Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | July 8, 2012

An Autistic’s Adventures with (International) Travel, part 1: Preparation

As those of you who follow this blog may know, I’m about to embark on a major adventure, all in the name of science. I’ll be traveling (mostly) alone around Europe, participating in a 3-week summer course, doing a little more than a week of field work, and then exploring a little before I head back home. I’m very excited, and utterly terrified. I’ll be doing my best to document (some of) my adventures here for you, with a particular focus on how I work with and around my sensitivities, difficulties, desires for routine, and other autism-related things that are sure to come up repeatedly.

And now, my take on packing.

Whoever said “travel light” had obviously not ever met me. It’s not that I pack hundreds of suitcases, or anything, but I’m very much aware of Murphy’s Law: “If it can go wrong, it will.” I pack for all contingencies. Ay, if something *does* go wrong, I’m able to handle it. Even if I don’t use 1/3 of the stuff in my suitcase, that is OK by me, because I know I might have needed it, and if I didn’t have it, meltdowns or complete shutdowns would have occurred, neither of which is a good thing. So here goes…

Toiletries: Go ahead, bring a bottle of your favorite shampoo. If you’ll be gone more than a few days, you’ll want a sizeable amount anyway. If you’re traveling internationally, to a place where your grasp on the native language is phrase-book based at best, and, like me, you have sensitivities and allergies to many ingredients commonly found in cosmetics, don’t bother trying to pack light and buy some once you’re there. Just go ahead and bring what you know you like. And then when you come back, you can leave it there, freeing up valuable suitcase space for stuff you are bringing back. Win-Win. Same goes for toothpaste and other toiletries, such as SUNSCREEN. Don’t forget the important things that you don’t use everyday, like nail scissors (or clippers)

Clothing: Pack your comfort clothes. The last thing in the world you want is to bring clothes you’re not comfortable in – you’re going to have a lot of other variables that are messing with your brain and body. Clothes and shoes are something controllable – for me, I have a threshold-related way of functioning. I can deal with things not in my routine, if I’m not already over-stressed from some other reason. So I create a microenvironment in which I can be fully comfortable, so that when things come along that are difficult, I have the brain power to worry about them, and not the awful texture of the dress shirt I am wearing. If you think you’re going to have any chance to go to the beach or a pool or anything else like that, bring a bathing suit and goggles. Don’t forget PJ’s.

Stuff: Bring extra batteries, extra cables, extra writing implements, etc. Bring bandaids and other first-aid stuff – you never know when you might trip and cut open your hand or knee. I’m extremely clumsy, and often walk into walls/doorways, especially when I’m tired or overwhelmed or in a new place. Being able to take care of my own injuries is doubly important, because when something is bleeding (a little), the last thing on my mind is “go talk to someone to see if they can help you find a bandaid.” – usually words are the first to go in a stressful situation, so I have ways of working around it. Paper towels and tissues are another essential thing to keep on you at all times.

I’m packing for field work as well – my suitcase is full of equipment and other supplies I might need in the field. This means that it will be overweight on the way there, sadly. Luckily, most of the weight will be shipped back separately with the samples, and this is a one-way expense.

I don’t trust checked luggage. I’ve only had my luggage get lost once (happily, we were re-united 2 days later), but you never know when it’ll happen again. Make sure that every piece of luggage you check (and you carry on, for that matter) has a luggage tag on it, with information about how to reach you and where you are going. And use your second carry-on bag. I bring 2 bags carry-on: one is my backpack, full of my laptop, purse-like things (wallet, phone, ID, itinerary), stuffed animal(s), snacks, office supplies, electronics, and other little essentials (phrase books, local guides/maps, etc). Then I also have a second bag. If I’ve checked a rolling bag, this second bag is a duffle. Otherwise it’s a different rolling suitcase. In this second bag, I pack about a week’s (5-7 days) worth of clothes, small toiletries, and other essentials. This bag also includes any other very important things I cannot live without, such as foreign power adapters, electronics, medications, and toiletries. If my checked suitcase were to get lost, this bag would sustain me for enough time to (hopefully) find it again. This is especially relevant on international flights, where you’re switching airlines and planes multiple times, and the potential for a bag to go missing is higher. Like I said, plan for all contingencies.

I always check into my flights at the airport. I know we can now check in up to 24 hours in advance online, but I like to be physically there, where I can ask for help if something goes wrong. A couple of years ago, a cross-country flight I had bought tickets for went haywire (Continental/United merging messed up catastrophically), and when I went to check in, they couldn’t find my itinerary. Luckily, I had all of my information printed out – ticket numbers, codes, itineraries, etc. and with the help of several airport officials, we were able to sort things out and get me to where I needed to go. Thus, I always print my itinerary and ticket confirmations, even though I have full access to it on my smart phone. I’ve traveled enough that I’m able to function when something doesn’t go right, but I like to have the piece of paper with what it SHOULD be handy, so I can just hand it to the “helpful” people and have them sort it out, without me having to try to talk to them too much. Ironically, this strategy has done extremely well – people love me at airports because I don’t yell and scream and threaten them like most other passengers do when something goes catastrophically wrong. I just stand there, offer the information they ask for, and say “please” and “thank you”.

I also make sure I have at least 2 forms of ID on me at all times: my passport, and my drivers license. Obviously, I need a passport to travel internationally, but even domestically, I like to use it. I keep them in separate places, just in case one walks off, I still have the other. I also enter the country with at least $150 worth of the local currency. This way, if my ATM card doesn’t work for some reason (I’ve notified my bank, of course!) or I can’t find an ATM, I’m still able to pay for things until I can find something. There’s little more terrifying than discovering that you suddenly have no money in a country where you don’t speak the language and have no way of getting any.

I also bring snacks with me that I know I like to eat. This way, if I have trouble finding food, or have a really bad food experience, I know I won’t starve, and I’ll be able to ensure I take in at least some calories.

And so, no, I don’t pack light. I pack smart. And by doing all of the work ahead of time, I am much more comfortable and confident when I actually do head off to wherever I am going, because I know I’ve averted at least some of the potential triggers. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I know I can’t control everything. There are many things that will happen outside of my control or comfort. So instead of worrying about those things I can’t deal with, I deal with the things I can.

I’m leaving bright and early (well, dark and early – no sun when I leave) tomorrow morning, and I’m almost done packing. Should be an exciting adventure.


  1. Safe journeys, and welcome to this side of Atlantic! Look forward to reading of your adventures.

  2. Safe travels. It is interesting to see how other people pack. I usually overpack as well. I’d rather have to much than too little.

  3. Richard calls what you’ve described as “being a boy scout” aka prepared! Have a great time. Can’t wait to read all about your adventures!!

  4. Exciting, scary and exhilarating! What an adventure…Bon voyage!

  5. So exciting to hear about your adventures.I hope this inspires others with autism to try travel too.Feel free to come and share your stories on as well.
    Have fun!

  6. Neat! I, too, tend to overpack. Since this sometimes causes me other problems like physical pain, I’m learning which things I should do without, or at least not melt down if I forget (I can buy a toothbrush anywhere; not necessarily true of shampoo I can tolerate).

    I’d also caution anyone traveling in the States to double-check the rules about how much luggage you can have ahead of time– some airlines are getting pickier about number of carry-ons, etc.

    I also travel with tranquilizers, because while I’m fine on a plane, I’m generally not OK in an airport. Sedatives help me function a lot there.

    And, it was a hard lesson to learn for someone who doesn’t easily approach and speak to people, but you’d be amazed what you can get by simply asking politely whenever you need something. If you’re afraid you’ll freeze up when speaking, rehearse what you need to say first or write it down for yourself.

  7. Good luck on your travels!! I hope you have a good flight – keep us posted on your adventures.

    Thanks for sharing your packing ideas, you have some really good ideas.

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