Aside from a handful of flights and a couple of road trips from Washington down to Southern California to see family when I was growing up, the only independent travel experience I had prior to my injury in 2004 was a rather monotonous tour through the cornfields of Iowa with my college girlfriend one summer. In a way, that lack of prior experience has served me well, because it’s allowed me to take my extensive travels as a C3-4 quad at face value.
Over the last five years, I’ve accumulated roughly 10,000 miles on road trips in vehicles of all kinds. Just in the last 12 months alone, I’ve managed to ride trains up and down sections of both coasts and had nearly a dozen flights in and out of airports all over the country. As you might expect, those travels have come with varying degrees of struggle and success. Let’s compare and contrast each mode of travel.
Planes: Feast or Famine in the Not-so-Friendly Skies
There is no way to overstate the tremendous upside of air travel. We live in an age where, every single day, people are able to get from one side of the country to the next in four or five hours, giving them a chance to expand their world as well as their perspective. Unfortunately for us, traveling by air with a wheelchair is made exceptionally difficult due to the industry’s current problematic protocol.
Many of us already have a personal story of an airline mishandling our equipment or have heard something similar from a friend. It all starts with putting your chair under the plane where it’s often not a question of if your chair will be broken, but when — and how badly. Add to that the damage that can be caused by the cumbersome transfers in and out of the clipboard-on-wheels they call an aisle chair, and you’re looking at a potentially troublesome start to your vacation.
“It is what it is, you just have to build a process around it,” says Todd Stabelfeldt, a C4 quad from Port Orchard, Washington. The database manager and owner of C4 Solutions travels extensively for his business and approaches his preflight preparation as only a computer programmer could — with a systematic routine that tries to eliminate as many unnecessary variables as possible.
Well before he leaves, Stabelfeldt notifies his local wheelchair rep and touches base with the mobility vendors, hospitals and rehab centers at his destination in case things go badly. On the day of, he makes sure to have face-to-face conversations with anyone who will have contact with his chair and even leaves a walkie-talkie attached for constant updates. “It’s all about establishing relationships,” he says.
Having good communication skills and a well-thought-out system makes all the difference. That, and avoiding certain airlines. I made the mistake of choosing United Airlines for my first flight and wound up spending 11 of my 14 days on the East Coast without my chair at all. Stabelfeldt says he’s had the most luck with Southwest, and I can say that my experiences with Alaska Airlines have been remarkably better than that first trip.
In a time crunch or for short trips, you really can’t beat the range and expediency of air travel. Once you develop a system and learn to navigate current airline protocol, flying gets easier. If time isn’t an issue, there are plenty of other ways to get from point A to point B without having to be separated from your wheelchair and expose yourself to unnecessary risks.
Pro Tip: To make transferring onto the plane easier, check out the Comfort Carrier from Broadened Horizons. It is a heavy-duty vinyl, Hoyer-like sling with sturdy handles strategically placed for a more comfortable team transfer.
Trains: Relaxing Travel in Close Quarters
I took the train home from Portland last year and was instantly hooked. Between the smooth ride and watching large swaths of the countryside zip past your window, it’s easy to lose track of time.
“It’s a very relaxing mode of travel,” says Billy Price, a C5-6 quad from a three-story fall in 1996. An avid traveler who had already tackled numerous flights and road trips, Price got the idea for an extended train trip in 2013 from the Steve Goodman song, “City of New Orleans,” about the train of the same name that travels from Chicago to New Orleans.
What Price noticed first was the stark contrast between the check-in protocol at the train station and what he was used to at the airport. “It’s so refreshing to be able to show up and not have the incredible scrutiny you have to go through when you are flying,” says the co-founder and namesake of his adaptive shoe company, Billy Footwear. There aren’t endless lines with scans and TSA pat-downs digging through your stuff.
The boarding process itself is simple. Many cars have collapsible lifts built into the railcar doors. The cars, however, are only accessible enough to get you into your designated area, so you don’t quite get the same freedom to roam between cars like nondisabled travelers do. While the wheelchair spots in passenger cars feature more than ample space to wheel around and stretch out, the accessible sleeper cars are pretty tight. “It was fun, but it was definitely … a cozy ride,” he says.
Prior to his ride on the City of New Orleans, Price ambitiously chose the two-day Empire Builder leg that travels from Seattle to Chicago over a 48-hour period for his test ride. The accessible sleeper room had barely enough room for his wheelchair between the two convertible seats and the toilet, which was separated by a thin curtain. The toilet itself was inaccessible for anyone who needs assistance with their bowel program, says Price, who made do by wedging his commode next to his seat. Being confined to such a tight space began to wear on the travelers over time. “Twenty-four hours was awesome,” he says, “but by the time 48 came around, we were ready to get off the train.”
Another perk of riding the rails are the discounted rates they have available. Not only do wheelchair users get discounted accessibility fares, Amtrak offers cheaper companion fares as well. They also give AAA discounts, which come in handy if you are traveling with a couple of people and one of them happens to be a member.
Traveling by train is an infinitely more laid-back way of getting around and a more tranquil and passive way of exploring the countryside. But if you really want to maximize your sightseeing experience, your best bet is to do it on the road.
Pro Tip: For real history buffs looking for a unique way to explore, check out the “Trails & Rails” program, a partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Services that incorporates park guides on the trains themselves. It’s a great way to experience historic landmarks from the comfort of your seat.
Automobiles: Freedom and Flexibility Over the Long Haul
There is no method of travel that gives you as much freedom to explore every nook and cranny of our diverse landscape as the good old open road. Unlike air and rail travel, road trips give you the freedom to choose your route as you go. You’re not tethered to cities with train stations and airports. “It’s nice to not have to rely on public transportation or spend a ton on a rental van,” says Scott Martin, a C3-4 quad I met in Ojai on one of my trips up Route 101 from Southern California.
With most of my trips, I hit the road without a hard itinerary, just a handful of destinations and a general timeline, sometimes booking hotels on my way to the next destination. The obvious downside is that you might have to settle for less than ideal accommodations. Roll-in-showers aren’t always available, which is why Martin brings a shower chair as well as a sliding transfer bench.
Martin’s injury in 1986 didn’t keep him from chasing his dream of racing professionally all over the Southwest as the navigator in a Class 1 Unlimited off-road rally car, like the ones you’ll see in the Baja 1000. His career in racing led him on many trips in vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and he was kind enough to give me a breakdown of each.
Minivans: While not quite a VW bus, your adaptive van can substitute for the ultimate road mobile. But for long trips, tight spaces are not your friend, and it’s easy to get weary after a while. Maximizing space by adding a roof rack or cargo carrier from Yakima or Thule gives you just a little more breathing room.
Motorhomes/RVs: Motorhomes give you the ability to bypass hotels and simply sleep wherever you park, but adaptive ones can be difficult to find, costly to rent and are significantly more expensive to buy. Because of their size, you’ll still need another way of getting around.
Party buses/shuttles: These are by far Martin’s favorite because they are the best of both worlds — mobile enough to get around town, yet spacious enough to bring plenty of extra equipment. You can often find them fairly cheap with relatively low miles on sites like eBay.
Probably the biggest downside overall are the long hours spent getting from one place to the next. Throw into the mix frequent bathroom breaks, stops for gas, and a little morning or afternoon traffic, and you have a recipe for declining morale for all involved. Most times I’ve found that moods lift upon arrival at your final destinations. A great view helps, too. And coffee.
Pro Tip: A cell phone loaded with the right apps can make road tripping infinitely more enjoyable and easier. Try Waze to maximize the efficiency of your routes and avoid slowdowns, and make sure to load up with good music and lots of podcasts to pass the time.
The Bottom Line: Explore. Stretch Your Comfort Zones.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect form of transportation, but that’s part of the fun. There are downsides that come with all modes of travel for wheelchair users, but you shouldn’t let that keep you from experiencing the rich and beautiful world we live in. With a fair amount of planning, patience and persistence, you will create memories to look back on for years to come.
• Accessible Air Travel: A Guide for People with Disabilities, www.unitedspinal.org/pdf/2015-accessible-air-travel-brochure.pdf
• Taming Our Fear of Flying, www.newmobility.com/2014/04/taming-fear-flying
• Comfort Carrier from Broadened Horizons, www.broadenedhorizons.com/comfort-carrier
• Everyday Advocacy: The Real Fear of Flying, www.newmobility.com/2017/06/real-fear-flying/
• Making Reservations for Passengers with Disabilities; www.amtrak.com/making-reservations-for-passengers-with-a-disability
• Discounts for Passengers with Disabilities and Companions; www.amtrak.com/passengers-with-disabilities-discounts
• Trails and Rails, www.nps.gov/subjects/amtraktrailsandrails/index.htm