Vacations and Special Needs – it can happen!

Vacationing with children is SO different then the days before children. Before children Uwe and I would just pick a destination and plan around job schedules. Packing could be done the night before. Living abroad, travel was almost as easy as breathing.

Then child number one came and travel changed just a bit. Packing was focused more on what he needed and therefore took more planning. We still hiked up mountains and other non-child friendly activities. Our thoughts when choosing a destination was – If we can carry him in the backpack carrier, then we’ll do it. Once child number two came along traveling wasn’t nearly as easy as breathing. Then Jie Jie was diagnosed…and what seemed easy required much energy and planning. She required so much – feeding tubes, food to feed her, stroller, diapers, extra clothes, etc.

By the time child number three came along, we weren’t sure about traveling at all.

Those early years, when we had three under four-years of age, I learned something – keep my expectations low. Kids get sick on vacations. Kids get tired and grumpy on vacations. Kids might not like the vacation places you chose. And a whole lot of other things can go wrong, like the weather, the food, the room…you get the picture.

No as our kids are older, we involve them more with the vacation planning. We ask them their opinion. We look up the place on the internet or on Google Maps and let them see where we are going. We ask them what they would like to do while we are there.This has helped with Ge Ge and Mei Mei, but Jie Jie is different. With her we need a different approach.

We still involve her in the planning.

We show her the pictures of the parks, the playgrounds, the beaches, and any animals we might see. We tell her how we are going, whether it is by train, plane, boat, and or car. This gives her an idea of what we will be doing and gets her involved as well.

Flexibility

This is probably true for raising kids while living abroad, but for vacationing with special needs kids it’s very important. They don’t always respond the way you think they might and they may do better than what you thought. For instance, Jie Jie loves the beach and the sand. She likes fish and turtles, so I thought she might like snorkeling – well, a modified version of snorkeling. Geared up in her blue life-vest and mask, we walked her across the shallow reef to the edge. The plan was to let her look into the water, but after one short glance she was done. I’m not sure if it was the water that seeped into her mask, a darting bright blue fish, or just all the new experiences at once that caused her to freak out, but she was done. We didn’t force her to look anymore. We told her she did a great job and walked her back. She was perfectly content playing in the shallow water. Having flexibility allowed us to change plans – like I stayed with her on the beach while Uwe took the other two out snorkeling.

Try new things, but still keeping expectations low.

We do this not because we are negative thinking people, but because we try to be realistic.  For instance, we just took a vacation to Xiao Liu Qiu, a small island off of Taiwan. This island is very small and doesn’t have many cars. Our original plan was to bike with the kids, but once we got there and saw the hills we knew that biking wasn’t going to work. We decided to try the scooters for a day and see how it went, not thinking Jie Jie would sit still and behave. She surprised us. She did just fine. We scootered around the whole time we were there.

Slow it down.

Don’t expect to do everything. As a family choose a few things and do those. Allow for breaks and even rest times in the room. We allow the kids to each choose one activity they would really like to do or see – then we do those things first. Sometimes Jie Jie can’t participate in the chosen activity – that’s when either I or Uwe take her to do something else.

Not every child is the same. This goes for special needs children as well. Just because your child may have some issues that are harder to deal with doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun family vacation. With a bit of creativity and flexibility, you can even take more exotic trips with your whole family.

Your Turn: Have you traveled with your special needs child? What are some vacationing tips that you have when you go? Please share in the comments below.

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Packing Problems? A Quick Fix

114/365: April 24 2007

Photo by ::d::’s photostream via flicker

It is that time of summer when we all travel back to our homes overseas. Many of us are getting our kids ready for the new school year. We’ve bought new school clothes, maybe even some supplies that are hard to find in the country we are now living in.

I have just returned from such a trip and as I re-packed our belongings I realized I had a problem.  I have this same problem each time we visit family. It doesn’t matter if it is in the US or in Germany, I struggle with this.

The Overstuffed Suitcase Dilemma                                                          

Please tell me I’m not alone in this. I followed my own tip, “Stash It”, when I packed to go to the US this summer. I thought that having that extra bag would be enough. I even packed clothes to take that I knew I’d leave behind and not take back, which would leave more space for the new clothes and gifts that we acquired while there. Sadly, I still had the Overstuffed Suitcase Dilemma. Fortunately, though, I found a solution.

Plastic Storage Bags

I have used these oversized shrink-wrap storage bags to help me pack up winter clothes and blankets in our apartment, but I’ve never used them for packing suitcases. If you’ve never used one before, they are really great. You simply put the desired clothing or other clothed-based material into the bag and zip it up. Unscrew the cap, and then place the hose of your vacuum cleaner on the opening. Turn your vacuum on and let it do the work. Once the air is out, put the cap back on. It usually shrinks it down to at least half the size. Take a look at what I did for packing.

Before

After: One blanket wouldn’t fit.

The Important Tip 

The one thing you must remember is that the weight doesn’t change. My pile of lap quilts my sister made still weighed five pounds after I bagged it, but I had a whole lot more space to use.

Your Turn: Have you ever used these storage bags for packing suitcases? Do you have other tips to share on gaining more space (I know, don’t buy anything to bring back. HA!) Please share in the comments below.

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5 Tips for International Traveling with Special Needs Children

Wheelchair

photo by Tom Magliery

Earlier this week I posted about traveling with kids alone. I had just traveled with my two girls alone from Asia to the US. My oldest daughter has special needs, so I wanted to add a few other tips regarding travel with special needs children.

1. Ask for help. This may sound obvious, but sometimes I get into an independent mode and forget to ask for help. I have found that most people are willing to help when asked. During this last trip I asked for help with getting my carry-on down from the overhead compartment. I also asked the flight attendants for extra water. I have to mention that the flight attendants on my flights were extremely helpful and nice. Anyone that travels often will know how oddly pleasant this was.

2. Accept help. Another obvious, but for the flaw I have about independence, I have to remind myself to accept the help that is offered. I know I’m pathetic at times. This trip a man helped me get my luggage from the hotel van into the airport. Although, one needs to be careful and watchful about strangers when traveling alone, I have found that most people just want to be helpful.

3. Wheelchair/stroller use. If you don’t have a wheelchair to bring or you don’t want to deal with yours after you arrive at your destination, then use the airline’s wheelchairs. In the past, we have let the airlines know that we needed it and they have had them ready with someone to push them for us. One instance, we even got to ride in the golf cart from one gate to the next. For this trip, I chose to bring our own wheelchair. Jie Jie is walking okay, but she tires easily and with jet-lag and such I was afraid of meltdowns. I checked her wheelchair in at the gate and she walked onto the plane on her own. When we arrived we had to wait a bit, but they brought her wheelchair to us. Although, I do remember a few years ago they forgot to load the stroller, but the airline was great about providing a wheelchair at each layover. A few days later our stroller arrived at our door from the airline. So, if you do take your stroller/wheelchair make sure you have the correct address on the check-in tag.

4. Make it known. Let the people at check-in, security, and at the gate know that you have a child with special needs. This may sound so ridiculous, but I found that not everyone “saw” Jie Jie’s situation. I guess they thought she was just a child in a stroller? Anyway, letting the people know made all the difference. We were able to board earlier, and the security went really smooth. They were understood that we were going to be slower. Some officers helped me put my carry-ons on the x-ray belt. Most of them smiled and were friendly with the kids. I know this ALL depends on the individual, but I really had a good experience with security checks. 

5. Be grateful. I think as a parent of special needs children we sometimes have the expectation that we should get special treatment. Don’t get me wrong here, I agree that the disabled have rights and we need to stand in and fight for those rights. That is not what I’m getting at here. What I’m saying is, we shouldn’t forget to say “Thank you” to those who help, even if it is part of their job. Smiling at the people who are helping and being pleasant is another way of showing gratitude and it brightens their day, too. Demonstrating gratitude for our children, whether they are disabled or not, is a great way to begin teaching them to be grateful and polite to others early on. *Note that with international traveling, other cultures may not treat children with special needs with the same “rights” as the country you come from.

Your Turn: Have you traveled  with your special needs child? What are some tips that you have? Please share in the comments below.

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Top 5 Tips for Traveling with Kids ALONE

Creative Commons – flickr

World travel with kids is doable and can be possibly fun if you do some planning and preparing beforehand. Usually, I travel with my husband, so we have split responsibilities to help each other out. This trip though, I traveled alone with the two girls. We traveled to Beijing for a few days and then on to the US from there. I can’t say that the entire trip was enjoyable, or that everything went just according to plan, but we made it to the final destination with only loosing one small backpack. Below are my top 5 tips that I was able to either do on the trip OR wish I had done.

1. Movies/TV shows. Since we can’t control the movies the airlines show –unless you are super lucky and get the individual screens – I try to upload their iPod with a new movie and some TV shows that the kids haven’t seen yet. I’ve also seen others bring the portable DVD players for their kids. The TV shows were also great for them to watch while we were waiting in line for check-in, immigration, etc. I only got a few TV shows downloaded, but will have more ready for that trip back.

2. Small “gifts”. I usually buy a few inexpensive items that are new to the kids. This trip I got each of the girls a new small notebook and pen. I gave it to them when they got bored with everything else that they had brought. I have always wanted to try wrapping small gifts and give them out every couple of hours during the trip, but just haven’t planned that well in advanced. Maybe I’ll get to the Dollar Store before I leave to return home and try that idea.

3. Snacks. I always take extra snacks to munch on for the kids and for myself because you know that airport food is expensive and kids may get hungry before the snacks and meals arrive on the flight. Also, I had the girls eating during take-off and landing to help with the ear pressure. For this trip, I should have added some chocolate for me, something that I could indulge in after moments of tension.

4. Tylenol. I take some sort of medication for headaches for myself. Also, I take some children’s Tylenol for those “just in case” moments. This last trip one of the girls had leg pains from growing and couldn’t get to sleep. I was so thankful that I had some children’s medicine to help her – and me.

5. Flexible. This is probably the number one thing…kids are kids. They have to use the bathroom more often, they need water and snacks, they have LOTS of questions, and they get tired and cranky. Also, plans don’t always turn out as smooth as you had hoped, so being flexible helps defuse problems from erupting into major meltdowns.

Your Turn: So, what are your top tips when traveling with kids alone? Please share in the comments below.

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5 Packing Tips for Visiting “Home”

You know every few years (or maybe every year) expats travel back to their home country for a few months to a whole year. This is our year to go to the US to visit my family. We’ll just be there for a few months, but we leave in less than a week and I’m just starting to think about packing. Yep, I know I’m a bit behind to be just starting (at least some of you are saying that…)
One thing that I’ve noticed since having kids is that packing a suitcase has become more of an art. Packing clothes for the five of us, making sure the “I can’t live without it” stuffed animal gets in the carry on, shoes for all occasions, toiletries, etc.
Maybe you are in the same dilemma and are wondering what to pack, how to pack, etc.  Here are my top 5 tips.

1. List it.  This sounds crazy organized, and it probably is, but I list out what each person needs to take. (Note: I don’t pack for my husband, we have different tastes.) Do note that I’m packing for 4 people. I don’t make it specific, just general. Then when it goes into the bag I cross it off. That way I know what I’ve packed and what I haven’t (unless little hands help out and unpack it all for me). Because I’m a list freak, I also list out what is going in the carry-on.

2. Stack it. After I make a list I usually usually stack the clothes on my bed. I do this for two reasons. One it gives me an idea if I’ve over packed or not. Two, I can estimate how many suitcases I’m going to need.

3. Half it. I look at the clothes on my bed and I do just that. I take out about half from everyone’s pile and put it back in the dresser. I have found that we rarely wear all of the clothes that I’ve packed, so do the math. Half the clothes = more space on the return trip. Besides, the extra space is usually filled with clothes from the extended family or from the stores that we just can’t resist. You know what I mean, don’t you?

4. Stash it. I’m talking about putting a suitcase inside another one. I always do this because we tend to bring more back on the return trip than we do going there. This way, we have the empty suitcase already and we don’t have to buy another one once we are there.

5. Roll it. This is an old trick, but one that should not be forgotten. Roll everything you can. It just saves space. And don’t forget to roll the socks and stuff them in shoes.

As for gifts for the family…I stopped doing that awhile back when I realized that they pretty much had everything I could think to bring. Well, I might stuff in some Asian candy just for the fun of it….that always brings a good laugh with my mid-west family. Besides, it is a taste of “home” for my TCKs, which is always nice for them on these longer stays.

Your Turn: What is your top tip for packing? Please share in the comments below.

*photo credit: microsoft.com

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Children and Visas…


“If all this trouble saves one child from being trafficked, then it is worth it,” my husband said after he told me what all we needed to do to get visas for the kids for a two day trip to China.

Yep, I love that man.

Why are we going to China? It’s a fun expat story…

We decided to try to use our miles to get at least one ticket back to the US for the summer. Turns out that after years of traveling and saving miles we were able to get THREE tickets using miles. Amazing, isn’t it? So, I and the girls are using those tickets.

There’s a catch. There is always a catch. We have to make a stop over in China.

“That’s okay,” I say. “It is still cheaper to get three visas and a hotel than to buy three tickets. And, hopefully I’ll get to visit some friends while we are there.”

Last week I had a good friend book the hotel.

Visas. We called and found out that we need documents. Lots of documents for the kids. Original birth certificates. Passports. Old passports with old China visas. Adoption records. Basically anything that shows these kids are ours, legally.

My mind was blown. So. Much. Work. UGH!

But then my brilliantly smart compassionate man said, “If all this work saves even one child from being trafficked, then it is ALL worth it.”

My mouth shuts. All my complaints deflate because I know he is right. And I’m glad he’s right.

Your Turn: Ever used miles to buy tickets before? What is your story on the prep work to travel with kids?

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Traveling without Kids: Packing their bags

Luggage

Flickr Photo by Andrew Stawarz

Sometimes couples just need to go away for the weekend without the kids. And there maybe times when couples need to leave for a longer period of time for business. It’s during those times that the Extended Family Tree comes in quite handy.

My friend and her husband had to leave the country for meetings a few weeks ago. I thought she did a great job preparing her child and us for that week, so I asked her if I could share some of the things she did.

So, here is the list:

1. Contact information: This is a given that you’d leave your contact information, but still want to note it because it can be the one thing we forget to give the caregivers. You should have any phone numbers and email addresses that you can be reached at. Also, skype is a great cheap way to communicate with the caregivers. Or setting up a “skype date” with your child mid-week to see how they are doing would be fun for all.

2. Medicine: Another given, but still worth mentioning. Vitamins and any other medicine that your child needs to take should be labeled with clear directions. You can even divide it up into days by using those daily tablet holders.

4. ID card and passport: This is something none of us like/want to think about, but anything can happen in the world and we need to have our passports ready and easily available in case we need to leave the country immediately. This is true for your child as well. Leave their passports with the caregivers, so if there should be an emergency, they have all their important identification records with them. Also, make sure you leave any insurance cards or other health information like their pediatrician’s name and number just in case of an emergency.

5. Extra money: This may not be necessary, but it is a nice gesture to help with any extra costs that may come up during that week.

6. Favorite foods: Make some cookies or muffins anything that is a comfort food to your child. Take it to the caregivers so that your child has food he is familiar with, something that speaks of home and you and that will bring comfort him while you are away. This is also really helpful if your child tends to be a picky eater.

7. Little presents: Wrap small packages with little notes for your child to open each morning he/she wakes up. This package can be small treats, erasers, really anything that you would like to give. This makes the time go quicker for those that do not like to be away from you AND it makes it more fun for those that enjoy the sleepovers.

Okay, your turn. Have you ever had to leave your kids with friends? Have you been the caregivers? Any other ideas or thoughts from your experience?  Please comment below.

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