Flying Virgin America with Autism

We recently flew Virgin America out of LAX. Overall, the experience surpassed our expectations in accommodations, entertainment, comfort, and compassion for autism travel. 

Booking Process

I booked our flights on the Virgin America website, though I ended up having to fly a week earlier than my husband and my son who has autism. All three one-way tickets purchased were for Economy, but I couldn’t get the bulk seating for my husband and son directly on the website.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Ticket Counter

So, I ended up calling the 1-800 customer service number and spoke with an agent who specializes in disability. The representative was well acquainted with autism and immediately proceeded to put my husband and son in their flight’s Economy Premium section in order to make them more comfortable.

At the Airport

Check-in was a breeze! I had already checked in online, so I only needed to zoom through security with my Global Entry pass and head straight to the gate. My husband and son relayed a similar experience.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Airport

In LAX, Virgin America uses Terminal 3, which tends to be a bit more crowded at security than other terminals. If you are also flying out of this terminal, you may want to arrive earlier and allocate enough time to pass through this process.

I had heard about their newly opened Virgin Atlantic travel lounge, and I was mildly curious to check it out for myself. On request, the staff allowed me a sneak peek. The facility sported an uber-modern look and had several seating areas, a bar, and a modest breakfast buffet table—the room decor compliments the company’s logo in hues of reds and pinks.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Lounge

Passengers wishing to dine before their flight also have the option of choosing from a fast food joint or a sit-down venue at Gladstone’s, which is a sister restaurant to the one in Malibu.

At the Gate

On both Virgin America flights (a week apart);  pre-boarding went relatively smoothly. My husband was happy the crew had given him ample time to board before the deluge of passengers came through. On my solo flight, I was approached by a team member and asked if I needed help putting my carry-on in the top compartment, which I appreciated.

Both flights on Airbus 330 were punctual, which is noteworthy in the middle of the day at a busy airport like LAX.

The Seats

My aisle seat in Economy 12D was covered in leather and better padded than other airlines I have flown. I even had a few inches between my knees and the chair in front of me.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Economy Seat

My husband and son found their wider, more padded, leather seats in 3E and 3F (main cabin) even more comfortable to relax in. We were all thrilled to use the outlets to plug in our phones; the outlets worked well and were placed in an accessible spot, unlike other carriers where we have had to look for them somewhere in the abyss under our seats.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Main Cabin

As seasoned frequent flyers, we all immediately noticed the small—but significant differences—between this Virgin America and their competitors. Highlights ranged from the engaging emergency procedure video done with rap music and the relaxing blue-hued lighting to the positive attitude of the crew asking multiple times if we needed any additional help.

The Food

Let me start by saying that Virgin America offers superior food and entertainment choices that cater to please anyone. They provide an ample free and paid-for drink and snack menu that includes a gluten-free option as well as for purchase meal options.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Food

The fact that you can place an order from the comfort of your seat is so helpful! No more waiting for the traditional cart to come around while everyone else dines, just to be told they are out of your food choice once they reach your seat.

On my flight, I was very happy with my reasonably-priced, healthy breakfast choice that didn’t leave me hungry like some do. The meal was served with coffee that tasted like it was freshly ground.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Menu

The following week my husband and son loved the food offerings too. When our son with autism discovered food is complimentary in the main cabin. He ended up ordering everything he could off that menu. Unlike what has happened to us on European carriers, he was not reprimanded.

Much to my husband’s surprise, the staff was courteous and smiled with each order!

The Amenities

In comparison with other airlines, entertainment is another area where Virgin America gets it right.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Entertainment

The personal touch-screen TV in front of you is so much fun to play with!

You can not only order meals but also watch movies, listen to music; you can even chat with a fellow passenger in a different seat, which is a great feature if family members are separated in-flight.

As you can see from our pictures, the choices are ample—whether one wants to watch movies, TV shows or play games, there is something there for everyone. The entertainment system even features an area for kids with a PG content control making it stress-free for parents.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Charity

Perhaps the most refreshing feature on that screen was the fact there was a section dedicated to charities, encouraging passengers to donate money to several organizations like “Make a Wish Foundation” and one that is close to our hearts, The Special Olympics.

But there’s more.

Forgot your headphones at home? Do you want to nap for a few hours and want a clean pillow and blanket? You can purchase these items right on board. I selected a pillow/blanket set and love the high-quality blanket so much I use it at my desk at home.

Flying Virgin America with Autism Cagtalog

The restrooms, though unimpressive and similar to other airlines, were kept clean throughout the coast-to-coast flight and replenished with paper towels, tissues, and soap on a continuous basis.

Autism Travel Tips

Make sure you mention any special needs at booking and follow up with Virgin America before flying.

On our flights, we found nothing went wrong, and the staff was all very attentive and well rehearsed in helping families and individuals with autism.

Pin for Later

Flying Virgin America with Autism Pin

Say Yes to the Global Entry Program

This month’s ‘Ask Margalit’ section deals with the Global Entry program that the TSA  has recently launched in the United States and whether it presents and any benefits for the autism community.

Hi, Margalit.

 “I’m writing from Ohio. I travel quite a bit here in the US and sometimes abroad. I have a daughter who has autism, and I would love to be able to take her with me on some of my trips, but one of the things that put me off is the long lines and waiting times in the airports. Her meltdowns are not good for her or anybody else. Have you made use of the Global Entry Program? Would you recommend it? I would appreciate any information you have.”

Thanks in advance,
Sally

Dear Sally,Say Yes to the Global Entry Program line

I am glad you asked about the Global Entry Program. The program is entirely suited for special needs families and those with autism benefit.
I wholeheartedly recommend and endorse it.

We have used it for both domestic and international flights for the past two years, and it has improved our travel experience so much!

Instead of standing in the Customs and Border Patrol lines, there are quick self-check kiosks which have been so helpful for our son with autism. It eliminates the extended wait, and if there is any difficulty with the kiosk, there are officers there to resolve them.

What helps us is that we get access to the TSA Pre-check benefits so we don’t have to remove clothing items and can also keep our medicines, electronic goods, and medicines in our carry-on luggage – all things which can contribute to a meltdown. Even during busy times, the lines are shorter.

The price is reasonable and considering that the TSA pre-check program is $85 per person, it made sense to me to pay the extra $15 to have access to both the programs. I wholeheartedly recommend this program for anyone that travels as it saves so much time when you enter back into the US from an international destination.

The process is simple- It entailed an application online, and then in less than a month we received notification via e-mail to come for interviews.
Interviews are scheduled at your local office at your convenience but be aware there might be a wait now that summer vacations are being planned.
The interview process is ten minutes long, and all we needed to do was answer a few questions and get fingerprinted.
Prepare your daughter with autism for that but it shouldn’t be a big deal. A week later we got the email notification that we were approved and a few weeks after that we received the actual card in the mail. Once you are registered in the system you don’t even need to carry the real card but some do as a second form of identification. It is valid for 5 years, and totally worth it if you fly more than once a year.

For us the approval process was very quick.A week later we got the email notification that we were approved and a few weeks after that we received the actual card in the mail. Once you are registered in the system you don’t even need to carry the real card but some do as a second form of identification.
It is valid for 5 years, and totally worth it if you fly more than once a year.

Have you tried the Global Entry program yet?
What were your experiences?

 

 

 

 

Debunking Autism Travel Myths

I regularly meet parents with kids on the autism spectrum who have serious misconceptions about traveling with traveling with autism.

I can relate to those who have tried to travel with their child and encountered mishaps, but what I find most alarming is the high percentage of parents that base their decisions on other people’s stories or even Internet misinformation.

Since our website, AutisticGlobetrotting, is about to celebrate its third year of existence, I thought it would be helpful to debunk some of these misconceptions once and for all in the hope this might inspire or even encourage some of you to go ahead and finally plan that summer vacation you’ve been dreaming of.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths globe

 

Planning travel with an autistic child is time -consuming and expensive.

The essential element in the planning stages is notifying the airlines, cruise lines and hotels of your child’s disability, and decide what accommodations you might what to request.
You can usually ask for most accommodations by e-mail, which makes it cheaper and faster, particularly if you should need to contact people overseas. From my experience, most companies in the travel industry will try and provide the necessary accommodations at no extra charge.

Always remember to store your correspondence in a file on your computer, and then send a gentle reminder to all the people you’ve contacted a week before your day of departure, in case they forgot about you.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths florence

The TSA treats autistic travelers and family badly.

Over the years, the TSA has come under fire for causing unnecessary stress to many families; especially those traveling with special needs kids.
We’ve flown over 200 flights in the last decade without an incident; simply by letting the agent know upon arrival at the airport that our son was autistic and that I would be accompanying him to the checkpoint.

This month the TSA has come out with new guidelines for autistic travelers that include allowing kids to stay with parents during the check, and that parents or caregivers may advise the agent on how to proceed with the security check depending on the child’s particular disability.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths christchurch

Flying with a child on the autism spectrum is a nightmare.

No, not usually.
Although flights may not as traveler-friendly as they used to be, it is still doable. All you need is to notify the airline in advance of any accommodations like bulk or aisle seating, pre-boarding( so that you can get your family settled faster) and wheelchair assistance if you have to navigate between terminals in the larger airports.

Remember to pack a snack or two for the flight and keep your kid busy with movies, video games, books on tape, or coloring books just like you would do at home or on a long car ride.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths paris

My child will not be comfortable in a hotel room.

Since most kids with autism thrive on routine and familiarity, the best choice for hotels would be sticking with one or two chains such as Starwood, IHG, or Marriott because they tend to design their layout the same way in each hotel worldwide.When booking a hotel room, you should ask for a quiet room away from noisy areas like elevators,
restaurants, and conference rooms and on a high floor if you are staying on a busy street.

Some hotels offer hypoallergenic rooms and pillows, too.If you know that your family won’t feel comfortable in a hotel setting there are alternative lodging options like apartment hotels or private home rentals from companies like Airbnb you can book that are even more budget friendly.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths italy

I hate it when my child acts up and everybody stares.

Now this issue is one that we can probably all relate to and understand; however, it shouldn’t deter you.
I remember my public speaking professor telling our class at the beginning of his course that the trick to speaking in front of a large crowd was envisioning everyone in their underwear.

You should keep in mind that most if not all people watching you and your kid don’t  actually ‘know’ you, so you shouldn’t care much what they think about your parenting skills or your child’s behavior.And the silver lining is that mastering the art of ignoring disparaging remarks or looks from strangers will not only make you a better parent but is bound to teach your kid a much-needed life skill as well.

Debunking Autism Travel Myths london


Review of Laura Vickers “Flying to see Janet’ book

Review of Laura Vickers "Flying to see Janet' book

Laura Vickers’  book ‘Flying to see Janet’ is by far the best book I have seen about travel written for younger kids with autism.

Over the past decade, I have seen multiple books that have tried to address the topic of autism and travel some more successful than others but most didn’t  manage to describe the airport experience in a simple language easy for most to comprehend.

This well-organized book chronicles the various steps of airline travel in a fun and engaging way that is sure to delight children and their parents alike.

What  you’ll find in ‘Flying to see Janet.’

The soft cover book serves as a ”go to’ manual for parents; answering all those WH questions the kids might have before flying.
Interwoven in the book are concepts that might seem like common sense to many but might be needed to be reiterated to those on the autism spectrum.
Like the notion that there are things you can’t say out loud in today’s day and age described on p.17.”…Even though you might think of a hilarious joke about security, it’s important not to say it out loud because someone might think you are serious” and the useful tips to cope with unpleasant situations – p.25 “Sometimes my ears can feel funny during takeoff and landing …I chew gum or yawn a lot to get them back to normal…”

The book’s storyline starts at the home with the packing stage and continues with the drive to the airport.
It continues with the check-in process, TSA inspection, and the actual flight. The book ends with the passengers’ arrival at the baggage claim.
I liked the fact the book is written in a clear and humorous language suitable for many families with autism; both those who have never flown before as well as for those who could use a quick refresher course.

The eye-catching illustrations add particular value in describing thoughts and feelings that can help prepare the travelers with autism face unexpected events like turbulence and lessen their ‘anxiety levels as described on page p.29.
“…Fun! I feel like I am on a school bus traveling on a bumpy dirt road” as well as maintain their interest reading the paperback book…”

The book highlights

My particular favorites were the different visual techniques mentioned to occupy bored kids; like looking out for the art in airports (p.15) as well as Peggy Wargelin’s (the book’s illustrator and parent to an autistic daughter) tips for parents at the end of the book that many readers will find quite practical.

Traveling with Autism and the TSA

 

A sensible approach to traveling with autism and the TSA agent

 

We consistently hear about nightmares that people suffer at the hands of the TSA.

But I want people to keep something in mind; thousands if not millions of people travel on a daily basis, and these intrusive incidents are few and far between.
A lot of it has to do being adequately prepared just like it says in the Boys’ Scout motto. Ok, sometimes that doesn’t’ help either, but, in reality, being prepared could avoid many issues that people have.

Traveling with children who are on the autistic spectrum can seem rather daunting to the best of us. Now with the implementation of airport security, we have yet another hurdle to jump over – making certain our children have a pleasant trip.
Having just returned from a trip, this is what we did to prepare for the airport.

Let me explain a little about us.
Our boys are not boys anymore; they are young men both in college. They are at an age when they can participate in the planning and execution of trip preparation.
They are very aware of what it takes to go through security. We traveled extensively right after 9/11, and both boys have been consistently pulled out of line and even patted down.They have never minded it. It gave them a sense of security.
So, next time you are chosen for a pat down-remember that you want to make certain your child is left with a feeling of security.

Due to circumstances we were not able to travel in the past three years, so there were a few new things we had to go over with the boys before we went on our past trip.
The first thing we did was sit the boys down and explain to them what was going to happen.
We even drew little maps to show them the lines and the different steps for airport security.
We practiced what questions they might be asked and how to respond.
We went to what was appropriate to say and what was not appropriate to say.
Example: don’t talk about terrorism, bombs, and planes flying into buildings or as in the case of my oldest don’t go around telling everyone how to survive a plane crash.

A sensible approach to traveling with autism and the TSA wait line

My oldest son is obsessed with Air Emergency on television and is petrified of flying.
He researched how to survive a plane crash and sent everyone he knew all the information he found.
He printed off a copy of survival tips for the plane, which my husband told him he could not take out once we got to the airport and could not discuss it with anyone.
We did explain to him that it was critical to watch what he said for two reasons:  you do not want to frighten people or cause security personnel to think you many be a threat. So, when you get to an airport, you do not talk about bombs and plane crashes; it is a societal no-no.

Then went through their backpacks with them to make sure that they were not carrying any items that weren’t permitted. We found the rules on the TSA website and read them with them to make sure they understood what they could and could not take on board.

We also made sure that they had the proper documentation. If your child is over 16, they must have a picture ID or passport to get on that flight. In fact, it is not a bad idea to always have a photo of your child with you. In our case, the younger son has a learner’s permit for driving and the older one has a state issued ID.

State ID is very easy to get.
You go to the motor vehicle department, bring the requisite documentation, and they issue the ID.
The woman, who helped our son at the DMV, realized because he was very hesitant in answering her questions, that he had some “issues”, and allowed my husband to assist him in the process.
Everyone again was kind.

 

A sensible approach to traveling with autism and the TSA checkpoint

Now of course, as with all preparations, there is always a glitch.
With the oldest he forgot that there was a water bottle in his backpack, and the TSA screeners were not pleased.
But they were not rude or disrespectful.
My husband helped and intervened by throwing out the bottle, and son apologized.
They then went through the scanner again and everything was fine.

Another thing we did was to organize all items in compartments.
We made sure that everything for the laptops and phones were in one pocket and were readily available so that they could be taken out and placed in separate containers on the conveyor belt.
We had tried to get the boys to wear shoes other than sneakers but they wanted to wear what they wanted to wear,  so it just took a little bit longer to get everything rearranged once we were through security.
I recommend you wear slip on shoes of some kind or even flip-flops if you can.

Another thing that happened was they had to take off their belts (yes, pants started falling, and underwear became rather apparent) and, as usual, empty their pockets.
The TSA did ask if anyone of us had a retainer or a bridge in their mouths. Yes of course, again the oldest and he got ‘wanded’.

Then we stepped through the “porn” scanners.
Now this I got a kick out of and so did the boys.
We showed them that only the Agent could see them. We made sure the boys did what they were told and said “yes ma’am” or “no, sir” as the case may be.
I know these scanners freak some people out, but honestly considering I am a middle-aged menopausal woman who has given birth twice, who does not like to see myself naked, I figured if someone wants to see me naked go for it.
The boys didn’t care about the see through the scan.

There was a bit of an anomaly on my scan, however, and they patted down my arm. The boys came through, and I thought they were to be patted down as well, and I had them assume the position.
But everything was just fine.

A sensible approach to traveling with autism and the TSA x ray machine

So we got through airport security with no screaming, yelling melting down or real issues.
Preparation is key.
Organization is key.
Remember too that your children will take their cue from you.
If you act out and cause a scene, then your child will become upset.
If you do not act respectful and cooperative neither will your child and issues will ensue.

Remember, you can tell security that your child is autistic; most will be very understanding, but that does not mean your child can skip security.
In fact, many terrorists will use those considered disabled in their schemes.
So, while you know that your child is not smuggling bomb parts, the US government does not.
While you are aware that your child’s wheelchair, braces or crutches are simple wheelchairs, braces and crutches the government does not.
Be prepared for the TSA to take the time to check out these objects.

No one is picking on you.
Life is what it is.
It is your job to make the situation easier and less complicated for your child.
Smile, be friendly, be helpful, and be cooperative. Better yet, teach your child to think of it all as a game and part of the adventure of travel.
Let them think of themselves as Indiana Jones or ‘Jonesette.’

Listen, security is part and parcel of travel in today’s day and age so it shouldn’t be a big deal if you take a little extra time to prepare.

Guest writer, Elise Ronan is the happily married parent of two young men with Aspergers syndrome. She is a volunteer parent and child advocate in her town and community. She is the author of the popular blog Raising Asperger’s Kids.

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism

 Part of successfully traveling with autism is the ability of the caregivers to foresee and prepare for those scenarios that can trigger those dreaded meltdowns.
Here are tips to avoid airport meltdowns that we have compiled over the years based on our past incidents.

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism lines

Meltdowns due to flight delays

#Try to book direct early morning flights that do not originate in any weather troubled zones when possible.

#Study your flight track record on Kayak.com to get an idea of the possibility of delays and remember to check the airline updates before you leave for the airport.

#Download a map of the airports ahead of time, so you get acquainted with the local amenities i.e. eateries, entertainment, and shopping.

# Pack (cord including for quick recharge) at least two favorite electronic devices such as Ipads, I-pods, Nintendo or other games for your child to use while waiting.

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism airport suitcases


Meltdowns related to food

#Download a map of the airport and decide ahead of time where, and if you are going to eat to avoid last minute arguments of the pizza parlor versus sandwich joint.

#If your flight is scheduled after 10 pm chances are you’ll find the airport restaurants closed so be sure to pack some necessary snacks like chocolate bars or cookies in your carry-on luggage. Although healthy fruit or veggie snacks might be a better choice, they can be confiscated in some countries by the agricultural inspectors.

#Always carry coins with you so you can use any available vending machines.

 

 

 

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism cafeteria

Meltdown at the TSA lines

#Decide ahead of time whether you want the x-rays screen or the more lengthy pat -down process. Bear in mind in mind that the pat -downs may not be the best idea if your traveler hates to be touched by strangers and might physically or verbally object to the search.

#If your kid cannot wait quietly or is too tired to do so, head on to the front of the line and ask the person responsible, whether any special needs’ accommodations can be made. Some airports do provide separate disabled and family lines, especially during rush hour.

 

 

 

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism x rays
  Meltdowns  due to connecting flights

#When making your reservation make sure you allocate at least one hour for domestic and two for international connections. Remember that flights to certain destinations may require additional security checking at their departure gate and that passengers entering the US clear customs and immigration at the first entry airport, both of which necessitate extra airport time.

# Also, always be informed of the exact time to be at the gate for your continuing flight and the nearest hotel to the airport in case you end up missing your flight.

#If you are running late, head on to the nearest airline representative and let them know you are in the airport, so they can notify the gate your next flight is leaving from that you’re on your way.

#Ask for special-needs assistance instead of attempting to run across the airport on your own saddled with all the luggage, especially if you need to change terminals.

Tips to Avoid Airport Meltdowns for Travelers with Autism gate

 Safety related meltdowns 

Here are tips in the event your kid runs off during the meltdown

#On the day of travel photograph or film your child with your camera phone before you leave the house. When my sons were younger, I used to dress them in matching bright colored t-shirts so it would be easy not only to spot them from a distance but to describe what one was wearing by looking at the other child.

#Teach verbal kids to approach ladies wearing name tags or in uniforms if they feel lost and get them memorize your cell phone number.

#When traveling with nonverbal children consider getting them to wear an identifying tag with your phone number and a description of their disability or even a portable GPS bracelet that can be easily traced.

#Upon discovering the child is missing alert the airport authorities, don’t waste precious moments searching on your own.

#Ask one family member to stay in the spot the child was last seen at, in case he/she returns.

#Insist the police distribute the autistic person’s picture immediately with a full appearance description and details of the disability.

#It is important to explain to the authorities how to approach your child when found, so make sure you include details of whether he/she would respond to their name, react aggressively, or object of being physically touched in the report.

STRANDED AT THE AIRPORT seats

 

Has your child experienced meltdowns in the airport ?

How does your family deal with them?

 


Testing the new TSA ‘Opt Out’ Program

Testing the new TSA 'Opt Out' Program Xrays

   

We flew out of Los Angeles International Airport last week, for our weekend in New Orleans.My husband and two sons, all decided to pass through the scanning machine and were cleared quite fast and efficiently.I decided to try the much talked about ‘OPT OUT’ TSA concept that had caused such a news commotion in the last few weeks.

The minute I uttered the five magical words, ‘I want to opt out’ I was asked to step aside, and my request was whispered down a six-person pipeline,” she opted out.”

For a split second there I felt like Alice down that virtual rabbit hole, landing in uncharted territory.
Noticing my family on in the other side, impatiently waiting for me, I turned around and recanted,”…I think I’ll do the scan, after all.”
“Oh no,” was the rehearsed TSA agent’s response,”Once you are in this line, you can’t go back!”.
I felt trapped but by then I understood all I could do is sit patiently and wait.

I could hear quiet dramatic music playing in the background.
Next, I was approached by a female officer who asked me politely whether I  prefer a private room or a public setting. For my check.Thinking it is bound to be quicker, I chose the public version.
Drum roll, please.
She proceeded to describe exactly where she would be touching me and to what degree, to prevent any misunderstandings, as she conducted the search.
The check was executed in a professional manner, methodically back to front, and lasted a total of two minutes.
No groping, No mishandling,  No privacy invasion, No abuse to note.
Totally anticlimactic.

Dramatic music fading.
Special tip: ask the TSA person to put a fresh set of gloves on, since after they touch you, they run the gloves through a machine to detect traces of explosives.
In summation -How annoying did I find it?
On a scale of one to ten, a minimal one.

Autism Travel Tips

If parents don’t want their kids to go through the scanning machine for any reason they need to prepare their child with autism to the fact, they will be touched by a stranger.If your kid is ok with that, then there shouldn’t be any issues.

Explain to your son or daughter that the TSA agent might ask them to remove jackets or hats during the check.

Recommendations for the TSA

It would be beneficial to provide some online printable material such as a pamphlet or flashcards with pictures describing the process for travelers with autism.Furthermore, a short demonstration video with cartoon characters would also be useful for parents to show younger kids what the TSA checkpoint is about and what they should expect. .

A bean bag doll for demonstration purpose (can be handed out to special needs persons as a gift later) and an i-pad application should also be considered by the TSA decision makers, as a possibility.

The traveler with autism should be allowed to be accompanied by a family member or caregiver to the location of the pat down area.

If possible, a different waiting area for travelers with special needs (including the families with autism ) should be created.

 

 

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