Stress-free Holiday Tips: Planning travel with special needs children

It's that time of year when Christmas seems a distant expensive memory and the days are temptingly beginning to draw out. Yet we still have months of damp and cold ahead of us, the viruses show no sign of waning and many of us turn our thoughts to warmer climes. Watching the holiday advertisements on TV produces a sigh and a hopeful, dreamy expression across our tired, pale faces. Could we, should we, dare we, travel?

Before we had children, my husband and I  travelled wherever our wanderlust and budget took us. We were free to go away for weekends, stay with friends or explore further afield. Of course travelling with a family is harder work, as any parent will tell you, gone are the lazy snoozes en route and the freedom to pack a tiny bag and see what you find on arrival.

But what happens when your child has additional needs to cater for? Often the prospect can be so daunting that we are tempted to stay at home, instead of donning our adventurers' hats. When our youngest daughter was diagnosed with Down's syndrome shortly after birth, I vividly recall thinking that we would never travel again, never even go to our local beach. I don't know what reasoning there was behind that initial fear, born of shock and ignorance, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

Of course there will be challenges, and different holidays work for different individuals. Every family is unique after all. But with a little forward planning and the right support, you can create special new experiences and learning opportunities for your child, and lifelong memories for you all.

Holiday tips for sensory seekers
Stress-free holiday tips for children with SEND

Top Tips for Travel with Children with SEND

Healthcare Facilities

Make sure your destination is within driving distance of healthcare facilities that can cater for your child's healthcare needs if they should become ill.

Take out comprehensive travel insurance

Some companies will cover the cost of the entire holiday even if you check in at the departure airport and then decide not to go because your child falls ill. Make sure you have the peace of mind that you need from your insurance provider.

Medication and check-ups

Always check with your doctor to make sure they are happy for your child to travel. Unmade-up antibiotics can be a saviour if your doctor will allow it, and make certain you have every other medicine and medical supply your child might need. You may not be able to buy what you need on arrival and it might be a good idea to send them on ahead of you.

Inclusive Welcoming Resorts

Try to find an inclusive, welcoming resort/hotel/B&B/campsite/festival if possible. You can often get a feel by asking a few questions and seeing what their response is, whether they seem as if they would take your family's differences in their stride or not. Some companies specialise in Family Holidays, such as Scott Dunn and Tots Too, and will be happy to discuss your needs and make recommendations based on that. If the hotel has a kids' club, make sure they can cater for your child's needs as that might allow you some respite time.

Some resorts will have special passes/access for children with disabilities, such as Disneyland if your child is unable to queue for long periods of time. There are also plenty of companies that deal in specialised holidays for those with a disability, such as the Calvert Trust, who offer a range of fully supported, accessible activity holidays.

Plan your journeys carefully

Give airlines and travel providers plenty of notice of any special requirements and support that you might need. Think of the journey itself as a mini-holiday and take time to pack everything you will need to get from A to B happily and without stress. I always pack as big a bag as I can that will fit comfortably in the overhead locker on a flight or train journey. There's enough room for everything from spare clothes, more spare clothes and pyjamas to masses of tempting healthy snacks and treats, a basic medical kit, tiny fun toiletries and as many new, unplayed-with-before small toys, stickers, colouring books and so on as I can squeeze in it. Children love a rag doll with plasters, comb, bandages, hairclips and so on to keep them amused on the way.

It's also worth investing in noise-limiting children's headphones as they will actually fit, and won't harm your child's hearing. Your child might even keep them on long enough to watch a whole film. Don't forget a sunhat, shades and sunscreen (under the liquid limit for hand luggage) to pop on when you arrive if going somewhere hot.

Sensory Overload

A different routine or climate might unsettle your child, only you will know what will suit them and what they can cope with. Some children with sensory issues meltdown at the feel of heat and sand mixed with sun cream. Others dislike the cold and having to wear many layers of snow-wear. With trial and effort you will find what works for your family and be patient and reassuring when things don't go according to plan. It's worth practising exposure to what you will wear and feel when you arrive, i.e. swimwear, certain music or sand, before you go. There are also lots of story books about holidays and travel for children on the market so invest in a couple and read them before you go.

Keep a journal

This could be drawings, postcards or photos collected durng your stay, so that your child has a visual record of their holiday to show teachers and family on their return. This will help their communication enormously. You'll be surprised how many times they will come back to it once its complete.


Enjoy, relax, make memories, take thousands of photos. Live, love and laugh. You deserve it.

You can read about some of our Downs Side Up family adventures in Jamaica and other longhaul Memories here.

Hayley Newman
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