Yep. We did it. We took our 5 month old baby girl and 3 1/2 year old daughter with special needs to Europe. It was a huge undertaking, and took a lot of planning, but it was SO worth it. We flew from North Carolina to Washington state, took a road trip down to Oregon, flew to Paris, took a train from Paris to Germany, flew from Germany to Rome, and ended the trip with a flight back to North Carolina.
Sure, our girls probably won't remember a thing from the trip, but we will. We have those memories forever. Funny stories that make us laugh until we cry. It was definitely worth it.
I wasn't nervous to take Harlynn (our then 5 month old - now 6 month old). Wait, I take that back. I did have one worry about Harlynn. I worried that people would see her and think she was so cute that they would snatch her and take her from me. I'm being totally serious. That thought went through my head. Other than that, she was an easy traveler. Her clothes were so tiny they hardly took up any room, and she is breastfed, so I didn't have to worry about packing formula or bottles.
I was very nervous to take Tennyson. I worried she would get sick. I worried that she would need to go to the hospital. I worried she would have a seizure. I worried that I would spill her medicine and not be able to get a refill. I worried about the language barrier. I worried that people from a different country would be cruel to her, stare at her, and treat her poorly. I even worried that people would take her from me. (Apparently having my children taken was a very real concern before this trip!).
I wondered how countries that usually institutionalize their children with disabilities would treat my daughter. So let me tell you about our experience. People stared. People stared in Paris. People stared in Germany. People stared in Rome. Just like people here in the United States stare. So no real difference there. People in Germany stared a lot! And they don't care if you catch them doing it. They just keep on staring. Haha!
People were not rude, or cruel. People were helpful and kind. We had a wonderful experience in Europe. And nobody tried to steal my babies.
Most places in Europe make accommodations to people with disabilities whenever possible. Jumping to the front of lines and discounted ticket prices at monuments are just a few examples. Sometimes, it's just not possible to find a wheelchair accessible ramp in Rome though, and we were prepared for that.
So here are my tips for a successful trip:
I booked our Paris and Rome hotels on booking.com. I would use this site again. I liked that you can click on which amenities are important to you. I had very specific guidelines of what I needed for a hotel. It had to have air conditioning, a fridge for Tennyson's medications, a bathtub, and an elevator. Another feature I liked about this website is that you can read reviews from a specific demographic. I focused on "Families with small children" when I was considering a hotel. They were really helpful! I liked knowing ahead of time that the staff in Paris spoke English. The inside scoop from people who have been there can help you decide if a hotel is right for you!
|The view from our Paris hotel room|
Space is a commodity in Europe so be prepared for the worlds tiniest elevators, bathrooms and hotel rooms. Tennyson's adaptive stroller barely fit in the Paris hotel elevator and did not fit at all in the Rome hotel elevator.
AIRLINES & FLIGHTS
We flew with Southwest Airlines initially to go from North Carolina to Washington state. They allowed us to pre-board ahead of everyone. We had to request a blue pre-boarding pass, but they were very accommodating.
On Southwest, there are no assigned seats. We chose the bulkhead. Sitting in the bulkhead had it's advantages. More legroom, Tennyson couldn't kick the back of anyone's seat, we could quickly change her on the floor without anyone really seeing what we were doing (since she wouldn't fit on any changing table in an airplane bathroom). We put Tennyson in the middle seat, and I took the window so I could breastfeed Harlynn with some small degree of privacy and my husband took the aisle seat. This way we could both provide Tenn with some support to sit comfortably. It was also great to be the first off of the airplane, but we quickly realized it didn't really matter since we had to wait for Tennyson's chair to be brought to us each time because it was gate checked. Disadvantages were minor. You can't put anything under your seat, everything has to be stored in the overhead bin and you don't get very good trays. They are tiny trays that come out of the arm rest, which means your arm rests don't come up at all. Bummer.
The other airlines we flew were United, Air Canada, and Lufthansa. We had excellent experiences with all of these airlines. We were always able to pre-board ahead of everyone. One thing we realized quickly was that we needed to give ourselves plenty of time. Each time we had a flight, we gave ourselves about three hours. This allowed us to check our bags and the girls' carseats, tag both strollers to be gate checked, get through security - which takes a little bit longer when you are traveling with liquid medications and a feeding pump, and children in general (we always found the "Travelers with Limited Mobility" lane and we were not as rushed and we didn't feel like we were holding up other travelers). With the extra time we were able to find our gate, get something to eat, change the girls if they needed, feed Harlynn, give Tennyson her meds and set up her feeding pump. It made a huge difference to not feel rushed.
We never had any issues traveling with Tennyson's medications or feeding pump. We carried a small suitcase with two coolers inside; one for medications that needed to stay cold, and one for medications that could stay room temperature. I used four large re-freezable ice packs for our refrigerated meds and it worked out fine. In the room temp cooler, I had plenty of clean syringes, as well as a 2 day supply of formula in case our bags were ever lost (which never happened).
We traveled with a letter from one of Tennyson's doctors on official letterhead, just in case anyone tried to give us any trouble about her medications or feeding pump. This letter explained what medical equipment we would be traveling with, as well as a list of all her medications and stated that all were medically necessary. Make sure you carry this in one of your carry on bags. Don't check it.
Since we were always first to board, we had about 30-45 minutes of waiting to take off while everyone else boarded. I always used this time to nurse Harlynn and most of the time she fell asleep right afterward, making takeoff a breeze.
On a previous trip, we put Tennyson in her carseat. It's a big carseat and it was a pain to lug around and an even bigger pain for her to sit in it on an airplane. It left her no leg room and she couldn't have her tray fold down. Learning from that experience, we knew it would be easier and more comfortable to have her just sit in the airline seat. She was propped up with blankets on either side of her. To make sure she didn't slide down, we folded a blanket into the shape of a triangle, put her butt in the middle of it and pulled the pointy end up between her legs and buckled her seatbelt over the top of it. You can kind of see it in the picture above.
Our entire family met in Germany for one big family vacation. Prior to meeting up we all went to different countries in Europe. In order to be able to communicate, we all downloaded the WhatsApp app on our cell phones. This allowed us to send texts, voice messages, pictures, and short video to each other over wifi connections, since our cell service didn't work.
The first leg of our trip was a two week stop in Washington state to visit our families. I had our monthly resupply of formula and supplies sent to to Washington, so I didn't have to pack a months worth of supplies from home.
Also, we met up with family currently stationed in Germany in the middle of our trip. A month before our trip, I purchased diapers and wipes for both girls. I mailed a package to Germany ahead of time with formula, syringes, feeding bags, diapers and wipes. It was nice to have it all waiting for us when we arrived. We still ran out of diapers in Rome, but there were children's stores and supermarkets that made it very easy to find diapers.
We requested a 2 month supply of each of Tennyson's medicines just prior to our trip. About a month before we left, I contacted our pharmacy and let them know about our trip so they could order enough of each medicine for us. Even though we were only going to be gone a month, having a 2 month supply gave me a little wiggle room in case anything happened to her medicines.
If you are going to be traveling in the summertime, pack plenty of sunscreen and an umbrella to shield the sun. It makes a big difference. On really hot days, we brought a washcloth from the hotel so we could wet it down and cool the girls off.
Our girls had a rough transition with the time zone changes. To start, we flew from the eastern time zone to the pacific time zone. This one didn't shake up their schedule too much because it was only a 3 hour difference. But when we flew to Europe from the west coast it was a 9 hour time change. They were awesome on the flights and I tried to have them sleep as much as possible since it would be morning when we landed in Paris. It just didn't work. We were all exhausted and it was the middle of the night back home, and we couldn't help but sleep.
It took Tennyson a good 5 days before she had fully switched over to the right time zone. She would stay awake until 4 or 5am before falling asleep, which translated to her normal bedtime of 8pm back home.
It also was an adjustment because we were all sleeping in one room (which believe it or not, we don't do on a regular basis at home). We heard every little peep they made and vice versa. It would be really quiet for a little while and I'd peek at them, crossing my fingers they would be asleep and both of them would be wide eyed looking right back at me. Sigh. So be prepared for time zone transitions to take a few days.
It was adjustment when we came home as well. Tenny woke up for the day around 2am for a couple days, then it moved back to 4am, and finally it went back to her normal schedule.
IN CASE THEY GET SICK
On the third day of our trip to Washington, Tennyson came down with a cold. At first it wasn't bad, a few sneezes and coughs, but then it started to sound bad and a high fever began. We were pretty confident it was just a bad cold, but we needed to make sure it wasn't something more serious before we flew to Europe. The day before we left for Paris, we made a stop in the emergency department for a breathing treatment of albuterol and a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. It was just a bad cold, but she was given some antibiotics for safe measure. Her cold cleared up pretty quickly after that and she stayed healthy throughout the rest of our trip.
|Tenny getting a breathing treatment|
We also purchased trip insurance through Allianz Global Assistance. This would have allowed a refund of our tickets in case our trip had to be canceled due to hospitalization. It also included a clause that would cover emergency air travel back to the United States if any of our family members needed. It covered lost baggage, delayed baggage, emergency medical and dental, ticket changes, etc. We paid around $300 for it, and although we didn't have to use it, I think it was a good backup to have.
The best advice I can give though, is to have patience. Lots and lots of patience. Having a good attitude and very little expectations are a must. But you can do it! My husband and I said before we left, that if anything, we would come away with some great stories, and we did! Our moods rubbed off on our children and for the most part they were very easy, go-with-the-flow travelers.