“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” – St. Augustine
Traveling with a gifted child can be an exciting, immersive learning experience that stimulates new passions and areas of interest. If your child exhibits anxiety or excitability over being in the car for a long time, or with plane travel, or just not being in their comfort zone of a familiar environment, it can be a challenge.
I have had many jobs before I became a psychologist. I’ve been a graphic designer, a waiter, a tour guide, a cartoonist, and a research assistant. However, my most impactful job was the four years that I spent as a travel agent at EF Educational Tours. Travel has long been a passion of mine and I feel that it is one of the best ways to really learn something deeply and meaningfully. Even in this age of digital media and remote access, there is no substitute for seeing the Mona Lisa in La Louvre, climbing Machu Picchu, eating fresh gnocchi in Genoa, or attending a kabuki performance in Tokyo. Travel not only helps us learn, it helps us to grow as individuals by experiencing new things and expanding our comfort zones. There really is no substitute for a trip somewhere new.
We asked a few “road warrior families” in our Grayson community for some tips, tricks and stories for successful trips based on their own experiences.
Planning for the trip
When it comes to vacations, a weekend getaway, or other types of trips, there are a few things to keep in mind when traveling with your gifted child. You know your own child best. Do they have a strong intellectual curiosity? Do they exhibit overexcitabilities? Do certain situations cause anxiety or sensitivities?
One mom taps into her child’s innate sense of curiosity both before and during the trip. “He loves to try new experiences and foods while traveling, and we encourage it!” Lean into areas that feed your child’s passions and be proactive (when you can) to anticipate what situations may be a cause for negative intensities.
Motivations, perspectives and behaviors don’t take vacation, and in fact, can be more intense in a less structured and unfamiliar environment. Be mindful of the pace in your days, the need for downtime and sleep, and avoiding overstimulation when planning your trip.
Time-zone changes will have an affect on sleep routines and levels of activity, which may sometimes trigger sleeplessness or negative overexcitabilities. Managing when your flight lands, and beginning to adjust “internal clocks” before you travel can be helpful for everyone.
While it may be good to involve your child from the beginning in planning the trip, some children may become overly anxious if you tell them too far in advance. As one mom shared, “Jake is generally is so excited to travel that if we tell him too far in advance he stops sleeping and just wants to talk about where we are going and what we will be doing at all hours of the night. Once we do reveal where we are going, we usually talk about some of the stuff we have planned and we let him pick a few things that he would like to do while we are there. We talk about which days we are doing what, which really seems to help put some control in his hands and structure to what would be really unstructured time.”
Understanding any travel alerts and warnings for the destination you choose is also a good practice. This comprehensive, up-to-date database literally covers everything from understanding what the difference is between Travel Alerts and Warnings, when these are issued, when they are updated, and in-depth information to help travelers inform and protect themselves.
Allow time for discussion and emotional processing
Intellectual curiosity can lead to an exploration of something unexpected. For example, on a recent trip, a parent shared that her son was served a chocolate dessert in a cacao bean shell, with cacao nibs decorating the surrounding plate. This led to him asking the waiter about cacao and chocolate, and getting permission to take the shell & nibs home with him. He returned to the hotel room and spent time Googling and learning more about cacao beans, nibs and how chocolate is made. He was also eager to show the bean & nibs to his classmates when he returned to school.
Some things seen while on vacation (i.e. poverty) can also have lasting and intense emotional reactions in gifted children. A Grayson parent shared, “We have chosen not to shield Hugh from reality, but rather allow time for discussion and emotional processing. We believe travel has helped our kids be more adaptable to varying environments and situations.” This is, of course, a benefit and value of travel for everyone, and your child is no different, but you must take special care to plan for these discussions.
Expect the unexpected as much as you can
Research how to get medical care BEFORE you travel. This is less of an issue in the states, but it’s always a good idea to know where the local hospital is. If you’re in a foreign country, understanding how their medical system works (universal health care? Do they have 911 services? Where are the hospitals?) is a good idea. Here’s hoping that you won’t need it but you want to have the information just in case you need it. DK Eyewitness Guides have a great reference section on “need to know” information for non-U.S. travel.
A few of our Grayson parents noted that their kids do better (and, frankly, the parents do, too!) re-acclimating to their schedule if there is time allowed at the end of the trip to recover and ease back into their routines. One mom shares that she feels the most challenging part of any trip is “not the traveling itself but rather the transition from one state of being to another – she gets VERY amped up in the days prior to leaving and struggles to re-enter ‘normal life’ after coming home.” While this may be true of any child, you should anticipate and plan for ways to navigate through this part of your trip. If at all possible, it will certainly help building this extra day into your plans.
Traveling with a gifted child: helpful tips and apps
Our parents mentioned a few other resources that you might find helpful both before and during the trip.
- If you are traveling by air, get your children TSA pre-check profile numbers; this means no unpacking hand luggage, kids over 12 don’t need to take off shoes, and the line is shorter and faster.
- The OpenTable app is a very helpful tool to have on your phone. You can search by type of food, part of the city, see diner rankings, and make online reservations including special requests. It populates to your calendar and the restaurant typically confirms by phone the day prior as a reminder.
One family uses Viator.com, once they know where they will be going to plan a few activities. “You will find things you weren’t even aware were options (we went spelunking in Costa Rica and it was fantastic!).” Viator offers ‘skip the line tours’ if waiting in lines for popular sites and destinations can cause stress. You can also book airport-hotel transfers through them. “They use local tour operators who are knowledgeable and you can often get recommendations for little known experiences (restaurants, local stops) that you can pursue on your own. Viator transfers also tend to have wifi equipped vehicles which is a great time to post a Facebook photo or catch a Pokemon.
PokemonGO is a travel standard for this family, and provides a an opportunity for a predictable activity in an unpredictable place: “They have done a nice job of having Pokemon specifically indigenous to certain areas, and pockets of them near local attractions where you might have a bit of a wait time. As the characters reference where they were caught, you will also have a travelogue of Pokemon from new places you have visited”
- Disney has some amazing services (of course), and you are able to do a lot of pre-planning with the park and hotel to make sure that any dietary needs are met. You can also contact Disability Services at the park about what happens in the case of an anxiety-driven meltdown (before or on a ride).
- If your child has significant anxiety, airlines also have Disability Services you can contact in advance. Mention to the gate agent and crew that you have a child with significant anxiety, and ask if they can arrange for your child to be able to chat with the pilot or co-pilot on the way to your seats. Allowing him to ask all the questions he has (what altitude, how fast, how long….) can go a long way toward easing his mind. Don’t promise this to your child, as it is not guaranteed, but, if there is an anxiety-driven meltdown during boarding or take off, the crew at least seems to have some level of awareness that it’s an anxious kid…not just a child throwing a fit.
- A small, blank journal (especially one with pockets or a closure) are great for kids to document their trip, collect autographs from people they meet, and for drawing pictures and doodles inspired by their new experiences. It’s also a great way to spend quiet time back at the hotel or at a restaurant, journaling what they did that day. Bring a small glue stick for attaching tickets or other small mementos (leaves from the park, the wrapper from a new treat they sampled, museum admission stickers, etc.) and save space to print and include photos once you get home!
When looking for things to do, I like to use wikitravel.org which is a collaborative-sourced travel guide. If you search for the city you’re traveling to, you’ll find detailed and organized information that will make your trip easier and maybe even uncover some hidden spots! Here’s a local example for exploring Philadelphia.
Essentials for planes, trains and automobiles
Our parents all had different views on devices. Some felt that electronic games and activities like Minecraft are great for making the time go faster on planes, but don’t allow them on car trips as it shuts down communications. Some provide time limits and allow use sporadically. You know what is best for your family.
It’s a good idea to always have a few snacks like whole fruit, cookies and nuts available, and don’t forget to stay hydrated!
Five-Below, Dollar stores, Target Dollar Spot, and Toys-R-Us have an infinite number of small and inexpensive gadgets & art supplies to pull out every 30 minutes or so to get through long trips.
On planes, make sure every person has ear buds, a book, deck of cards, airplane bingo, magnetized travel-sized backgammon, etc.
When travelling by car:
- Take turns controlling the radio for each passenger’s own “rock block.”
- Keep a number of books on tape that everyone enjoys. Carl Hiaasen is a favorite (children’s titles include Hoot, Scat, Flush) with vivid characters and ecology/conservation at the core.
- Word association, travel bingo, and I SPY are favorite car games.
- Roadside stop offs like bridges, tunnels, scenic spots or even a fast game of mini golf can really break up a trip.
- If it’s a long trip across multiple states, stop and get a postcard your child can write to themselves about what they plan to do or have done and post them from each state so they return home to mail and happy reminders of the trip.
Trains are probably the easiest form of travel for many children. You can give them your full attention, move freely around, go to the food car, etc. if you are traveling on a train in Europe—consider paying for the upgrade on longer trips. It’s very nice to have your own car and be able to break out a board game or take a nap, sort through your souvenirs and hand luggage, or change clothes.
During your stay
The parents we spoke to were unanimous in their thoughts about not over scheduling your trip. Most recommended only one “big” thing a day for a longer trip or one major activity for a quick weekend getaway, and creating a schedule or ritual for each day, like an afternoon swim, a proper sit-down meal or watching sunsets at the end of each day that have proven successful in their experiences.
Swimming pools were an essential for some families, allowing a quick break between the schedule of the day, while others planned a walk through a historical neighborhood, or bike rides in nearby parks. Make sure that you have options for these types of breaks to ease overstimulation. Flexibility is key!
We also heard both hit and miss experiences with resort kids’ clubs due to social-emotional issues, but sometimes the “misses” led to good, teachable moments. Ask questions in advance of the staff, and make sure your child knows that they can opt-out if they choose.
My top 5 tips
I really enjoyed hearing from our families , and will add a few final thoughts for planning a great getaway:
- The #1 rule of successful travel is the “when you can” rule. If you have time to eat, you should eat. If you have time to use the bathroom, use the bathroom. If you have time to drink some water, drink some water. If you have time to sleep, sleep! Travel gets you off your schedule and you can very quickly become dangerously hungry, dehydrated, or tired. Given that resources tend not to be as accessible in other countries (or even in unfamiliar cities here in the States), follow this rule to be successful.
- Just because you’re traveling doesn’t mean that you stop being a human being. There’s a real pressure when traveling to do things ALL THE TIME. You’re still a person who needs to eat, drink, rest, and relax. Plan one big activity per day and then make sure that you build in some free time. You’ll thank me later.
- Start the trip on the right foot. Get to the airport early! The last thing that you want is to be rushing through the airport in a panic trying to make a connecting flight or get through security or customs. If you have activities for your kids, getting to the airport an extra 45 minutes early won’t be as big of a deal. Then you’ll be less stressed, which means that your kids will be less stressed.
- Practice key phrases in the language of the country that you’re visiting. This is good language development but it’s also culturally appropriate. Practice key words like “please,” “excuse me,” “thank you,” and “hello/goodbye.” Practice key phrases like “where is the bathroom?,” “can you help me?,” “may I have some _____?,” all of which will make you a better traveler and global citizen. Also try and learn 10 new words when you’re traveling.
- Have fun! Travel can be stressful and challenging, but you’re expanding your horizons and comfort zone. Try to do at least one really fun thing per day.
Dr. Matt Zakreski is the School Counselor at The Grayson School. He loves to travel, spend time at the beach, and is a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, The Simpsons, Batman comics, Gravity Falls, Harry Potter, and all other things awesome.
Read more great tips from the gifted community on the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop!