Traveling Tips for Someone in a Wheelchair

This post is a little different than my normal ones, but I wrote this for another website and thought I would share it here as well. Enjoy!

My husband, Kenny, and I spend a lot of time on the road. Whether it is for work or for pleasure, we have done quite a bit of traveling together. We are by no means experts, as a matter of fact, we are generally more the go-with-the flow/figure-it-out along the way type of people. So needless to say we have gotten ourselves into a few interesting situations along the way, and we thought we might offer some advice on some of the ups and downs that we have learned from.

Before I dive into it, let me give you a little background on us, so you can better understand our situation. I am 29 and Kenny is 30 years old  and we have been married since 2012. Kenny has a T11/12 complete spinal cord injury. This means he has very limited movement and sensation from about the belly button down. He is in a manual wheelchair and has been since his injury in 2006. We both grew up being very active and athletic and that did not stop after Kenny’s injury. He is very capable and independent, but we do most things together because we enjoy the same things and enjoy spending time with each other. We spend a lot of time downhill skiing in the winter and in the summer we cycle, kayak, waterski and help Kenny’s parents on their farm. Everyone’s situation is a little different and not everything that we do may work for everyone else, but now that you know a little bit about us, here are a few tips and hints that we have discovered in our travels together.

Hotels – Generally speaking most “big name” hotels (Hilton, Hampton, Holiday Inn, etc) have   adequate handicapped-accessible rooms, but these may not always be available where you are staying, or you may want to stay in a condo that has a kitchen for a longer visit. We recently went on a ski trip, on which we rented a condo that we were told was handicapped accessible. On arriving at the condo, we found our room to not only be on the second story, but to have a 23” wide door to the bathroom. There was NO WAY he could get through that! Thankfully, we got the situation straightened out, because otherwise it would have been a long week of me helping Kenny up and down the stairs and figuring out a way to get him into the bathroom. So, sometimes it is necessary to ask specific questions about the setup of the room and the bathroom situation. How wide are the doors? Is there a tub or roll in shower? Is there a shower wand? ( I can’t tell you how many times that we have booked a “handicapped accessible” room and there has been a tub and a regular shower head, which means Kenny sits in the tub and gets sprayed in the face with water) Are shower seats available? We have also been in a hotel where the handicapped entrance was around the back, and there were 5 steps to get to the reception/breakfast area. We made it work because I was there and could go check in and get us breakfast, but if you travel alone, this could have been an issue. So, bottom line, if you are concerned with the accommodation, ASK QUESTIONS!

Airports & Planes – First things first – Give yourself EXTRA TIME! It always takes someone in a wheelchair longer to get through an airport than others. This might sound offensive, but it is just the truth. No matter what, you will have to be taken aside by TSA to be patted down and swiped. Wheelchairs can not fit through the detectors so it has to be done manually and it adds an average of 15-30 minutes to your travel time. You may be asked to transfer into another chair so TSA can pat your whole chair and cushion down and swipe it for gunpowder residue. They will also ask you to take your shoes off and pat down your entire person, so be prepared.

When you get to your gate, check in with the flight attendant and let them know you need an aisle chair. Also get a special handling tag for your wheelchair because it will have to get stored below with the rest of the baggage. (Kenny always removes his cushion and brings it on the plane so that it does not get lost). You will also (hopefully) be the first person to board the plane. This means getting on the plane about 45 minutes before your departure time. So depending on how long your flight is you are probably going to want to use the bathroom right before you board (another 5 – 10 minutes). Sometimes an aisle chair is already taken care of when you check your baggage, but sometimes it is not. The first time Kenny and I flew together, I called ahead, made requests online, got drs notes about the rods in his spine, the whole nine yards, and none of it even mattered. It was still a debacle when we got to the airport and we had to request an aisle chair all over again. Getting the aisle chair with the required 2 people to assist you can  also take some time to get organized (another 15-30 minutes).

For long flights there may be an aisle chair on board so that the flight attendants can assist you to the bathroom, but make sure to check on this. Another thing to think about on longer flights is the amount of “sitting time”. I know this sounds silly because people in wheelchairs are always sitting, but being in one seat and one position for hours is not a typical day for most people. Circulation can decrease on long flights and Kenny has had his legs swell with water from lack of movement. We typically bring a pair of knee high compression socks with us to help reduce the swelling.

You will also be the last person to deboard the plane, so BE PATIENT! It can seem like it takes people FOREVER to get their luggage and items gathered and get out of the way, so just smile and watch as they all walk by. Depending on the size of the plane this can take 20-45 minutes (another reason to use the bathroom right before you board!).  So if you have a 3 hour fly time, when it’s all said and done, you will be on the plane for more like 4 to 4 ½ hours.

Depending on the airport, you may have to go up and/or down a few flights to get to your gate or baggage claim. There are obviously elevators, but if you are in more of a rush you can always use an escalator. Kenny does this by rolling in backwards and putting his back tires on one step and front tires on the next and holding onto the sides so he doesn’t roll over backwards. Sometimes this can be a little faster and it also gets some great looks from people who have never seen anyone do this!

Luggage – Luggage and maneuvering things can be a little difficult when traveling with someone in a chair. Their options for carrying things are a little more limited. For trips through the airport or with lots of walking, we usually try to pack a small backpack that Kenny can easily hang on the back of his chair. We also have a small square piece of luggage that he can easily put on his lap and still be able to see and get around. Or you can use a carabiner or strap to attach luggage to your wheelchair and pull it behind you (see above). 

If you are flying, make sure to pack your “necessities” in your carry on. By this I mean any medications, catheters, special clothing, etc. This is stuff you do not want to be without if your luggage gets misplaced or lost.

Since being married to someone in a wheelchair, I have become the master at packing as many things into a vehicle as humanly possible.  In the winter, we normally travel with a mono-ski, a wheelchair (with two sets of tires), my snowboard & gear, a couple bags of luggage, a dog and a dog bed, crate, and food. It can get a little interesting trying to fit everything that “needs to stay dry” inside the cab of our truck, while making sure nothing in the bed goes flying out! Get a little creative and always have bungee cords on hand!

Traveling with a Mono-Ski – We travel a lot by car with the mono-ski and the easiest we have found is putting it in the back of the truck. We lay it flat and pile other stuff on top of it. But depending on the vehicle you have it might be a sort of jigsaw puzzle to make everything work.

Flying with the mono-ski was a new and interesting experience for us this winter. To make it easier to maneuver, Kenny adapted a skateboard. He bought some bigger tires for it and cut out the “corners” so it could turn easier, and attached a ski binding to the top so his mono-ski could clip onto it. They also sell mountain boards online for about $100-150 that work pretty good for this purpose as well. He then strapped it down so that it couldn’t come out during flight. We also put his helmet, goggles, boots, and outriggers in the bucket and strapped everything in tight.  It is still a little awkward to move around, but it is better than carrying it.

Depending on the airport and the airline your mono-ski might count as “medical equipment” and fly for free, or it might cost you extra because it is overweight and oversized. We have had both happen to us, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which one. Just be nice and see what happens.

Snacks and Hydration – Some people can go all day and not eat snacks or have water, but we are NOT those people. We always travel with granola bars, a water bottle, and usually some type of chocolate. Like I’ve said numerous times, things can go wrong or take a little longer than expected, so it is always nice to have a little snack or a sip of water to get you through that extra time. Usually when we start getting frustrated with each other when we are traveling it’s because we are hungry and starting to get grumpy! So eat a snickers, or whatever your snack of choice is to help you remain calm and happy.

Be Adaptable – Last but not least, be willing to adapt. For most people in wheelchairs, this is a no brainer, because you are so used to adapting to things in your everyday life, but keep this in mind while traveling. Most people you deal with in airports or hotels are more than willing to help you, but sometimes they just don’t understand what you need. Just the other day we went to a ski lodge and the person at the information desk didn’t know if they had an elevator to the cafeteria, but she quickly went and found out for us. We have found that being patient and saying please and thank you usually gets you a lot further than yelling and getting angry. We’ve had numerous people help us out in airports because they saw that we were struggling to get all of our luggage and ski equipment from Point A to Point B. So when people offer to help us, sometimes we decline because we have it under control, but when we are struggling we accept and say thank you because having an extra set of hands, or legs for that matter, makes things a whole lot easier!

I hope you learned a few things or at least laughed at our stories and I would love to hear any one else’s tips or suggestions!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s