14 Tips for Airline Travel with a Special Needs Child


Planning a break from Kentuckiana living for a change of scenery or a family vacation? Traveling with a child with special needs can be a daunting experience if you’re unsure what to expect. Fortunately, with some careful planning, you can ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey for everyone involved. Read on below to get our 14 tips for airline travel with a special needs child.

14 tips for airline travel with a special needs childHow Do Airlines Accommodate People With Disabilities?

Many airlines have made significant strides in accommodating people with disabilities, ensuring a more inclusive and accessible travel experience. Some airlines offer priority boarding, allowing them extra time to settle in and get comfortable before the general boarding process begins.

With the right accommodations, it can be easy for children with special needs to travel on a plane. Special seating arrangements, such as bulkhead seats or those near the front of the plane, are often available to provide additional space and convenience. Airlines are equipped with onboard wheelchair storage and can assist with stowing mobility devices.

For passengers with hearing or visual impairments, airlines provide safety briefings in accessible formats, including printed materials and video captions. Flight attendants are trained to offer assistance, whether it’s guiding a passenger to their seat or providing detailed descriptions of the meal options.

Prepare Well Before the Flight

Keep these tips in mind when booking your trip and preparing for your departure. 

1. Inform the Airline Early

When you book your tickets, contact the airline to inform them of your child’s specific needs. Most airlines require you to notify them at least 48 hours in advance. Airlines often have policies and services to assist families traveling with children with special needs. This might include priority boarding, seating accommodations and assistance during the flight.

2. Research and Choose the Right Airline

Some airlines are more accommodating for people with disabilities than others. Look for airlines with good reputations for supporting passengers with disabilities. Online forums and support groups are great resources for recommendations. Airlines like Delta and Southwest Airlines are rated the most accommodating for those with disabilities. They have the lowest reports of mishandled wheelchairs and general complaints. Delta is currently working on designing a wheelchair-friendly cabin, allowing passengers to stay in their wheelchairs throughout the flight. 

3. Request Specific Accommodations

If your child needs special seating, such as a bulkhead seat for more legroom or an aisle seat for easier access, make these requests early. Some airlines allow you to book these seats at no extra cost if you explain your child’s needs. If you’re traveling with specific mobility devices, notify the airline ahead of time to secure a space in the cabin. It’s best to take photographs of your mobility aids to ensure no damage occurs during the flight. 

4. Carry Important Documents

Have a folder with all necessary documents, including a doctor’s note outlining your child’s condition or any specific requirements. Carry letters specifying any medication you may be flying with, especially injectables. This can be helpful if any issues arise during your travels.

5. Pack Smartly

Make a checklist of essential items you need to pack. Include medications, favorite snacks, comfort items and any special equipment your child might need. Packing an extra change of clothes for both your child and yourself can be a lifesaver in case of spills or accidents. 

6. Prepare a Travel Kit

Assemble a small bag of items to soothe and entertain your child during the flight. This could include noise-canceling headphones, a tablet with their favorite movies or games, sensory toys and anything else to keep them calm and occupied.

Navigating the Airport and Security Procedures

Security can be one of the most challenging aspects of traveling with a child with special needs. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to make your journey less stressful with the assistance of airport staff.  

7. Arrive Early

Give yourself plenty of time at the airport. Arriving early can reduce stress and give you ample time to get through security and other procedures without feeling rushed. 

8. Pre-Boarding and Security Screening

Use the airline’s pre-boarding option to get settled on the plane before the general rush of passengers. At security, inform TSA agents at the Kentucky airport about your child’s condition. The TSA Cares program offers assistance and accommodations to travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, and you can call ahead to arrange extra help. Airport assistants can help you and your child get from one end of the airport to the other, assisting with check-ins, baggage drop and security. 

Ensuring a Comfortable In-Flight Experience

Depending on the duration of your flight, you may be concerned about how the actual flying experience will go. Here are some effective ways to ensure a smooth journey. 

9. Communicate With Flight Attendants

Once on the plane, introduce yourself and your child to the flight attendants. Tell them about any specific needs or potential challenges. This can help them be more understanding and supportive throughout the flight.

10. Stick to a Routine

Try to maintain your child’s usual routine as much as possible. Bring familiar items from home and follow regular meal and sleep schedules to help them feel more at ease.

11. Stay Calm and Flexible

Air travel can be unpredictable. Delays and turbulence happen. Staying calm and maintaining a flexible attitude can help your child remain calm as well, as they often pick up your feelings. If you encounter any difficulties, don’t hesitate to ask for help from the flight crew or fellow passengers. 

Dealing With Arrival

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, your trip finally begins. Here are some tips for exiting the airplane and keeping your child calm. 

12. Arrange Ground Transportation

If possible, arrange for your ground transportation in advance. Knowing that you have a reliable way to reach your final destination can ease a lot of stress.

13. Take Breaks

Once you arrive, give your child time to acclimate to the new environment. Plan for breaks and downtime, especially if your itinerary is busy.

14. Ask for Support

Many airports and airlines offer support for families traveling with children who have special needs. Take advantage of these services to make your journey easier. 

Smooth and Safe Travels

With these tips, your child with special needs can travel on a plane with ease. While it may require extra planning and patience, you can still make your experience more manageable and enjoyable. Remember, you’re not alone — many families have successfully navigated air travel with children with disabilities and with the right preparation, you can too. 


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