Q. I love travel, and before my injury I used to travel a lot. I’m getting ready to take my first big trip since I became a T5 complete para a year and a half ago. In late November I will be flying from Los Angeles to Miami, then renting a car to spend a week in the Florida Keys. What differences should I expect traveling as a wheelchair user?
A. Sarah, I envy you — between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a magic time to visit Florida: no crowds, low-season pricing and perfect weather.
Here is a list of air travel tips I’ve picked up — in 27 years as a T10 complete paraplegic — while accruing (and spending) close to 500,000 frequent flyer miles for my jobs in freelance journalism and marketing.
I book my air, rental car and hotels online. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I use Kayak.com, which checks all other sites to find the lowest rates. During the online booking process, keep in mind that seating assignments, rental car hand controls and accessible rooms can be sorted out after booking. You should check all applicable boxes, such as “wheelchair user,” “hand controls,” and “accessible room,” but my experience has proved that follow-up phone calls are the only way to make sure this information is entered into the system the way you want it.
After online booking, allow 24 hours for reservations to get into the system, then follow-up by phone with the airline, rental car agency and hotel(s) to make adjustments and make sure your wants and needs are covered. This is also a good time to write up an itinerary with reservation numbers, phone numbers, and name of the agent(s) you spoke with — I find when I politely ask the spelling of the agent’s name at the beginning of a conversation, they take things much more seriously and my reservation processes and follow-through works much more smoothly.
When calling an airline, explain that you’re a wheelchair user, that you can’t walk and that you will need an aisle chair (a narrow chair you transfer into before entering the cabin door of the plane). As a wheelchair user, you can request a specific seat assignment (some airlines like Southwest don’t do advance seat assignments, but they do pre-board wheelchair users — and usually friends and family as well — and let you choose the seat). Requesting a seat in a row as close to the cabin door as possible means less time spent going down the narrow aisle in the chair. Bulkhead seats are usually closest to the door and have the most legroom, but they have fixed armrests and are more difficult to transfer into. For ease of transfer, I prefer to sit in a row with a movable aisle armrest — something airlines are required to have. As far as seat choice, transferring to an aisle seat is easiest; however since you board first and deplane last, this means you’re more likely to get bumped and jostled as other passengers board and deplane and as the food and drink services go by — not to mention when luggage falls from overhead compartments. If you are able, I find sliding across to a window seat makes for less jostling.
Call the rental car agency to make sure your request for hand controls is on the reservation and ask for an email confirmation of this.
Make a follow-up call to the hotel and confirm your accessible AND non-smoking room (if requested).
Forty-eight hours before departure, do a quick set of follow-up phone calls to re-confirm plane, car and room reservations. The only thing worse than finding that hand controls haven’t been installed in your rental car is being stuck in a non-accessible, smoking room in a hotel, akin to trying to sleep in a well-used ashtray.
Planning and Packing for Your Trip
If you check a bag, Murphy’s Law says it will be delayed or lost. Take a carry-on bag with all of you prescription medications and enough catheters, gloves, and other supplies for a few days.
At the bottom of your travel itinerary, include a list of all prescription medications and prescription numbers, pharmacy contact info, your doctor’s name and contact info, and medical supply company name and number (for catheters, etc.). In addition, staple to your itinerary a summary of the Air Carrier Access Act, as well as the full air carrier access act, also known as Part 382—Nondiscrimination On the Basis of Disability in Air Travel.
If you have a back-up chair, it is a good idea to make arrangements with a friend or neighbor who could facilitate overnight shipping to you at your destination if something happens to your primary chair. If it is damaged by the airline, shipping should be at their expense, of course. Although this scenario is rare, having a plan in place can help you feel more secure.
Day of Your Trip
It is a good idea to get to the airport 90 minutes in advance to allow plenty of time for check-in and going through TSA.
When checking in and getting your boarding pass, ask the person at the check-in counter to call ahead and let the gate agent know you will need an aisle chair.
Going Through Security
The upside of being a wheelchair user in terms of navigating the TSA maze is there is usually a specific (and short) line for wheelchair users. At some security checkpoints, wheelchair users are escorted to the front of the main line — and the people in our travel party generally get to go with us.
The easiest, fastest way to get through TSA screening is to be polite and direct. TSA agents will ask you if you can remove your shoes. I always answer, “It is very difficult.” I’ve never had to remove them. An agent will do a head-to-toe to-chair pat down, often stopping when they feel something, like a leg bag, and ask, “What is this?” A simple direct answer such as “That’s my leg bag, it’s what I pee into” is usually sufficient. TSA agents also use a white circular swab and run it over your shoes, hands and parts of your chair; they put this into a machine that tests for bomb residue.
An important tip when going through TSA screening: Your carry-on bags with medications, catheters and electronics (such as a laptop) will be going through the x-ray machine and sitting at the other end while you are being screened. Keep an eye on them — and if you politely ask, most TSA agents will retrieve your bags, and put them close (but out of reach) while you are being patted down.
At the Gate
Once at the gate, check in with the gate agent. Remind them you need an aisle chair, and ask for a “gate check tag” for your chair. This is a tag that tells the baggage handlers that your chair should be brought up to the Jetway (near the cabin door of the plane) when you land. If you have a connecting flight or a stop with a long layover, be sure to tell the gate agent you need your chair tagged so you have it at the connection/layover. I learned this the hard way once when my chair went directly to my final destination, leaving me the indignity of spending two hours wheeling in an old hospital-style airport chair during my connection.
Wheelchair users (and friends and family) board first (pre-board) — a bonus in these days when overhead storage fills up quickly.
On the Jetway, at the cabin door, you will transfer to an aisle chair. I find it is safer to assume people operating the aisle chair do not know what I need, and I make sure to talk with them before any transfers. Some are very capable, some are clueless — it’s hit and miss and your life is in their hands, so it is crucial to speak up.
Several things are happening at once at this point: You are transferring to the aisle chair, removing items from your chair and keeping an eye on your luggage. An important point about communication — don’t transfer into the aisle chair until everybody is ready to bring you right to your seat. Aisle chairs have minimal — if any — padding, and sitting in one for any length of time is a recipe for a pressure sore. During this time, make sure to keep an eye on your carry-on bag, and communicate that it needs to go to your seat. Don’t forget to remove your cushion, backpack and/or the pouch under your chair (that usually carries your wallet!).
Be sure to sit on your cushion during the flight to protect your skin. Since cabin pressure on commercial aircraft is 8,000 feet, if you are sitting on an air cushion, let some air out of the cushion. Don’t forget to add air when you land.
As you are getting to your seat, or when seated, talk with a flight attendant and say, “I know my chair is gate-check tagged, however, can you please make sure it gets put in the belly of the plane, and let me know when it is?” This is a good way to get to know one or two of the flight attendants — and make sure they remember you and that you need an aisle chair AND your chair when you land.
About an hour before the flight lands, press the flight attendant bell and politely remind him or her that you will need an aisle chair when the plane lands, and ask them to make sure your chair is brought up to the Jetway (on a busy flight, it is easy for them to forget).
The downside of deplaning for wheelchair users is we are always the last off — but hopefully the aisle chair is waiting when the last passenger walks off the plane.
Last, but not least, before transferring to your chair from the aisle chair, give it a once over to make sure it is in the same shape it was when you boarded. Although I’ve only noticed damage once in 800 flights, that one chair was bent and broken during flight. When it happened, I reported it to the flight crew right away and filled out a report. I was quickly and fully reimbursed for a new chair. If I hadn’t noticed until later in the day, it would have been a much more difficult situation.
If your chair is lost or not usable, the airline should provide you with another chair. How this is done is a gray area, however, and runs the gamut from offering one of the hospital style airport chairs to finding a wheelchair dealer in the area that will rent a chair that comes closer to your needs. Or if you have a backup chair already set up for your needs, they will probably pay for it to be shipped to you.
Have a great trip, Sarah! Say hi to Key West!