Planning a Vacation with Children

Vacation is something we all look forward to. It’s a great time to relax, unwind, explore the world, and spend quality time with family and friends. But let’s face it: planning a vacation is no walk in the park especially if you’re with a child who has special needs or distinct sensitivities. 

Between finding the perfect destination, mapping out the itinerary, and keeping everyone happy, there’s just a lot to consider. But don’t get discouraged! With a little forethought and these helpful tips, you can create a vacation that everyone in your family will enjoy!

Months Before the Trip

Remember: planning makes perfect! The more you consider and account for during the initial stage, the fewer bumps you’ll encounter on the road (literally and figuratively!). 

So, before you even pack your first suitcase here are things you should consider:

  1. Do some research. Learn as much as you can about your chosen destination and activities. This will help you be better equipped to handle unexpected situations that may arise. Here’s a checklist of what to research for.
      • Available activity options
      • Hotel and other facility options
      • Hospitals and healthcare options nearby
      • Airport and other travel logistics
      • Available methods of transportation at your destination
  2. Keep things balanced. Remember, your child might see the world differently than you — especially if your child has special needs or distinct sensitivities. When planning what activities to do or where to go, make sure to:
    • Find experiences the whole family will enjoy without your child feeling uncomfortable or excessively bored.
    • Include time for family bonding while also giving your child autonomy and independence.
  3. Don’t use the trip to expand your child’s comfort zone. A completely new environment can be overwhelming. Pushing your child too much could lead to a meltdown and impact everyone’s enjoyment.

Here are some ways to prepare your child for the trip:

  • Involve your child in the research process to make them feel excited about the trip and reduce anxiety about upcoming changes.
  • Call local hotels and transportation companies to find out what kinds of accommodations they offer and confirm the specific ones your child may need.
  • Call attractions and places in your itinerary to see if they offer accommodations that will help your child (See our list of NJ sensory-friendly outings). You can also ask about their policies on re-entry, rain checks, and cancellations. 
  • Research the nearest hospitals and other health-related facilities. Reach out and ask what kinds of insurance they accept. 
  • Select less busy airports and, if possible, non-peak travel times to minimize sensory sensitivities. 
  • Consider signing up for TSA PreCheck to minimize wait times and long lines, and avoid crowds.
  • If you are flying and your child has a hidden disability, consider choosing an airport that is a member of Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, an organization that provides training and awareness about hidden disabilities to airport staff. 
  • Purchase fast passes for attractions you will be visiting so that waiting in large crowds for long periods will not be necessary.
  • Create a schedule; outline the timing of various activities and factor in how this will affect mealtimes and bedtime. 
  • Create a backup plan ready in case your preferred activities don’t go well.
  • Decide how you will handle your child’s struggles if they manifest during the trip.

Days Before The Trip

At this point, the anticipation for your family vacation is building! But before you hop on that plane (or train or road trip adventure) there are a few more things you can do to ensure a smooth and stress-free experience for everyone.

Just like the initial planning stage, these pre-departure steps will help keep your child excited and reduce any anxiety or wariness over the trip:

  • Start a fun countdown to your departure date. 
  • Help your child get familiar with the place you’ll be visiting through photos or videos.
  • Visit the airport beforehand to give your child a sense of how things will go. 

Note: If you can’t visit, books and videos about flying are also helpful.

  • Review safety tips so your child will know what to do in case of emergencies.
  • Role-play some experiences your child might encounter during the trip.
  • Create Social Stories that include information about the trip.
  • Make a visual schedule of the trip to help your child visualize their upcoming new routine. 

With these planning tips in place, you’re well on your way to a fantastic family vacation filled with lasting memories! 

As you head to your trip, keep in mind that new considerations will also arise. Be prepared and make sure everything keeps running smoothly by reading part two of the series: Taking a Vacation with Children.

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