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Tips to Make Special Needs Travel Simpler

Just like life with our unique kids, special needs travel requires extra planning and some extra thought. Every family should have the chance to travel. In fact, parents of kids with special needs should get a regular break to restore. But family travel with neuro-typical kids can be challenging enough, and there’s so much more to plan for and think about when you travel with special needs on deck. So how on earth are you to figure out a way to make special needs travel work? Well, if you do your homework, the experience can be very rewarding.

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Make Special Needs Travel Manageable

Traveling, like life with special needs children, works best when there’s planning involved. Do your homework and the trip can be a memorable and happy event for all. You’ll need to look for travel destinations, accommodations, and the like that are easily accessible to special needs kids. It’s a bit of leg work, but it’s so worth it. Believe me, we have taken several trips with our kids and the most successful adventures we have had together have been the ones where we planned ahead.

Packing for Flights

Packing for family travel is one of the most important aspects of your trip. Any child can get cranky or out of sorts when they don’t have their favorite snacks or items, but for some kids with sensory issues and other various unique needs, it can lead to a nuclear meltdown. Pack to prevent that.

  • Identification: This goes without saying for all kids, but in the case of special needs travel, it’s doubly important. You need ID in case of any sort of emergency. I have in the past used a lot of Mabel’s Labels 411 wristbands for this. My daughter would even ask for them. We had one that was impulsive and a runner and another daughter who was anxious. The wristbands helped them both.
  • Favorite Snacks: For some children with special needs, even different food can be stressful. Always bring plenty of your child’s favorite portable snacks to give them one less element of stress. And pack extras just in case.
  • Favorite Clothes: Most special needs kids require consistency to feel safe, and nothing feels as safe as their favorite clothes. Don’t make flight day the day to try the new polyester top or the wool socks with seams. That’s a recipe for disaster.
  • Favorite Activities: Whether it’s coloring books or their favorite app, make sure you bring along your child’s favorite activities to help distract them and give them the consistency they need.

Navigating the Airport

Because our kids can be easily overwhelmed, it’s important to have a plan in place for navigating the airport.

  • Get Your Ducks in a Row Before You Leave: Check in and select seats before you go to the airport and do curbside bag check (if you can) to limit the amount of time you have to spend waiting.
  • Special Lines: Use the family lines at the airport to reduce wait time and limit your special needs child’s stress level. If these lines are too long, find a TSA officer and explain your situation. They’ll accommodate you.
  • Potty Time BEFORE the Flight: Airplane bathrooms are small and cramped. Make sure your child hits the bathroom before you board.
  • Shuttles: Large airports often have shuttles to limit the amount of walking you have to do. This is a useful service for parents of special needs children. Use it if it is offered.

The Plane

When flying with special needs kids, you’ll want to take into account the time and anything they need to feel comfortable.

  • Stopover: If you’re taking a long trip, it might be best to book a flight with a stopover. This allows your child to get out and stretch his or her legs and get away from the cramped space of a plane.
  • Travel to Suit Your Child: Try to book flights during the times when your child is generally most calm and relaxed.
  • Choose the Best Airline: While most airlines are required to accommodate children and adults with special needs and/or disabilities, some do a better job than others. Look for reviews from customers to determine the airline that’s right for you. Talk to friends who have been there and determine which ones understand and help and which ones are better left alone. Talk to me – I can let you know which airlines have worked for us and which cruise lines are incredible and even which resorts worked magnificently for us – and I can tell you which ones were not accommodating at all. (too many of those still actually.)
  • Choose the Best Seat: Every special needs child has a different need, so choose a seat in a location that best suits your child’s particular needs. For instance my one daughter needs space so she isn’t bumped. If she were in the middle seat and getting bumped all the time that could be a recipe for a meltdown. That would not be okay to manage at 30,000 feet. Although we have had to do that once.

Special Needs Travel Can Be So Rewarding

Our trips with family are my favourite times of all. For instance we recently returned from Smuggler’s Notch with our kids and we were stunned at how well they accommodated and met everyone’s needs. I left feeling amazing about humanity. That sounds overstated but in our day to day life we are often forced to battle for every tiny scrap of support for our children. It’s exhausting and draining and brutally unfair sometimes. So, when I find a place that celebrates my kids, well all kids really, and works well with them, I feel like anything is possible. That is fuel for my next 3-4 months of parenting and advocating. That is another reason why we travel. It’s not an add on here. It’s my reality.

Special needs families can successfully travel if we make sure we cover all of their triggers and reduce stress. Every child is different, and because of that, this is by no means a complete list. However, these tips are a good starting point for traveling with a special needs child.

Mom of two beautiful active girls, traveller, fitness junkie, social media consultant, and keeper of the sanity.

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