Special Needs Travel Tips for Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Preparing for a Successful Flight

First Up: Planes. 

With the best of intentions to lead our special kids out into the world of insane normality, it can be a living hell in motion if not - at least to some degree - prepared. To avoid catastrophe or total breakdown by child or parent, here are the most important things I've learned and practice while traveling. The next three parts in this travel series will deal with traveling on planes, trains, and automobiles with special needs children.


The preparation starts at home; the challenge is getting on the plane; the battle is in the air; the victory cry roars when those feet touch back on the ground.

Booking the flight: Early morning or late at night? Choose a flight based on your child's habits. An early morning flight means getting to the airport several hours earlier, so that child might have to get up at 4 a.m.! Of course a late flight means kids will fall asleep - a good/bad thing. If my child falls asleep, I have to carry him AND the bags, so I like the early flight and hope for a nap on the plane or at our destination. I prefer seats in the back now that my special kid is older. I like being close to the bathroom. I want to guarantee we load as early as possible just in case the airline isn't too special and/or kid friendly. Also, this is the time to check your passports or type of identification needed. I knew a mother that looked at her child's passports two days before travel and realized it was out of date. With the cost of travel, it's not a good time for surprises.

Oxygen for the flight: If you child needs oxygen during the flight, forms filled out on-line guarantee that the machine may be used during the trip. Each airline differs in the requirements for use and the types of portable machines allow. Check for electrical power sockets, sometimes they are on the planes; however, some airlines only allow battery use. The airline can also provide oxygen tanks for a fee, which requires a doctor's prescription. Look on-line or call the airlines with questions. Advocate for your child to be comfortable and you to have piece of mind. Most airlines are extremely helpful with this issue. But be prepared, it will take some time to arrange.

Wheelchair: Need a special chair? Book a wheelchair, and the airline should send someone to meet you and help push the chair through check-in and security checks. If you bring your own stroller/wheelchair, you push it all the way down the loading ramp and leave it, similar to the procedure for a baby/toddler. Have your own equipment clearly marked. Be careful on bringing flimsy strollers. I've had them thrown under the plane and broken by the time I get it back. A special, isle-wheelchair can help get to the seat once the wheelchair is left behind.

Special foods and liquids:  With a doctor's note, liquids or gels (which can include liquid medicine) can be brought on board for a special child. My child must have a certain amount of liquids. He also won't get enough from drinking out of a cup (not to mention there's a huge chance he'll spill it). Airports vary so much in how they enforce this. We've navigated both extremes. At times, security workers waive anything I have for my son right through, including liquids. Another time, we caused a "second" alarm security alert with the juices I brought for my son and stood for an hour while our entire contests - teddy bears to coloring books - were scrutinized, scanned, and searched. In today's climate, I wouldn't be surprised if the liquids were all-out denied. The challenge then is of course weighing how angry or demanding one wants to get before boarding a plane. But, it is worth the effort to try to bring on board what your child needs.

Special seats: A special seat can help insure safety for a child that needs extra support. Any child at any age is safer in a seat than our arms. However if still a "lap" child, the price of a ticket varies greatly because the child will need their own.

This is from the Federal Aviation Child Safety Administration: Airlines must allow a child who is under the age of 18 to use an approved CRS that is properly labeled, appropriate for the child's weight, and as long as the child is properly secured in the CRS. Many companies manufacture CRSs approved for use on aircraft that are specifically designed for larger children who are physically challenged. Additional information is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Packing: Only you know what will entertain your child for the wait at the airport and the time in the air. Snacks help fill time too. I find variety is the key to survival. For my son, who doesn't need diapers during the day, I still put on a pair. Flying veers far from a routine and is stressful. Access to the bathroom is limited, better safe than soggy and sorry.

Get there early: Arrive as early as possible to the airport. Whatever the airline recommends, I pad it with another 1/2 hour for melt downs, traffic jams, spills, or other special circumstances that can occur. Some airports close; some don't. The information is not clear. Yet, even that extra 15 minutes can be a bonus if the leaving the house was more challenging than expected.

Checking-in: Use the first-class line. Be sure to ask for it, even if the handicap symbol isn't displayed. Also,  don't be afraid to ask for help. Even if you didn't arrange the wheelchair or find out you need extra help, ask. My son understands NOTHING about airline travel other than planes are cool and big. I can explain waiting like I can explain the theory of relativity to him (or anyone for that matter). Have passports and tickets ready and all needed paperwork ready in a easy-to-get-to bag or zipper pouch. Get out of that line ASAP and on to the security check - despite the stares for going in the first-class or business lane. This is where special really needs a break.

Security check: Roll that stroller, wheelchair, and/or screaming child up to the check-in and security check and feel the heat. No one wants to get behind you. Let me just put this in a nice way, too bad. Eventually, I need to get through the line just like a business traveler. We've got connections to make too. When I can, I let someone grab their stuff before me or butt ahead of us if we are taking 20 minutes to get the shoes on, but the faster I get through this checkpoint, the happier - and calmer - the entire airport will be. Often, I find a lane for just for kids or with the disabled sign. Again, ask for help. Ask if you can go in another line. That way, the other passengers don't have to hate us for taking so long, as we most likely will do.

Boarding: Now the games begin. All that preparation in packing pays off as you begin to wait. I make a bathroom run before we even settle in. When they call for passengers needing special assistance, stand in line. The sooner we get into that seat, the sounder we, and the other passengers, will be. DSC00752In -flight: The only advise I can give is count to five, breathe, count to five, breathe. Here is where only a parent knows the child best. Only we can dictate what will get us through the air to our destination. Besides a variety of games, which can be as simple as circling pictures in a magazine, I rely on a variety of tiny snacks. Eat a snack, look out the window. Eat a snack, get time on the tablet. Eat a snack, look at the photos on mom's phone...eat a snack....

Arriving at Destination!: Finally! Touchdown. Sometimes I get off with the crowd, and occasionally I wait until the plane is clear. We are slower, no question. If I don't have to make a connection, it is easier to wait a bit longer. Plus, then my son gets to wave goodbye to the crew. Next week, we'll be looking at trains and how to travel the rails with a special needs child. See Part I and Part II of the series:

Part I:  Traveling with Special Needs Kids and Living to Tell About It: Yes, It's Possible!

Part II: Travel with Special Kids Travel with Special Kids Part II: To Infinity and Beyond

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