Undivided Resources
Article
Road Trip Tips for Kids with Disabilities

Road Trip Tips for Kids with Disabilities


Published: Jun. 14, 2024Updated: Jun. 28, 2024

Featured image
Some of the best memories come from cross-country road trips…the silly car games, fun pit stops, and the open road.... It can feel like sunshine and freedom. But let's be real — anyone who has traveled with kids knows that road trips can feel like a circus on wheels. It’s definitely not always easy. And for kids with disabilities, being sandwiched in a car for hours on end can hold its own challenges. We want to make your road trip as successful and fabulous as you deserve it to be. That’s why we’ve set out to gather practical tips from experienced parents and Undivided experts to help make your next road trip a success.
Gain access to Undivided’s comprehensive resources and receive our weekly newsletter.
Sign up today

Map out your road trip ahead of time

Mapping out your road trip ahead of time lets you spend more time enjoying the journey and less time worrying about whether your child will get bored, where you'll stop next, or whether your destination is accessible for them. To make things easier and less stressful, plan all the details in advance!

Map out the routes and stops

It’s important when traveling to factor in potential places you will stop to eat, give medication, sleep, and use the restroom along the way. Undivided Navigator Beth Lulu recommends printing a daily paper calendar with a detailed itinerary and listed hours for travel days.

  • Finding food for kids who have food allergies/sensitivities or are just fussy can be a challenge! So, perhaps try preparing some meals ahead of time, or locate restaurants early on that can accommodate your child’s food allergies/sensitivities. AllergyEats or Find Me Gluten Free are great platforms to find places that can accommodate your child!
  • Locating suitable bathroom stops is just as important too. You want a clean place for your child to use the bathroom, and if you have any kids still wearing diapers, you want someplace with a clean area to change them. Even with careful planning, when nature calls, you have no choice but to answer, so you’ll want to make sure your restroom stop provides a clean place to change clothes if needed. (Be sure to have a spare set of clothes on hand just in case!) In those moments where you or your child needs a bathroom ASAP, we recommend checking out apps like Flush that can help you find clean, accessible, and safe bathrooms near your location.
    • While there isn't an app (yet) to locate changing tables for older children, it's helpful to research "adult changing stations" in the areas you'll be visiting. Be aware that these changing stations are rather limited, so be sure to pack any necessary supplies to ensure you're prepared if a suitable facility isn't available.

Break up the drive

Taking breaks along the way can help avoid the constant "Are we there yet?" and keep your child from getting too stressed or agitated.

  • Parks and/or rest stops are a great place to take some quick, free movement breaks. A quick internet search of the city you’re stopping in should yield information about the best parks around. Google Maps, for example, has user reviews for most parks and often has pictures of park areas so you can gauge how disability-friendly they are.
  • Websites like Roadside America and Atlas Obscura offer quirky, off-the-beaten path ideas for quick stops that are often free. Roadside America is a pretty basic website that generally doesn’t offer accessibility information, but many of the sites are simply quick stops that have a parking lot right by the attraction. Atlas Obscura has a Know Before You Go section at the end of many place writeups that allows you to see information about parking, accessibility, and the like.
  • Restaurants with outdoor seating are great for breaking up the road trips too! It gives kids the opportunity to get some fresh air at the same time.

Double-check to ensure that campgrounds, motels, hotels, etc. are able to properly accommodate your child

This might include verifying that they have accessible rooms, special dietary options, or other specific facilities that are essential for your child's comfort and well-being. When calling ahead, focus on the essential questions and feel out how accommodating they are, before adding further questions. It's better to be thorough than to arrive and find out that the accommodations fall short of your requirements. Many places are willing to make special arrangements if they know in advance.

  • To help you find suitable places, check out Access Now or Wheel the World, an app and website that helps pinpoint accessible restaurants, hotels, stores, parks, and more ahead of time. It’s great for filtering/searching for locations that can accommodate your child’s needs. This extra step of preparation can make a significant difference in the comfort and enjoyment of your trip.

Plan ahead by listing hospitals along your route

You never know when an emergency might strike! For families with complex medical issues, mapping out hospitals along your route is important.

  • Google maps is a great resource to locate hospitals along your route. While doing this, try and see what hospitals are in-network with your insurance!

Involve your child in planning parts of the trip

This will help them know what to expect and get them excited about the journey. Let them help you pick out places to stay, rental cars, or rental RV, etc. Including them in the planning process helps them know what to expect and get excited about the journey ahead.

Prep and plan before you hit the road

Prepping and planning before you hit the road is key to avoiding those “oh shoot, I forgot xyz” moments. The first thing to do before you embark on your journey is to make sure that you’ve communicated with your care team, created an emergency plan, and prepared extra medical supplies!

Communicate with your care team

For families with complex medical needs, communicating with your care team before your travels is essential in making sure you have all of the proper material, equipment, and supplies ready for the trip. Speaking with your care team can also help mitigate any travel anxiety you may have as you begin preparing for your journey. Undivided Navigator Heather McCullough shares some key points to bring up when communicating with your care team.

  • Get referrals from your pediatrician beforehand, just in case your child needs medical attention while you are away from home. Ask whether they recommend or can refer you to a doctor or specialist in the area you will be traveling to.
  • Ask your pediatrician for a letter detailing your child’s diagnosis, medical history, allergies, equipment, medications, needs, etc.
  • Research and have a list on hand of all local hospitals, emergency rooms, medical centers, and pharmacies, as well as local durable medical equipment (DME) dealers in case of an emergency that requires immediate access to medical equipment.
  • Have all emergency info (medication list, medical contacts, diagnoses, action plan, etc.) easily accessible in case you land in an ER while on vacation somewhere or traveling.

Prepare extra medications and supplies

The last thing you want is to run out of your child’s medication or supplies, or for something unexpected to happen and their medicine to get lost or ruined. Packing extra backups for your backups is a smart and easy way to stay confident and fully prepared for the epic road trip ahead. Here’s a list of things to check before your adventure begins.

  • Have all medications and know where you can refill them if needed.
  • Sometimes you can draw up medication ahead of time, so check with the pharmacy about pre-drawing medication. Families commonly do this when traveling to make for less waste and to avoid accidentally misdosing due to sleep deprivation from the road trip.
  • Some common supplies to stock up on are feeding tubes, hearing aid batteries, bottle liners, ambulatory aids, and bath/toileting aids.

  • Check with DME to see whether supplies (i.e. wheelchairs, oxygen equipment, insulin pump, walking aids, etc)can be shipped to where you will be staying if necessary.

  • Find out whether insurance will cover medication if you are out-of-state or whether you will need to pay out of pocket. Check with insurance and your pediatrician ahead of vacation regarding 90-day/vacation overrides for medications so that you don't have to refill on the trip. If you’re traveling from state to state, your insurance may not cover what you need.

    • Especially for kids with extra support needs who are on Medicaid, which varies from state to state, out-of-state bills may not be covered unless it's an emergency. Undivided Navigator Heather McCullough suggests carrying paper prescriptions of things you may need.
  • If your child has oxygen equipment, take your new prescription with you so that you can get oxygen no matter where you are (it always requires a prescription).

    • Secure all oxygen tanks in the vehicle so they are not loose, and do not leave tanks in hot cars. Find out ahead of time where you can refill tanks (typically they must be refilled at specialty pharmacies or DMEs, and prescriptions for oxygen must be sent over ahead of time; you pay out of pocket for tank refills).
      • Check with DME ahead of travel to see whether you can reserve a portable oxygen concentrator. (You can rent them, but they're expensive.) If you have a national DME, you can check ahead to see whether they can service your tanks and equipment where you'll be driving, too.

Listen to Heather share her personal tips on travel, from packing to stocking up on supplies.

General Safety Precautions

As parents, all we want is for our kids to have fun on the road trip and to get to where we need to go safely. However, we may need to do some things to help keep them safe while we're on the road.

For children that have a tendency to elope, using ID bracelets (this is great if your child also has a medical condition) or GPS trackers can help you keep track of your children and find them quickly if they wander off. For those with younger kids, toddler safety harnesses and bracelets can help keep them close to you when you’re out and about.

Gain access to Undivided’s comprehensive resources and receive our weekly newsletter.
Sign up today

Find accessible lodging

One of the most exciting parts of any road trip is the people you meet and the places you discover along the way! Now that you've figured out what you need to prepare before your trip begins, it’s time to plan exactly where to stay. While many hotels and campsites are required to comply with the ADA, many, unfortunately, do not. Or they do, but accessible accommodations are available in limited quantities. That’s why it’s important to call ahead to verify what type of accommodations your chosen campsite or hotel provides, and to make sure they are still available. Some RV campgrounds, for example, have accessible spots, but your spot isn’t guaranteed when you book. You don’t want to show up only to find out that the last accessible spot is already taken and you’re left with one that won’t work for your child. Also, keep in mind that most house rentals (through Airbnb or VRBO, for example) are not required to meet any accessibility requirements.

Hotels, motels, and vacation rentals

If you’re on the hunt for accessible lodging, check out AccessibleGO or TripAdvisor to help you find lodging that accommodates your child’s needs. From ADA-compliant rooms, to hearing-accessible rooms, accessible pools, quiet rooms, and more, these sites can be great resources for navigating where you're going to stay along the way. Our Undivided families also recommend trying to stay in lodgings more than one night. That way you’re not rushing in the morning to get things together before your check-out time, or making your child overwhelmed with the constant changes.

Here are a few lodging tips from Undivided experts:

  • For travelers with immunocompromised family members, look for vacation rentals or hotel rooms that have an independent A/C system where the air is not shared with others. Just reach out to the vacation rental host or hotel, and they should be able to let you know.
  • Be on the lookout for lodgings that offer refrigerators for medicine (even if the fridges are small).
  • For kids with sensory overload challenges, you can look for quiet lodgings that are IBCCES certified.
  • If noise is an issue for someone in your family, contact the hotel or vacation rental and let them know that you would like to be placed in a room that’s farthest away from any noise. If you have the chance to pick a room, make sure that it's the farthest one possible from a large street, highway, elevators, or pools.
  • If you have access to pictures of your accommodations ahead of time, you can make a social prompting story, making things just a little more familiar when you arrive.

Camping and accessible activities

For families who can't get enough of the outdoors and want to camp out overnight during their road trips, we applaud you! But let’s be honest—finding accessible campsites or national parks for your child can be challenging, but not impossible. In fact, most national parks have higher ADA compliance than many non-government facilities. Our Undivided families have found that these parks can often be more accommodating than hotels or vacation rentals.

A great starting point for finding accessible camping spots or activities is California State Parks’ accessible features page or looking at KOA campgrounds. These resources are fantastic not only for finding parks that are accessible for your child but also for discovering trails, picnic spots, exhibits, fishing areas, and more! Remember to call the park to confirm any accommodations and check if they offer amenities like electricity at camping sites. This is especially important for families with medical equipment that needs power.

For more insights on the parks that Undivided has found to be highly accessible, as well as information on accessible beaches, RV rentals, and trails and gardens in California, be sure to check out our article on Accessible Outdoor Activities in California.

Also, consider applying for the California Disabled Discount Pass. If you have a permanent disability, you can get this pass for just $3.50, and it gives you a 50% discount on vehicle day-use, family camping, and boat-use fees at more than 100 California State Parks. It's a great way to save money while enjoying the great outdoors.

Deciding what to drive

You’ve carefully planned every detail of your upcoming road trip. You’ve booked campsites or hotels, planned out fun activities and listed all the must-visit stops along the way. But who’s going to drive? And what car are you using?

Not everyone loves the idea of driving long distances. Road trips can add a lot of miles and wear and tear on your personal vehicle, and that's just the start. That’s why some people will opt to rent a car. However, there are pros and cons to renting a vehicle instead of using your own car, so you’ll want to weigh those to determine the right choice for you.

Pros to renting a car:

  • Less wear and tear on your personal vehicle: Renting a car spares your personal vehicle from racking up high mileage and potential damage.
  • Fuel efficiency: Depending on the type of rental car, you could save money on gas, especially if you choose a more fuel-efficient model.
  • Newer and well-maintained vehicles: Rental cars are often newer models that are regularly maintained, which can boost your confidence in their performance and reliability.
  • Better equipped for long travel: Renting allows you to choose a vehicle specifically suited for long trips, ensuring greater comfort and suitability compared to your personal car.
  • Backup vehicle available: If anything happens to your rental vehicle, most rental companies will quickly provide a replacement, minimizing disruptions to your trip.
  • More space: For long cross-country road trips, renting a larger vehicle can provide extra room, ensuring your children have enough space and reducing complaints about cramped conditions.

Cons to renting a car:

  • Additional fees: Rental car companies can sometimes be sneaky with those extra charges. Some companies charge for additional drivers, mileage overages, late return, etc.
  • Insurance: Buying rental car insurance can be expensive! Not to mention, sorting out insurance for rental cars can be tricky, and you might end up paying extra for adequate coverage.
  • Sensory overload: Sometimes new things can be upsetting for kids. Your child might be more comfortable in a familiar family car.
  • Accessible rentals: While many car rental companies provide accessible vehicles, a fair number of car companies do not. Enterprise or Hertz are great companies that offer rental vehicles with adaptive driving devices, surrogate drivers, or wheelchair lifts. However, be aware that these types of vehicles are provided in limited quantities.
  • Specialized Car Seat: For many families with children with disabilities, a specialized car seat may still be needed. Some rental cars may not be able to accommodate these specialized seats, and if they can't fit or you can't bring your own, you might find yourself out of options when renting a car.
  • Inconvenient pickups and drop-offs: Rental locations might not be conveniently located, making it a hassle to pick up or return the car.
  • Cost: For some of us, renting a car is just out of the question financially. Not to mention, you may have to pay more for a car with special accessibility features.
  • Unfamiliarity with how the car handles: Any car that’s not your own can take some getting used to, especially if it’s a lot bigger (or smaller) than what you’re used to.

If you decide to use your own car for your road-tripping adventures, be sure you’ve had it serviced so that you can drive with confidence. That means checking the tire pressure, oil, windshield wiper blades and fluid, brakes, and more. Another great alternative to renting a car is renting an RV.

Pros to renting an RV:

  • All-in-one convenience: An RV combines transportation, lodging, and dining, making it easier to manage everything in one place without needing to frequently unpack and repack.
  • Customized accessibility: Many RVs are designed with accessibility in mind, featuring ramps, wider doors, and accessible bathrooms, providing a more comfortable environment for your child. Of course, some RV bathrooms rival an airplane lavatory, so definitely check pictures and measurements!
  • Consistent environment: Your child can stay in a familiar setting throughout the trip, which can be less stressful and more comfortable than moving between different hotels and accommodations.
  • Private space: An RV can offer more privacy and personal space for you and your family, which can be essential for managing medical needs and ensuring your child has a quiet place to rest.
  • Flexible schedule: With an RV, you can travel at your own pace, stop whenever necessary, and easily adjust plans based on your child's needs.
  • Entertainment options: Many RVs are equipped with entertainment systems, providing movies, music, and games to keep your child entertained during the journey.
  • Bathroom accessibility: Having a bathroom on board ensures that you have access to clean, accessible facilities at all times, which is especially important during long trips.

Cons to renting an RV:

  • Cost: Renting an RV can be expensive, especially if you’re renting one with accessibility features.
  • Difficult to learn how to drive: RV’s are a lot bigger than just a typical car, so learning how to drive, fill it up with gas, hook up water and sewage lines can be really confusing at first.
  • Bathroom accessibility: For wheelchair-users you have to be sure to find an RV that can accommodate you (again, this typically will cost more).
  • Close quarters: While an RV can offer some reprieve from the outside world, typically campsites make it so that you’re closer together to other campers. Meaning, if your child is sensitive to noise, or is having a meltdown people may hear it.
  • Gas Price: Gas can be expensive when you’re taking a cross-country road trip in any car, let alone an RV.
  • Finding a place to stay: When driving an RV you can’t just park it anywhere. This can be difficult when you want to make pit stops somewhere, or determine where you can stay overnight.

Prioritizing car/RV safety

During long car rides, it’s not uncommon for kids to get a little antsy. If your child tends to unbuckle themselves, try using child lock seat belt buckles that keeps them safely strapped in. Be sure to also keep the child locks on the doors and windows to prevent curious kids from opening them while you’re driving. Additionally, bringing along things to occupy kids during travel and taking breaks often are great ways to keep them from feeling restless.

Help your child prepare for the journey ahead

Preparation is key when it comes to preparing your child to encounter new places. Social Stories™ and visual schedules are just two examples of tools you can use to get your child ready for what's ahead.

  • Try to prepare a visual schedule for your child that they can reference on the road trip. Visual schedules can be a great tool to help kids stick to routines (especially new ones), transition smoothly between activities, learn new skills, and gain independence with daily tasks. These schedules can feature photos, videos, drawings, symbols, or text to illustrate what needs to be done. These tasks are typically arranged in sequence, giving children a clear understanding of what to expect and when to expect it. For more information on creating visual schedules, be sure to read our article The Amazing Visual Schedule!

  • Social Stories™ help prepare your child for the journey ahead. They can create a sense of wonder and excitement about being part of the adventure. It’s especially helpful if you look up pictures of the locations where you’ll be traveling and staying. If you’re staying in a hotel or vacation rental, show your child pictures! You can also include pictures and videos of the various activities you’ll be doing. Check out this video clip of Carol Gray, the founder of Social Stories™, explaining what social stories are and how they work to help individuals with disabilities.

  • Try to incorporate new words or ASL signs about the trip into your child’s vocabulary. For instance, Undivided Navigator Heather McCullough likes to teach her daughter new signs that are relevant to their travels. She also likes to add words or pictures on her child’s AAC device. This helps to make her child feel more comfortable and less apprehensive about new places.

  • For those who really want to prepare their kids for staying at hotels, a company called Autism Stays lets you practice hotel stays at a reduced rate along with other families with similar diagnoses.

Preparing your child for changes in their routine

It’s inevitable that when road tripping, some of your daily routines will be thrown off, which can be tough for kids with disabilities who may be used to having a specific routine. We suggest trying to incorporate as much of your child’s daily routine as possible into their road trip routine. For instance, if your child eats a banana or takes medicine at 8 p.m. every day, try to take a snack or medicine break around that time to give them the feel of consistency.

It’s also important to practice flexibility in kids’ schedules before the road trip begins. For example, Undivided Navigator Swati Vembakottai tries to mix up her kids' daily routines before the trip and encourages them to be open to trying new things. By doing this, she’s helping them practice flexibility in their schedule, which helps to avoid potential meltdowns.

It’s also important to be prepared for kids to be a bit upset/overwhelmed at the change in their routine. Try bringing along their favorite snacks and create new, flexible routines in case you need something on the fly.

Combating boredom

Long hours spent stuck in the car can get boring really fast, especially for kids! Preparing entertainment options for your kids is a great way to keep them occupied. And let’s face it, this can help keep your sanity intact, too! Here are a few ways to keep your kids entertained on long road trips.

  • Make sure to download a few audiobooks in advance. Audiobooks are a fantastic way to keep your child entertained during the trip, especially if you’re out of cellphone range. Bonus points if you find an audiobook that’s interactive! Also, check to see whether your local library offers free audiobooks — they usually do. Podcasts are also a great alternative too!
  • Mess-free painting books can be a game changer for keeping kids tactically entertained on trips.
  • Wikki Stix are a great tactile sensory activity for kids to play with on trips.
  • Create or bring with travel fidgets/sensory boards. You can find travel sensory boards online, or if you’re crafty, you can make one yourself.
  • Download movies on an iPad or other tablet, or if you have a DVD player in your car, bring DVDs with you!
  • Buy small items your kids don’t know about and wrap them in gift paper! Surprise them when you feel they need a distraction or a morale booster.
  • Don’t forget about old-fashioned road trip games like the license plate game or I Spy.
  • Never underestimate the power of snacks to distract a bored child! Find healthy, novel snacks that your kids don’t often get at home to make snack time more fun!

Investing in a backseat car organizer can also help keep all of your child’s road trip essentials — activities, snacks, games, and tablets — neatly organized in one place. Make sure you have a few power cords and banks on hand, too, for devices that require charging.

Gain access to Undivided’s comprehensive resources and receive our weekly newsletter.
Sign up today

Handling travel disruptions

In the words of Undivided Lead Researcher Adrianna Roze, one of the biggest lessons she has learned (and had to relearn) is that every time they travel, there will be disruptions. Lowering your expectations can actually make your trip better. The reality is that no matter how much we prepare, there will likely be unexpected stimuli or settings that trigger our kids. On long car rides, your child is probably going to get tired and cranky, and may even have a meltdown. It’s easy to get frustrated with yourself and your child during these times.

When a child has a meltdown in public, we often are plagued with worry of what other people might think or how they might respond. In situations like this, the easiest thing is just to ignore onlookers. However, that can be easier said than done. Sometimes, you have to be your child’s advocate, whether that’s standing up for them when a hotel staff member is giving you a hard time because your child is having a meltdown, or supporting your child as they self-regulate in a public space. Your child learns how to advocate for themselves, by watching you doing it for them. Remember, they have just as much right to be there as anyone else does.

With that being said, there are ways to help calm kids down from sensory overload or to help prevent meltdowns from happening before they start.

How to avoid sensory overload

Sensory overload can be a real challenge when traveling with kids, especially those who have sensory processing disorder, autism, or some other intellectual disabilities. To help manage this, pack sensory tools your child uses regularly, like noise-canceling headphones, a weighted blanket, or tactile toys. Also, having a hands-free personal fan can help kids regulate their temperatures and prevent them from being grumpy due to being overheated. These items can make a big difference in keeping kids comfortable during the journey, especially given that many of us road trip during the hot summer months when our kids are off school.

Familiar items such as your child’s favorite toys, books, or electronic devices can also provide a sense of ease. Additionally, bring along any comfort items, like a special blanket or favorite piece of clothing, to help them feel more secure. Maintaining a sense of normalcy is important, so even familiar snacks can help keep their routine intact and reduce the likelihood of meltdowns or help calm them down if meltdowns do occur. And don’t forget, frequent breaks can be your friend!

One of the great perks of road tripping is that it allows for flexibility. If the day isn’t going well, or your child is just not feeling whatever activity you have planned for the day. No worries! You can scrap the plan and find something else that works - even if it’s sitting by the hotel pool, or taking a hike somewhere. That’s why it’s also important to not over plan your trip! Most of our Undivided parents have found that planning about one activity a day is a good way to keep their kids engaged and not overwhelmed.

How do you build self-care into the trip?

We’ve been talking all about how to help kids prepare for road trips, but where does that leave us in the mix? After all that planning and worrying, you deserve to have some time built into the trip for you. One helpful way to accomplish this is to have each family member pick out something they want to do. This helps everyone to feel excited and involved in the planning process and gives you the opportunity to pick something you want to do.

Not to mention, if you’re the one putting in all of the work to plan the trip, you should schedule a little self-care time for you! That means asking your partner or family member to step in if you feel yourself getting overwhelmed or if you want an hour to go on an adventure alone. We realize that can be waaaay easier said than done. Even if you take five minutes to escape alone and breathe, it can be an important reset.

Don’t forget that no matter what bumps come up along the way, you’re giving your child the opportunity to see and connect to the world! They belong everywhere and deserve to see how fun and amazing traveling can be. So, even if it’s challenging and you’ve done so much prep work that you’re tired before the trip even begins, this experience and the smiles that your hard work creates will be worth it.

Contents


Overview

Map out your road trip ahead of time

Prep and plan before you hit the road

Find accessible lodging

Deciding what to drive

Help your child prepare for the journey ahead

Combating boredom

Handling travel disruptions

How to avoid sensory overload

How do you build self-care into the trip?

Join the Undivided Community to get more resources like this in your inbox

Tags:
A Navigator is your Partner at each turn
Every Undivided Navigator has years of experience supporting families raising kids with disabilities or parenting their own. Partner with an Undivided Navigator for a free Kickstart to learn first hand what support feels like!
tick-icon
Expert-driven content, guidance, and solutions.
tick-icon
Member events and office hours with real answers, plus access to our private parents' group.
tick-icon
Priority to begin a free Kickstart of the Undivided Support System with a dedicated Navigator.
“It’s so helpful to have one place that you can go to get many answers.”–Leeza Woodbury, with Navigator Kelly since 2020
*Currently offering Navigator Kickstarts to residents of California