Traveling with Kids Includes Special Needs Tips
Special Needs

A Survivor’s Guide to Traveling with Kids. 50 Awesome Tips, Special Needs Included

How many times have you done 40 hours international travel with kids? I do it every summer, often on my own! Can I make traveling with kids even more exciting? Oh, yes. My eldest son has special needs and a lot of self-regulation issues, so trips are fun.  By now you may be thinking I´m superwoman. I´m not (don´t tell my husband!).

Traveling with children can get messy. If you are also positively sure that, at some point during the trip, there will be an emotional outburst or a meltdown, the fun is guaranteed. But for us, who miss our overseas family, “not traveling” is not an option.

So my intention when I started typing this post today was to prepare my own “Traveling with Kids Survival Guide”. For whom are these tips and ideas? Anybody traveling with kids. My tips are skewed towards plane trips, but lots of them are equally useful if you are planning long road trips with kids.

I´m also my children´s mother, so I could never write a guide that does not specifically address the issues of traveling with kids with special needs.

So, in less than a week, I will be boarding a plane on my own and starting a trip that will last one day and a half (36 hours = 2,160 minutes = 129,600 seconds to reach our destination!!!). Scary, right? But if I can do it (did I already mention I’m not superwoman?) then it can be done. We should not give up on those experiences that can make us happy. It just requires an extra bit of organisation and some tips from the experts (that would be me, since I´ve been doing this for the last 11 years!)

A Survivor’s Guide to Traveling with Kids. 50 Awesome Tips, Special Needs Included

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Planning Ahead/ What  you should do before the trip starts:

1Contact the airlines or your travel agent and let them know what kind of support you will be needing before and during the trip, and on arrival at every stop-over. When you travel with a kid with special needs, you may require extra support that the airlines will be happy to provide (wheelchair, accessing the plane before or after it starts boarding or any other requirement you may have). If your issues are not obvious to the “naked eye”, it may help if your doctor writes a letter explaining your situation and why you need that type of help.

2. Think carefully what flight schedule you book. Money is not the only parameter. Sometimes we are so obsessed with saving a few dollars that we complicate our lives by booking absurd flight schedules. Will I wake up my son at 4 am in order to be at the airport 6 am? Not, if I can avoid it. That is just a recipe for disaster. A kid with self-regulation issues that starts a two day trip already exhausted.

3. Seat Selection. Check the airline website. You can usually see the seat configuration (seat per row ,how many of them are together, how far from the toilets you are, etc). Depending on how many of you in the family travel together, you may be able to choose a seat configuration that makes the trip easier. On our return trip, when my husband joins us,  we will have two seats in two consecutive rows. Why? Well if we have a crisis and kicks start flying to the next row it will be one of us on the receiving end (it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened)

4. Bring as part of your cabin luggage, several sets of clothes in transparent bags(for easy identification). I prefer 3 sets for each kid. Let´s not deny life facts. Murphy exists and his law is always fulfilled. Your kids will drop their juice while drinking (my son can´t stand the feel of wet clothes, even a droplet can trigger a crisis). They may get sick and vomit (it has also happened several times to us!). Or an unexpected leak can ruin a pair of pants.

5. Go “light” with your hand luggage. I´ve travelled with wheel cabin luggage in the past, but for this trip I´m going to replace it with a backpack. Let´s see how it works. As I said, this time I´m travelling alone, so I want to have free hands at all times to be able to deal with whatever incidents may occur. I may come across.

6. Bring backpacks for your kids too (and pack them light & wisely). There are really cute kids’ wheely suitcases in the market (we own a few!). But in my experience, once the kids get tired or the novelty factor wears off, my husband or I end up wheeling their suitcase through the airport. And this time I´m alone, so that´s a big no-no.

7. Put all the “technology” in a single bag. When you get to the airport scanner and have to bring it out and place it on a tray to go through the X-ray machine, it will save you a lot of time and stress (kid running away while you open backpacks looking for tablets/laptops!)

8. Get yourself a nice travel document folder so that you can easily access passports, boarding passes and any immigration cards that you may need to fill in (depends on your destination). You can get really cheap ones like the one here and they are worth the investment.

9. Bring your kids´ headphones, just in case they are not comfortable with the ones they distribute in the plane.

10. Buy an inflatable neck cushion, for a comfy sleep. Your kids can try them at home. If it does not work for them, that´s one less thing to carry.

11. Request special meals for young children. If you are traveling with small children, indicate when you buy the ticket you need a special menu for children

12. Medicines: Bring the “basics” (apart from medications that you or any of your kids may be taking right now). In such a long trip, it is not bad to include paracetamol or ibuprofen. It will not be the first time or the last time we have needed them.

13. Dress your kids in layers (hot / cold – in an airplane you can go through ”four seasons in one day” without leaving your seat!)

Special Needs Advice before the trip

14. If you have a kid with autism, anxiety problems or any other issue that makes changes and travel difficult, prepare your child for the big event. Tell your kid about the trip,  the things you will do, and how much fun it will be. Many kids with special needs or autism find it difficult to cope with the stress of a trip (or even a much smaller outing!).

15. You can even take your child on “field trips” to the airport a few times before the actual trip happens. It will help him get familiar with the situation.

16. Another way to prepare for the trip is reading him “social stories” that cover the travel topic.

Inside the plane
Blessed technology! Even if you usually put a cap on the time you spend playing with your tablets or other electronic devices, a transoceanic trip may be the time to make an exception.

17. InFlight Entertainment – the games and movies suitable for children and family that you can see on your airplane TV. However, don´t rely solely on them. You may be disappointed if it turns out they don’t have the very specific games or tv shows that your kids like. In our case, we have also had in the past a language barrier. My son couldn´t understand English. I´m really hoping that after one and a half years living in New Zealand, this will not be as much of a problem as in the past. Therefore, travel with your own technology:

18. DVD Player

19. iPod/MP3Player

20. Nintendo

21. IPad/Tablet

22. Smartphone

It may seem that all are variations of the same. But when you are in such a long trip (did I say it was 40 hours! OMG!) any variation or novelty is appreciated!

Traditional board games in “Travel Games” version and other fun activities you can do when traveling with kids.
We are going to make room in our cabin luggage for a few traditional “screen-free” games.
“Special Needs Advice”: there are a lot of games, but I’m going to focus on simple games that just require to roll a die and move your way through the board game. A game that exceeds a child’s cognitive capabilities would be too frustrating. Some of the games I will mention work wonders for us because winning is based on luck and not skill, so my son also gets his moment of glory. Remember the games should be a “travel version”!

23. Ludo (like this magnetic one here)

24. Goose Game (this one is quite famous in Spain if you are curious it looks like this)

25. Snakes and Ladders, we own one by The Purple Cow. They are great for trips. You can check it out here.

The ones I´ve mentioned are the ones we love. But there are so many options available!. I´ve just found this Mini Magnetic Travel Set (12 board games!) at an amazingly cheap price. Check it out here.

26. HangMan –in order to make it easy I choose very simple words. I also specify “theme” (animals, musical instruments) to give my son clear clues of what he should be looking for. And to make it even easier for his cognitive leveI and frustration threshold I even give him a script: 1st look for vowels (a,e,i,o,u) and 2nd) most commonly used consonants (I write them down for him to pick). I obviously chose words that will work well with these steps I recommend him to follow.

27. Mini Puzzles

28. Manipulative and sensory toys (fidget spinner, small toys with textures. Check out this 14 Pack Bundle Set- Sensory Toys here)

29. Coloring books

30. Tattoos pens, like the ones here. (This is a really fun activity to do with your daughter. We take turns to design on each other´s arm. No need to mention they are temporary tattoos!

31. Sticker books

Games that just require you to use your imagination. Good for brain gym & bonus is they do not take up space in the suitcase!

32. Read them a story (well, that may take space but if you download it to your reader it will not!)

33. Invent a story for them. If you have just landed in this post and have no background on my blog you may not know that I am big on storytelling (you can read about us here). I craft no less than 10 stories each week for my boy with special needs. He LOVES them. He laughs out loud when he listens to lots of them. I record them in my phone and my son replays them.

34. Organise “team story crafting” game, where each of you takes a turn to invent a part of the story, and the next one continues where the previous one stopped. We have also done this in the past. It is not just fun while you do it but it is also hilarious to listen to the recording once you finish.

35. Chained words– You start with a word and the next one has to find a word that starts with the last syllable. It is mega easy in Spanish, I’ve never tried in English though. It would go like this: paper –perfect Oops, difficult one! Maybe you should use just the last letter or two.

36. I see, I see (you can use colors instead of the first letter in the word, to make it easier)

37. Rock, paper and scissors

38. “Countdown to arrival” – We can make a countdown game. “Time elapse & time to go” until the arrival. Plane tvs show a screen with your itinerary shown on top of a world map. You may talk about places you fly over, distance you´ve covered.

39. Childhood games: “Round and round the garden…” For us, anything that ends up in tickles is a winner.

40. A massage. I´m not suggesting you take your kids to one of the massage places at the airport!! My boy loves “head massages” so that may be another activity for the plane.

Other useful tips when traveling with kids

41. Bring cookies or snacks on board. Many children don´t like the cookies or snacks they distribute on the plane. Snacks are a great distraction, and some kids get grumpy if they are hungry (some husbands too!)

42. Lollies can also be a nice treat and surprise for the trip. As I mentioned when I was talking about “screen time”, we are going to make another exception in our good parenting practices. You have to be flexible sometimes!  (unless you are clear that sugars makes them hyper!)

43. Earmuffs. Some kids with autism or sensory issues may need to mitigate environmental noise.

44. Fun at the airport. Check the airport websites where your stopovers will be. Many of them have playgrounds that have nothing to envy in those we normally enjoy at home.

45. Buy and wrap small gifts that can be opened and discovered during the trip.

46. If the trip is as long as hours, consider making an overnight stop midway. Many airports have very good hotels inside the airport. You can push your luggage trolley to the hotel reception, sleep a few hours, go for a swim at the pool and start the next leg of the trip as good as new.

47. Rest inside the airport. This is a similar option but without the luxury of enjoying 4 star hotel entertainment (pools, good restaurants). Some airports also have rooms that rent by the hour to rest. Not a bad option at all. We always look at these things when we are deciding our itineraries.

48. More airport resting. I´ve been sitting on airport floors, with each of my kids using my legs as pillow while they sleep. When you are moving through time zones, you may have to jump out of a plane in the middle of the night. During this trip our stopovers are working really nicely,  but I had initially considered the possibility of buying a thin /small size sleeping bag, in case I had to get them on the floor and rest.

49. Look for queues/lines that give preference to families with children.  When you are boarding a plane, families with children are usually given preference. But, those are not the only situations in which you may be allowed to fast-forward. Sometimes it’s worth asking because it is not indicated anywhere. We have at times managed to use preference lines when explaining that we were traveling with a child with special needs. Worth trying.

50. Plan for the immediate after-trip period – hours or even a couple of days – so you have an opportunity to recover from the stress of the trip!

So, in less than a week we start our big trip. If  I missed something in my “Traveling with Kids Survival Guide”, please, drop a line with your recommendation. I may still be able to include it in my trip checklist!

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