What You'll Learn
- How can families help kids with special needs prepare for air travel?
- What are some ways to make road trips easier for kids with special needs?
- How can families make hotel stays work for kids with special needs?
Nearly one in two Americans plan to take a trip this season, according to a recent survey. If your child has anxiety, autism, sensory issues, or other special needs, the travel industry has stepped up to make traveling less challenging for you. The Child Mind Institute tapped its own experts, as well as travel pros and families who travel frequently, to create this guide to help you sleigh, er, slay flights and road trips this holiday season and all year long.
Getting ready to fly
Research potential airports. More than 15 U.S. airports — including those in Atlanta, Miami, and Seattle — have dedicated sensory or quiet rooms that families can retreat to rather than waiting at the gate or in a crowded lounge. Some rooms have bean-bag chairs, quiet music, and dim lights while others offer a more tactile experience and even include a small aircraft mock-up for kids to explore. Before booking flights, check the website of your nearby airports and those in your travel destination to see if a sensory room is available. Note the location of the room within the terminal as well. While sensory rooms are open to all flyers, they may be located in a concourse that is used primarily by a specific airline. In that case, you may want to prioritize booking on an airline that operates out of that concourse.
Try to avoid layovers. Direct flights will reduce the chance of delays and cancellations and minimize the number of transitions that your child will experience, says Margaret Dyson, PhD, a psychologist in the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute. She also recommends avoiding flights that take off after your child’s bedtime. On major travel booking sites, it’s easy to filter the results by the number of stops and the hours of departure. If you can’t avoid a flight with a layover, be sure to explain to your child in advance that you’ll need to take two planes as part of your adventure.
Do a test run. Airports in Atlanta, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Kansas City offer travelers the opportunity to schedule a familiarization experience. In Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Delta volunteers guide families through TSA security procedures, exploring the terminal, and boarding a plane. Earlier this year, the newly remodeled airport in Kansas City opened an “air travel experience room” inside a section of a retired plane so future passengers can practice buckling seatbelts, putting luggage in overhead bins, and opening the lavatory door. Additionally, the Arc Wings for Autism/Wings for All program hosts dozens of events throughout the year at various airports; check thearc.org to see if there’s one near you.
Practice at home. If you can’t take your child tor a familiarization experience, you can watch videos so kids “can see and hear how a new experience might pan out,” says Kayla Castro, a special-education teacher and travel agent specializing in trips for families with special needs. It’s a strategy that has helped her teen son who has autism navigate airports as well as attractions they plan to visit on vacation. The Federal Aviation Administration has a well-done “Kids’ First Flight” video on its YouTube channel. Reading children’s books, such as Bearplane! (ages 2–5) and Emma Every Day: First Flight (ages 5–7), may also be helpful. JetBlue and Autism Speaks also partnered on a downloadable travel guide that takes kids through each step in the airport process. Print it out and bring it with you to the airport or create your own visual list of “jobs” your child can focus on when they get to the airport, like getting a bin while going through security or walking through the metal detector. “They’ll know what to expect and can direct their energy in an independent way,” says Cynthia Martin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute.
Sign up for the Sunflower Lanyard Program. Staff at more than 230 airports worldwide have been trained to recognize that people who wear this lanyard have a disability that isn’t visible. For information about how to purchase a low-cost lanyard and which U.S. airports participate in the program, go to hdsunflower.com.
Alert your airline. If you’d like to board early with a child who has special needs, it’s best to notify the airline in advance rather than make the request at the gate. If you didn’t do it at the time of booking, go to your airline’s website to find out how to add it to your reservation. Generally speaking, children with special needs will feel more comfortable in a window or middle seat rather than the aisle, where they may be accidentally bumped by other passengers or the beverage cart. If you feel your child may have a better experience boarding toward the end of the process, alert the gate agent and, if possible, send one member of your family in advance to secure overhead luggage space.
Simplify the security line. Download the MyTSA app on your smartphone, where you can check the current and average wait times to get through the security line. It will give you an idea about what days and times ares the most and least crowded at your airport. Regardless, travel experts recommend that families enroll in TSA PreCheck. Ninety-nine percent of TSA PreCheck passengers wait less than 10 minutes. If adults are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, their children ages 17 and under can join them in the line. Go to TSA.gov/precheck to find out how to enroll; new enrollment costs $78 per adult for 5 years but keep in mind that some credit cards issue a statement credit to help offset the cost. The TSA notes that most applications can be processed in 3 to 5 days. Whether or not you have TSA PreCheck, you can call the TSA Cares helpline at 855-787-2227 about 72 hours before your flight to request special assistance through security.
Strategize luggage. Pack a small backpack for each child to use as a personal item. You might want to include fidget toys, easy-to-contain creative items like Wikki Stix and sticker books, and snacks. In addition, consider designating an adult backpack for the family’s electronics, medications, and a change of clothes per family member. Check most or all of the remainder of the luggage and put an Airtag inside each so you can more easily locate lost luggage.”
Consider the airport size. While regional airports don’t require much walking, those in major cities have a considerable distance from the entrance to the gates. If walking long distances is hard for your child, consider bringing a stroller, which you can check at no charge at the gate. Or you can use children’s luggage that allows for sitting or movement, like a ride-on suitcase or suitcase with a flip-down scooter, says Dr. Martin.
Prepare for delays and cancellations. On December 23, 2022, nearly 1 in 5 flights at the 20 major U.S. airports were canceled, according to FlightAware and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Before you fly, think about what your options are if your flights don’t take off as planned. Investigate if hotels in the airport itself or on airport property offer “day use” rooms, which could be helpful if you’re faced with a delay of several hours or longer. And be sure to download the app for the airline you’re flying; it’s generally the quickest way to rebook a canceled flight.
Getting ready for a road trip
Look for inclusive playgrounds. Make a note of playgrounds that are near your route. If your child is starting to get antsy in the car, a half-hour stop at a playground may head off a major meltdown. To search inclusive playgrounds by state, go to http://www.accessibleplayground.net.
Charge power banks. Most cars just have one charging port — and it always seems like all the passengers run low on battery at the same time. To prevent having to decide who gets to use the charger, have a few power banks at the ready to hand out when needed.
Research attractions you’ll be passing by. If your family is a member of your local children’s museum, zoo, or aquarium, you might be able to visit others at no cost or a significantly reduced rate through a reciprocity program. Create a list of what might be open for a stop, so you’ll have options at the ready if traffic gets bad or your child gets restless.
Keeping kids happy while traveling
Explore the airport. If your airport doesn’t have a sensory room, it may have a children’s play area or other fun novelties to see. For instance, in the Houston airport, there’s a large statue of a cow dressed as an astronaut. Once you’re ready to settle down, look for a nearby gate that’s relatively empty. “Stay there for as long as possible so your child can run around. Bring a beach ball — they can easily inflate and deflate to offer gross motor play,” says Dr. Martin.
Play to your child’s interests. If your child loves maps, for instance, print out an airport map in advance and allow the child to help direct you where to go. Or you can use the map as a distraction while waiting in a long line. While you’re in line to check bags, for instance, you might say, “Help me figure out where the train is to our terminal.”
Bring their own seat. If your child is under 40 pounds, bring an FAA-approved car seat for them to use on the plane. “The familiarity of being in a car seat can make the flight less stressful and it will be easier for your child to remain seated,” says Dr. Martin.
Utilize family restrooms. Many airports and rest stops have family restrooms that offer more space. However, they may have loud automatic flushing toilets and hand blowers that could bother a child with sensory issues. “When possible, carry supplies like sticky notes that can be placed over the sensors of toilets and extra wipes or towels to dry off hands,” says Dr. Dyson.
Relax screen time rules. “We give up rules around devices when traveling,” says Phillipa Martin, who flies several times a year with her 7-year-old daughter who has autism. Carrie McLaren does the same for her special-needs daughter on road trips. “She can watch movies on the iPad the whole time we’re in the car and then I collect the device when we get to our destination,” says McLaren, who writes about family vacation experiences at carrieontravel.com. Dr. Martin suggests creating a set of apps and videos that are only used during travel. “This way, your child will look forward to traveling because theye get access to a set of special games and videos,” she says. Another option: Listening to an audiobook — especially one that’s set in a place you’re headed — is a fun and sneakily educational way to keep kids entertained.
Help them doze off. Nothing passes the time faster than a nap! Try to re-create your child’s pre-nap routine as closely as possible, even if it means changing them into PJs at a reststop, bringing their favorite blankie or eye mask on the trip, snuggling with them until they drift off, or all of the above.
Bring their favorite foods. “My daughter is very particular about what she eats, and it’s easiest to carry it with us,” says Martin. While you have more flexibility on a road trip where you can pack a well-insulated cooler, create a snack bag for the flight because airlines have limited options and airport lines are often long. Plus, hangry kids (and parents!) are often extra cranky.
Choosing and staying at a hotel
Find hotels with staff who have special-needs training. A growing number of hotels and resorts have become Certified Autism Centers. To receive the designation, at least 80 percent of the guest-facing staff at the hotel or resort receive training in autism and sensory disorders from the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. You can search member properties at autismtravel.com.
Prioritize a kitchenette. If your child’s diet is limited, look for a hotel that has a microwave and a fridge in the room. “Minibars don’t usually get as cold as mini-fridges, so you might not be able to safely keep yogurt drinks or cheese in them,” Martin warns. If a mini-fridge doesn’t come standard, you can call the hotel directly to see if they offer them upon request. Better still, book a room that has a mini kitchen as well as a table and chairs so you don’t have to eat every meal out.
Opt for keyless entry. Being able to head straight to your room and bypass the line at the front desk is being offered by a growing number of hotels, including chains like Hilton and Accor. Take advantage of the tech and save your family another wait.
Pack a reminder of home. Since kids with special needs especially love routines and familiar items, consider bringing a scent you use at home, their own pillowcase, and a favorite bedtime story to help them relax.