Planning autism-friendly holidays where I actually get to kick back and recharge!

Ok, so since we started travelling as a family, we have only attempted sightseeing holidays that involve being on the move constantly.  This has largely been built around Touristo because as long as we are doing something novel and are in a constant state of motion, he is the easiest kid on the planet.  I haven’t even vaguely considered a beach holiday because “oh my goodness Fiji is just one giant body of un-fenced water” which makes me immeasurably anxious and would involve being more hyper-vigilant than I am at home. Additionally, the idea of him going to a resort kids’ club or having a nanny watch over him has also filled me with fear – he just hasn’t been ready and how can Touristo access kids’ clubs whilst still ensuring he has someone to keep a close eye on him due to his tendency to bolt?

We have now gotten to a point though where my husband and I haven’t been on a date by ourselves in nearly 6 years (seriously) and whilst I feel we still have a great relationship, we need to take some time (at least whilst we are on holidays) to check in and reconnect.  I also feel like we need a little time when we are not in a state of hyper-vigilance, ensuring Touristo’s personal safety 24/7 as it is exhausting.  So I have declared 2018 as the year of holidays that include some down time for mum and dad, with one week-long break mid-year and one week at the end of the year.

Now I should clarify that I LOVE travelling with Touristo and the Princess.  I love experiencing new and exciting things through their lens.  It is nothing short of magical.  I have read articles written by various members of the ‘Perfect Parent Brigade’ that like to trot out the same old message of “why did you even have kids if you just want to dump them in kids’ club / with a nanny whilst you are on holidays?  Don’t you want to spend every glorious waking moment with them?”  Well that’s nice….. I still want to spend the bulk of our time on holidays as a family unit, but no, I don’t think there is anything wrong with my husband and I having an hour or two each afternoon of a holiday to just be alone by ourselves, talk, reconnect and relax……maybe even go to a fancy restaurant and slowly savour our food.

But the question still remained, how on earth am I going to make this relaxing happen?  Touristo is going to be six years old soon and still has considerably high needs.  I would not feel comfortable leaving him in a kids’ club without a set of eyes that are just on him.  Also, where can we go that our family feels welcomed and not a nuisance?  In Australia, I feel that oftentimes (not everywhere) the customer service level is quite low in comparison to other parts of the world, and disability access/accommodations can be either non-existent or you are made feel like you are making people go out of their way (this kind of ties in with the below average customer service)…… So further afield we go…

Well the first holiday turned out to be an easy pick.  I love cruises because everything is prepaid, I don’t need to plan where to eat and what to do.  There is a schedule and routine for every day (that I don’t have to organise), and there is a pool, cocktails and tons of entertainment.  All of these things make me really happy……but can a cruise accommodate Touristo now that I am looking for some downtime and not wanting to chase him around the boat every minute of the day (which I did do when he was 2.5 years old)? Also, can we go on a giant boat bobbing in the water when I am very anxious about Touristo’s personal safety?

In a previous post, I have mentioned Royal Caribbean’s ‘Autism Friendly’ initiative. Due to this commitment to inclusion, this was obviously my first stop – but which cruise?  Whilst my biggest fascination is aviation, I would have to say a close second is my obsession with mega liners.  I love following innovations in this area and delight in every new advancement, so my pick of course was ‘Ovation of the Seas’ (www.ovationoftheseas.com.au).  It is a brand new boat, looks amazing and what really sold me were the bumper cars and circus school at sea.  Another bonus of this ship is that there are a multitude of really innovative ways that you can connect staterooms which is very friendly for families travelling together. The balcony still concerns me though, so I have looked into some additional child proofing measures I can take with me, and to counter the worst case scenario – I have picked a room on deck 6 where the balcony is one floor above a deck and not over the sea.  If you are planning on being this overly specific about a room on any cruise line in school holidays, you want to book as far out as possible, especially if you want to book affordable interconnecting cabins as these go FAST.

Now for the relaxing bit!  Royal Caribbean offers flexible age grouping for their kids club for those with a developmental delay.  For us, this means that both children will be able to go to the same program and the actual space used for this in the ship is very well contained and looks quite secure.  Because Touristo has a very long history of absconding, I have also asked if it is possible to hire a babysitter on board to attend with them to provide additional support, just to make sure he doesn’t escape.  They also offer in-room babysitting when staff are available, so my husband and I might be able to enjoy a leisurely dinner here and there.  It’s more than a year away, but I cannot wait to go and to report back in.

So that is settled.  Next – somewhere to go in the middle of the year…. We wanted somewhere that is not a huge flight (under 9 hours – trust me, that’s not a huge flight for Australians), offers cheap flights, a bit resort-ish but also somewhere that still has a ton of stuff to do should our little monsters get sick of pools and beaches.  So I think we have settled on Singapore (because of Universal Studios on Sentosa Island, and also Lego Land being an hour and  half away).  I haven’t gotten to the point of booking this yet (so I will outline the master plan in a future post), but I have started making inquiries at resorts regarding the accommodations we would need in relation to Touristo’s care for a few hours here and there.   I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the responses which typically outline that they are inclusive of all children, very welcoming and don’t make me feel like a nuisance for making extra requests.  So for now I am really optimistic and hope that this can but put into practice when we are there.  Crossing my fingers in advance!

So look out world in 2018, Touristo and family are coming!

If you found this helpful, interesting or would like to see future posts, please subscribe and head over to our Facebook site and like us there.  See you soon!

* Just a disclaimer that this post is not sponsored.

Why I consider travel to be such a massive priority, particularly with an autistic child on board.

So today I am going to deviate from what has been a bit more of an instructional format and get a bit more personal, but that said, I hope you guys out there in the interwebz are able to take something from it.

It’s interesting…… when I tell people about my family’s upcoming trip (which is a month visiting Seoul, then travelling from Sapporo, down to Hiroshima) the reaction is always either “wow, that sounds awesome” or “oh my gosh you are a crazy person!” The latter is normally from people who know Touristo is autistic, and also know that generally speaking, autistic people feel most comfortable when supported by routine, structure and sameness. Travelling throughout various cities in East Asia for a month is pretty much the antithesis of the comfortable familiarity of life in suburban Sydney, so I understand why people think I am nuts.

So why do it? – A bit of backstory

Before Touristo was born, I had been working for various corporates in Sydney’s CBD for about 12 years. My husband and I had not travelled much in our time together as we were too busy just doing the grind. After Touristo was born, I could feel the four walls at home closing in on me. It was me and a newborn at home every day, and Touristo was not a particularly easy newborn. Touristo was at his absolute best when we were out and about with him in his wrap carrier, experiencing different sights and sounds whilst being calmed by the pressure of the wrap carrier and the gentle rocking. At this time, I really started questioning the grind with no breaks for my husband or I, and so little opportunity for my husband to spend really good chunks of time to bond with Touristo. So all of these factors combined (and cheap flights to Asia from Australia) made me book our first overseas holiday, and when Touristo was just under 6 months old we went on our first trip to Japan together for just under two weeks.

During this trip, Touristo thrived and it gave my husband 2 weeks where he was able to intensely bond with his son, probably more than the whole of the six months prior (and he is a great, hands on dad). This bonding time as a new family was beyond invaluable, so we have travelled most years since, doing more trips to Japan and also exploring China, Hong Kong, and Korea. We find Asia to be a great destination for us because it is not a super long haul trip and we are able to remain in relatively the same time zone whilst experiencing cultures that are quite different to our own. As the kids get older and they can better cope with longer flights and time zone changes, we aim to travel to Europe, the Americas and Africa.

So why do I think travel in general is important for all kids?

– I think travel with your family, whether it’s a camping trip 2 hours down the road, or travelling halfway around the world, offers families the chance to bond in a way that is not achievable by any other means. As kids, we generally did two holidays a year. One I loved, and one I did not love….which was camping (camping presents certain sensory issues for autistic people – and if I haven’t mentioned it before, I am autistic too). But even the experiences I did not love at the time, gave us the chance to bond as a family unit and also suppled a lot of memories that we still talk about today, 30 years down the track.

– I also think that family travel offers learning opportunities that cannot be replicated by any other means.

……however, I think there are even greater benefits when you have a member/s of the family who is/are autistic, which are:

– Those real life learning opportunities are bigger and greater for autistic people, especially when looking at adaptive skills
– No matter how hard you try (and believe me I have tried), the real world cannot be entirely routine and familiar all the time. Travelling from a young age that includes really motivating activities, is a nice way of getting you/your child out of their comfort zone for a bit
– The opportunity for family bonding is even more crucial with a child on the spectrum, because you leverage off that connection to develop other skills. Anecdotally, my son has always made his biggest leaps during times when the four of us (we now have ‘the Princess’ as well as ‘Touristo’) have been trapped in tiny hotel rooms (or cruise ship cabins) for weeks on end.
– There is more opportunity for Touristo to observe a variety of social interactions during travel, whereas at home we are restricted to the same interactions week in, week out.
– There is more opportunity to experience new sights, sounds, foods, language and activities, which encourages flexibility. Touristo now seems particularly interested in listening to me speak Japanese, and last trip tuned in to the point where he repeated a couple of phrases (when he was speaking very, very infrequently at home), probably because it was novel.

I could probably carry on with this list for the better part of a day and is certainly not an exhaustive rationale as to why I think travel is so important, but it’s a good introduction. I will also add, that no it is not always easy…….there are sometimes very fraught moments, but really good planning (see some of my earlier tips for more info) can go a long way and the amazing experiences in my opinion, far outweigh the difficult bits.

I hope I have encouraged someone out there to give it a go and would love to hear some of your family’s travel experiences via Facebook (link to the right).

Cruising – the ultimate autism friendly family vacation…

So I am back on board after being quite unwell for the last week, combined with the world of research being quite busy.  What better way to return than by celebrating cruising and autism! Now this is a little bit of a deviation from my regular topic because…where’s the plane?  What is an AV geek without a plane?  But this post is purely devoted to autism friendly holidays, and here is why:

  • Cruising offers a wide range of activities, but in a fairly contained environment so as to not be overwhelmed by too many choices.
  • There is a daily schedule and structure. Every evening, the next day’s schedule is delivered to your cabin so you know exactly what you will be doing at any given time the next day if you are not going on a shore excursion.
  • On the days where the ship is docked, you can partake in a guided shore excursion which are usually very well organised and can be booked months ahead of your cruising date.
  • Cruises generally have so much variety in the way of foods that is you have a food allergy/intolerance (or are casein/gluten free), this can be easily catered for.
  • Speaking of food, when you dine in the restaurant you have the same table every night and can choose to dine with others or just with your party.
  • Most cruise lines have disability services that offer expedited check-in and alternate muster drills to allow for sensory difference (always check this out when booking).
  • I will preface this next point by saying I am in no way paid by Royal Caribbean, this is purely my opinion. Royal Caribbean became ‘Autism Friendly’ in 2014 (although our last cruise was before this and we still found that the staff were more than happy to accommodate our needs). What this consists of is:
    • Priority check-in, boarding and departure
    • Special dietary accommodations including gluten-free and dairy-free
    • Kids club flexible grouping by ability for children 3 to 11 years old
    • Water play toilet-trained policy exception
    • Pagers/phones for parents of children in the Adventure Ocean program while signed in to our care (subject to availability)
  • If you are lucky enough to be taking a cruise out of the United States, Royal Caribbean offers a limited amount of ‘staffed cruises’ which cater for all ages of autistic cruisers and their families. These offer additional services including:
    • Extra professionally trained staff in caring for individuals with developmental disabilities (provided at one staff member for every two to three special-needs guests)
    • Assistance with Royal Caribbean’s products and services
    • Specialised respite sessions
    • Private activities and sessions

For more information on Royal Caribbean’s Autism Friendly services, check out:
http://www.royalcaribbean.com.au/findacruise/experiencetypes/product.do?pagename=onboard_prod_autism_friendly_ships&wuc=AUS

For more information on Autism on the Seas staffed cruises, check out:
https://autismontheseas.com/royalcaribbean

 

Japan an autism friendly travel destination?

Anyone who knows our family would know that we try and tack on at least a few days in Japan whenever we go on holidays. Our household just loves everything about a Japanese holiday….it is just so easy.

Now, I was recently considering taking the family for a week long holiday on the Gold Coast next year, but after some investigation (which I will go into more detail in an upcoming blog post) it did not seem particularly autism friendly and I decided against it for the time being.  So this got me thinking…why is Japan so easy for a family with a mum who is Aspie and a son who is severely autistic?

  • Multi-purpose rooms. They have these rooms EVERYWHERE, you cannot walk more than a few hundred metres in a major city without coming across one. They are in train stations, department stores, temples, shrines, theme parks, bullet trains…..you name it, there is a multi-purpose room. So what is it you may ask? It is a room that can be used by people with disabilities, the elderly, breastfeeding mothers or anyone who needs privacy and somewhere to sit/lay down.
  • Public transport runs on time. Both myself and my son have this innate need for things to happen when they are meant to. This is why we rarely catch public transport in Sydney, because trains change departure time/platform with no advice and it ruins an otherwise perfect outing. Not the case in Japan! Trains depart within 30 seconds of their advertised departure time consistently.
  • Hotels are consistent. When I book a hotel room in Japan, I know that I can expect a certain standard of comfort and service. I am never unpleasantly surprised.
  • People are kind and will go out of their way to be helpful.   Touristo on the whole is pretty amazing on holidays and I could count the amount of meltdowns he has had on one hand, but when he does meltdown, people don’t look down on you or whisper about you. Also when I have been unsure about how to find elevators or other disability services, people will go out of their way to help.
  • Plastic models of food. Touristo is now at the point of learning to talk and can tell you what he wants most of the time, but before he got to this stage you could ask him what he wanted to eat by getting him to point at the plastic models of food. Also, these plastic models help expectation manage me because I know what I will be getting.
  • How people give instructions. When Japanese people describe how to do something (e.g. using an onsen), they do this in step-by-step detail, very explicitly, as well as telling you exactly what is and isn’t acceptable.
  • Japanese people are literal.
  • Takeaway bowl meals (dons). When you order a takeaway bowl meal, e.g. tonkatsu curry rice, they put all of the different components in different packages. For example the steamed rice is in one container, the fried pork cutlet is in another, the curry sauce in another…… This probably sounds like a little thing but Touristo will eat all of those things when separate but will not touch if combined.
  • Convenience stores. The selection of cheap but good food here is out of this world, plus there are a bunch of options for Touristo. If he has a piece of fried chicken, a plain rice ball and some pre-sliced fruit, his world is a happy place.
  • Disability services at Tokyo Disneyland are amazing (but this is a whole post on its own for another day).

There are probably are bunch more things, but these are the top reasons I find Japan to be an autism friendly destination without trying.

 

 

Business class travel for the price of economy!!!! WHAT!!!!! – an overview

Ok so in my last post I mentioned that I scored our family’s business class tickets with Asiana for an upcoming trip to Tokyo. Here is my guide on travelling to Asia from Australia for the price of a flexible economy ticket….  You can use this method to get discounted business class travel for any destination, however Australia / Asia represents a real sweet spot in award redemption tables.

Now I will start off by prefacing this by saying to be able to do this you will:

a) be flexible with your travel dates, and your routing (we routed through Seoul to get to Tokyo, although this was not a concern as we were interested in seeing a bit more of Korea)

b) book either close to your departure date, OR 10-12 months out depending on the airline.

c) be willing to put a little time into researching award flight availability and how frequent flyer programs work

Step 1: Determine where you want to go and what airlines fly there.

Step 2: Does the airline you want to fly with sell frequent flyer miles/points? If not, do they have a partner airline that does? E.g. JAL does not sell miles, but their partner American Airlines does, and you can redeem American Airlines (AAdvantage) miles for flights on JAL. At this point, also check out how many miles you would need for your particular redemption. *click here for some inspiration on where you could go and what airline / frequent flyer combo to use (link coming soon)

Step 3. Research your little heart out. Find out when your preferred airline usually releases award space (usually between 10-12 months depending on the airline) and how many seats do they usually release? When are their blackout dates? Sometimes airlines release more award space a fortnight out from departure, but this is a real gamble. Have an itinerary in mind before buying any points.

Step 4. Periodically throughout the year frequent flyer programs will offer significant discounts on buying airline miles. It is during one of these promotion periods that you should buy your miles. Normally I would never advocate buying airline miles but IF you have a specific redemption in mind it can save you a fortune. It is important to note that some frequent flyer programs require you to have enrolled prior to any promotions, so go do that RIGHT NOW. It is also important to sign up ahead of time because they will email their members advising of such promotions **Click here of a list of previous promotions (link coming soon)

Some airlines also have a cap on how many points you can buy each year, so you may have to have more than one account for your family.

Step 5. Once you have purchased your points, you can use these to redeem for flights and all that is left is to pay fees and taxes.

So by now you are probably a bit confused, so let me use the example of our holiday to show you how to put this into practice…

  • We wanted to fly from Sydney to Tokyo in mid December and return mid January.
  • I identified the airlines that fly to Tokyo (that have useful partner mileage programs for this purpose) are Qantas, JAL, ANA and Asiana via Korea.
  • Qantas, JAL and ANA were all out because I ideally needed 4 award seats on the same flight, though in a pinch the Princess could fly on one flight with her dad and I would fly with Touristo. Asiana however has started a daily A380 service to Seoul over this period so I knew it would be raining award seat availability.
  • To buy points I could use either United Mileage Plus or Avianca Life Miles. At the time Life Miles was running a promotion that allowed me to buy points at a rate of 1.37(US) cents a mile.
  • For each return ticket with Asiana I needed 80,000 miles which cost me 1,096USD.
  • When it came time to redeem the points for flights through the Life Miles site, I had to pay about 150USD per return ticket in fees and taxes, so all up it was about $1,600AU per person!

This admittedly might take a little bit for beginner point hackers to get their heads around, but feel free to ask questions in the comments section and I hope to have a video demonstrating exactly how to do this step by step in the coming weeks.  Remember if you found this helpful, hit subscribe and head over to Facebook and like us over there.

If you want someone to walk you through step by step, please hit me up at pointhacksandfamilytravel@gmail.com for a points consultation.

 

Why on Earth Do Point Hacking and Autism Friendly Travel Go Together?

Well I shall tell you why for two different reasons… but first…

Personally, I feel travelling presents so many great opportunities for kids to learn and for families to bond and create lasting memories. It doesn’t matter if that is a road trip and pitching a tent, or travelling first class around the world, all travel presents the opportunity for personal growth. Sometimes even experiences that seem rubbish at the time, turn into great opportunities to strengthen relationships (e.g. camping in a deluge as a kid one Christmas was crap, but we stuck it out together and I will always remember it….)

So when our first child together was born, I wanted to make it a priority to see as much of the world as possible as a family. So at the ripe old age of 3 months, Tiny Touristo did his first small road trip, and by 6 months he had completed his first trip to Japan. He is now 5 years old and is at his absolute best when adventuring.

Come on, how does this relate to autism though?! Well…just after Touristo turned 3 he was diagnosed with severe autism. Now my attention suddenly changed from prioritising adventures, to prioritising therapy so he can reach his fullest potential. This sort of intensity of therapies was incredibly expensive and draining. There just wasn’t money to do the fun stuff… AT ALL. This is where points and autism link up. Even if your family is at this point where all the other bills are immense, there are still ways to travel and have amazing experiences as a family. By dedicating a little bit of time and energy, there are ways to still travel even when your budget wouldn’t otherwise allow.

The second reason, and this is when a passing hobby turned into a complete obsession… Touristo was now a bit older and the financial stress had decreased to the point where by saving we could go back to taking budget conscious holidays. Now as I said, Touristo is a great traveller except now he is bigger and can reach everything. I was planning a trip to Japan and the idea of him flicking the tray table open and shut for 9.5 hours was stressing me out.

Up until this point his sister, The Princess has secured us the bassinet row so this hadn’t been an issue…but now what to do?!?!?

The answer was so simple. Of course, in a business class pod he would not be able to reach! Business class would make everything so much more easily managed as it also offers a whole lot of other autism friendly features such as faster check-in and priority security. I am a genius!!! Oh wait…that is over $4,000AU return per person….. not even close to happening!!!!! But after much research I found a way to buy points (through Avianca Life Miles) and redeem them for Asiana business class tickets to Japan. It ended up costing about the same as flexible economy but less than premium economy (I will outline the exact amounts and how to do this in a post soon).

So that’s why I am here. I think frequent flyer points can add a little extra something to ALL families. However for me, it was autism that really inspired my obsessive point hacking and I feel could bring enormous value to other families in similar situations. The reason I have smooshed this information all together is because I want to show how possible it is to adventure when autism is in the mix and ways of making it easier to accomplish whether that is point hacks to pay for adventures or practical tips to make it easier as some parts of travelling are not exactly autism friendly without making accomodations.

So I hope any readers of this page can take something useful away. If so, remember to subscribe and check me out on Facebook.

 

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