Traveling can bring out all kinds of anxiety and things to stress about, let alone traveling with a disability or in a wheelchair. Unfortunately there aren’t that many resources out there to give you clear picture of what to expect when traveling by plane in a wheelchair. There is always lots of planning that needs to happen before your trip, and even more so when you have a disability. Sophie and I have both learned a lot over the last seven years of traveling around the world, lots of it trial and error, but this will hopefully help give you an idea of what to expect.
I’d say my biggest concern is whether or not my wheelchair will make it to my destination when I do, and in one piece. After all, my chair is my legs now. I have heard many horror stories over the years, and always come home with at least one story myself. No doubt, something will inevitably go wrong, but with the right amount of preparation we can hopefully lessen the amount of hiccups for you.
Booking Plane Tickets
When booking through a third party, such as Kayak, Expedia, or Travelocity, it can sometimes be tricky and confusing when specifying your accessibility needs. It is always best to call the airline you are flying with directly after you purchase the tickets to let them know your needs.
- If you are in a wheelchair and unable to walk at all, you will need to let the agent know that you will be needing an aisle chair to board and exit the aircraft.
- You will need to request accessible seating for a wheelchair. Sometimes this is further back in the aircraft, which I don’t like so much, so I ask to be put in the front bulkhead row, on the aisle.
- If you are requesting an aisle seat, ask if the armrest moves up. I have boarded planes where they didn’t move and I had to do a sketchy transfer to make it over.
- Depending on the length of the flight, I will request to be seated near the handicap restroom. Now this can be tricky, as sometimes the handicap restroom is in first class and sometimes it is in the very back of the aircraft. I suggest you go to www.seatguru.com to look up the model of your aircraft and see where the handicap restrooms are located before calling the airline. Sometimes I choose to be closer to the restroom on long flights over being in the front bulkhead row. It just depends on what is more important for you.
Arriving at the Airport
- If you are parking your car at an airport parking lot, make sure call ahead to ensure their shuttle service to the airport is wheelchair accessible. I have parked in a lot before that did not have accessible shuttles.
- In some airports there are shuttle services where you park at one of the airport car parks and get a shuttle to carry your luggage to the check in desk for a cost. I really recommend this if you’re travelling alone. Some airports have disability assistance which I’ve used before but you have to call ahead and request it and, certainly at London airports, they don’t always appear right away which can be frustrating. Previously, I’ve travelled with lots of luggage for several months in America and the disability assistance staff aren’t able to help with more than a few pieces of luggage.
- Another little trick that I’ve learnt recently, which is especially useful if you have an early flight and the airport is difficult or expensive to get to, you can stay over the night before and get your parking included in the cost of the hotel (Travelodge, Premier Inn and Holiday Inn should do it), the cost is usually not more than a hotel stay so works out pretty perfectly!
- Let the ticketing agent know what kind of assistance to the aircraft you will need; wheelchair, luggage assistance, etc.
- Next, let them know if you will be requiring an aisle chair to get onto the aircraft so they can call this in ahead of time.
- If you are checking a bag, I HIGHLY suggest you pack several days worth of medical supplies and an extra pair of clothes in a carry-on in case, God forbid, your luggage gets lost.
- When you are traveling with a disability you are usually allowed to check a bag for free, but only if you inform them it is ‘medical’ equipment. The agent isn’t supposed to ask you what your bag contains, but if you are questioned, just say it is ‘medical’ and it should be free. A lot of people don’t know this, but it will save you a large overage of checked bag fees. On some airlines like Easyjet you need to request this in advance.
Prior to Boarding
- Always make yourself known and check in again at the gate. Even though you specified needing an aisle chair when you purchased your tickets and when checking in they don’t always get the message at the gate.
- You will also need to ask for a ‘claim at gate’ tag (we call it this in the US) for your wheelchair to ensure your chair will be waiting for you in the jetway when you land. Otherwise, they have been known to take your chair to baggage claim, which is always a pain.
- Make sure you are waiting in the pre-board area prior to boarding because an agent will take you down early to make sure you have enough time to board. If you are late, you will have to board half-way through or after others have boarded and then everyone watches you use an aisle chair, which is always a little embarrassing.
- Once I have transferred onto the aisle chair, I take my cushion off my chair and bring it on the plane with me. You run the risk of it falling off your chair and getting lost if you don’t. My cushion is the most important part of my chair, so it is the last thing I want to get lost.
- An assistant can carry your carry-on luggage for you and will push you to your seat.
- I put down my ‘travel size’ cushion on my seat before transferring over, so I can sit on that through the flight and not worry about pressure sores. I then have the assistant put my chair cushion and bag in the overhead bin.
- When the attendants ask you if your chair comes apart or your wheels come off, my advice is to tell them, ‘NO!’ You run the risk of losing a wheel or part of your chair which isn’t worth it.
- Previously, I’ve managed to get an upgrade to business class on a long haul flight more than once. Beth is a little less shameless than me, but I figure, if you don’t ask, you don’t get! My advice is to try and speak to the head of the cabin crew once you’re on the plane, explain that a larger space is easier for you for your personal needs (you may have to get a little creative), give them a big smile, and see what happens!
During the flight
- The most important thing to remember when traveling is to stay hydrated. As someone in a wheelchair myself, this is a hard task to master. When I was traveling to Sochi, Russia for the Paralympics, our team nutritionist turned me onto these electrolyte tablets called Nuun. They help to keep you hydrated without having to use the restroom a lot…genius!
- If you are needing the restroom during a flight, the flight attendants will have to get out the aircraft aisle chair for you. This is a small chair that will fit through the aisle and into the handicap restroom. It is definitely not ideal, but will get the job done. I have been on pretty solid chairs and some pretty sketchy ones where the brakes didn’t work.
- One alternative way, if it’s suitable for you/your disability, is to use indwelling catheters and bags. When I travel long-haul I mostly do this, especially because I quite often use an indwelling catheter when skiing because it’s not always easy to get to a toilet. I take a spare catheter bag with me and when one is full I put on a new one. I make sure it is quite a large one (about 750cl to hold enough so I can keep hydrated). Another solution is to take a bottle and empty the bag into it. This is easier to dispose of. I recommend getting a bottle which is not transparent, like Lucozade, so it is not obvious what you’re doing. Some people say they just don’t drink much but on an nine hour flight to Denver I’ll certainly want a gin and tonic and a cup of tea!
- First on, last off. Just sit tight while everyone exits the aircraft. Someone will let you know when your chair has arrived in the jetway.
- You then get to do the whole dreaded aisle chair thing again. Don’t forget to look around you to make sure you have grabbed all of your belongings.
- If you need assistance to get to baggage claim, someone will help you. This is helpful if you are in an airport where you do not speak the language and have no idea where to go.
- Enjoy the queue jumping at passport control. It’s definitely one of the best perks to being in a wheelchair!
As you can see, traveling by plane in a wheelchair requires many extra steps than your average traveler. It is definitely intimidating the first few times, but in no time you will become a pro and it will become second nature to you. Just as everything else you have to learn in life with a wheelchair.
My worst experience so far was having a manual wheelchair frame bent. I didn’t notice it right away, but I kept veering to the right and when I put on my brakes I noticed something was off. So I went to the airline help desk in baggage claim and filed a claim. They were very apologetic and were very quick to refund me for the price of my chair. I did have to go to the trouble of ordering a new chair, but it worked in my favor as I needed a different chair anyways!
Unfortunately, it is inevitable your chair will get tossed around a bit, but it is worth being aware that real damage could be done. Baggage handlers don’t seem to differentiate between mobility equipment and suitcases, which can be frustrating.
All in all, airport staff and cabin crew want you to have an enjoyable trip and they are usually very helpful and considerate of people with disabilities and their needs. There are many things that may go wrong though, so there is an element of risk. Travelling with a disability is so liberating. We would both say it’s worth the risk for the fun and experiences you will get in return.
Have you had a terrible experience flying by plane? Or a really great one? We would love to hear about your plane experiences, good and bad! Comment below.