10+1 Tips for Traveling With Your Special Needs Child
The day has arrived; bags are packed, the plane has been boarded, and our adventure begins. Many times, I ask myself: How did we get here? Once upon a time, when my husband and I wanted to take a trip, we’d choose a place, book the flight and hotel, and off we’d go! After having children, those days have changed a bit…well maybe, they’ve changed A LOT. When our daughter was born with Spina Bifida, we adjusted and found that our family trips are essential to ALL of our wellbeing.
A child with special needs does not mean we can’t travel; it just means we have to plan, to prepare, and to prevent as much as possible. From Paris to Colombia to St. Augustine, we are a traveling trio, and I am happy to share what we’ve learned along the way.
Here are our top 10 (plus 1) tips for traveling with a child that has special needs:
Have a checklist so that you don’t overlook anything. The checklist would include several of the items here, and it would include specific items to take or consider.
When picking a destination, check out what types of accessibility the hotel has to offer. Exploring the new location is exactly why you went on this trip, so plan out your day. Where are the closest bathrooms? How much walking or wheelchair pushing will you be doing? (Let’s not forget taxis and Ubers.) Is the place you’re going wheelchair accessible? Do they offer any preferred parking, preferred admissions, freebies, or discounts? USE IT! (Ain’t no shame in the discount game.)
Try to book direct flights or when it’s not possible, be aware of the layover; it’s important to try to capitalize on your child’s schedule–when they eat, sleep, or poop (Yes, I said it!). We love to book our flights for a morning departure and on days when most people don’t travel, like New Year’s Day. (It’s also cheaper.) Oh! And if you’re ever traveling out of Miami International Airport (MIA), you MUST stop at Cafe Versailles for a Cuban coffee, croqueta, and pastelito (IF you don’t know what these are, Google it! #foodieforlife).
Once you’ve booked your flight, call the airline ahead to ask for bulkhead seats (It’s like you’re almost in First Class) or for seats closest to the bathroom.
Let your pediatrician know you are traveling and ask for a letter on their letterhead describing your child’s medical condition and any prescription medication with generic names that they need. It may be a good idea to ask your doctor to write new prescriptions in case of loss (or worse THEFT!).
6. Medical Insurance.
Ask your medical insurance what the policy is if something happens while you are away. It is a good safety net to have and to know (just in case).
7. Travel Insurance.
Consider getting travel insurance especially if your child is medically complex. Some companies cover credit cards and medical insurance. Call ahead and find out what is covered in advance and what paperwork would be needed for reimbursement; it just might be worth it. It’s really a small percentage of the trip cost, and it can be a life saver (or wallet-saver).
THIS IS A MUST! We need to be hands free to be able to scoot the wheelchair around with luggage. We all carry a backpack. I usually have the medicine (in a separate bag within the backpack) and snacks (WHO doesn’t need a bag of gummy bears on long trips?). My husband packs the travel pillow(s), earphones, cords for charging devices, and extra battery packs. Our child has an extra change of clothes, her devices, and a toiletry bag (not see through) with wipes, a pair of My Private Pocket underwear, a pair of My Back Up underwear, a small Lysol spray, poop doggie bag (in case there was an accident), catheters, and a mini Poo Pourri spray (gotta smell good).
Honestly, getting through TSA is probably the most stressful part. Luckily, if you contact TSA cares 72 hours prior to your trip, they offer assistance in getting through security. It’s AWESOME! Even if you don’t request TSA’s assistance, you can bank on asking a TSA agent if you can go ahead in the line or go through the pilot’s line. They are very accommodating.
We love using the wheelchair in the airport, especially because of the long walks in the bigger airports (especially MIA). It’s important to call the airline ahead if you need assistance from curb to gate. Otherwise, using the wheelchair for TSA and at the gate help to get through the lines quicker and board the plane first for that extra time you may need to get your child settled in. If you opt for an electric wheelchair, you’ll have to look into battery compliance on flights. Personally, we have found that the manual wheelchairs are more airline friendly than electric ones–which get complicated with the battery pack.
11. HAVE FUN!
Even the best laid plans can go awry–for anybody. Sometimes, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re on vacation. Let go! And ENJOY your beautiful family time.