help with the planning: show them the map and ask them to highlight the route your car will take, or give them the task of picking out one or two roadside pit stops.
Know what you can expect upon arriving at your destination, and have a back-up plan in mind. No one likes being stuck at the airport waiting for a ride that never showed up, but the situation can feel twice as stressful when a child with special needs is asked to wait unexpectedly. If your Plan A is to take the airport shuttle to your hotel, for instance, research the cost of an Uber, too, and where the Uber pick-up line is located. That way, if you have to change plans, your child can see that you’re well in control of the situation.
Call your hotel or resort before arrival, and ask questions about your room if you require extra amenities, or about any programming you’d like to participate in, such as kids’ clubs or babysitting services. Accommodations can almost always be made with enough advanced warning. A club or hotel may need to schedule extra employees or order different supplies.
Plan ahead for contingencies your child may not be used to at home, as well. Examples: waiting in restaurants for food, or waiting in line at Disney. Bring plenty of familiar distractions, toys, and snacks for these situations.
Routine is everything.
Yes, travel is hectic, but travel with special needs means slowing down and making adjustments. Try to keep your child on your usual routine as much as possible. This may mean pausing midday to return to your hotel for naptime (which means picking a hotel within easy walking distance of area attractions…see tip #1). Or, it may mean staying in a rental home so you have use of a kitchen, so you can prepare familiar meals. Stick to predictable mealtimes, naptimes, and bedtimes, even if it means missing out on something. A smooth travel day will be remembered more fondly than squeezing in that museum visit that resulted in a meltdown.
Ask for the accommodations offered at the airport.
Know ahead of time what you can ask for, such as extra time to go through security for children with complex medical conditions, autism, or developmental delays. Start with a friendly smile, and be understanding of other passengers. Often this means allowing others to go around you or waiting for a dedicated lane to be opened for you. Again, this comes back to planning…always allow for extra time when it comes to travel with special needs kids.
Keep a typed list of all your child’s medications on your person at the airport and during your travel day, and confirm that you and your child have seats together BOTH during online check-in, AND at the airport. Again, a smile goes a long way. Pack all medications in clear plastic quart-sized bags, which are TSA compliant, and give your child the play-by-play as you go through the steps required to get from check-in to getting on the plane (for example, ‘First, we go through security, then we will get a snack…’).
Research ahead of time what types of car seats are allowed on the plane, and which types of strollers can be used for loading. Keep in mind that most airlines are notorious for handling strollers and wheelchairs with less care than we would like, and consider if your child will need wheels or not. If not, shipping a familiar stroller to your destination may be a good idea. For more detailed tips regarding specific destinations, check out the resources for special needs at TravelingMom.
Keep things short and sweet.
When possible, a shorter, more successful trip is a better choice than a longer one. Or, break up longer trips with multiple stops, where you can linger in each destination longer. This can be especially helpful for children with ADHD, for whom sitting for long stretches in a car or on a plane can be challenging. Pack plenty of games and distractions (more than you think you’ll need), and allow kids to ‘open’ a new, small gift every day of travel. Opt for shorter flight legs instead of one long-haul, or travel at night (unless the disruption to routine will be too severe). Plan stops along your route that allow for plenty of physical play, such as parks or children’s museums, and look for play areas during flight layovers. Try to limit screentime to when your child is contained in their seat, keeping things active when they’re out and about.
Honor your child’s agenda, but make time for YOU too.
A family vacation is for everyone, so while you should definitely include that dinosaur museum on the agenda for your dino-obsessed child, you should also include that snorkel tour you’re dying to do, even if it means tag-teaming with your partner or spouse or finding a babysitting service that is familiar with your child’s needs. Can’t get away for that long? Order room service one night after your child’s bedtime and enjoy a romantic meal in the hotel room (opt for a suite or look for hotels with balconies and patios), or get away for that on-site yoga class while your partner gets everyone breakfast.