Can I travel with a wheelchair?
The short answer: yes, absolutely (if your medical team clears you for travel), but it does take a bit more planning to make your trip go as smoothly as possible.
Don’t worry, though, we’ll help you through the process with our tips below.
The sooner we get started, the sooner you can book your vacation, so let’s dive in!
Can I Travel with a Wheelchair?
If you asked “how do I travel with a wheelchair” even just two decades ago, my answer would be very different than it is today.
Before the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) passed in 1986, airlines really didn’t have to adhere to any specific rules for passengers in wheelchairs (or with any other type of ambulatory aid, really).
So, your experience with one airline could have been vastly different than that with another. In other words, the answer would have been, “it depends!”
Today, laws like ACAA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensure that wheelchair users and people with disabilities have access to facilities around them; buildings, public transport, restrooms, and much more.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 2017, about 31% of disabled persons in the US use commercial airlines for long-distance travels.
Although the figures can be improved, it’s an indication that wheelchair travelling isn’t as daunting as it used to be.
In fact, with a little planning and preparation ahead of time, you can absolutely have a seamless travel experience.
So, what exactly should you be checking off on your pre-travel “to do” list? Let’s discuss.
Things to remember before traveling
If you have a family member or friend or caretaker helping through the journey, that would be better.
However, if you’re used to doing things on your own (and your doctor clears it), you can absolutely travel with a wheelchair without help.
Either way, though, there are a few things you’ll want to do to make the trip a bit smoother. I’ve also included some helpful videos to check out.
Booking a flight
Airlines often have seats reserved for people with mobility aids (i.e., wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches).
Not all of the options they give would be comfortable for you. So, you’ve got to decide which position would work best for you.
Usually, I sit on the aisle seats in the front row of any class service. That way, you don’t get to be disturbed by other passengers moving around.
Also, I try to get a seat that doesn’t have a bulkhead. Bulkhead seats have immovable armrests which can be a hassle when trying to get settled.
If you are unable to get any of these choice seats, you can still go on your trip. You just need to inform the airline that you may need a bit of assistance moving into and out of your seat.
One of the handy tricks for a seamless flight is to always travel as light as possible, especially when you are going on long-distance travels. Only go with your essentials.
Use your destination as your guide to help you determine what those “essentials” are.
The weather, the terrain, accessibility to materials, and your familiarity with the place all play a role in packing.
Do some research before you fly to figure out what you need to take with you and what you can get upon arrival.
As for luggage itself, go with a rolling suitcase with the feature to attach to a wheelchair.
This way, you can worry less about moving your luggage around at the airport if your airline doesn’t offer curbside baggage check-in.
If you’ll be traveling with a service dog, check out the video below for some great tips:
Keep assistive devices on hand
One thing you need to always pack whenever you’re traveling anywhere – with or without a wheelchair- is an emergency kit.
Here’s my rule of thumb- if you need it to survive, pack it in your carry-on. Even if it’s medicine that you won’t take until you arrive (say, something you only take before bed), keep it on your person.
Airlines lose about 25 million bags a year, according to BBC. You don’t want your life-saving medications to be in one of them.
Along with your vital medications, also pack a “first aid kit” for your wheelchair.
Include things like connector plugs, capacitors for batteries, the user manual, and any other handy equipment to help keep your wheelchair functional.
Confirm your flight
Two days before “go time,” check in with your airline to confirm the details of your flight.
Remind them that you may be needing special assistance. This way they can make proper arrangements to get you aboard the flight on takeoff day.
If there is going to be a layover in your journey, be sure to discuss this with the airline staff. There is often minimal time during layovers. So, you need to arrange with the airline to assist you during the rush.
Frequently Asked Questions about Wheelchair Travel
Now that we’ve covered the basic “to do” list, let’s get into some frequently asked questions and more specific tips that will make your trip easier.
What is a Travel Wheelchair?
When I get questions like can I travel with a wheelchair? I sometimes reply with a question asking which type of wheelchair they use.
In truth, it doesn’t hurt to have two or more types for multiple uses. If you’re going on a trip, the best type of wheelchair to use is a travel wheelchair.
Simply put, travel wheelchairs are models that have been designed for travel purposes. They are lightweight, have smaller dimensions, lesser components, and easy to maneuver.
If you don’t have a travel wheelchair, you can always rent one just for your trip. Just make sure you check out your option before committing so you can make sure you get one that fits your needs.
The best travel wheelchairs are those that are easier to collapse, store in luggage, less prone to damage; and would save all the hassle that comes with assembling and disassembling larger models.
What to do at the Airport?
More often than not, airlines have to get wheelchair passengers on board the flight before every other passenger.
This way they can give you proper attention. Help you settle in before the rush of the final hour kicks in.
And yes, I do love the idea of pre-boarding. I naturally don’t like to be rushed, I love to take my time in doing my things. So, if that means I have to arrive at the airport a few hours before takeoff, then I’m all for it.
Once you arrive at the airport, check in with your airline to remind them that you need wheelchair assistance. All passengers boarding a flight have to go through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.
For non-ambulatory passengers, a check is performed through a pat-down by an officer of the same gender.
Honestly, the process isn’t as bad as it sounds, as the officers are well trained on how to handle disabled passengers.
Just make sure you let the officer know about any medical devices on (or in) your body. If you have specific areas that cause you great pain when touched, alert them to that as well.
What is an Aisle Chair?
An aisle chair is an important part of your journey. These are available at the airports and are used to transfer non-ambulatory passengers through the terminals and on to the plane.
It comes with wheels and straps for the body and leg. But no arms for easy movement.
When you arrive at the airport in your wheelchair, you would be transferred into the aisle chair available. If you can’t get into the aisle chair by yourself, don’t worry, the airline would provide staff to help you out.
As there are always peculiarities with every situation, if you have any special requests as regards your movement, be sure to talk it through with the staff with you. Remember, they are there for your comfort.
What do I need to know about Using the Restroom
A major worry for wheelchair travelers is how to go about using the restroom, especially on long flights. The issue here is that many of the planes used, especially for domestic flights do not have accessible restrooms.
Most domestic flights happen in single-aisle places. More often than not, these planes do not have restrooms accessible to wheelchair users.
Even for wide-body planes which have two aisles, the accessible restrooms are too tight and might be quite a hassle for wheelchair passengers.
To be best prepared, you should confirm with the airline if they make an onboard wheelchair available for ease of access.
This is one of the reasons I look out for the aisle seat. So, I’m not overthinking if I need to use the restroom.
Even when flight attendants push you to the restroom, they do not help with transferring to a toilet. This is why it’s sometimes advisable for disabled passengers to use a catheter or an incontinence product.
If you’re going on a short flight, two hours or less, you might want to empty your bladder before leaving the airport, you can use the handicap-accessible restrooms there.
How do I reduce risk of wheelchair damaging?
The most common complaint wheelchair users make about traveling is damage to their wheelchair. Reason being that wheelchairs are treated as luggage during flights.
Your mobility gear would be packed away among different luggage of different sizes and weights.
At the slightest bump, it would most likely affect the arrangement of the packages. So, the situation is mostly out of your control.
The best preventive measure you can take to protect your wheelchair from damage is to attach a detailed instruction on its handling.
In this piece, you can specify how you want each part of the wheelchair to be handled; how it tilts and how it folds or unfolds.
Before leaving your wheelchair, make sure you remove all belongings and sensitive electronics.
Also remove and secure any modifications that need more protection, like your headrest, footrests, removable wheels etc., ensure you keep them safe.
Also as a rule of thumb, take a picture of your wheelchair in its condition before it’s packed. That way, you have evidence in case of any damages.
Always inspect your wheelchair for damage immediately it’s returned to you.
To reduce the risk of damage, here’s a quick checklist of what you’ll want to do:
- Remove all detachable parts from the wheelchair.
- Disconnect the battery if you’re using a power wheelchair
- Carry a bag of handy equipment to assemble or disassemble the wheelchair. Battery connectors also belong to this category.
- Be insured with a disability specialized insurer
If there’s any damage, make sure you document it well with photographic evidence. You can then go ahead to file a compensation claim with the airline.
Dealing with Power Wheelchair Batteries
The first thing to check is if the battery type of your wheelchair is allowed aboard the plane for your airline of choice.
Most wheelchairs use the non-spillable battery types. These are generally accepted by all airlines. The battery will then be sorted based on the type of non-spillable battery it is.
Sealed Lead Acid batteries are undetached from the wheelchair. While Lithium-Ion batteries are detached and kept away safe.
How do you get around on the road?
Once you’re off the plane, you have to sort transportation from the airport to your lodging. If you’re using a power wheelchair, make sure to have the airline staff fix the batteries.
For your destination, you should make sure to arrange for transportation ahead of time. You can book a taxi with a ramp.
Most major cities have this as part of the public transportation system. To be sure, you can read a review of wheelchair users who have visited before.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Traveling, especially with flights, are all about thinking ahead. You have to pack everything you would be needing at your destination. Anything you don’t pack you would have to buy.
Your wheelchair isn’t one of those things you can just buy at a random mall. So, you get me when I say you have to get everything right before leaving your home.
Preparations for your trip should start with the airline you’re using. What I do is that on the day before the flight, I make sure to call to check if they still have my seat reserved.
Next, I ask about the flight specifications. You need to know ahead if your wheelchair’s weight and size are within specifications.
Next time you hear anyone around you ask, can I travel with a wheelchair? I’m sure you know what to reply to them now.
Never forget, traveling is more fulfilling when you have planned for it well.