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10 Essential Tips for Traveling with Kids Who Have Disabilities

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Before we had kids, my husband and I traveled as often as we could — we hiked in Patagonia, Chile; roamed around Ireland by car; and 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 who has a disability can make parents feel alarmed at the mere thought of navigating an airport. But over the years, I’ve learned some key pointers. Here are my 10 essential tips for traveling with kids with disabilities.

Kids with disabilities can travel, too!

Kids with disabilities can enjoy travel, too! (Photo credit: jarenwicklund, Depositphotos.com)

1. Contact the hotel, cruise line or attraction before leaving home.

Call to ask about accommodations and modifications for children who use wheelchairs, who have visual or hearing limitations, or who are sensitive to sensory overload. When traveling with a child who has special dietary needs, let the hotel reservation manager know or ask to speak with someone from the dining area.

When there’s a kids camp you’d like to use, ask the program manager how they can work with your child. We did this for our Disney Cruise, and while they typically only let in kids who are toilet trained and my then 6-year-old wasn’t, we agreed that they’d give us a pager if he needed changing. For the most part — hotels, cruise lines and attractions are willing to work with us. They just need some notice.

Call your airline in advance when traveling with a child with disabilities

Call your airline in advance when traveling with a child with disabilities (Photo credit: VitalikRadko, Depositphotos.com)

2. 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.

Make use of electric carts at the airport for ease...and fun!

Make use of electric carts at the airport for ease…and fun! (Photo credit: Movieaboutyou, Depositphotos.com)

3. Do not hesitate to ask for help at the airport.

If your kid is scared of crowds and may have a melt down in the airport security line, then 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 upset travelers with the sound of your child’s wails? Nope. Also, when you’re in a large airport, ask for an electric cart to transport you to the gate. Bonus fun ride for kids!

Pack toys to distract children when traveling

Pack toys to distract children when traveling (Photo credit: ivonnewierink, Depositphotos.com)

4. Use toys, snacks and technology as distraction.

Tablets and smart phones are child crack, no more so than on a plane or long car ride. Make sure to download several of your child’s favorite TV shows and movies before take-off. Also, pack a bag with little surprise travel toys in it for your child. Include goodies from the Dollar Store, a box of crayons, a cute little note pad, stickers, and 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.

Little boy playing with a toy car

Bring along familiar items to make disabled kids feel more secure away from home (Photo credit: ababaka, Depositphotos.com)

5. Honor your child’s interests.

If your child 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 who have disabilities; it’s comforting to have familiar objects along.

Child floating in donut pool toy

Pool floats make vacations more fun (Photo credit: FamVeldman, Depositphotos.com)

6. Bring inflatable pool toys.

When deflated, pool toys 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 so bring a couple of extra inflatable pool toys along!

Travel medications

Pack medications and your child’s medical history (Photo credit: ruttapum2, Depositphotos.com)

7. Do not panic if you forget medicine or other important stuff.

Unless you are traveling to some remote location, there are pharmacies and stores where you can buy swim diapers and other necessities. 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).

Look for hotels and kids clubs that have staff trained to work with disabled kids

Look for hotels and kids clubs that have staff trained to work with disabled kids (Photo credit: olesiabilkei, Depositphotos.com)

8. Steal some time for yourself.

This is your vacation, too, and nobody deserves a break more than you. One winter vacation we went to South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island in Florida. I called ahead and requested an experienced babysitter who had worked with kids with special needs, and we got a great one. Some hotel and cruise line kids camps hire staff who specialize in working with disabled children, too.

Room service can make travel easier for families

Room service can make travel easier for families (Photo credit: ymgerman, Depositphotos.com)

9. Do not covet what you cannot have.

For parents whose children are 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.

Room service can also be a handy perk when traveling with disabled kids. If room service isn’t in your budget, then consider ordering in from a service like Postmates or GrubHub instead.

Vacation time is play time for kids who have disabilities

Vacation time is play time! (Photo credit: Eleonoraos, Depositphotos.com)

10. Learn more about traveling with kids who have special needs.

Parents and caregivers of children with disabilities may also find the following resources helpful in planning their family’s travels.

10 Tips for Traveling with Kids Who Have Disabilities

Remember these tips for traveling with disabled kids!

Your real life is filled with a million musts. This is vacation. Let go. Just let go.

For future reference, be sure to keep these tips for traveling with kids with disabilities. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. It would be great if you’d follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Child with cerebral palsy on vacation on Disney's Castaway Cay with his sister

Ellen’s children, Sabrina and Max, on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay in May 2009 (Photo credit: Ellen S.)

About the Author: 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 and Sabrina. This story was originally published in 2009 and was updated in 2020.

Do you have any advice for traveling with a child who has disabilities? 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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