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Tips for Traveling with a Child who has Special Needs

Travel itself can be stressful, but even more so when you add the prospect of traveling with a child with special needs who may need special transportation, considerations for noise, wheelchair accessibility and the like. Just as with traveling with an infant, special needs travel is a category all its own. We've done some legwork for you: here are some considerations and tips.

Where to Go

Finding destinations that accommodate special needs may be easier than you think, as many attractions these days try to become ADA-compliant and inclusive. If you're headed to a city, check out the area's Visitors & Conventions Bureau to find guides for people with disabilities. Most cities offer this information.

If you want to do a theme park, your best bet is Disney. The park provides a Disability Access Service Card to avoid long attraction wait lines. See more information about Disney's accommodations for persons with disabilities.

Many other theme parks offer perks to help those with disabilities better enjoy their parks. Check out these top 10 parks for children with disabilities.

Many cruise lines are now offering wheelchair-accessible rooms, public areas and pools, as well as special needs-friendly excursions. In fact, Royal Caribbean recently received an autism-friendly certification from Autism of the Seas in 2014. Check out the cruise line's autism-friendly initiatives.

National Parks are also a great option for everyone, including those with disabilities. Many parks offer wheelchair-accessible trails and attractions. Check the website of the park you'd like to visit to find information. In addition, take advantage of the America the Beautiful Access Pass, a free lifetime pass to the National Parks for those with disabilities.

Where to Stay

All U.S. hotels are required to offer wheelchair accessible rooms with wider doors and grips for tubs and toilets, so be sure to request these rooms in advance and also ask about elevators for travel between floors. If you're staying at a vacation home or other type of accommodation, be sure to ask about elevators and wheelchair access if necessary.

International hotels are not required to provide wheelchair-accessible rooms, so be sure to ask about them.

Modes of Transportation

When flying with a child with special needs, the best advice is to contact the airline carrier. Request wheelchair assistance on and off the plane and seek out seats closer to the front for easier access and proximity to bathrooms. Most carriers have wheelchair-accessible security lines and offer private screenings for passengers, so look for these options too.

Prepare your child for the screening and boarding process. The more they know in advance, the better. In fact, some airports even offer walkthroughs so that those with autism can familiarize themselves with the process of flying. Check out 15 airports that offer walkthroughs, courtesy of Friendship Circle.

Taking the car may seem like the better option for special needs travel. But keep in mind that, depending on how far you're going, your child is going to need to sit for a long period of time and that can be challenging. Weigh the options. It may be the best one for you, as your car or van is likely familiar and comfortable for your child.

Friendship Circle provides a list of road trip tips for traveling with children with disabilities. Check them out if you're going this route.

However you decide to travel, be sure to include the safety devices you’ll need on your packing checklist. An airplane safety harness suits children between 22 and 75 pounds, and it should be FAA-approved and provide support for the child. Basically, it should act as the airplane equivalent of a car seat, although Adaptivemall.com also offers airplane-safe car seats for all-around support and comfort.

For road trips, it’s essential to have a suitable car seat or booster seat for your child with special needs. The one you choose will depend on your child’s hip width, weight and more. Be sure to check a size chart or contact our customer service team to select the right size.

Avoiding Overstimulation

If your child is easily overstimulated or sensitive to loud sounds, you might consider bringing a set of headphones, noise-canceling if possible, and an electronic device with a book or music on it. Gum and snacks provide wonderful distractions from overstimulation, as do favorite toys and activities that are portable.

Planning Ahead for Emergencies

This is a good idea for anyone, but especially for children with special needs. Contact your insurance agency to find in-network healthcare providers located near where you're traveling. Also, get a printed list of your child's medications from your physician. This will come in handy if you need to seek care while traveling.

If you're worried about getting separated from your child, and even if you're not, try this trick. Place a card or paper in your child's pocket or somewhere prominent that contains your contact information. If you're in a crowded venue and an official approaches your child, they can simply show the information instead of having to speak. This can provide a speedy resolution in case you are separated.


Anticipating problems before they occur is the best way to head them off. While you can't anticipate everything, you can do a thorough packing job. In addition to special needs equipment and any clothing you might need, don't forget:

  • Medications. Make sure you put them in a plastic bag for security screening. Remember that, even if they're liquids in containers more than 3.4 ounces, you can take them on the plane if they are legal medications. It's best to keep them in the original containers for verification and/or provide a list of medications from your doctor at the screening checkpoint.
  • Familiar items. It's a good idea to keep a pillow from home, a favorite toy or another treasured item in your child's carryon bag. This will provide comfort in an unfamiliar situation. The same goes for car or bus travel, just keep it handy and accessible.
  • A change of clothes. If you're worried about accidents, keep a change of clothes in a carryon bag for your child.
  • Insurance cards. Keep these handy when you travel, in case of emergencies.

Get the Right Equipment

The right equipment can make all the difference in special needs travel. Adaptivemall.com offers a variety of adaptive equipment, including all-terrain strollers, bus transport strollers, car seat strollers and car seats for airplane travel. If you're not already equipped with this convenient equipment, consider making a purchase before you travel.

As always, feel free to contact us at (800) 371-2778 or use our contact a therapist option on our website should you have any questions about the equipment.