Sometimes my husband and I get asked “What is it like to travel when you are in a wheelchair?” or “What is it like to travel with someone in a wheelchair?” While in some ways, it can be a challenge, it probably isn’t as bad as you might think once you get your routine down. We have learned a lot from experience and these are my top tips for making your journey a smooth one!
My husband often comments that the biggest thing he misses about not being in the chair is the ability to be spontaneous – to throw some clothes in a suitcase and head off on a road trip or on a last-minute vacation. When you have a disability, spontaneity kind of has to go out the window; hence my Travel Tip #1: Plan Ahead. You really need to have a packing list that includes all of your important personal items, medical supplies and medications. Make sure that you have more than enough supplies for the entire trip as you never know what might happen while you are away (maybe your flight home will get delayed, maybe you’ll develop an infection and need more supplies, etc.). Refer to your packing list every single time you go away to make sure you haven’t missed anything important.
My Travel Tip #2 is: Bring Tools. Most people don’t have to worry about their ability to walk becoming compromised, but when you travel on wheels it is a real possibility that something could happen to your chair that would render you immobile. This isn’t as much of a big deal if you are travelling near a city that has a bike shop you can access for repairs. However, being stuck on a cruise ship or at a resort in the middle of nowhere without a functioning wheelchair would be disastrous. Consider bringing an allen key for tightening loose screws, a patch kit for your wheels in case you pop a tire, an emergency CO2 canister (make sure you pack this in your checked luggage) and the pump for your seat cushion if you use an air-inflated seat cushion. It is always a good idea to take your chair in for a tune-up before your trip to make sure your tires are fully inflated and everything is greased up and working properly.
My Travel Tip #3 is: Let the Airline Know in Advance If You Require Assistance. If you book your airline ticket on-line, you do need to call the airline ahead of time and let them know what type of assistance you require. If you cannot walk, you will need to let the airline know that a “washington” or aisle chair needs to be waiting for you at the gate so that they can help you make your way to your seat.
Travel Tip #4: Consider the Location of Your Seat. If you have the ability to select your seat, consider the location of your seat and try to choose something that will best suit your needs. There is one “accessible” bathroom on the plane and it is at the very back of the plane. If you have the ability to walk or take a few steps and you think it will make your life easier if you are closer to the bathroom, you should look at getting a seat towards the back of the plane. (As a side note, I am not sure what makes this bathroom accessible. It is still tiny, has no grab bars and I have no idea how you would be able to use it if you didn’t have the ability to walk. The airline staff will, apparently, help you to the door of the bathroom even if it requires the use of an aisle chair, but they will not help you get into the bathroom. If you can’t do that on your own, you need to travel with an attendant who can help you.) Even though sitting at the back might be easier for bathroom access, consider that being at the back of the plane will mean a long journey from the gate to your seat. If you have to be moved using an aisle chair, the farther back you go, the greater the likelihood that you will bang your legs on the other chairs as you go by and the longer it will take you to get on and off (making your way down the aisle in an aisle chair is a slow process). Preferably, ask for a seat in a row where the first arm rest goes up so that you can transfer straight on to a seat instead of having to be lifted over the arm rest. Also consider whether you want to be in the seat by the window or on the aisle. My husband prefers being by the window even though it is harder to get over to that seat initially. He feels like he has more privacy there and when people in the other seats need to get up, he doesn’t feel like he is in their way. Getting into and out of an aisle seat is definitely easier but if you can’t walk or stand up, consider that the people sitting on the other side of you are going to have to step over you every time they get up to go to the washroom. If they are relatively petite and limber, this isn’t an issue. However, there have been some really awkward moments where people were straddling my husband in an attempt to get out and go to the washroom (I’m sure you can picture it).
My Travel Tip #5 is: Arrive to the Airport Early. Okay – so we are not always very good at this one… but people in wheelchairs are expected to pre-board the plane along with parents with small children and other people requiring assistance. Make sure you ask when you check in what time pre-board is and get to your gate with lots of time to spare. Pre-board is usually 15 to 30 minutes prior to the scheduled boarding time for your flight. If you miss pre-board, you will be forced to board the plane dead last and – trust me when I say this – boarding the plane first is much, much better than boarding last. When you board last, there is very little room to manoeuvre, you bump into everyone as you make your way down the aisle, people who are already seated near you are asked to move so that the staff can help you and you become a public spectacle as you get carried into your seat. It’s not cool.
My Travel Tip #6 is: Prepare Yourself For the Pat-Down! If you cannot walk or get up from your wheelchair, the metal detectors in the security screening area will do you no good. When they see you entering the security area, they will identify that they need to do a pat-down search with you and they will usually ask someone of the same gender to conduct a pat-down of you and your chair. They will ask you whether you want to be searched in a private room. If you say no, you will be asked to wheel off to the side of the security area for the pat down which involves going through a routine that has varying degrees of thoroughness (depending on the security personnel conducting the search). They will often ask you to lean forward and lift your legs up so that they can pat down the surfaces of your body and your chair. They have asked my husband to remove his belt and the bags he has attached to his chair so that they can run those things through the scanner. They usually swab the chair itself to test it for substances. If you are unable to take off your shoes because they will be too difficult to get back on, they will swab your shoes as well. The pat down can take a while, so don’t be surprised if everyone else you are travelling with is waiting for you for a few minutes after they have cleared security.
Travel Tip #7 is: Protect Your Chair. If you are travelling with your own wheelchair, make sure that it gets handled properly and make sure it comes with you on your flight! When you check in, you will need to ask for a gate tag for your wheelchair so that you can check it right at the gate and it will get stowed under the plane along with the strollers. When the plane lands, the idea is that they will bring it right back up to the gate and it will be waiting for you when you get off the plane. The ground crew often does not know how important your wheelchair is to you and the success of your trip and we have seen many wheelchairs get tossed around. Do not be afraid to tell them if it does or does not fold and if the wheels do or do not come off. Our usual instructions are: “It does NOT fold and the wheels do NOT come off!” The wheels actually do come off but every time in the past that they were taken off for the flight, it resulted in bent rims and a very expensive trip to the repair shop. Also don’t be afraid to tell them to take good care of your “legs.” My husband sometimes says this in a joking way but he is seriously trying to get them to realize that without his chair he has no way of getting around.
Travel Tip #8 is: No Short Layovers. We have booked flights with short layovers many times thinking that we could sprint from one gate to the next. Unfortunately we have been burned by this thought process more times than I care to admit. For starters, you need to consider that wheelchair users are the first to board the plane and the last to get off. You have to wait to get off your first flight until everyone else is off, and then you have to wait until the aisle chair shows up (if you need one), and then you have to wait until they have enough staff around to help you transfer on and off the aisle chair, and then you have to wait until your wheelchair is brought up to the gate, and then you have to find your way to the next gate using only the elevator routes and not the stairs, etc. It can easily take 30 minutes just to get off of the plane when you are in a wheelchair. Considering you need to be first on to your next flight, you don’t stand a chance of making any connection leaving within an hour and 30 minutes after your first flight lands. If your first flight is delayed at all, you will need even more time! Having learned this mistake the hard way, I will no longer book any connecting flights that have less than a 2 hour layover. If we need to clear customs during the layover, I will never book a flight with less than a 3 hour layover as you have to go and get your bags before you go through customs and this requires extra time.
Travel Tip #9 is: Avoid Really Long Flights. Long flights are a drag for everyone but when you are stuck in your seat for the entire duration of the flight and can’t get up to use the washroom, long flights are a whole different ball game. After trying a few flights, you will learn what your tolerance is and what the perfect flight duration is for you. We find that we can pretty easily cope with a 3-4 hour flight but anything more than that is really starting to push comfort levels. My husband, like a lot of people in wheelchairs, avoids drinking liquids prior to flying and during the flight to avoid having to use the washroom and this can lead to headaches and dehydration by the time you land. If we have to make a longer flight, we always try to break it up into 2 flights or 2 days, if possible. This gives the bum a break and reduces the likelihood of pressure sores.
My Travel Tip #10 is: Put Your Medications and Critical Supplies in Your Carry-On. We have been relatively fortunate in that our luggage usually always arrives where we do, but it has been lost twice before. The first time we were smart and had packed all of the essentials in our carry-on. The second time, we were not so smart and my husband ended up having to stop off at a local hospital to pick up a bunch of supplies to get him through the first few days of the trip. If you have liquids and gels that exceed the airline size restrictions but you use them for medical purposes, you can still take them with you in your carry-on. You do have to let them know that you have these items when you are going through security and they will need to test the substances before they clear you to take them on the plane. We have never had an issue with any of these things being confiscated.
Travel Tip #11 is: Arrange Your Transportation on the Other End Ahead of Time. If you are travelling within the U.S. or Canada, you will pretty much always be able to find an accessible cab at the airport without calling ahead first. If you are travelling outside of these two countries, however, you cannot assume that you will have easy access to transportation on the other end. It always pays to do some research on-line before you go and to pre-book something that you know will be accessible. It doesn’t hurt to send the transportation company an email the day before you leave to confirm the time that you get in and the time that they are expected to be at the airport. The good news is, if everything goes well from the airport to your hotel or resort, you can grab a card and re-book with the same company for your trip back to the airport.
Travel Tip #12 is: Pay For Someone to Help You With Your Luggage. We went through many years of struggling with our luggage because we were travelling on a student budget and it felt like such an extravagance to pay a porter to help with our luggage. I understand why we did that but, in all honesty, it was dumb. It only costs a few dollars to have a porter help with your bags and they are quick, efficient and they need the money. They will not only help you get from point A to point B but they can often direct you to the right meeting point and help load your luggage into your cab. Now that we have kids, we have no choice but to pay for help with our bags but even if you aren’t travelling with kids you should absolutely plan to use this service and have some cash handy for the porters when you get off the plane.
And Lastly, my Travel Tip # 13 is Ask For What You Need. This really applies to all things in life, but flying can be a particularly frustrating experience when the staff that is there to help you doesn’t know what to do. We have found that the training for how to assist people with disabilities really varies by airline. Sometimes you get lucky and find people who listen and who generally know how to be helpful. Other times you will get people who have absolutely no idea how to help you, who think they know how to help you and just start moving you around, or who are scared to help you because they don’t want to make a mistake or make you uncomfortable. You need to be prepared to tell people exactly what you need help with and exactly what they need to do. If you need them to hold your chair steady so you can transfer onto the aisle chair, you will have to tell them this. If they don’t do it automatically, you will have to tell them to strap you and your legs in to the aisle chair so that you don’t fall off of it or bang your legs on all of the chairs in the plane as you go down the aisle to your seat. If you need help transferring onto your seat in the aircraft, make sure you know how to do a proper two person chair lift and make sure you tell the people helping you how to do it properly. Allowing someone to lift you under the arm pits (which is what they will usually try to do) can damage nerves and leave bruises and get your trip off to a terrible start. If you’re not used to advocating for yourself, giving people this type of direction might feel uncomfortable. Just keep in mind that most people genuinely want to be helpful but they don’t know what to do unless you tell them.
For a good video of the two person chair lift, check out: http://www.proergonomics.com/en/training. (Once you get to that page, click on “Proper Moving and Lifting People Techniques” and then click on the video for “Two Person Chair Lift”.)
These are my top tips. Please let me know if you have any tips or things that have helped to make your travelling experiences easier. I would love to hear from you!