Traveling with kids can be tough no matter what. When kids have trouble processing sensory information, it can bring its own set of challenges. These tips can help you avoid sensory overload — and travel 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 as you travel, 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.
It’s nice that hotels and hosts provide shampoo, soap, toothpaste, and towels. But your child may be overwhelmed by the new textures, smells, or tastes. Pack the toiletries you use at home. And bring 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 face. For example, a big city can be loud even at night. Or a beach might have unfamiliar smells.
It may help younger kids to take a pretend practice run. Make your home into an “airport” or “museum,” and walk through what might happen there. Provide multisensory input, like playing the sound of plane engines starting up. Have your child drag a suitcase, or show them 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 challenges. 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, bus or train station, or your destination. It can reduce the chances that your child — or you — will feel overwhelmed by the stress of hurrying through a new situation. It may also prevent an anxiety-related meltdown.
And if you’re feeling stressed, take a break for yourself. If you can stay calm, it can help keep your child calm, too.
6. Look for quiet corners during travel waits.
It can happen that you miss your flight, train, bus, or subway. And there may be a long time between travel connections. This wait may be tough on your child. The hustle and bustle of busy people, announcements, and transportation noises can be overwhelming for kids.
Try taking a walk around to look for a quiet corner. Many airports have activity centers, which your child might enjoy if they’re not too crowded. And some airports are adding sensory-friendly rooms for travelers. If traveling by train, check if there are Quiet Cars available. These cars cater to passengers who want to be away from sound and other activities.
7. Be strategic in your boarding options.
Many airlines make accommodations for families who 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 else, ask if that’s an option. If traveling by train or bus, ask ahead if they stagger boarding.
Other things to consider are arranging for aisle or bulkhead seating for some extra room. You could also let the flight attendants know that your child may need a little extra assistance. Be sure to stress that there’s no danger — you just want them to be aware.
8. Let your child get used to travel and vacation clothes.
If you’re traveling to a different climate, your child may need time to get used to clothes for another season. Let your child try on and try out bathing suits in the shower or bathtub to make sure they’re comfortable.
If possible, let your child choose which clothing to pack. Many kids with sensory processing challenges 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.
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.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.