Do you or someone you know require mobility aids like wheelchairs, walkers or scooters in order to travel? Accessible Travel Expert David Lyons-Black shares his first-hand experience on what to know before booking your next flight, along with some helpful tips to make the journey a smooth one.
Flying is challenging under the best of circumstances, however when you must consider the journey for yourself and the safe arrival of your mobility aids, the process can be overwhelming. Here are some of my tips that can help to make the journey a worry and stress free experience:
What to know before you book your flight
Purpose and intent
Your purpose for travel will reveal different potential challenges and roads blocks. Your needs for a business trip to a large city will differ from an adventure to Central America or a sandy beach. Are you travelling for work, to visit family or hitting the beach? Possibly you are looking forward to a work hard, play hard adventure combo? Figuring all the scenarios out first will help determine your next steps and questions you need to ask.
Who is coming?
Are you travelling alone or with company? This could determine how you plan your trip and your destination (dealing with luggage, transfers, transportation, etc). If you are travelling with one or more people make sure your plans do not revolve only around your needs. Plan a balanced trip!
Pricing may vary
Travel agents have access to rates and information that may not be publicly available. Someone with experience arranging trips for people with disabilities can help you cover all your bases and will go that extra mile to help you plan the trip that works for your needs. Depending on the air carrier, pricing for your attendant and regulations around equipment may vary and whether your travel is domestic or international.
Travel with an open mind and succumb to the unexpected. No matter how much you plan ahead, something can still go wrong. With the right attitude, even the worst-case scenario can lead to the best memories.
Booking the Flight
When you book a flight, ask about their baggage policy. Can you bring extra equipment such as commodes, a manual chair or a sports chair and if so, will they charge you? Limit flight connections on your trip to minimize the possibility of your equipment or luggage being broken or lost. Fewer chair transfers lessen the physical demand on your body and energy level.
Making the connection
Some travel agencies will arrange transportation/transfers between airports and hotels. Make sure to ask if they are accessible, and if not, if other options are available. Some destinations do not have accessible vehicles readily available so it is important that you plan ahead, especially if you are travelling in a power chair.
Packing and Preparation
Medication & Supplies
Medications, including liquids, can be brought on board as long as they are in their original packaging – a physician’s note is not required. Medication and liquids need to be placed in clear plastic bags or containers that you can easily remove from your carry-on to show a security agent.
Pack enough medical supplies (catheters, feeding equipment, tubing, bed pads etc) for your entire trip plus a few days extra. If you travel regularly to a specific destination, consider sending your supplies ahead of time or even keeping a cache of supplies there for future visits.
Pack lightly and efficiently. If you are traveling with an able-bodied person, be thoughtful of what they will need to carry for you and for themselves. Recently, some airlines updated their carry-on baggage regulations, ensure you know how large a bag you are allowed to bring. Your carry-on should include enough supplies for two to three days in the event your luggage gets lost. This includes medications, medical supplies and extra clothing.
Wear clothing that you are most comfortable in and that allow you to easily adjust when you are emptying your bladder. Ease of access to your carry-on bag becomes a blessing for yourself or whoever is assisting you in a confined and public space.
Packing your chair
Remove any parts or accessories from your mobility aid that are fragile and easy to break before you leave. If you need these parts at your destination, either bring them with you in your carry-on or pack them carefully in your bags. Label everything from controls to batteries to fragile items and accessories so that whoever is stowing your mobility aid after you board the plane knows how to handle it safely and responsibly. Pack spare parts for your mobility aid that could break or be lost during your trip (i.e. tubes, extra cushion cover, a compact tire pump, tools etc.).
International flights require that you check in at least two hours before your flight. Arrive a minimum of one hour ahead of domestic flights.
Avoid self-check in and head to the counter – if you have equipment to check in they can assist you better there. Here’s a little hint – You can go to any counter (including 1st Class!) for your airline.
At check-in, the airline personnel will give you a boarding pass and tag your baggage. They will also attach a door delivery tag to your mobility aid. This tag tells the airline personnel at your destination which gate you will be arriving at.
Carry-on items must be compliant with security rules. Go to your air carrier’s website for the rules and regulations. You don’t want to have to leave something behind that you need on the flight or won’t be able to access while away.
Your mobility aid may not fit through the gate. A guard will direct you around the gate through a bypass and you will likely be patted down by security personnel. Men will only be touched by male security employees and vice versa. Help them by identifying any leg bags, tubes, straps, etc… that are attached to your body. Also let them know if patting you down may trigger spasticity or pain. Remember they have done this before, but everyone is different.
Travellers with disabilities or accessibility issues are pre-boarded ahead of the other passengers. Go to the gate early and let the ground crew know that you have arrived so they can ensure smooth boarding for everyone.
This is a good time to use roomy washroom facilities as most onboard facilities will be cramped and difficult to get to. Accessible washrooms should be close to your gate.
Stay close by the gate so that you can hear the Pre-Board announcement.
Just before boarding the aircraft, you will need to transfer to an “aisle chair” on the gangway – personnel can assist you if needed. From there your mobility aid will be stowed under the plane.
Arrival at Your Destination
While everyone de-planes, ensure you have all of your belongings. Personnel will assist you with a transfer into an “aisle chair” then along the gangway where your chair or scooter will be waiting for you. Transfer assistance can be provided. Look for porters, airport staff or customer service personnel to help get your bags to the curb.
While no journey is ever perfect, following these tips will greatly increase the chances of a pleasurable flight for you and your attendant and ensure a smooth process for the personnel involved as well.