Advice: Holiday Questions and Answers

Retired air hostess Sheila Wyeth says good planning can avoid travel headaches in the air and on the ground… and Jan Moss shares tips for those travelling with someone who struggles if their routine is changed.

In the Air

Sheila worked with international carriers such as Pan Am and United Airlines for more than 30 years. During her long career she helped many travellers with health and disability needs and their companions. Here are her suggestions to ensure a trouble-free journey.

Pre-flight preparations

If you or someone you are travelling with has extra needs, be up front about these when you make your travel bookings. Cabin crew can help to make your travel more comfortable.

Prescription medicines

It’s important to keep all medications in their original packaging or bottles with the doctors’ information on it. You could get held up by airport security if your medications are not easily identifiable in their original prescribed packaging. Take extra medication with you (more than you actually need) in case of loss or delays. Some countries are wary of prescription medicines; it may be a good idea to ask staff at the Embassy of the country you are travelling to whether your medication is legal in their country. In some cases you might need a letter from your doctor verifying the medication is legally prescribed, and your reasons for requiring it.

Medical insurance

You’ll need insurance if you are travelling to countries such as the United States. Without it, you’ll be asked to pay in advance for any treatment you may need; in the US, this can cost a lot of money!

Flight effects

If you or the person you are travelling with are unwell, you may feel worse during your flight. Because of the cabin pressure, you may feel light headed, and breathe more rapidly than usual. Let the flight attendants know straight away if you feel unwell, as oxygen can be administered if you need it.

Alcohol: At high altitudes, alcohol can have a stronger, faster impact on your body (almost double its effect on the ground)… so if you would normally drink two glasses of wine, you may feel the effect of four! Alcohol dehydrates your body, so it’s not a bad idea to avoid it when flying.

What to Take on your Flight

Medicines: Pack these in your hand luggage – not in the luggage that will get checked in and stowed in the plane. If your luggage is lost, at least you’ll still have your medications. Valuables should also be packed in your hand luggage.

Small medical/first aid kit: This is a handy item to have on hand, as your airline may not be able to offer even basic items. Your kit should contain plasters, motion sickness pills, medication for diarrhoea, antiseptic cream, cold and flu tablets, wet wipes, tissues, and anything else that might be useful.Some items that Sheila has been asked for but not been able to provide during flights are lip balms, motion sickness pills, nappies, baby food (unless this is pre-ordered), special meals (again, you need to pre-order these when making your reservation), and reading glasses. Check with your airline to clarify what drugs or medications are available from airline cabin crew during flights. In her international career with American carriers, crew were only allowed to give aspirin and plasters to passengers. 

Water bottle: You may need to fill this with water after you have been through security. Water will be offered to you during your flight, but it’s always good to have your own supply to sip when needed, or for taking medications. Try to drink a glass of water every hour while flying to prevent dehydration. 

Continence: If continence is an issue, make sure you have plenty of pads or underwear in your hand luggage, as well as plastic bags for wrapping and disposal of soiled items.

Difficult behaviour: If you are travelling with someone who has challenging behaviour it’s a good idea to pack a bag of ‘goodies’ to distract the person if they become restless. For children, try colouring books, pencils, snacks, and favourite toys; for adults with a condition such as dementia, consider a favourite blanket, teddy or doll. Depending on the policy of the airline and flight crew, older children may be able to help with little jobs. Sheila has had children help her pass out the washing towels, pick things up, and hand out lollies and headphones. Such activities can help to pass time before landing.

Travel Routines

Years of travel with my daughter, who has severe epilepsy and intellectual disability, have taught some valuable lessons about how to avoid problems, and make trips as pleasant as possible for us both. Good forward planning is paramount whenever possible. Most importantly, don’t just have a Plan A… have Plans A to F (at least) in case you need to abandon any of them at any time!

Think about when to inform your travelling companion about your upcoming trip. The best time will depend on the person’s needs and routines. If I mention to Becky that we are going away, she believes it is right this minute and will head out the door. In the case of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome, anxiety can be a real issue if their routine will change. You may need to introduce information about your trip gradually.

While away, we try to adhere to what we would normally be doing each day at home. Familiar meal times, foods, bath or shower times, and sleep routines will all help your travel companion cope more easily with changes. Taking familiar things on a trip can be helpful. Becky’s much loved doll Jo-anne has travelled to many places with us, and being able to talk about how much Jo-anne is enjoying the experience has certainly saved the day on occasion!

If I am flying with Becky, I have found most airlines to be very helpful if I forewarn them about our needs. Support has included faster check-in, early boarding, and help with baggage at our destination. Air NZ has International Airline Concierges to fulfil this role on international flights. In the case of a child, you may be able to take their car seat on the plane, or a harness for adults if this is used (ask your airline). Ensure that you request the most appropriate seats, or seek advice from the airline.

Taking favourite snacks, drinks, or toys can help to pass the time, whatever the mode of travel. A special pillow, blanket, or anything else that will help in a strange environment should be kept close throughout your trip.

Having another skilled person travelling with you can make all the difference, if this is possible.

Plan appropriate activities during your trip which do not create extra sensory overload, anxiety, or other difficulties. This is important for people with autism.

If possible, limit time away to what will best suit your companion.

Do ask for help if you need it, or think someone will be able to assist you. Often strangers don’t know whether or not to offer.

Think of ways you can have a break if you are supporting someone else while travelling. It’s important to rest regularly so your tiredness, change of routine, and anxiety don’t add to the situation.

Calm Techniques

Courtesy of the Counties Manukau District Health Board Dual Disability Team.

  • Pack lots of small snacks and drinks for the journey.
  • Plan toilet stops along the way.
  • Buy a few new toys and games and produce them at strategic points during the trip.
  • In the time leading up to your journey, get brochures, make pictures, and create a story together about the holiday; if just the parents or caregivers are going away, the child can watch their daily progress through the book and see when they are coming back.
  • Buy a disposable camera and encourage lots of photos.
  • Check out the local medical centres and keep their details handy throughout your trip… just in case.
  • Take familiar tapes and have a singalong.
  • Don’t forget that the journey home, and arriving home, can be a big let-down after the excitement of a trip away. Have something planned such as takeaways, visitors, or a special DVD to ease the transition.