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10 Commandments of Traveling with a Child Who Has Special Needs

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Before we had kids, my husband and I traveled as often as we could—we’ve hiked in Patagonia, Chile; roamed around Ireland by car; honeymooned in Bali. Then our first child, Max, had a stroke at birth that resulted in cerebral palsy. Kids can put a bit of a damper on your wanderlust. A kid with special needs can make you alarmed at the mere thought of navigating an airport. But over the years, I’ve learned some key pointers, the first being carry a mallet to use on anyone who refuses to accommodate your child. OK, not really, but I have learned lots of stuff that’s helpful whether traveling with a kid with any sort of special needs, or just a kid in general.


Ellen’s children, Sabrina (4) and Max (6) on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, during their cruise aboard the Disney Magic in May 2009

Here are the 10 commandments:

Thou shalt call the hotel in advance. If your child has special dietary needs, let the reservation manager know or ask to speak with someone from the dining area. If there’s a kids’ program you’d like to use, ask the program manager how they can work with your child. We did this for the Disney Magic cruise we went on last spring, and while they typically only let in kids who were toilet trained and my six-year-old isn’t, we agreed that they’d give us a pager if he needed changing. For the most part, places are willing to work with us. They just need some notice.

Thou shalt call the airline 24 hours in advance. That’s when you can request bulkhead seating (the first row of seats in Coach), which means more room for you to stretch out and less hauling of your child to the nether regions of the plane. Just don’t get too jealous of being one row away from First Class.

Thou shalt not hesitate to ask for help at the airport. If your kid is scared of crowds and may wig out in the security line, tell a security guard. They will often let you move to the front of the line, and don’t you dare feel one bit guilty about that. Do you want to traumatize travelers by the sound of your child’s wails? Nope. Also, if you’re in a large airport, ask for an electric cart to transport you to the gate. Bonus fun ride for kids!

Thou shalt distract. DVDs are child crack, no more so than on a plane. Bring a backup one, if possible. Also pack a paper bag with little surprise travel toys in it for your child—toys from the Dollar Store, a box of crayons, a cute little note pad, stickers, packaged snacks like Goldfish and Valium (wait, that’s for you). Let your child pick a surprise out of the bag every so often during the ride.

Thou shalt honor thy child’s loves. If your son is into, say, toy trucks, I am not suggesting you bring the entire fleet of Tonka trucks, but try to pack one miniature version and a few favorite books and other playthings. It is worth the haul. Being in an unfamiliar setting can unnerve kids with special needs; it’s comforting to have familiar objects along.

Thou shalt bring inflatable pool toys. When deflated they don’t take up much room in your luggage, but you will save millions of dollars (or close to it) by not having to purchase them at the hotel. They’re also a great way for getting other kids to meet your child; bring a couple of extra ones.

Thou shalt not panic if thou hast forgotten medicine or other important stuff. Unless you are traveling to some remote location, there are pharmacies and stores where you can buy swim diapers, etc. And there are concierges and hotel managers who know how to navigate around seeming impossibilities. That said, it’s a good idea to travel with a copy of prescription medications; a list of all your child’s doctors with their phone numbers; and his or her medical history (you know, in case you run out of magazines to read).

Thou shalt steal some time for yourself. This is your vacation, too, and nobody deserves a break more than you: for all that you do for your child and for resisting the urge to give your child that Valium on the plane ride. Last winter vacation we went to South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, Florida – I’d called ahead and requested an experienced babysitter who had worked with kids with special needs, and we got a great one.

Thou shalt not covet what thou cannot have. If your child is unnerved by the din of restaurants, like Max is, the same will hold true of restaurants in beautiful, breezy locations. When I’m planning a trip, I’ll search CHOWHOUND and yelp for local places with outdoor seating areas, which don’t unnerve him. Max is also content with bringing food into the room from takeout places. Some restaurants that don’t have takeout, per se, can accommodate orders to go if you ask.

Thou shalt forget commandments while thou art on vacation. Your real life is filled with a million musts. This is vacation. Let go. Just let go.

Ellen S. writes a daily blog, Love That Max, about parenting, juggling life, trading tips and advice, laughing at the insanity it all. It’s also about raising a child with special needs. She has two children, Max (age 6) and Sabrina (age 4).

Do you have any advice for traveling with a child who has special needs? Please leave a comment below!

Comments
  1. This blog helped me understand the special needs of travelers who can use a little extra help. I hope to be more alert to these people and show patience when they need more time or space or just a helping hand.

  2. Great tips, Ellen! Your commandments make me a bit less fearful of leaving the county. Yes…county, not country. Hey – you gotta start somewhere, right?
    I’m off to find my mallet…oh, and vote for you, too!

  3. Globetrotting Bride says

    Love, love, love these great tips!!!!!!

  4. Great blog…you’re a talented writer. And I love your attitude about life. 🙂

  5. Love these tips, Ellen!

  6. Excellent tips. I still don’t know if there is enough Valium on the planet for me to get on a plane with my kids.

  7. ELLEN, YOU ARE THE BEST!! AND THIS ARTICLE, ROCKS!!!!!!! THANKS FOR BEING SUCH A SPECIAL FRIEND.

  8. Thanks for the tips! I will be sure to implement #1 and #2 before my next trip.

  9. Bridget Smith says

    Great travel tips on an important subject. Some hold very true with traveling with toddlers and preschoolers as well.

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