10 tips to help kids avoid travel meltdowns and sensory overload

ByAmanda Morin

10 tips to help kids avoid travel meltdowns and sensory overload, kid traveling in an airport

Traveling with kids can be tough no matter what. But sensory processing issues can add some unique challenges. These troubleshooting tips can help you anticipate sensory overload and avoid vacation meltdowns.

1. Bring a “sensory travel kit.”

If your child has visual sensitivities or is sensitive to sounds, textures, or smells, you might have already found tools that help — things like sunglasses, earplugs, or fidgets. Fill a small backpack with the items your child uses. Keep it within reach in the car or on the plane, so your child can grab things even if your focus is elsewhere. Your child may also benefit from the “heavy work” of carrying a backpack.

2. Pack familiar toiletries.

While it’s nice that hotels and family provide shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and towels, your child may be overwhelmed by the new textures, smells, or tastes. Pack the toiletries you use at home and towels you know your child will use. It’s a simple way to make your child feel more at home.

3. Practice your trip.

For older kids, this may mean looking over the route, routines, and schedule for your trip. It may also mean talking about the sensory information they might encounter. For example, a big city can be loud even at night. Or it might have unfamiliar smells.

Younger kids may benefit from a pretend practice run. Make your home into an “airport” or “museum,” and walk through what might happen there. Provide multisensory input, such as playing the sound of plane engines starting up, having your child drag a suitcase, or showing a video of planes.

You can also rehearse going through security with your child.

4. Stop for frequent breaks during car trips.

Sitting still for a long time in a small space can be hard for all kids. It can be especially hard for kids with sensory processing issues. Leave enough time in your plans so you can stop every few hours for a 10-minute break.

If your child needs quiet time, map out parks or rest areas along your route. If your child needs more sensory input, kick a soccer ball around. Or, if you stop at a service area, bring your child inside with you to pick out snacks for the road.

5. Give yourself extra time.

Schedule some extra time to get to the airport or your destination. It can reduce the chances that your child — or you — will feel overloaded by the stress of hurrying through a new situation. It may also prevent an anxiety-related meltdown.

And if at any point during your travel you’re feeling stressed, don’t hesitate to take a break for yourself. If you can stay calm, it can help keep your child calm, too.

6. Look for quiet corners during airport waits.

If you miss a flight or have a long layover between flights, the wait may be tough on your child. For some kids, the noise of airport announcements, people rushing to catch flights, and planes taking off may be too much.

Try taking a walk around the terminal to look for a quiet corner. Many airports also have activity centers, which your child might enjoy if they’re not too crowded. And some airports are adding sensory-friendly rooms for travelers.

7. Be strategic in your boarding options.

Many airlines make accommodations for families that need extra support. Call ahead to see what can be done to help. Some airlines offer pre-boarding. But if your child might do better getting on the plane after everybody, ask if that’s an option.

Other things to consider are arranging for aisle or bulkhead seating for some extra room and letting the flight attendants know your child may need a little extra assistance. Be sure to stress there’s no danger, but that you want them to be aware.

8. Let your child get used to travel and vacation clothes.

If you’re traveling to a different climate, don’t forget to consider that your child may need time to get used to clothes for a different season. Let your child try on and try out bathing suits in the shower or bathtub to make sure they’re still comfortable.

If possible, let your child choose clothing to pack. Many kids with sensory processing issues have distinct preferences. Sticking with familiar clothing for a trip means one less stressor to manage.

9. Bring familiar foods with you.

Be prepared if your child is sensitive to tastes and food textures or tends to get “hangry.” (That’s angry when hungry.) Your child may have trouble with what’s available to eat at your host’s home or the hotel restaurant.

Bring along familiar foods instead of asking your child to adapt to new ones. You may have to arrange to have a fridge in your hotel room. If you’re staying with family or friends, you may want to provide your hosts with a grocery list and some money. Or you can ask for space in their refrigerator to store items you buy.

10. Follow the routine you use at home.

It’s tempting to go with the flow on vacation, but a change in routine can be tough on many kids. Help your child go to sleep and wake up at the same time as at home. Follow the same rules. If jumping on the bed isn’t OK at home, it isn’t OK at a hotel or someone else’s house.

Think about your child’s regular rhythms, too. If your child gets cranky at night, you might want to finish the day’s driving before dinnertime. If mornings are tough, you might want to avoid an early departure.

Sensory processing issues can create challenges in many settings and situations, not just travel. Get tips for managing meltdowns. And find out what everyday life is like for a child who struggles with sensory processing.

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.