Family Traveler Spotlight is the section of our publication where we profile families who love taking their children along on their travel adventures. In this edition, we meet Margalit Francus of Autistic Globetrotting, whose family has been to 80 countries and 40 states. She shares with us why families who have kids with autism can still travel the world, and even do it in comfort and style.
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Tell us about your family.
My husband and I are in our 50s. We have two grown sons: Steven who is 20, and Jeffrey who is 22. Jeffrey has autism, but he was diagnosed late at the age 14. He always had issues, sensitivities and challenges, but no one put the pieces of the puzzle together before then. Early on, we decided that part of his education would be travel. He needed to be exposed to culture, foods, music, and literature.
Where do you live when you’re not traveling?
We are based Los Angeles. My husband is originally from New York. I was born in Austria and have lived in London, Israel, Romania, and I’ve now been in LA for 20 years.
What type of work do you and your partner do?
We’re both in the medical field. I’m a dentist and my husband is a doctor.
Tell us about Autistic Globetrotting.
What makes Autistic Globetrotting unique is the amount of information that can be found under one roof. I’m a dentist by background, so writing wasn’t something I was used to. When I trailed my kids in their teens to social media, I was able to connect to other parents of kids with autism. But I was shocked to find out that very few of them were doing any traveling. When I asked why not, they complained that it was too hard because their kids were prone to having meltdowns. My feeling was that if you plan correctly, it’s not a problem. I started by giving tips to family and friends, then expanded to a website. We’ve been to over 80 countries and 40 states. How we do it, everything from how we handle eating at restaurants to which hotels we stay at, it’s all there. The website also includes 150 interviews with other families who travel.
Why do you believe in traveling the world with your children?
I believed in this even before I had kids. In my early twenties, I decided that when I had kids, I would travel and show them the world. I was raised that way and I wanted my kids to experience the same thing. As a kid I lived in Europe and would go to a different country for the weekend. It was crucial that my kids learned about different foods, geography, culture, and literature. Our younger son graduated from USC this year on a full scholarship. When he was interviewing for the college, he immediately bonded with the interviewer because the guy was from Portugal. My son’s favorite dish was Portuguese, and they talked about octopus and how they cook it in Portugal. That’s just one example of how their travels have influenced them as adults.
Luxury means different things to different people. How do you define luxury when it comes to traveling with your family?
I didn’t even define myself as a luxury traveler until I started talking with other parents. Of course as you get older and travel more, your definition of luxury changes or expands. For a family like mine, I gravitate towards hotels that have 24-hour services for housekeeping. I’ve had a necessity to change sheets in the middle of the night. I appreciate executive lounges because they help us get organized, grab drinks, and desserts. A working restaurant in the hotel is a must for us because a lot of the time my son gets tired and doesn’t want to go out. We have also found that luxury hotels in general cater a lot better to allergies and special requests. For example, some Omni hotels have whole floors that don’t use chemicals. The higher up you get in the luxury department, the more they customize and cater. For airlines, it is pretty much the same kind of thing. If we can upgrade for more leg space and wait in airport lounges, it makes a huge difference in our lives. My son doesn’t get to the point of being overwhelmed that it leads to sensory meltdown. One thing I carry now is the new credit cards with lounge access. When my son can have a quiet place away from the crowds, with Wi-Fi and snacks, he’s much happier.
What’s the best travel experience your family has ever had?
Flying Air New Zealand made a difference. Not only was the service incredible, but they actually made your bed with sheets. My kids didn’t whine for 12 hours, and we didn’t even want to get off the plane! Also, the JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong was unbelievable. They must have had someone from housekeeping right next door to our room because from the minute we called to get what we needed, it only took only two minutes. Not to mention, the hotel has three executive lounge levels. It was so great, we wanted to move in there!
What’s your favorite family-friendly luxury hotel?
One of hotels my family loves is the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. They cater to families, it’s a very special location and the hotel in general has a lot of history involved. Another one we love is the Fairmont San Francisco. The food is great, and so is the location. It’s on the top of Nob Hill, and my son loves walking down or taking the trolley.
What three items do you never travel without?
An iPhone, my Bose wireless headphones and a set of silk sheets. I have an iPhone 6 plus because it’s my entire world: my camera, my communication. I travel with two of them because I’m so paranoid that one of them will stop working! My Bose headphones help me get way from the world, when I need that. I bring my own sheets because I’m allergic to feathers and very sensitive to certain soaps. I have a set of very thin silk sheets and pillow covers that fold into a small bag. If I travel for more than a week, I’ll bring two sets.
What’s your favorite online travel resource?
I really like Travelzoo for local events. If I want something for shows or restaurants we also use Goldstar. They’re in a few major cities. I go to Kayak for general info on flights, hotels, and prices. And I always read The Points Guy so I can be on the forefront of luxury and using points. My youngest son is working now and when it comes to credit cards, he asked me for advice. I said go read The Points Guy and now he’s addicted!
What’s the worst mistake you see other parents of kids with autism making when traveling?
Hands-down, the lack of planning. People need to do research and in today’s world, it’s so easy. A lack of knowledge comes back to bite people, whether it’s not reading about safety in places, or not reading about procedures for the TSA. Now it’s a bit better, but last year you’d hear every single month about autism and the TSA. If parents knew how to plan, it would have gone off without a hitch. Another one is Disney. People don’t know how to plan their trip and do not adhere to Disney’s rules. Disney has a special pass for people with autism, but you can’t just bypass the rules. Many parents with special needs want things done their way. You can ask for accommodations, but you can’t come and say I’m the exception to the rule and you do it my way. With airlines, even when I fly alone, I check the website so I am aware of what they accept, don’t accept, and what you can and can’t do.
Which destinations have you found to be most accommodating to people with autism?
The country that struck me as most accepting of people with autism was Japan. Our son had two meltdowns in Tokyo, and strangers crossed the street and came to us and asked how they could help. He was crying over the fact that we were trying to get tickets to this animation studio. The kiosks were in Japanese and we couldn’t get the kiosk to work. Then we were told they were sold out. The people helped us get the tickets. Also in the airport, he wanted a donut and they were sold out. Someone actually went to a different terminal to get him a donut! We flew ANA and the flight attendants so watchful. When he was in bathroom, they came back to me and asked if he was ok, and asked if he needed any help.
What would you say to other families who are hesitant to travel because of their child’s autism?
I would love to see parents who have a kid with autism do more research. I have a section on my blog called Ask Margalit, plus they can reach me via social media with their questions. But please don’t ask me last-minute because I often get parents that go, “I’m flying tomorrow with my kid, how can you help?” Do your research and do it in time. Start research two months before the trip, not 24 hours beforehand.
How has traveling shaped the man Jeffrey is today?
Usually people with special needs stick to a few types of foods, but because traveling exposed Jeffrey to so many new foods, he’ll try anything. He has developed a huge love for art and museums. So he’s excited about that a lot more than his peers. He loves history and geography. He’s excited about learning new things and going to new places. He used to whine about walking anywhere, but he learned that he can walk for miles across a city. We can go across Paris in 10 miles in a day and he won’t say anything. It made him a lot more respectful and non-judgmental about other people.
What’s on your travel bucket list?
As far as international destinations go, it’s the Galapagos Islands and Iceland. As far as U.S. destinations go, it’s the Florida Keys and Oregon.
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