Traveling is one of the most stressful things in the world, and that’s for anyone, but for me it’s a special kind of hell. At least once a year I get in a plane and leave my comfort zone for a week and it sucks. I’m talking panic attacks, shutdowns in random airports, panic attacks, not being able to eat because wtf is this food, the whole 9 yards.
So this year I decided that I should look up travel tips for adult autistics who have to travel, which doesn’t really exist (Note: the one that I did find was from The Madison House and uses person first language in the title only) Because clearly the only autistic people who travel are children. So here are my personal travel tips.
1. Your trip starts before you even think about packing. It starts when you’re making reservations. Think about your routine when planning your trip. When are disruptions to your routine easier to handle. For me I need to travel in the afternoon. If my morning routine is off I’m more prone to sensory overload. Plus most hotels have afternoon check-in, so arriving later means that I don’t have to wait on a hotel room. Also when making flight reservations, I always try to fly direct. Switching flights is very difficult for me, especially when traveling alone, so I avoid that whenever possible.
Also think about transportation at this point. It makes life so much easier down the road. I cannot drive to the airport. I will never have enough spoons to handle driving to the airport, going through TSA, flying, and navigating my way to the hotel. It’s too much, so I cut the only activity I can, driving to the airport. I always fly out on either a Friday or a Saturday because there is someone in my family who can drive me to the airport.
2. In the week before the trip (or however long you need to feel comfortable), firm up your transportation plans. Is the person you asked still able to give you a ride? Do you use an agency or need anything special from the airport in way of accommodations? I’ve never used any accommodations from the airport so I’m including a link to the US DOT site for air travel, that should be standard across any airport or airline in the United States.
This is also the time to start packing and planning for the week. I set calendar reminders for everything I have to do.
Exactly a week before I leave I do my laundry and meal plan for the week. Anything that would spoil while I’m traveling must go. I also make sure my brother will take care of my fish and plants.
Sunday I outfit plan, every single day before the trip will have an outfit assigned, with weather appropriate alternates available. I also bake for the week that day. Most mornings I don’t eat much besides a slice of quickbread (loaded with fruits) and some peanut butter.
Monday is for packing outfits. 2 go in my carry-on (1 casual and 1 business) and the rest in my suitcase. Tuesday I pack the make-up I’ll need for the trip because I rarely wear it. Wednesday I make lists of things I need to buy, anything left to do before the trip, and any last minute packing.
Thursday I go to the gym and work with a trainer so nothing gets done packing wise. Friday I work a half day and devote the rest of the time to self care (getting a massage and my nails done) and getting last minute things to buy together and packing them into the suitcase.
Before I leave the house I gather anything entertainment wise in my carry-on as well as chargers and medications. For me that usually looks like knitting projects, a few books (some on my phone from the Library, some physical for a used book store), any stim toys I want to bring, my annotated copy of Pride and Prejudice, 3 pairs of headphones (just in case), and containers with my usual jewelery. Also if you want to watch a show or movie during the flight download it before leaving, airport WiFi is terrible and plane WiFi is expensive.
3. Avoid caffeine if you’re sensitive to it. Tea and coffee are amazing but don’t always mix well when flying. If I drink anything besides tea lattes when I travel I’m even more of a nervous wreck then usual. As with anything your mileage may vary or you might not even have this problem but it does help me.
4. Dress in layers. Temperatures fluctuate so much in airports and planes, layers are your friend. Also it’s very helpful if you’re flying from one climate to another. When I arrive in Atlanta it is almost guaranteed that it will be 20°F warmer and humid (about a 7° change for practically everyone else in the world). If I leave that airport dressed for a New England spring (wet, muddy, can’t make up it’s mind if it’s hot or cold) I will definitely be uncomfortable. So layers are an autistic traveler’s best friend. There is less skin contact, you get to be warm and snuggly, plus you protect your personal space because people think you’re sick if you’re that bundled up.
5. Dealing with TSA. In my experience (please remember I’m a white girl from New England), TSA is one of the easier parts of flying. I arrive 2.5-3 hours before my flight leaves. I avoid any liquids in my carry-on learned from prior mistakes, trust me the last thing you want is a TSA agent who is old enough to be your grandfather finding lube packets that your friend “helpfully” added and just giving you an O.K. symbol. Yes that happened to me and yes I’m still mortified by that, so no liquids in the carry-on.
Wear ballet-flats or slip-on shoes but DO NOT forget socks. Seriously, I forget socks every year and every year I smack myself when someone says to take off my shoes because now I have to put my feet on the icky ground with nothing on them. I immediately take the socks off when I put my shoes back on because whatever is on that floor is not coming in contact with the inside of my shoe.
TSA is easy for me because there are rules. Clear dos and don’ts and it’s very structured. You can script your entire way through the airport to TSA. It’s only after TSA that people start to go off script. Which leads to:
6. Surviving the Airport, or you got through TSA now what? I always find my gate first. It decrease so much stress and then I go from there. Now is the time to whip out your head phones and get comfy (or frantically run to the gate to get on the plane if you’re running late). The easiest way to establish personal space is to put your bags in front of you in a semicircle. That guarantees at least that much space if people try to talk to you.
7. You got through the airport wait, you’re on the plane. If you’re flying Southwest you have the additional struggle of finding a seat on the plane. The next big task comes when the plane lands and you disembark. Usually there is a map of the terminal you can study/take a picture of in the back of the seat in front of you. Airports also tend to have good signage. Worst case scenario you ask for directions, airport security (any authority figure really) always freaks me out, so I always go to one of the shops, usually the convenience/quick stop ones, and ask someone who works there the quickest way to the baggage claim/where I need to be. Trust me that your question is nothing that they haven’t heard a million times, as long as you’re polite it will not stick in their mind.
8. Baggage claim is a super easy place to get sensory overload. Everyone is trying to get their things and get out fast. My advice is to wait for the crowd to go down a bit. Wrestling your way to the front to grab a bag or two and saving a few minutes really is not worth the potential overload and all that comes with it.
Things I forgot to put above and I’m now to lazy to go back and add in somewhere:
I like to wear a jacket with an inside pocket because 1. Inside pockets are amazing and 2. I’m always afraid of losing important documents (boarding pass, passport, ID ect.) and interior pockets are great for that stuff.
I’m a pressure stim person but weighted blankets and the like are not plane or wallet friendly. But compression gloves for arthritis and compression socks are relatively normal and don’t look out of place (if you care about that). I wear my compression gloves constantly and no one has ever asked me about it.
People who get a period should travel with supplies because that shit is super prone to variations when you get stressed.
Pack more than you think you’ll need because the last thing you need when traveling is a mini-crisis because something didn’t go to plan and you need to change or surprise we’re all going to dinner at a super fancy place and now you need to go shopping. It’s better to bring it with you and not need it than need it and not have it.