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Traveling with children with special needs is rarely easy. When you have a child with special needs, traveling may even seem like an impossible endeavor. News stories about planes making emergency landings to remove families with special needs don’t help the anxiety many parents feel regarding this subject. The good news is that going on a getaway with your child is possible, but it may need to start with small, patient steps.

Special Needs Travel Tips

Start Locally

Some children with special needs are more sensitive to changes in their environment than others. Get your child accustomed to both traveling and new surroundings by starting with local getaways that involve staying a night or two in a hotel. A local trip allows you to stay close to home and provides experiences that will help make future trips successful, more comfortable, and longer. Prepare your child for trips by telling them what will happen, what the family plans to do, and about all the fun experiences in store.

Air Travel

Air travel means a change in routine, crowds, long boring lines, new sounds, strange surroundings and a lot of time staying seated. If possible, start with short flights and work your way up to longer ones. Find out if your airport offers an Airport Rehearsal Program. If it does, sign your family up before your next trip. This program gives your child a chance to have an airport experience that includes packing bags, going to the airport, checking in, going through security, finding your gate, boarding the plane, as well as pretend flying and deplaning.

When booking a real flight, indicate that your family needs special services, even if your child doesn’t need a wheelchair. At the airport, remind the ticketing agent about your special request and let the individual know if you require assistance with your carry-on luggage, getting through security and to the gate.

At your gate, let the airline agent know that you’d like to pre-board the plane. This gives your family the chance to board a nearly empty plane and get settled before the other passengers crowd the aisles.



Whether traveling by air or in a vehicle, keep essentials easily accessible. This means keeping medicines (all of them), snacks, toys, books, a change of clothes, and other comfort and entertainment items in carry-on luggage for plane trips or in the back seat during car trips. Look at your child’s autism activity tracker to remind yourself of what items helped in the past, like noise-cancelling headphones.


All U.S. hotels have wheelchair-accessible rooms with wider doors and grab bars in the bathroom. If this type of room will make your family’s stay more comfortable, request it when you make reservations to ensure that it’s available on the day that you check-in.

Choosing a Destination

When planning your trip, learn how different attractions accommodate families with special needs. Many cities, state parks and national parks, for example, have visitor guides for individuals with disabilities.

If you’re going to a theme park or a cruise, inquire about the programs available for those with special needs. Popular theme parks often accommodate families by providing special passes that ensure equal access to all the rides and attractions and make it possible to avoid long lines.

If your family loves the outdoors, sign up for the America the Beautiful Access Pass from the U.S. Geological Survey. The lifetime pass is issued to American citizens and permanent residents who have a permanent disability. The pass covers the cost of per-vehicle fees at over 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country and provides discounts on amenity fees, like camping.

Traveling with anyone with a disability requires preparation, routine, and moving at their pace. While it may not be easy at first, your child and family will get better with practice. With that practice comes more fun and quality time with your loved ones. Safe travels!

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