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16:03 PM

Advice for Air Travel with Children with Special Needs

Dr. Emily Goodwin
Dr. Emily Goodwin

It’s that time of year again for summer vacation. Preparation is key, especially if you plan to fly to your destination. Even if you are a seasoned traveler, I hope to share some tips and ways to help ease your summer planning.

Preflight: Prepare as much as you can ahead of your travel date

  • Make a checklist of what you need to bring and if it goes in the carry-on or checked luggage.
  • If needing extra supplies or equipment (I suggest brining extras when possible), contact your child’s durable medical equipment company and doctor’s office at least 2-4 weeks prior to travel.
  • For instance, if traveling with oxygen, make sure you have told the airline ahead of time as often documentation from a doctor’s office is required stating that oxygen is needed during the flight. Some carriers require you to use the airline’s oxygen and may have associated fees or charges.
  • Ask your DME companies (especially if traveling with oxygen) for a national directory of locations if additional supplies are needed during your trip.
  • Find out early if airlines require doctors notes so you have time to get them.
  • Check any items not necessary during the flight so you don’t have to lug them around.
    • Carry-on anything that would be needed during the flight, during layovers or if you have any delays. This includes formula, medications, emergency supplies, portable oxygen.
    • Medications should go in the carry on, with accessories labeled in clear plastic bags for ease and in case of spills.
      • Liquid medications and formulas or breastmilk are allowed beyond the 3.4 ounce restriction per TSA.
      • Don’t forget inhalers, spacers or nebulizers - or other rescue medications.
      • If possible, bring a typed list of your child’s medications including equipment settings. A medication list is often printable from patient portal sites or you can ask your doctor office for a list.
    • Transportation plan: know how you plan to get to and from the airport. Call ahead to find out if shuttle or rental car agencies offer accessible and modified vehicles and car seat rentals or if you need to bring your own.
      • Car seats and strollers can be gate checked.
      • If FAA approved, car seats and orthotic seating devices can be brought and used on board. I warn you from personal experience, even if FAA approved, it may not fit in the tiny airline seat.
    • Call ahead: Even if you have traveled many times, it is recommended you call the TSA Cares helpline at (855) 787-2227 at least 72 hours prior to your flight.
      • Tell them about your child’s needs and they can answer your travel questions, tell you what to expect and you can request assistance at checkpoints.
      • If your child has a lot of sensory issues or would benefit from a “practice run” you can even request this. Some airlines have specific programs for children with autism or other sensory needs or anxiety.
      • You can visit this webpage for more information: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support
    • When selecting hotels, inform them of any special needs as well including the need for in-room refrigeration for medications or formula.
    • If your child has an Emergency Information Form, consider brining 1-2 copies in addition to needed travel documents and identification required.

Expect the unexpected:

  • Inevitably, something will not go as planned. Allow extra time and bring extra entertainment and supplies to fill any waiting time.
  • Remember to apply your own oxygen mask first!
    • This is both literally and figuratively. Taking care of yourself and making sure that you have what you need during your travels is important too.
    • Travel insurance: Consider travel insurance in case something happens and your flight has to be cancelled or even in the event that something happens like damage to a customized wheelchair during travel.
  • Know where you can get care: Make a list of medical care facilities where you are traveling that you could bring your child to in case of an emergency or that provide specialized care (dialysis).
  • Contact your child’s insurance company to find out coverage when traveling out of provider network area.
  • You can complete the TSA notification card to hand the security office if you wish. It is not required, but can ease communication and is more discrete if you prefer:
  • If you are traveling out of the country, consider visiting a travel clinic like the one at Children’s Mercy, to help ensure you know the latest travel health alerts and learn the recommended vaccinations to protect from preventable diseases in the area you are visiting: https://www.childrensmercy.org/TravelMedicine/. You can also check the Centers for disease control travel website: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/

During check in and air travel:

  • Declare liquids and medications and medical supplies:
    • You must tell the TSA officer that you have medically necessary liquids at the start of the screening checkpoint process. The liquids will be subject to additional screening such as being asked to open the container.
    • It is also helpful to declare equipment and accessories such as freezer packs, IV bags, pumps, syringes and label them to help facilitate the screening process.
  • Consider bringing headphones or noise canceling headphones if your child is sensitive to loud noises.
  • Have distractions! Every child (and us grown ups, too) needs things to keep busy and entertained during the flight if possible.

Once you reach your destination --- enjoy the adventure and have fun. Don’t expect perfection. Travel is a learning experience and a chance to make precious family memories.

And if you’re really smart, you will plan a day of rest after the trip. Safe travels!


The Beacon Program at Children’s Mercy provides a pediatric medical home for hundreds of children with medical complexity. Learn more about it by clicking here.