Hauling Your Aspie Around (Different Ways To Get There)

There are so many forms of modern transportation, it can be tough to choose which is best for the sensory sensitive traveler. In this overview, I will discuss several considerations and possible pros and cons for traveling using automobiles, buses, trains, ships and airplanes. (I will explore each in detail with plenty of related travel tips in future posts.)

Driving a car or personal vehicle allows you maximum control:

  • You can stop when you wish, travel day or night, and eat anything you desire (brought with you or bought along the way) anytime you want.
  • You may listen to any music or audio book anytime– or not. Wear any hearing protection you desire and stop along the way to refresh yourself.
  • Heat or cool the car as you desire, bring pillows and scents that make you more comfortable – all sorts of variations.
  • It is by far the most environmentally flexible form of transportation.
  • And the trip can be very short or last for months depending on your budget and condition of your vehicle.

Drawbacks include:

  • A need to find comfortable lodging or camping along the way.
  • Unpredictable road conditions, traffic jams, road noise, fatigue, and aggressive or foolish drivers.
  • Unexpected breakdowns, flat tires or required auto maintenance issues may arise.
  • Even with a GPS, it’s possible to get lost.

Buses are usually too loud for me to travel in comfortably but here are a few tips that could help if buses work for you.

  • Sitting near the front is quieter when the engine is in the back and it’s quicker to get in and out of the bus – a nice bonus.
  • Sitting near the front, fewer people are in your line of sight which may reduce stress.
  • Sitting near the front also allows you to see out the front window as well as side windows which can help reduce motion sickness.
  • I find that sitting near the driver means people are less likely to break rules or misbehave nearby.

Drawbacks include:

  • Loud engines, road noise and vibration.
  • The seats usually don’t recline very far and can feel confining and uncomfortable.
  • The temperature is controlled by the driver and the speaker is usually set to maximum volume.
  • The air conditioning units typically remain running during the entire trip – nice for air circulation, poor for cold and sound sensitives.
  • The scent of current and former passengers linger.
  • Eating onboard may or may not be permitted.
  • There’s no getting away from the over-stimulation of a crying infant, loud conversations and other discomforts inherent to being in a little space with strangers.

For all those reasons, I typically avoid bus transportation but if you’re not sure, try a mini-trip on one. They can be an excellent way to budget travel.

Train in woods, Skagway, Alaska

Trains are a wonderful way travel short or long distances through a country.

  • Trains allow you to move around and don’t require confining seat belts.
  • In the USA, Amtrak offers a “Quiet Car” where conversations are limited, phones are not allowed and lighting is reduced. Check with Amtrak to learn which trains have this option.
  • Like buses, they allow you to relax instead of focus on the road, offer plenty of visibility and scenes to gaze at, and allow you to bring plenty of luggage.
  • You have the freedom to read, play computer games or zone out listening to tunes through your ear buds or headphones.
  • Most noise-canceling headphones work wonders eliminating train sounds since high quality brands (Sony and Bose) are designed to significantly reduce low frequency sounds.
  • Trains offer onboard dining options and offer opportunities to meet other travelers, if you wish.
  • Amtrak welcomes pets to travel in their carrier by your side.
  • If privacy is important to you, travel in a sleeper car. In the USA you can stay in a Roomette: 6’6” long by 3’6” wide sitting room with small table and 2 sleeping berths with private restroom. It includes onboard meals but is definitely an expensive option.

Drawbacks include:

  • The sound of the train, it’s motion and frequent stops.
  • The passing of an unexpected freight train in the opposite direction can be quite startling and there’s no way to anticipate it.
  • The dining cars may not offer specialty or allergy-free menu items (although you can bring your own food.)
  • Like all forms of public transportation, you have to give up control over your environmental comforts including being around animals you may be allergic to.
  • You may not find the seats comfortable or clean. 
  • It’s best to give up any expectations of strict adherence to a printed schedule. Train travel can be time-inefficient. If schedule accuracy and reliability are important to you, you probably want to choose another form of transportation. In my experience, trains in the western US, Greece and Italy, can be a little early or hours late depending on where you are traveling to and from.
  • Be prepared to walk or take other forms of transport (such as a cab, Uber, bus, limousine, ferry or rickshaw) when you arrive at your destination.
Front of Cruise Ship, Sun Princess, in Tauranga, New Zealand

Boats/ships vary in size, comfort, accommodations, volume and available foods. To my experience, cruise ships offer the maximum. These floating cities offer a sensitive person options to maximize their vacation/holiday budget while visiting distant lands.

  • Cruising is like enjoying a new box of chocolates: you can sample a little piece of each one knowing you can always return to your favorites later. Cruise ships offer a “taste” of each port city they visit allowing you to experience a city for a day without the potential overwhelm that comes with the logistics of a longer stay.
  • It’s liberating to see so many places without any concern about lugging luggage into a new hotel and the associated surprises.
  • If you have a sensitive tummy, you never have to search out a compatible foreign restaurant as meals are always available onboard.
  • Optional ground transportation (bus/train/cab) allows you to visit nearby attractions.
  • Most cruise ships will customize your meals catering to any dietary restrictions you may have.
  • There are plenty of places onboard to explore. Some offer a window view of the bridge so you can watch operations up-close or behind the scenes tours. Every cruise ship I’ve sailed on featured the work of various artists displayed in the stairwells and hallways for guests to enjoy.
  • Cruise ships offer a variety of amenities including pools, saunas, a library and/or game room, stores, sports, quality entertainment, and much more.
  • You have complete control of whether to participate in any activity or event and leave whenever you desire.
  • You are not required to disembark while visiting a port but if you do go ashore, you can always return to the ship and/or your stateroom anytime (before the ship leaves port of course.)
  • Cruise lines offer a variety of interesting tours at each port. They can be expensive but you are guaranteed the ship won’t leave without you.
  • Some ships also offer services specific to autistics. Celebrity Cruises loaned me several products, mostly games, for the duration of my cruise. It was great to have an opportunity to explore and play with several products marketed for autism spectrum kids.

Drawbacks include:

  • Crowded embarkation and disembarkation from noisy ports.
  • The need for ground transportation to get you to or from the port. Sometimes public transportation to the port can be limited.
  • While onboard, a required lifeboat muster drill uses VERY LOUD and shrill alarms. (Guest Services, onboard, should be able to tell you when the passenger muster drill will be, so you can prepare.
  • Many captains will blast extraordinarily loud horns when leaving port (I’ve been assaulted by those horns and it was excruciating so it’s important to be aware of this when leaving any port.)
  • While at port, the staff (not passengers) often participate in additional lifeboat drills which include those same loud alarms. Going ashore early is a great way to avoid random staff drills.
  • These large ships naturally include huge crowds, swaying on the ocean (possible motion sickness), small cabins with thin walls, and loud restaurants.
  • The evening entertainment uses amplified music seemly everywhere so keep those earplugs handy.
  • There are also occasional dining room errors, stateroom maintenance issues and, of course, social situations are everywhere!
Maho Beach, Sint Maarten, Netherland antilles, Caribbean

Airplanes vary in size, volume and comfort. Larger commercial flights  offer wonderful distractions.

  • Depending on the length of your flight, you can watch a variety of television shows or movies on your own screen or you can listen to music or surf WiFi.
  • The views from an airplane window offer amazing vistas. I’ve always been fond of how cities look like miniature movie models from high above.
  • Some airlines offer a variety of specialty meals you may pre-order or generic meals or snacks may be available onboard.

While they are invaluable for getting to distant destinations relatively quickly and safer than most of other forms of transportation, they come with a host of potential land mines for sensory sensitives.

Drawbacks include:

  • Surprises. Flights can be delayed, over booked, or canceled. Sometimes these cause missed connections.
  • Airports are places of “controlled chaos” with hundreds of people, many trying to navigate an unfamiliar system as quickly as possible.
  • Airport architecture is usually industrial and includes large, hard spaces that reverberate hundreds of sounds from every surface.
  • Typically, there are long lines at the airline counter, necessary if you are going to check luggage.
  • Expect long lines for security screening and/or customs at airports.
  • Many airports have confusing architectural designs making finding gates or baggage claim a bit of a challenge.
  • All planes are loud, shaky and dehydrating.
  • Getting up and out of your seat to use the restroom can be problematic. Air toilets make a quick, loud and unfamiliar noise in a cramped space. Some are clean, some aren’t.
  • Commercial flights are typically crowded with narrow seats. Moving around, even stretching your legs, can be difficult.
  • If you’re on a smaller commercial plane or short-haul flight, you’ll find limited carry-on capacity. I was surprised when on a plane trip from Montreal to Newark, the flight attendants insisted on checking (taking away) my carry-on suitcase to be placed in the luggage hold. I didn’t adjust easily to this unexpected development.

If you are flying “Economy” you might as well prepare yourself for a tight seat, behind the engines, near a coughing, snorting, sneezing, chatty passenger with a crying infant or squirmy kid. Then there are the people whose digestive systems freely spray profuse amounts of fecal-aerosol in every direction, causing their neighbors eyes to water. This is where your invaluable sensory kit comes to the rescue. My next post will focus on sensory kits and things you don’t want to leave home without.

Bottom Line: I haven’t found any ideal transportation for a sensory sensitive traveler – this may take a little trial and error sampling to discover which works best for you.

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