Making air travel easier when you or someone in your family are/is autistic – Part 2: At the Airport and On the Plane

At the Airport

  • If you have booked disability services, this should be your first stop and they will assist you through the process of checking in all the way through to getting to your departure gate as quickly as possible.
  • If you have not booked disability services, my check-in tip would be, only have one family member in the check-in queue. Where possible have the rest of your party wait off to the side until the ‘queue position holder’ gets to the front, then the whole family approach the check-in desk together.
  • My tip regarding immigration is to ask your local travel agent for passenger departure cards ahead of time, fill them out at home and have them ready with your passports. I know they only take a few minutes to fill out, but personally I find this to be REALLY difficult when I am trying to wrangle Touristo and his tantrum prone sister in a pretty unpleasant environment.
  • As far as security goes, look to see if there are family priority lanes in operation. If not, get in the queue that mostly consists of business people. They tend to know the process and get through quickly. Please also have yourselves organised and ready to go through!
  • If you can get lounge access through your credit card program, Qantas Club membership (or the likes) or because you have premium seats, then use it. The greatest feature for us is actually the showers. A hot shower for Touristo, is possibly the most calming thing in the world for him. He comes out a whole lot more regulated and in better shape to tackle the flight.
  • When making your way through the airport consistently advise your child what is coming next e.g. if you have just finished checking in, let them know that next we will be going through immigration / security and then we can get chips from McDonalds. If appropriate, have visuals on your phone / iPad so you can visually show this sequence.
  • If your child is excited about travelling on planes (I have two junior AV geeks), don’t take them anywhere near the boarding gate until it is time to board the plane. I learned this the hard way. Just don’t do it, please learn from my mistake! Also, families and people with disabilities are offered priority boarding. Don’t do this either! It just lengthens the time that you are on a plane with your child trying to entertain them. It really only takes one minute to find your seat, take the essentials out from your carry on, stow your bags and get everyone strapped in. Board the plane last.
  • Just prior to boarding remember a toilet stop. Unless your kid is absolutely, 100% reliably toilet trained and can ‘hold it’ for hours, put a pair of pull ups on them. I have been stuck on a tarmac at JFK airport for over 3 hours before and you are not allowed to use the toilets for any reason whatsoever (nope not even small children and the elderly). So just in case……… You don’t want them sitting on a wet seat for an entire flight.

 

On the Plane

  • First thing to do when boarding the plane is get your child into their seat and strap on their seat belt or CARES Harness if you are using one (link to CARES Harness in Part 1). Seat belt / harness should have the same rules as the car – unless you need a toilet break, you are buckled up.
  • Second thing, take out anything that may be useful for take-off such as devices (switch to flight mode) and lollies / candy to help equalize ears, before stowing your carry on.
  • This is the step where the electrical tape comes in (for some people)….and no it doesn’t involved taping your child to the chair! If you have a child who is tactile seeking or just really curious, have a look at what they could possibly flick, poke, unlatch etc etc and tape it down. In the past I have used electrical tape to disable Touristo’s tray table, the flight attendant call button and the armrest (that housed a monitor). I have even used electrical tape and a thick swaddling blanket to create a ‘shade’ over his seat to the lights didn’t bother him whilst sleeping on a night flight. This gave me extra time to shut my eyes and switch off too.  Harness your inner MacGyver with some creative problem solving!
  • Before the plane makes its descent, let your child know what is coming next e.g. the plane is going to land soon, we are going to pack away our things, your ears might hurt (once again give them something to chew if needed), then we are going to……. (same step by step prompts as you walk your way through the departure hall etc.

Tahdah! You are now at your destination!

I will end this by saying this is absolutely not the definitive list of strategies that you could use because I have written this blog from my own perspective from my experiences with Touristo the Tiny Traveller, who is a pre-school aged child.  As we all know everyone is different and will have their own individual needs, but I hope this guide has provided some interesting ideas and maybe you can tweak it into something that is useful in your own situation.  I would love to hear any comments as to what has made your travels easier!

 

How to Boost Your Frequent Flyer Points When Living in Australia

Australia isn’t exactly known as the land of plenty when it comes to accumulating frequent flyer points/miles. Unlike the USA, we don’t have the range of credit cards and we aren’t able to manufacture spend by popping into our local CVS to buy prepaid cards, use them to buy money orders and redeposit into our bank account – Australia has very tight anti-money laundering regulations prohibiting this! But with a good credit history and some creative thinking, it is entirely possible to travel with your family for next to nothing.

Personally I find the Qantas Frequent Flyer program to be the best for collecting points when living in Australia, so this guide will be based on this. There are just way more earning opportunities than Velocity what offers, or than you can achieve by transferring into a program like Asia Miles or KrisFlyer (both of which are excellent programs).

  1. Fly often and be loyal! Ok, ok so this one is a bit obvious, but if you travel often personally or for work remember to add your frequent flyer number to every itinerary and try to stick with the one airline where possible.
  2. Credit card sign ups. This is only for those who have a good credit history and pay their credit cards off in full every month. Some credit cards offer phenomenal sign up bonuses for those who sign up, are approved and hit a minimum spend (usually within 3 months). After the points are transferred into your frequent flyer account you can close the account. Usually you have to wait 18 months for applying for that card again. By doing this 3 times a year you could potentially earn in excess of 150,000 Qantas points, which can be redeemed for a return business class flight to Japan.
  3. Credit card spend. I deplore using cash these days because I don’t earn any points. I set up fortnightly direct debits for all of my bills and pay the credit card off fortnightly too.   When you sign up to a card for your everyday spend ensure it has a Visa (or Mastercard) with an AMEX attached. Use the AMEX when there is no surcharge (because it earns more points) and use Visa for everything else.
  4. Qantas Online Mall. Whenever I am buying anything from Uniqlo, Appliances Online, David Jones, Macys, Apple or even eBay, I ALWAYS go through the Qantas Online Mall as you earn up to 10 points per dollar.
  5. Qantas Epiqure. If you are a wine lover, this is a must to check out. You earn points per dollar spent however they also have fantastic opportunities to earn up to 10,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer points on bonus point promotions. My husband likes wine and I like points so it is a beautiful thing we have going on there!
  6. Woolworths Rewards. I have loved this program ever since they re-entered their partnership with Qantas Frequent Flyer. This program offers some great opportunities to cash in on bonus points offers, and it is a really good idea to get at least two cards per household. If one card has been inactive for a while they often send offers of bonus points as an incentive to return. Some offers also have maximum points you can earn so you may need more one card to fully maximise your point earning potential.
  7. Banking. Both Qudos Bank and Bank West offer frequent flyer points on transaction / savings accounts. I believe Bank West offers a slightly better deal offering 12 points per $100 in your account each month.
  8. Qantas Cash. This is a pre-paid travel card that earns 0.25 Qantas points earned per dollar spent in Australia, and 1.5 Qantas point per dollar spent on transactions overseas.
  9. Air bnb. By booking your next Air bnb through the Qantas website, you can earn one Qantas point per dollar spent.
  10. Deliveroo. Earn 1 point for every dollar spent after adding your frequent flyer number.  They also have an offer of 250 points on your first 4 orders.
  11. Car rental. Earn 700 Qantas Frequent Flyer points on every international car rental with Avis and Budget.
  12. Qantas Hotels. I have actually used this quite a lot for our upcoming holiday. The standard earn rate, however at the moment Qantas Hotels is offering a whopping 6 points per dollar spent.
  13. Health Insurance – Qantas Assure. I have to admit this is not an offer I am too fond of, but it is well worth investigating to see if it meets your needs. At the moment Qantas Assure are offering up to 75,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer points to new members. This maximum amount is only earned by taking out the top level of family cover though which might not suit everyone.
  14. Utilities. For every new electricity product taken out through iSelect, you earn 1,500 Qantas Frequent Flyer points.
  15. Mortgage and Car Loans. Both Macquarie Bank and Qudos Bank offer frequent flyer points on both car and home loans. With big purchases such as these it is very important not to be wooed purely by points, and shop for what is going to be the most financially beneficial product.

Making air travel easier when you or someone in your family is/are autistic – Part 1: Planning

Intro

Since taking our first mini road trip with my son when he was 3 months old, I have committed myself to experiencing as many travel opportunities with my family as I can. Time spent exploring together (either domestically or abroad) presents unique learning opportunities as well as a chance to bond, that can’t be replicated in any other way.  Nothing is going to stop that, especially not my son’s autism diagnosis.  I mean he is ‘Touristo the Tiny Traveler’ and he has made some of his greatest gains whilst on the road.

As he has gotten older we have had to make a few accommodations to ensure that things go smoothly and I want to share some of these accommodations in this, and subsequent post to hopefully give others some inspiration.  Of course it is important to take into account that every person on the spectrum is an individual and will require their own adjustments / accommodations, but this is a starting point. The most important thing to consider (and it overarches all of the headings below) is to be organised, and to have a plan a, b and c for as many situations as possible.

Planning

  • When booking flights consider which time of day is going to suit best. For shorter domestic flights, is it best to go in the morning when you are well-rested? Would an afternoon flight be better so you can immediately check-in to your hotel on arrival.
  • For longer, international flights do you have a child that will sleep on the plane allowing you to get a rest, or will they be awake, overtired and cranky. For what it’s worth, I love night flights. Touristo gets so excited about going on a plane, he conks right out assisted by the hum of the engines.
  • When you book your flights, there should be an option to add your requirements regarding disability services. You request this directly through your airline booking, but the service is carried out by the airport you are departing from. What this includes varies from airport to airport, but at Sydney Airport it involves going to the disability services counter at the airport where you are assigned an escort who takes you to the check-in counter, moves you quickly through immigration / security and ensures you get to your gate. I believe they also help you find places like the quietest parts of the airport to wait (if required). This does need to be booked in advance.
  • When packing, write a list of anything you could possibly need in transit and ensure these things get packed in hand luggage. These could include sensory items, a weighted blanket, tons and tons of preferred snacks, comfort items, tablet (do not forget the charger), an external battery for the iPad, games, stationary and an empty drink bottle to fill after security.
  • If you have a child on the autism spectrum who is fidgety and/or has difficulty staying still, consider using a CARES Harness (Child Airplane Travel Harness – Cares Safety Restraint System – The Only FAA Approved Child Flying Safety Device). I cannot rave about them highly enough and they are the single most useful travel tool I have come across. I have explained to Touristo that being in a plane is like the car and we must remain seated at all times except toilet stops. He accepts this because his plane harness is similar to his car seat.
  • If you are not familiar with the airport you will be departing from, familiarise yourself with the airport map and figure out where you might be able to eat, and where the kids can run off steam.
  • Prime your kid/s. This is so super important. Some people like to write social stories with pictures outlining each step of the journey and what is expected of people when undertaking these steps. Personally, I find this does not hold Touristo’s interest well enough. I use YouTube clips and give commentary while he is watching, and I start this process months before we go so he is very familiar with everything. I find clips of what the process is at the airport, the lounge / food hall where we will eat, what play equipment there is at the airport, exactly what plane we are going on, and reviews of the flight we are going on that specifically shows the cabin and type of seats we will be in. I also do this for hotel, theme parks, activities etc (but that is for a later post). Because he is familiar with everything, he just gets on with the process like a boss.
  • When you are doing this research to prime your kid/s, also save pictures of the important steps you will go through at the airport and on the plane.  You can use them to create a ‘this / then’ visual schedule on your phone to let them know what is coming next whilst you are in transit.
  • Dress in layers and to cater for sensory needs. Temperature is changes as you move through the terminal and then on the plane so ensure outfits cater for that. Ensure outfits are comfortable and assist in dealing with sensory requirements if necessary. Is strip lighting and / or crowds and issue? Then consider hoodies to block out peripheral vision, use sun glasses and noise cancelling head phones. Always take into account the individual’s particular needs.  For oral stimulation, chewing gum, candies and lollipops help, and also have the added benefit of helping to equalise the pressure during the flight.
  • Consider packing electrical tape. No this is not a joke, it is super handy and I will outline why on my ‘On the Plane’ section.
  • Have a plan as to how to get from the airport you arrive at to your accommodation e.g. train timetable, booked transfers, knowing where the taxi rank is etc. After a long flight you really want to get straight to your hotel and rest because otherwise you are risking a big, huge, tired meltdown if you don’t.See you soon in Part 2!

Qantas Frequent Flyers v Virgin Velocity

Qantas

Pros

  • Earn and redeem points with One World Alliance partners and Emirates. This gives you access to a huge amount of airlines and destinations
  • Qantas has an excellent search engine for finding award space, as does British Airways (a One World Alliance partner)
  • Qantas do release business class award space fairly reliably between Australia and North America. If you live in Sydney you may have to travel through Melbourne or Brisbane to take advantage of less popular routes, but at least it can be done.
  • The One World award ticket is an amazing value redemption allowing you to travel 35,000 miles over 15 flights with One World airlines. The cost of this redemption is only marginally higher than a return redemption to New York

Cons

  • The fees and taxes that need to be paid to redeem an award seat are quite high and can not be paid for with points.  Being selective with what airlines you redeem seats on can reduce some of the sting of this e.g. British Airways have notoriously high fees and taxes, where Japan Airlines are minimal in comparison
  • Compared to Asian and American loyalty programs, the amount of points required for award redemptions is extremely high

 

Velocity

Pros

  • Use points to pay for fees and taxes, allowing you to pay nothing for your award ticket
  • Transfer Velocity points directly to KrisFlyer which unlike Velocity is a brilliant program and gives you access to all Star Alliance airlines and KrisFlyer nearly always offer cheaper redemptions than Velocity

Cons

  • When transferring from Velocity to KrisFlyer it is at a ratio of 1.35:1, so you do lose significant value to be able to gain access to the benefits of KrisFlyer
  • Velocity have a very small pool of partners which consists of (insert). This makes if difficult to earn and redeem awards on many useful routes
  • Velocity releases close to zero business class award space between Australia and North America. This has not always been true of Velocity and hopefully will change moving forward
  • Compared to Asian and American loyalty programs, the amount of points required for award redemptions is extremely high

Frequent Flyer Points in Australia…..the basics

What are the major frequent flyer programs in Australia?

The two leading frequent flyer programs in Australia are Qantas Frequent Flyer and Virgin Velocity.

Can I earn points if I don’t fly a lot?

Absolutely!  Most frequent flyer miles are earned from credit cards, but you do obviously rack up points faster if you fly frequently.  If you take flights for work you should always link your frequent flyer number on your corporate travel agent’s profile.

Can I only earn points with these two programs?

No, but they are the easiest because most banks offer a rewards program that includes one of these two programs, and you can also rack up a lots of points by linking your Fly Buys (Velocity) or Woolworths Rewards (Qantas).  If you are earning points from ‘churning and burning’ cards (will be covered in a future blog post), you will want to join one of these two programs.

In theory, you can earn points for pretty much any airline’s program from Australia if you are signed up for AMEX Rewards as you can redeem your AMEX points for Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points which in turn can be transferred to most airline partners.  This can give you extreme flexibility, but at the same time you do lose some value when transferring through SPG.  More on this in a future post.

Emirates Skyward also has its own card in Australia and some of the banks’ reward programs such as Westpac Altitude and NAB Rewards allow you to transfer into various programs such as Asia Miles etc.  Be careful with this though because whilst Qantas and Velocity offer some of the worst value redemption rates, you do lose value on your points when transferring them from your bank’s rewards program.

What can I redeem my points for?

There are a whole range of things that you can redeem your points for…… electronics, gifts cards, vouchers, retail items etc….. but if you are coming to this blog I am assuming you like to travel?  In this case, only ever trade your points for award seats on flights or upgrades on flights.  Using points for ANYTHING else is terrible value.  An example of this: just say I have 75,000 Qantas Frequent Flyer points.  That can either snag me a $3500 one way business class ticket to Japan (as an award seat)……or just under $400 in Woolworths gift cards.

Ok that’s all for this post. See you next time!