Planning a Vacation with Children

For many of us, vacations are an important part of our lifestyle. They’re a great way to relax and unwind, to explore the world, and to spend quality time with loved ones.

But, as anyone who’s tried knows, arranging and planning a vacation is no easy task. There are so many complicated factors to take into account in order for everything to run smoothly and meet everyone’s expectations. 

And when a family has a child with special needs or distinct sensitivities, the planning process can seem extra daunting.

But please don’t be discouraged! Considering a few things in advance can make all the difference in how your trip turns out. Of course, nothing will ever go 100% according to the plan—but a little bit of forethought can go a long way!

This resource will walk you through what to consider when planning a family trip that all of you will be able to enjoy.

Making Your Preliminary Plans:

The more you consider and account for during your initial planning stage, the fewer problems you’ll likely face down the road.

Preemptively learning about the places and activities you’ll be spending your time on before you ever leave your house can help prepare you for whatever little surprises await.

The first thing you should do when picking out a place to travel to is research the following, each of which is crucial to your vacation plans but can be a potential source of difficulty when traveling with children:

  • Available activity options
  • Hotel and other facility options
  • Hospitals and health care options nearby
  • Airport and/or other travel logistics
  • Available methods of transportation at your destination

Keeping Things Balanced When Planning Activities:

It’s important to keep in mind that your child might have a very different perception of certain things than you do as an adult—especially if your child has special needs or distinct sensitivities.

Your mission at this stage is to try and balance the needs and expectations of everyone in the family, particularly:

  • Getting to experience the things that interest your whole family, without making your child uncomfortable or excessively bored
  • Finding time for family companionship and bonding, while also giving your child opportunities for autonomy and a degree of independence

An important point to keep in mind when making your plans is that you should not use the trip as a means to expand your child’s comfort zone. A completely new environment can be overwhelming. If you push your child too much, it may lead to a meltdown and impact everyone’s enjoyment of the trip

Try some of the following during the planning stage:

  • Involve your child in the research process. This will help them get excited about the trip and reduce anxiety about upcoming changes.
  • Take your child’s interests and sensitivities into account when planning activities.
  • Call local hotels and transportation companies to find out what kinds of accommodations they offer. If you require specific accommodations, such as mobility, sensory, allergy, and medical needs, confirm that they’ll be available on your trip dates.
  • 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. This is important if your child has specific medical needs, or just to be generally prepared in case of emergency.
  • 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. You can also obtain Sunflower products to help identify your child as someone with a hidden disability.
  • If applicable, consider purchasing fast passes for attractions you will be visiting so that waiting in large crowds for long periods of time 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.

Getting Ready To Leave For Your Destination

The weeks and days leading up to the trip can be very exciting—and can also be another important step in ensuring everything will go well.

To get your child excited, and also reduce potential anxiety or wariness over the anticipation of a new experience, try some of the following:

  • Start a fun countdown to the departure date.
  • Talk to your child about the place you’ll be visiting. Use visual tools such as photos and videos so everything will feel more familiar upon arrival.
  • Visit the airport to give your child a sense of how it works and what they might encounter. If you are not able to visit the airport, books and videos about flying are also helpful.
  • Review safety tips so your child confidently knows what to do in an emergency situation.
  • Role play some experiences your child may encounter on the trip, such as going through security or waiting by your gate.
  • Create Social StoriesTM that include information about the trip.
  • Make a visual schedule of the trip to help your child visualize their upcoming new routine. Don’t forget to also make a “Change” icon or image to help your child adjust to schedule changes that will inevitably happen.

Once you’ve checked all these boxes off your to-do list, you can feel ready to hit the road knowing that you’ve set your entire family up for a fun, memorable, and comfortable experience.

But no matter how well you’ve planned things out, a new set of considerations need to be made to ensure that everything continues to run smoothly now that you’re actually on your way. CLICK HERE to read Part Two of this series: Taking a Vacation with Children.

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