It’s that time of year, time to plan for your summer family vacation. But if you have a special needs kid, it takes more effort to get through TSA an on your flight with extra equipment, medications and considerations. Here are some tips to make your airport experience go smoothly.
1. Arrange for additional assistance when booking your flight.
On most airlines you arrange for additional assistance when you are making your reservations online by clicking the check box for this next to the passenger requiring it. If you are booking through a travel agent, make sure that they note to the airline that you are traveling with a special needs child. I usually follow up with a phone call after booking my flight to see if I can get seats closer to the front, especially if we need to catch a connecting flight, or all together if that wasn’t available online, and to make sure they know we need more time to load. Typically this means that they call us first to board, even before preboarding, and when we arrive at our destination someone meets us at the gate with a wheelchair or to help us transport our bags. If your child needs a transfer from their wheelchair, they will take care of that as well. Also, even if your child is ambulatory but can’t walk long distances, you can request wheelchair assistance. Some airports have motorized carts for those with limited mobility.
2. Check your bags.
I know, the airlines charge a premium for checked bags, but believe me, it will reduce so much stress from your airport experience. Last summer I tried to save a few bucks and had my family only bring carry ons. We unloaded our Suburban at the airport and realized that even though we met the limits of one carry on and one personal item per person, we hadn’t taken into consideration who was going to push my daughter’s wheelchair and carry her bags – and car seat! With no carts in sight, we loaded up and made our way to the terminal. It’s comical in retrospect, but my family wasn’t laughing as schlepped our way, loaded down like sherpas. We were sweating by the time we got through TSA with everything, but there was no time to rest – we still needed to board the plane! My husband boarded with a car seat and several bags, my oldest daughter went next with the rest of the bags and I carried my daughter on and into her car seat. Insanity.
Note: A car seat is not necessary for kids, my daughter can’t sit independently.
3. Find the “Family and Special Assitance” line at TSA.
Every airport that I’ve been to has had a separate TSA line for special needs and families. These lines tend to be shorter, and the agents seem to have more patience and work with you on your special circumstances.
4. Have liquid medications together and in a plastic bag.
TSA allows you to bring liquid prescription medications in containers greater than 3 ounces. Have these in a separate ziplock bag and hand them to the TSA agent when you are placing your items on the conveyor.
5. Protect ears from air pressure.
If your child can chew gum, bring it and have a fresh piece at take off and landing so that their ears don’t get plugged and easily adjust to the altitude. You could also use a tippy cup, the kind with a valve that the child has to suck to get liquid, or a bottle, depending on your child’s age. If you think the air pressure will be an issue for your child, pick up a pair of EarPlanes at the drug store. They are made of silicon and softly screw into the ear and use a filter system to gently regulate air pressure. They also help reduce inflight noise.
6. Consider travel insurance to protect your equipment.
I have never had a problem with my daughter’s wheelchair getting beat up in the belly of the plane, but I do know a few people who have had expensive wheelchairs and scooters damaged in flight. If you have an expensive piece of equipment you might consider travel insurance to cover it.
7. Allow extra time.
You just never know how busy the airport might be, or how long it will take to get through TSA. Last time we traveled my daughter went through TSA in her wheelchair. They patted her down in her wheelchair, then swabbed the chair to detect bomb residue – and it tested positive. Seriously! Two women TSA agents took my daughter and myself into a private room for a pat down and second bomb residue scan. They were very friendly and kind of apologetic, I realize they were just doing their job, but it took a lot more time and was pretty frustrating.
8. Relax and go with the flow.
The airport shuffle takes up a relatively short period of time, and is the gateway to your vacation. Just relax and go with the flow. And bring some Advil.
Karin Sheets is a techie, travel writer and mother of two teens, one of them with special needs. She encourages all families to live the adventure of life. Her personal blog is www.specialneedstravelmom.com and you can follow her @ionMyAdventures on Twitter.