Two of the best things to remember when traveling are preparation and communication. This is never more true than when you fly. When you are in a wheelchair, the airline will want to put you on the plane first, either using an aisle chair if you are able to transfer, or by having your aide carry you on to the plane. This allows you to get settled before any other passengers board. I call ahead to let the airline know I am coming, and to let them know that I will need an aisle chair. Your chair goes underneath the plane, and if all goes according to plan, it will be waiting for you at your destination.
Although you are the first to board, you will be the last to deplane. Keep this in mind when dealing with connections. Make sure and give yourself time to wait for the ever elusive aisle chair, make your transfers, use the restroom, and make it to your next gate early so they can load you first. I like to have a 2-hour layover if possible. This allows me plenty of time to do what I need to do in between flights without feeling rushed or worried I will miss my flight.
Here are some quick tips when flying with a wheelchair:
- Be in touch with the airline's accessibility department. I always travel with United if possible. I have had great success and satisfaction with them, and I have their disability services department number saved in my phone contacts. I always deal with them directly when I fly, and we love their rewards program through their credit card.
- Be prepared for a full pat-down when going through airport security. They will offer you a private screening if this is embarrassing for you. They will also test your chair as well as thoroughly inspect it, including any bags attached to you chair. I have had instances where this was a very quick process, and other times where I had to remove my shoes, lean from side to side so they could check my cushion, and sit patiently as they scrutinized every nut and bolt on my chair, including crawling underneath it. I actually appreciate the attention to detail when dealing with safety and security, so this has never bothered me,
- Research the airports you will be using. Some smaller airports will require you to use elevators in strange and sometimes hidden locations in order to reach the tarmac to go up the ramp to board the plane. Larger airports may require you to go from one concourse to another that is seemingly miles away- another good reason to have plenty of time between flights. Be prepared to use tramways in some cases. Avoid the moving electric sidewalks if you are not used to them- it's an easy way to flip a manual chair, especially if you are carrying bags that will alter your center of gravity. Don't ask me how I know this.
- Communicate with the airline personnel, especially the ones helping you on and off of the plane. They are usually nervous and will do much better if you make your needs and expectations very clear. Remind everyone you see about an aisle chair, if you require one. These things tend to disappear in airports, and I am often surprised at how long I wait on a plane by myself after all of the other passengers have gone waiting for an aisle chair to appear.
- I take my cushion on to the plane with me. It's better for your backside for longer flights. It will put you higher in the seat, so watch your seat belt and the armrests to ensure they don't dig in to your legs. And make sure your seat belt is out from under your cushion before you sit on it.
- Calling ahead also allows the airline to assign you a good seat, preferably in the bulkhead row, which has more legroom and more space for transferring. Just make sure the armrests go up if you will be transferring. I prefer the window seat so that people don't have to crawl over me, so I put all the armrests up and slide over to the window. Also, the bulkhead doesn't always allow for under-seat storage of your carry-on items, so make sure you remove what you need before you let the flight attendant put things in the over-head compartments.
- On shorter flights, I don't use the restrooms on the planes. On longer flights, you can either use a leg bag, or ask that they leave an aisle chair on board the plane so that you can be taken to the restroom in-flight. I have only done this once, on a 9-hour flight to Maui, and it was comical at best. The restrooms are not accessible, but if you are traveling with an aide or companion, they can probably help you make it work. Look for the family bathrooms in the airports.They are very spacious and accessible.
- As far as luggage goes, this will depend on each individual person and their abilities and comfort level. I have found what bags will strap to my chair or that I can handle when traveling alone. In most instances, I have someone drop me at the airport and someone pick me up to help me with luggage. I have done this all independently, and while I made it work, it was tough. Wrestling heavy luggage onto those luggage carts and then pushing the whole mess while in a wheelchair is not on my list of fun things to do, but it is possible.
- Make sure they put a tag on your personal wheelchair and give you the gate-check tag. Be specific about how your chair is to be broken down or left as-is during storage under the plane, especially if you use a power chair. Explain any and all controls, battery switches, moveable parts, etc.
I have used buses as shuttles to get to a hotel, as well as larger buses as the primary means of travel. Again, calling ahead is key. Make sure they know you will need a bus with a lift. You would think this would be an obvious need, but don't assume anything.
Taxis are different from city to city. I am able to transfer into a regular taxi and break down my chair, but I prefer the wheel-in taxis where available. When I visit NYC to see my brother and sister, we use the WOW Taxi app to keep track of accessible taxis in the area.
Most cities have accessible public transportation of some kind, but again, do your research on the type of vehicle, accessible stops, access, parking, etc. You can never over-research accessibility, especially on a first-time visit to a city that is not familiar to you.
Most major rental car companies have a disability services department that can help you make your reservation. They can tell you what vehicle models are available with hand controls, spinner steering knobs, and other adaptive equipment. If they don't have vans with ramps, they should be able to point you in the right direction of a company that rents out other accessible vehicles, depending on your needs.
I love taking cruises. To me, it is one of the most accessible ways to vacation. I could do an entire blog post on cruises, but I won't. Bottom line- call their disability services department and make sure you get an accessible room on the ship. It will be your safety net to return to when you are in a port that is not exactly ADA compliant.
You would think that most hotels would have the accessibility thing figured out by now, but you would be surprised at how many "accessible" rooms I have booked that I had to use a rolling office chair in order to get in to the bathroom. When in doubt, ask for specific room dimensions and door widths. It sounds crazy, but sometimes it is the only way to ensure access.
Also, specifically request a shower chair, hand shower, or a roll-in shower if needed- every hotel will be different. And well before you take that first shower, make sure the shower head is either pointed where you need it, or pulled down far enough to where you can reach the hand shower portion. I can't tell you how many shower heads I have had to whack with a shampoo bottle or curling iron when I forgot to ask that it be adjusted. And don't pull too hard on the hoses of the hand showers that double as full shower heads. Those suckers are heavy and slippery, and drop from the sky like boulders.
This is in no way a complete guide to traveling in a wheelchair, but I hope it sheds some light on a sometimes scary endeavor. I love to travel, but I do try to make it easier on myself by doing the hard work ahead of time. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below, message me below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will be back next week with my first official product review, as well as an update on my last trip and my upcoming trip to the Abilities Expo in Atlanta. Exciting times ahead!