If you are a mobileWOMAN, then you have an inner desire to explore the world around you. This thirst for adventure most often requires air travel. With new airline regulations as well as the need to bring along personal supplies, medical equipment, and your ever-important wheelchair, traveling may seem like an overwhelming endeavor. Relax! We are here to provide you with some tips to help your trip run smoothly so that you have even more time for adventure!
When booking your flight, you should immediately make the airline aware of your disability and your needs. Many times, you can reserve a seat close to the front of the plane, or even in the first row-- bulkhead--which is easiest for both you and the staff who may help you on-board.
If you want, you can get assistance immediately when you arrive at the airport. They will escort you through security and to your gate. You will also have assistance getting on and off the plane, picking up your luggage and helping to get transportation.
When booking a flight, also pay close attention to the times for layovers and make certain that you have enough time for a bathroom break as well as getting to your next gate. A direct flight is always best if possible, so that you have less chance of missing the next one or losing your luggage.
You may be asked how much your chair weighs without you in it. Figure this out before heading to the airport. They ask in order to find out if they can carry it from the jetway down a flight of stairs to cargo, which saves them time...but, it can be risky. If there isn't an automatic lift to lower the chair from the jetway, say "it's very heavy" or tell them NOT to take it down the stairs. They have other options, which take more time, but will give you more peace of mind.
Service dog: If you have a service dog with you, let the airline know when you're booking the flight. Service dogs are allowed to be in the cabin with you. Legally, you should not have to provide paperwork, however it is a good idea to have certification papers and proof that the dog’s shots are up to date. Some staff are not well-informed and it is much easier to give them paperwork than to argue and possibly miss your flight.
Medical insurance: Make certain that you have health insurance coverage while you are on a trip. If you don’t have coverage, when you book your trip, be sure to talk to your airline representative about what medical insurance options they offer. Medical bills can be astronomical, so it is worth the investment to purchase this for your trip, especially for an international trip. Once on your trip, always keep on-hand your medical information, such as health insurance, list of special needs, and physicians’ contact information.
Medication: When you are going out of town, make sure to bring extra prescriptions especially, if you're traveling out of the country, on a cruise or anywhere without access to a pharmacy. The last thing you want to do is try to get a prescription while you're away. Consult your doctor about which ones you should have on hand during your time away. If you are prone to urinary tract infections, bring antibiotics that have worked well for you in the past. These should be packed in your purse or carry-on because there is a strong possibility that your luggage may be lost and they can take days (or longer!) to get it back to you. Probably, the best philosophy is to assume your luggage will be lost so put all necessities in carry on, i.e. the “what can’t you live without” bag.
If possible, pack at least a week extra in case you end up staying away longer than anticipated. Be sure to keep the pills in the original pharmacy bottle with the label still intact, in case airport security needs to check. If your medication needs to be stored in a refrigerator, be sure to keep that in mind with wherever you’ll be staying on your trip; you may need to request a refrigerator at your hotel.
Medical supplies: The same tips apply when it comes to medical supplies. A few weeks in advance, go through your daily routine and make certain that you have all the necessary supplies. If not, you may need to order more supplies, which is why figuring this out in a timely manner will allow you the opportunity to have what you needed shipped in time. Once you have everything, pack as much as you can in a carry-on. Check with your airline for allowable carry-on items and up-to-date policies.
Clothing: Oftentimes, people with disabilities have temperature-control issues. When you're traveling, this problem may be exacerbated because you are out in the elements all day and the weather may change quickly. To help prevent problems, it is best to dress in layers and make certain that your clothing is functional and comfortable. Always bring with you rain gear, a warm jacket, a hat, and any other garment or accessory that you can roll up and toss in your bag if you don't need it. For the plane, bring a warm sweater or fleece because it is usually cold on the plane and many airlines are no longer giving out blankets.
Wheelchair supplies: There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a flat tire while on vacation. This may happen to you, so be prepared by taking with you repair tools (these will not be allowed in your carry on so put in your checked baggage) and a pneumatic tire repair kit. If you’re traveling domestically and have access to a computer, you may want to print out and pack a list of any wheelchair or bike shop that may be near your travel destination. This way, if you have a wheelchair mishap while out and about, you don’t have to scramble to figure out where to get repaired. To be most proactive, you can even service your wheelchair before you go on your trip!
Before your flight departs:
Remember that you will need to keep your passport or ID, boarding pass, custom papers, etc. within reach while your in the airport, which isn't easy to do while pushing your wheelchair. You can purchase small traveling pockets that can hang around your neck, or keep a small pouch either on your lap or somewhere easy to reach. A coat pocket, purse, or even hardcover book works sometimes as well. Best solution, however, is something attached to you so you will not lose everything.
The airline will assist you through the airport if you need it. It is beneficial because you will often by-pass long lines at security. You will need to get physically patted down by a female member since you can’t go through the metal detector. You can request a private area if you prefer.
Service dog: Some airports have designated areas for you to take the dogs to go to the bathroom. To be safe, take them before you go through security and restrict their eating and drinking prior to flight. Some dogs are extremely scared and agitated during flights so talk to your trainer regarding how to properly handle the dog for flights. In addition, ask your veterinarian about a possible sedative to keep your dog calm (but not completely knocked out--you don't want to be carrying an 80 pound dog through the airport!) For larger dogs, they will give you the bulkhead seat to allow for more space. Once you land, get the dog some water and find a place for a bathroom break as soon as possible.
Wheelchairs: If you have a manual wheelchair that is collapsible or folds, you may be able to take it on board and store in the closet. If not, it will go below the plane. Make certain that every loose part is tightened and securely fastened. It is even helpful to tape over any parts that may come loose or need protected, for example the side guards. You can at least remove your cushion and sit on it during the flight. If you have an air cushion, keep checking it during the flight because the cabin pressure can cause it to over-inflate! For chairs with power rims, remove the power rims and battery and bring those on board with you. Make certain that they tag your wheelchair and give you the receipt in case anything is lost. You can also write your name and address somewhere on the frame of your wheelchair or use a return address label with tape on it, in case the tag gets ripped or lost.
When you are traveling with a power wheelchair, there are several additional elements that you need to keep in mind when booking and getting on your flight. First and foremost, make sure you know what type of batteries you have. "Wet" batteries, which are not as common anymore, have to be removed from the chair and boxed up in special containers because of the risk of acid spillage. Check with your carrier to find out if you need to box up the batteries before hand or if they will do that for you. "Dry" or gel batteries, which are common now, don't need to be removed from the chair. When you check in (which you must do at the gate even if you already did at the ticket counter), you will be asked what type of batteries you have so that your crew is notified in advance. Sometimes, although the batteries are not removed, they are unplugged during the flight. So, when you get your chair once you've arrived at your destination and the power doesn't work, check to see if the batteries are unplugged before having a panic attack!
Before your power chair leaves your sight and is taken away, double and triple check that your chair has a destination tag on it (and the CORRECT destination!) and a gate check tag; this means that they will bring your chair back up to the entrance of the plane when you've landed, so you don't have to pick it up at baggage claim. Also, make sure you've removed items from your chair you wouldn't want to have lost or damaged - your backpack, your seat cushion, and anything else. You may want to wisely remove the little rubber nob that easily comes off of the chair’s joystick, as those suckers aren't cheap to replace if they fall off. Just remember - the crew treats your chair like a piece of luggage...not always as gingerly as you would like!
Make sure you take your battery charger on the plane with you and stow it under your seat or in overhead. Just in case luggage should be lost, you do not want to get stuck for a few days without your charger. Most new chargers are fairly light and small - not like the old ones that weighed as much as you!
|Deborah Davis visits South Africa|
In the air:
While in flight, especially if you are flying alone, let the flight attendants know if you need help reaching your carry-on, which needs to be stored during take-off and landing. If you need help reclining your chair and taking out the tray to eat, they will also help you if you ask. Remember your feet may swell while flying, so you want want to use a carry-on while in-flight to prop your feet up for some elevation! Wearing compression stockings is another great idea, especially for long flights.
Bladder: For some people, bladder problems prohibit them from any travel whatsoever. But remember, there are options! Don't let your bladder keep you from getting out there, having some adventure and enjoying yourself.
Those who use intermittent catheterization have a few options. One is to restrict your fluid intake for a couple hours prior to the flight and, if the flight isn’t too long, wait until you land and get to a restroom to catheterize again. Keep in mind that you are the first one on board and the last one to get off the plane. This can be risky because you can end up dehydrated and should really drink a lot of fluid while flying. But you know your body best, so if you can handle not drinking a lot on board, then this may be the easiest route to take.
Another option that is definitely not for the timid is to use Velcro or a zipper in the crotch of your pants and discreetly cath in your seat. You can get a steward or stewardess to help with getting neighbors to move and block the view for privacy. Blankets come in handy.
For long flights, you can also use an indwelling catheter while flying and then remove it once you are at your hotel. This is a great option because you can drink as much as you want and it is easy to empty at your seat, if necessary. For areas with very few accessible bathrooms such as Europe, some even put one every day while sightseeing and then remove that once in the hotel. Using an indwelling catheter makes things much easier, but can also cause bladder infections, so carefully weigh your options.
When it comes to bathroom issues, it is imperative to plan ahead. Discuss with your physician/urologist and see which options are best for you.
Some longer/international flights have on-board wheelchairs and bigger airplane bathrooms that fit this wheelchair so that you may use the restroom while in flight. Check with your airline before the day you fly to see if you have this option.
Wheelchair-users always de-plane last. It usually takes them a while to get your chair up to the jetway - and, it's easier to maneuver around without hoards of anxious travellers and their luggage. BE PATIENT! You may get lucky and only wait a few minutes or have to wait for 15 minutes. But once you do get in your chair, thoroughly check your chair for damage. You might be in a hurry, but you need to take the time to make sure there aren't any new scrapes, nicks, gashes, dents, bent axles, broken spokes, missing pieces, or popped tires. If you find damage, however big or small, you need to go to customer service in baggage claim and fill out a damage claim form. Airlines are accommodating when it comes to paying for damage done to wheelchairs, but you need to take care of this right away if this happens to you. You may choose to photograph the damage while at the airport, as well.
The airline is available to help you in any way that you need to navigate through the airport and get to your baggage. Once again, it can be beneficial to use their assistance because they know where elevators are and can get you through customs quickly, if necessary. There are also guys porters(?) to help you take your bags outside. You will need tip money handy to pay them.
Once you are outside, keep in mind that if you are traveling by taxi, your chair will be folded and stuffed in a vehicle. You may have to guide either the taxi driver or whomever is with you so that everything is stowed away properly and safely. Depending on your travel destination, you may be able to request a mini-van or SUV taxi in order to optimize space or even a wheelchair accessible van with a lift and tie-downs so that you can stay in your chair. Make certain that you are secured properly before they start driving.
Depending on your destination and accommodations, finding a wheelchair-accessible room may or may not be easy. Choosing an American chain such as Marriott, Hilton or Westin will help to ensure that your room will be within the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. Sometimes, however, you may be traveling abroad or to a location where there are more boutique hotels than anything else. If this is the case, then you need to call up each hotel, explain to them your individual needs, a choose a hotel based on the information they provide for you. You may need to tell them the width of your chair and have them check the width of their bathroom doors. Be sure to ask whether or not there is space in the bathroom for your wheelchair to fit and, at the same time, close that bathroom door. You may want to inquire about sink height, as well. Having your room on the first floor might also be an option you want to choose so that, in case of a fire drill or real emergency, you can evacuate without having to be carried down flights of stairs.
Do you feel prepared for your next trip yet? Zip up your suitcase, put your seat in its upright position, buckle up, and have a safe and memorable trip!
Do you have travel tips that you’d like to share with mobileWOMEN? Post a comment directly under this article! We’d love to hear what works for you!