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Taking a Vacation with Special Needs Kids

Here are 11 tips for parents traveling with children with disabilities

Planning on taking a trip with your children with special needs? The intricacies of planning ahead with proper medications, equipment such as ventilators and wheelchairs, may make running away to some island paradise seem impossible.

Yet more travel providers – from hotel staff to resort managers – are making travel for the disabled easier. Their efforts have been spurred not only by tourism dollars, but also additional U.S. federal regulations ensuring those with disabilities equal opportunities. Here are some tips to help you make your travel plans.

  1. Built anticipation. If your child is old enough, let her your destination online. Print pictures and information about spots you'd like to visit. For younger kids, check out related books from the library and read them to him at night.
  2. Pack a 'survival kit.' Fill any of your child's prescriptions – and bring a copy of that signed prescription if you're taking medication on an airplane. Keep medications in original packaging. Also, ask your doctor for over-the-counter recommendations, like anti-nausea, anti-diarrhea, fever reducers or even headache medicines (again, keep in original packaging). Plus, bring handy distraction toys, like paper, pencils, Play-Doh and other small items.
  3. Keep medications cool. If your child has prescriptions that require refrigeration, make sure to check that your hotel room has a fridge. Many theme parks will accommodate this; call ahead to learn your options.
  4. Become an airline expert. When you purchase tickets, explain your situation. If your child is in a wheelchair, let the airline know you'll require assistance getting your child on and off the plane, says Kleo King, senior VP of accessibility services at Able to Travel, a travel provider associated with United Spinal Association. Airlines usually offer tips on checking and stowing wheelchairs during a flight. (FYI: You can't be charged added fees to have it stored.)
  5. Security screening tips. If your child is in a wheelchair, request a "private screening." If the staffer objects, ask to talk to his or her supervisor – who often has more special needs training, Kleo says. And if your child has any internal metal plates to treat conditions, carry a doctor's note explaining the surgery or part to avoid confusion.
  6. Get professional help. Several travel agencies can help arrange your trips. These representatives are well acquainted with what services to ask for – and how to ask for them. And if anything goes wrong, the rep can step in on your behalf to help. Able to Travel, for instance, charges $25 per person.
  7. Expect some hassles. Delays, frustrations, inappropriate questions or comments: No matter where you travel, there's bound to be hiccups. They're part of the travel adventure. If you keep a smile on your face, chances are the rest of your family will, too!
  8. Break it up. An all-day tour of a tourist town may sound good on a travel site, but kids need breaks. And, depending on your child's needs, he or she may need even more. Plan "down time" into your schedule. For example, if you're going to a theme park, play for an hour or two and then return to your hotel and watch a movie. Go back later in the day for another hour or two.
  9. Rent your lodging. Renting a house could be a better option. It provides more space than a hotel – and a kitchen. Nancy C. Hemenway, a Virginia mom of an adopted child with post-traumatic stress disorder, says she's found it's less cramped, accommodates her daughter's service animal, and meets or beats resort hotel costs. Ask a travel agent for reputable recommendations.
  10. Call ahead. Most big theme parks and resorts have services designed for children with disabilities. Walt Disneyworld Resort spokesperson Zoraya Suarez says parents can call ahead and share their child's needs, from dietary concerns to wheelchair equipment and more. If you forget to check in advance, ask about accommodations at the check-in gate.
  11. Be realistic. No matter how much planning you do, no trip is perfect. The whole point of traveling is to create lasting memories with your children. Try to focus on the unexpected delights!

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