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Surviving Long-Haul Travel with Kids and Special Needs Families

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It’s easy to let the excitement of your upcoming vacation consume your thoughts. The problem is, sometimes, it leaves us overlooking the struggle of actually getting there.

Hours in planes, in cars, buses or even on a boat, planning for the journey to your vacation is just as important as the vacation itself. How do we take our excitable kids and expect them to sit nicely in transit for hours on end? Let’s look at some of the ways we can smooth out this experience and avoid disaster for kids and special needs families.

The Stuff:

Sensory Defensiveness? Get a Therapy Brush

If your child has been attending sessions with an OT (Occupational Therapist), there is a good chance you are already familiar with the Therapy Brush. Therapy brushing is a calming technique used with sensory defensiveness (a negative reaction to specific sensory input). These are small, lightweight, cheap, and very effective. You can use a therapy brush just about anywhere, so remember to throw one in your bag.

Seeking Resistance? Bring a Body Sock

If your child enjoys the feeling of resistance or has used a lycra bed sheet, swing, or cloud before, consider bringing a lycra body sock along to recreate that sensation of resistance. These can be fantastic for kids who need extra sensory input and can even be used as a calming tool on a flight.

Can’t Block It Out? Pack Eye Masks & Ear Plugs

If you have high anxiety or your brain just won’t settle down, it can be hard to keep your eyes closed. This makes it nearly impossible to sleep, not to mention an onset of even more intense anxiety as the travel time wears on. The self-perpetuating cycle can be hard to break and leave you, or your child, in a massive meltdown. Sleep masks are something we generally associate with adults; however, they can be super useful for kids having trouble sleeping on planes or in cars. Hate the feeling of the mask pressing down on your eyelids? Look for “deluxe” options now available with a fancy pillow underlay that has a cutout area for your eyes to relax in. Bring those matching earplugs along, too. They can be helpful in any situation.

Can’t Manage One Carry-On? Give Your Child Their Own

Any children in your party can have their own pull-along bag (appropriately sized) to take onto the plane as carry-on luggage. Be sure to include all their essentials, as well as a lightweight blanket they are familiar with. You can use this later on as a blanket, rolled up into a pillow, or as a familiar bedspread in a hotel room.

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The Prep

Not Good With Change? Skip The Surprises

As parents, we have all had a fantasy or two about picking kids up from school and shouting, “Surprise! You’re going to Disney!” But in reality, for most of us, that’s just not going to work. Most kids need stability, especially special needs kids that might be dealing with the additional struggles of ASD (autism), SPD (sensory processing disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Anxiety and many other conditions that add complexity. Expecting them to cope with a sudden change in their routine without any time to process is a recipe for disaster. I’ll repeat it: Skip the surprises.

Losing Your Home Routine? Create a New One 

Before you leave, start a new routine a few months beforehand that includes one or two things you can also do on a plane. Perhaps add some stretching that could be done in your seat or even in the back of the plane while waiting for the restrooms. Children’s guided meditation audio tracks can be helpful here, too.

Losing Your Luggage? Pack Necessities in Your Carry-On

Once your checked baggage has been tagged and hauled away by a (usually unhappy-looking) handler, it is time to cross your fingers and hope you meet up again on the other end. With your bag, that is, not the handler.

Most of the time, it is a beautiful reunion at your destination, but sometimes, your luggage doesn’t make it where it is supposed to go. When this happens, it is crucial that you have packed any essentials in your carry-on luggage. You may be thinking that everything you own is essential; however, you need to limit this to things you cannot replace until your bags arrive. Think medications, pacifiers, phone chargers, that favorite toy that your child can’t sleep without or any small sensory calming tools.

Juggling Kids & Baggage? Pack Light

I’m going to tell you this now. You will be overpacked. It doesn’t much matter what you already have in your suitcase; odds are you could take out half of it and still be just fine. We both know that you are going to buy a few things while you’re away, so leave the space for it and pack light.

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The Plane:

Fussy Eater? Bring Noodles

If you have a fussy eater, the chances are that the cuisine found on the plane probably won’t take their fancy. If your child likes noodles, the kind sold in the Styrofoam containers, bring a couple along for the flight. The attendant can give you hot water, and you have a ready-made meal that you know they will eat. Keep in mind, if unused, you will most likely need to part with them before marching through the quarantine gates on arrival.

My sister Casey and I always say that fish don’t fly for a reason. If you are traveling internationally and not keen on tackling the fish curry they love to offer, consider selecting a vegetarian meal ahead of time. Most airlines will give you options as part of your ticket, so put in a special request for vegetarian and it often delivers less questionable looking meals. Also, select a children’s meal for your child. If they eat the noodles, you can have theirs! Happy days.

Fussy Sleeper? Make a Tent

How do you go to sleep on a plane with 600 other people? You block them out and make a cocoon. You can use that lightweight blanket that you cleverly rolled up and placed in the bottom of your child’s carry-on bag earlier to make a tent. Tuck one end into the headrest of your child’s seat. Place the other end on the open tray table, lift the tray up and fasten. Instant tent. If you know the person in front of you, or if they seem approachable, ask if you can tuck the other end into the back of their headrest instead of the tray table.  Let the sides hang down on either side, and you have a calm, dark space for your child to rest. Don’t dress them too warmly in there; it gets hot very quickly if your blanket is made of a thicker material.

Can’t Sit Still? Bring a Balance Cushion

This one is a bit more of a commitment as it is a little bit bigger and heavier than I would typically suggest bringing. However, if your child has a lot of trouble sitting still, a wobble cushion can allow them to keep their hips moving and stay seated at the same time. Try to only break it out when they are feeling agitated to save the novelty for if/when they really need it.

Stuck Under a Sleeper? Find the Magic Button

You’ve worked so hard to get them to go to sleep on the plane. It finally happens, and they are perched right on top of you. What do you do when you need to visit the restroom but you can’t get out from under your sleeper? This is where you need to locate the magic button on your aisle armrest. Hidden underneath the armrest, usually towards the back end, feel around for a little button that will magically allow you to lift that restrictive armrest and slide out sideways. Over the years, I have only come across one or two planes that didn’t have this button, although I am relatively sure that I wasn’t able to locate it, rather than it not being there. I locate this button as soon as I get on any flight. It can be the difference between keeping your fussy child asleep or having them wake up in a confused and exhausted mess.

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The Car:

Anxiety? Try a Vibration Pillow

If someone in your family struggles with anxiety, consider a vibration pillow to keep with them. Vibration pillows, plushes, or soothers are fantastic for traveling with anxious family members or those who struggle with sensory processing issues. They come in all different shapes and sizes and are not limited to kid styles either. These vibration devices are available in everything from smaller plush toys for cuddling to larger ones styled to look like a flannel shirt or hoodie for teens and adults. (Check out Senseez or another sensory-based website to see more options).

Car Sickness? Try Essential Oils

If you just threw me an eye-roll, it’s ok; you are forgiven. I too once eye-rolled at the idea of oils fixing all my problems. Because they don’t. What they can do is help with enough of the smaller issues that sometimes you don’t end up with a bigger one.

During many of our travels, Casey, the sister mentioned above, has often insisted that I try her DoTerra oils for various ailments. Since I am the most likely candidate for any sort of travel sickness, restless legs, allergies or general unpleasantness in our family, there came a time where I gave up declining her offer and just said, “Okay, sure.” To my surprise, it actually can help. Lavender has been very helpful for me and my children to assist with anxiety, Peppermint to soothe the stomach, and the Doterra blend DigestZen for motion sickness & all-around stomach grossness. These can work for some people and not for others; however, if you are like me and insist on traveling despite all the ick-factor, then anything is worth a go!

(Let’s keep this between you and me as I prefer her to think that I am always right, and she always wrong)

It’s a sister thing.

Keeping Everyone Entertained? Try a Story or Two.

When you are headed out on a long car trip, how do you keep the family entertained and cooperative? Try books on “tape.” I say “tape” because most kids these days would see a cassette and equate it with the Stone Age; in reality, you are more likely to grab a few audiobooks on iTunes or some other app. Before the recent accusations, a favorite of ours was Garrison Keillor and the classic tales of the fictional Lake Wobegon. Explore some of the options available and find something engaging that suits the age range in your vehicle. If you can listen together as a group, rather than everyone being buried in their headphones, it makes for a much more social experience, and you never know what conversations can be sparked by enjoying stories together.

If you are not sure where to start, try the classic stories of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.

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Those are just some of my travel tips for tackling long-haul travel with kids or special needs families. What are some of the tricks that get you to your destination in one piece?

Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.

Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.


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