International Travel with an Autistic Child

L. Mae Wilkinson

Could this be the year you take your child overseas for a family vacation? Yes! …and you can have a fabulous time. Travel is enriching, educational and fun. It offers a break from therapy, homework, housework, deadlines and bedtime battles.  Travel is pure, quality, family time with no distractions. And in our case, our son always rises to the occasion by being on his best behavior. Here are some tips for those brave enough to travel internationally with an autistic child.

Practice. International flights are not for novices. A child (and his/her parents) will find it comforting to have had at least a few domestic flights under the belt before heading off on a long-haul trip. Using a combination of credit card points, frequent flier miles and fare sales, we’ve been traveling since our son was three years old. Starting out, we used pictures to preview and practice the transitions from car to parking garage; through security lines to gates; from jetways to planes; and from baggage claim areas to trains, subways and taxis to hotels. Through our travels, we’ve worked through the logistics of connections, delays, loud passengers, strange noises, turbulence, crowds, lost luggage, bad hotels and equally bad food. We have always managed to have a good time, and our son is now a seasoned traveler who doesn’t become unduly upset with the common travel annoyances.*

Destination. A major part of our success resulted from choosing the right destinations. For a first international trip, pick a country where English is widely-spoken and the customs are similar to those of the U.S. Layer levels of cultural diversity during the trip via restaurants and sight-seeing to practice for more exotic destinations in the future.

Price. The price of International travel can be intimidating. After the holidays, passenger traffic dries up, so airlines stimulate travel by heavily discounting fares for trips from the U.S. to Europe.  For a few short weeks in January, transatlantic fares are priced similarly to those of full-fare domestic tickets. The fares are usually valid for trips from January through early April. 

Prepare.  Prepare your itinerary ahead of time, and engage your child in the planning process.  What does he like –History? Nature? Sports? Researching the various sightseeing options is easy to do online and travel forums are a wonderful place to start. Trip Advisor members for example, are a great help, and many have posted itineraries from some of their favorite trips. My son is a whiz with maps, and he was able to help us plot out the most efficient routes to get from point A to point B.

Remember, don’t kill yourself trying to see and do everything. Make sure to build in some free time to relax.  Also, don’t be afraid to let someone else do the work for you — take advantage of sightseeing tours to get a native perspective (and give yourself a break from driving!). 

Hotels and Accommodations.  Splurge. Finding the right hotel(s) are the most critical part of the entire process. After all, that’s where a family will spend the most time. My son is miserable at so-called ‘family’ hotels. The kids can be noisy, and the kid ‘camps’ are run by staff that have little or no experience with children with autism.

Generally speaking, the better the hotel, the better the trip.  Look for at least a four star property which is willing to give away free nights during off-season travel. We went during our son’s spring break—when most families are headed to warm, sunny destinations, Europe is begging for tourists. Many hotels also offer free breakfasts, which is a plus.

As you map out your sightseeing destinations, select hotels that can serve as a base of operations for day trips. For our trip to Ireland, we stayed just outside the city of Dublin and explored the eastern coast, then we spent one day exploring the middle of the country to visit famous sites such as Blarney Castle before setting up camp in Killarney, on the Western side of the island. For our last night, we stayed in a hotel close to the airport since we had an early morning departure.

If you plan to tour, keep the number of hotels to no more than two or three for a full-week vacation to minimize transitions. 

And one more tip: keep it small. The big convention hotels are noisy – people, elevators and clanking service carts can cause significant disruption during the night and nap times.  Smaller hotels tend to be easier to navigate, are much quieter and more intimate, like home.

You will usually fly overnight, and arrive at your destination in the morning.  Even if you’ve managed to sleep on the airplane, you’ll be tired and will want to stretch out after the cramped quarters. Many hotels do not allow check in until the afternoon, so try to find a property within a main area of exploration that allows early check-in.

Pack. Oh happy day! International flights usually don’t charge luggage fees, so pack away, as long as each bag doesn’t weigh more than fifty pounds, and you don’t go over your allocation of on carry-on and one checked bag per person.  So bring pre-packaged snacks, MP3 players, DVD players and headphones with favorite DVDs, crayons and card games, as well as a change of clothes and travel-sized toiletries on the plane. If you are traveling in the off-season, the weather will likely be unpredictable, so a rain poncho or light windbreaker is a must.

Protect.  Buy trip insurance, just in case something comes up or your child is going through one of those bad times where everything seems to be wrought with difficulty. That way, you can get most of your money back if you need to cancel your trip.

As extra protection, enroll the family in the US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  That way, if a passport is lost or stolen, or if there are any other emergencies, the US Consulate can quickly make arrangements to help. Also make sure you add an emergency contact to your flight reservation or tour booking.  I also emailed the airport to let them know that if security happens to see us running through the airport, to please don’t shoot – we are merely chasing our wayward son, who might have been spooked for something he saw in the airport, and that he might be more susceptible to eloping and meltdown behaviors due to the time change. (By the way, he didn’t have any of the above).

While abroad, practice the same vigilance you would do at home, stay in safe areas and don’t go out late at night.

But most of all have fun.  These are the memories that your child will recall with joy for life.

* If your child is not comfortable traveling, keep trying. Begin with day trips by car, then overnight stays, then work back up to airline flights.