Traveling with a Special Needs Child: How to Make Your Next Trip Successful

Travel alights the soul and sparks endorphins, with memories that last forever. All the more reason you should take your special needs child along. Here's how.

Everyone Needs Room To Stretch Out On A Road Trip
Everyone needs room to stretch out on a road trip. Photo: Teia Collier

Yes, you can!

Every child has unique needs, but when traveling with a special needs child, it’s always helpful to have a gameplan and a whole toolbox of tips. As a mom of three who is parenting solo, and with two who were under three pounds at birth, we’ve had many adventures. Some went better than others, and we learned some lessons along the way.  A well-stocked arsenal, a good attitude, a hefty dose of planning and a flexible mindset go a long way in life and in travel with a special needs child.

Here is what I learned along the way that lets us travel often, and travel well.

Related: 10 Priceless Reasons You’ll Want to Say Yes to Your Minivan Urge

Get excited, Check the Nerves and Expect a Good Adventure

Excitement, delight and passion are contagious. Fear and worst-case-scenario-doom spinning are also contagious. We lean into the former because it feels good and it works. Many parents of a special needs child avoid travel because the fear spiral takes over, and we feel a bit out of our depth. Unless your medical team has completely put a pause on travel, lean into the excitement and get planning.

We also lean into excitement because it creates space in our days for the fun stuff, releases happy endorphins and allows your body to create more energy to fuel the dream-mobile that is your imagination. It lets you craft a fun adventure to make new memories, and it also lets other people (i.e. your kids, partner and friends) join in on the fun. 

Crowdsource your group for input. Talk to them. Ask them for ideas, curiosities and things that they would like to see and experience. Watch videos about the destination that you plan on traveling to and possible modes of transport. Then, create a game plan and choose a destination that you all like. 

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They Grow Up, But Memories Of Their Childhood Last Forever Travel With A Special Needs Child

They grow up, but memories of their childhood last forever. Photo: Teia Collier

Chat Frankly with Your Child’s Doctor

Once you land on a location, it’s time for a frank conversation with your child’s doctor. Depending on your child’s needs, you may need to be extra planning and support. In our case, we need to have oxygen tanks and other allergy and respiratory equipment shipped, and we need appropriate lodging within a reasonable distance of a medical facility. 

You are a team with your child’s medical professionals. Let them know where you are going and what type of experience you would like to have. Chat with your child’s therapists in advance of the trip so they can start working it into sessions and preparing your child for the change in routine and schedule. They will also have helpful tips to ensure that you have the best experience possible.

Here’s a cheat sheet of the list that we use when it’s time to travel:

  • Names and numbers for medical and therapy teams
  • Doctor note explaining his conditions and outlining current treatment plan
  • Current medication list with dosage
  • Name and number of a doctor, specialist and accepting hospital at your destination and stops along the way
  • Name and number for medical supply company
  • Insurance cards (if you are traveling across state and country lines, notify your insurance company, many require pre-authorization when you drift out of their network.)

Related: Travel-Friendly Snacks That the Whole Family Will Enjoy

The Smallest Things, Like A Favorite Stuffed Animal, Can Make The Biggest Difference On A Long Trip

The smallest things, like a favorite stuffed animal, can make the biggest difference on a long trip. Photo: Teia Collier

Pack the Essentials + Extras + Special Loves

Essentials and extras are where the magic happens. The internet abounds with forums full of parents sharing their experiences, but it really boils down to being prepared for whatever could happen. You know your kid. You know their triggers and tipping points. You also know that special needs parenting is a marathon and not a sprint.  

A rule of thumb that I learned on the first few trips was that essentials are the must-haves and extras are the things that make our lives easier. After 17 years of traveling with kids on various ends of the needs-spectrum, I opt for both. It saves headaches and stress on the road and grants an extra layer of comfort to the experience. The packing of a special love, in our case is Bull or Panda, gives an extra bit of tangible security for my youngest when nerves, sensitivities or unfamiliar environment tensions get a little high.

My current list is:

  • Stroller or wagon – for transport, ease of moving of kid and gear
  • Meds (new refills) and respiratory equipment – nebulizer, masks, travel oxygen tanks, tubing 
  • Non-confining clothing for travel
  • A favorite blanket and small stuffed animal 
  • Small toys or entertainment in a go-zipper bag
  • Weighted blanket in lightweight backpack for soothing
  • Sunglasses
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Soft individually wrapped snacks, lately fruit snacks and cereal are winners.
  • Tablet with downloaded movies, books (no internet required) and charging brick (a brick with multi-end access points rules)
Packing With Thought And Intent Will Help Stave Off Emergencies On A Road Trip

Packing with thought and intent will help stave off emergencies on a road trip. Photo: Teia Collier

Match Your Ride to Your Adventure + Your Kids

With the plethora of planes, trains, boats, buses, trucks and cars, the options for transport are nearly endless. If the goal is to create a trip that is as stress-free as possible, then consider all the opportunities available. Think of the journey to and from the destination as a part of the entire experience, rather than add-on pieces and account for all the passengers inside.  

For instance, for my family of 4, when we travel from Dallas to San Antonio, it is a five-to-six-hour car ride on top of whatever we have planned. I time my drive early because I know when naps are likely to happen.

Comfort-wise, if you’re renting a car for the trip or buying a car with road trip travel in mind, choose a vehicle that gives space for long legs and growing bodies. In our case, we might do some soft off-roading if the opportunity arises – so a vehicle with 4WD or AWD and a handful of drive modes is a must.

I also know that mid-way through we will need to do a breathing treatment and space or vehicle equipped with a household plug is a boon and eliminates random coffee shop breathing treatments in random cities along the way. Double check the required wattage of your equipment and the capacity of the vehicle’s outlet; not all are compatible.

I also know that my big kids love to see random landmarks that make for great trivia and to watch videos from their devices – so huge brownie points for vehicles with charging ports throughout, rear entertainment units and captain’s chairs. 

Knowing all of this, I make a game plan for the vehicle, route and timeline that includes all of these points and run from there. You can also find tips for specific questions at And visit me over at Dallas Single Mom. These extra steps in planning have saved my trip more than once. 

Happy Travels…

As always, when traveling with kids, extra planning is required to make things go smoothly, but it is 1200% worth the journey and the memories made. 

Teia Collier is a mother of three, educator, social journalist, advocate for women’s and children’s issues and lover of... More about Teia Collier