Traveling as a Special Needs Family
Sometimes I joke that it must be hard on my children, who all four have special needs, to have a mom who has an urge for wanderlust. I just love exploring the world. Which makes my four kids frequent flyers too.
Last fall we traveled to Asia and it went so much better than I had anticipated. There was something in there for them as well, the prospect of seeing komodo dragons, which was an amazing opportunity.
Although I dreaded the idea of flying, especially since I went by myself with four special needs kids, I feel that every time that we travel it gets easier.
I learned that IT CAN BE DONE. We all know what to expect and we are getting into a routine. I will share what I did and hope it will be helpful for you as well.
Even an extensive itinarary is an option when you take time to plan ahead and prepare.
Last fall, we flew from Denver to Tokyo, and from Tokyo to Beijing. We had an awful long layover.
Then we flew from Beijing to Denpasar, Bali. While we were on Bali we enjoyed a week there and did a ton of exploring.
We continued our trip by flying from Denpasar, Bali to Komodo Island where we got to see some amazing wildlife. On our way back we flew from Komodo Island to Denpasar, Bali to Singapore to Beijing.
We stayed in Beijing for a couple of days and soaked in some cultural sights. From there we continued flying to San Fransisco and back to Denver.
I tried to make every stopover predictable and fun. We had sushi in Tokyo and tea in Beijing. The kids knew what to expect and I was prepared for things to go wrong and ready to handle them.
Keep on reading for 21 tips to make your next trip a successful one. Believe that it CAN be done!
Booking a Flight for your Special Needs Child
1. Booking the flight:
It all starts with booking a flight. Even though I prefer to have a direct flight, it is not always an option or in my budget. I tend to take my time researching flight options and I use flexible searches using Skyscanner and Momondo.
Since we are a family of six, flying somewhere can become costly quickly so budget is my first criteria and secondly, I look at the duration of the flight.
2. Best time to travel for your child:
You know your child and know which time of day would work best. The most challenging part for my boys is when they have to wait and dealing with uncertainty.
I check the duration of the flight and the destination arrival time. Based on those two pieces of information I choose my departure time. I do factor in that our arrival day is a day to get adjusted to our new surroundings.
3. Choosing an airline company:
The most affordable option is not always the best option for people with disabilities. Some are more equipped to service special needs children than others. Unfortunately, I know this from experience.
Lately, we have flown with multiple airline companies and had good experiences with United, All Nippon Airways, Singapore Airlines, Southwest, Airasia.
We’ll never fly again with Garuda Airlines. For our next trip, we’ll be flying United again. Which airline company do you prefer?
4. Request special assistance during booking:
During your booking, there is an option to check if your child needs special assistance and if you need to bring your service animal.
Depending on the agent or airline company you’re booking through the options may vary. My kids also prefer a kids meal, which you can add during the booking process as well.
If you’ve booked your flight and forgot to request special assistance, look on the website of your airline company.
5. Pre-arrange seating and wheelchair assistance:
To make your trip a success, seating is one of the most important things. Straight after booking my airplane tickets, I call the airline company. United even has a special assistance office in the United States.
When talking to the agent I request bulk seats, upfront and near the bathroom of the plane because I’m traveling with kids with special needs. If those seats are available, those seats are granted. If not they will do the best they can to accommodate us.
These seats are a lifesaver and not only accommodating for my family but also for everyone on the airplane. If my kids don’t have meltdowns, everyone benefits.
I also request wheelchair assistance for all my transfers. My kids can walk, run, jump etc. But they lack endurance and sometimes they can’t walk at all. I do bring two baby carriers, just in case. It is better to be prepared.
Preparing for the Flight with your Special Needs Child
6. Medical Preparations:
Here are a few tips for medical preparations:
- Request a letter from the doctor with your child’s diagnoses and medication information.
- Bring their medical records if your child is medically complex and you need more than the letter.
- Request your doctor for contact details from a specialist you could reach out to in the area you will be in.
- If your child takes medication, make sure you bring enough to last you the whole trip and a little beyond.
- Ask the doctor for supplement recommendations when your child suffers from anxiety for flying and recommendations for motion sickness. The latter also works wonders if you are planning on taking a boat trip!
- Look into needed vaccines for your destination and prepare your child for those.
Our primary care practice offers virtual reality goggles when administering vaccines to helpt to reduce anxiety. However, when my children needed vaccines for our trip to Asia, we were still in their office for over four hours. Luckily the nurses were very patient.
When you bring your child’s wheelchair on the plane, bring the wheelchair cushion in the airplane with you. I didn’t know this and lost ours.
7. Let your children know what you expect from them:
Prepare a social story on what to expect while traveling on an airplane. Include all the things you know you will encounter on your trip, like immigration services, waiting, running into people from different cultures. Prep them on using the bathroom on an airport and on an airplane, having to stay close to mom and dad and that we can have calm bodies and voices while we are in those situations.
We also include that things might go unexpected and that we can be flexible.
8. Prepare with visual aids:
Make your children’s world by giving them all the information. Read books, watch videos and movies on flying an airplane. It can be non-fiction or fiction.
9. Activities at the destination:
Knowing what lies ahead in this uncertainty of traveling gives comfort. Check what activities are available at the destination that aligns with your child’s interest so they have something to focus on.
When we were traveling to Asia, we were going to my cousin’s wedding. At the same time, I knew we were going to do a ton of other fun stuff and the kids could focus on that. At every stopover and destination, they knew what to expect. It gave them a sense of security.
Always bring a baby carrier or a woven sling!
10. Visit an airport:
Airports are loud and busy. Most people are in a hurry.
To have experienced this beforehand and to know what to expect is very helpful and can even be a fun trip. My boys know that when we go to the airport, they get donuts.
For them, those two go hand in hand. Call your airport before you plan your visit, some airports even accommodate tours to help your special needs child to get acquainted.
11. Make an interactive animated travel map:
A fun way to prepare for your trip is to make an interactive travel map with your child to give them an idea of the world and where they are going. You can even add pictures. Afterward, you can make another one and compare the before and after version.
12. Mock Flights:
There are airline companies all around the world that offer mock flight experiences. They help prepare your special needs child for the actual flight. During the mock flight, everything is done like it happens during a real flight, except the actual flying.
13. Prepare your kids for the immigration process:
When you are in the United States call TSA and ask about their special needs program.
This link goes to their disabilities and medical conditions page.
14. Check-in online:
Avoid another line and check-in online. When you arrive at the airport, all you need to do is drop off your luggage. If you need wheelchair assistance, ask where to go next.
While waiting for the flight to boards, tell the agent at the gate you need to be seated first because you are traveling with a child with special needs. This is also the time to make sure you have the inflight entertainment app of your airline company on your iPad/tablet and to make sure the devices are completely charged.
Even though a lot of airplanes do have charging options right now. Some don’t. Be prepared for the unexpected.
On the Plane with your Special Needs Child
16. Bring a sensory bag:
I bring a bag with noise-canceling headphones, a busy book, fidget items and sensory items to keep hands busy especially during pre-boarding, take-off, and landing.
17. Baby carrier:
NEVER travel without a baby carrier. There is nothing worse than having to carry your child in your arms, while also carrying your carry-on and suitcase. And children do get heavy quickly when they sleep.
Our 6-year-old has trouble walking and has a wheelchair. However, I prefer to have him in a carrier which makes boarding and unboarding so much easier. Since the wheelchair can’t go on the plane and I end up carrying him anyway.
I even travel with two carriers and I have our 6-year-old on my back and our 4-year-old on the front. Using the baby carriers mean I have my hands free for my bags or holding the hand of my other two children.
18. Wearing same color sweaters:
One of the things I am most concerned about when traveling is losing my children in crowded places. This anxiety hit me especially when we were in China.
My solution is having all my kids wear the same sweater in my preferred color. It is the color that I can spot anywhere, which is red.
By the way, red is not a good color when you go to China, because there is a lot of red everywhere. Red is the color of good fortune. But… I did NOT lose my kids.
19. Bring preferred snacks:
I mentioned before with the activities that I try to make it as much fun for them as possible.
Having things to look forward to helps a lot. Another thing that helps is snacks.
Remember what I do every time we go to the airport? Right, they get donuts! Normally we eat very healthy, but when we travel they get all their preferred crappy foods. They are still gluten-free, besides the donut at the airport.
I pick my battles. I want them to have an amazing trip. If they are doing okay, then no one on the airplane even knows that they have special needs and I did an amazing job.
However, if they have a meltdown… I don’t want to go there. Let’s go to tip 19!
19. Come prepared and bring devices:
I think a device makes everyone happy. Look around you wherever you go and people are looking at a screen. It is not different on an airplane.
First of all, I make sure all the iPads are charged, the inflight entertainment app is downloaded and the chargers and headphones/earplugs are packed. If you fly internationally, make sure you have a travel adapter for when you arrive.
Secondly, if there are screens available on the plane we use those first and only use the iPads when there are no screens available or when the boys want to play a game.
On regular days we have a whole schedule for screentime, but not on travel days. It totally depends on how your children react to screens, of course.
I noticed when there are no screens available on a flight, it was easier for my boys to eventually fall asleep when the iPad batteries depleted.
20. My secret device:
What do you do when all devices are depleted, there are no screens available on the plane and you have another flight of 8 hours. My special needs boy was about to collapse and have a meltdown and there it was. This cube that came out of my backpack. And all of a sudden he was watching a movie from Netflix. Projected onto the back of the seat in front of him.
I had to hold him and it took him another 20 minutes for his body to calm down before he could enjoy the movie. It was a Cinemood video projector with preloaded movies in case there are no screens available. We have also used it on long stopovers and on ceilings in hotels. You can find more info on Cinemood on my Instagram. And with the code eatpurelove you will get a 10% discount on your own Cinemood portable video projector.
Tips for Car Rental
21. Disability Parking Permit:
While I’m preparing for our next flight, I am renting a car and was wondering if my US disability placard is valid somewhere else around the world. And to my delight it is. I am so happy!
So if you are going on a trip, don’t forget to bring your Disability Placard if you have one. Click here to check Disability permits/placards around the world.
Being Okay and Flexible with the Unexpected
The most important thing I’m trying to achieve with all of these steps is creating a sense of predictability and routine around traveling and flying. While still making it possible for me to travel around the world and share that experience with my boys. They recently told me that they enjoy traveling and ask me when we go again. So I must be doing something right. I also feel by preparing EVERYTHING, I don’t have to worry so much. I am prepared for the unexpected and we can be flexible about it, together!
What do you do to make your travels easier? Share in the comments below!
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