We asked some of our favorite travelers who use wheelchairs for advice on the travel products they use to make their trips go as smoothly as possible so the focus can be on their adventures, not their gear. From luggage to power assist devices to shower equipment, here are their answers:
What Type of Luggage Works Best?
“Any good quality luggage will work, as I have learned the airlines can destroy any of it,” quips Michael Collins, who writes Everyday Advocacy and Motorvation for New Mobility. “I have come to like the type with four swivel wheels that can be rolled upright, in any direction.” If Collins, a C5 quad from Redmond, Washington, has more than one bag he’ll strap or bungee cord them together. “And since I usually travel with my shower chair, my attendant or an airport employee can handle one or the other.”
Some of our other travelers do have favorite brands. “I recently got Eagle Creek’s Tarmac AWD Carry-On bag and it’s fantastic,” says Cory Lee of the travel blog, Curb Free with Cory Lee. “With the AWD wheels, I can roll it beside me if I need to. I drive my powered wheelchair with my right hand and pull the suitcase with my left. The suitcase is also lightweight, which helps.”
“My husband and I purchased Rimowa spinners — a full size, a carry on, a small spinner and a sport trunk,” says experienced world traveler Carole Zoom, who lives in Haiku, Hawaii. “We use these as they roll easily and can stack, so my husband or attendant can roll four bags stacked. I also carry a portable foldable DecPac fiberglass ramp.”
Zoom, who has a form of muscular dystrophy, also uses a vent. When traveling, “I use the LTV 950 laptop vent, which hooks onto my Amigo scooter and also fits under the seat on the plane. I use the new Freedom Vent Systems rigid metal vent frame. I carry a second LTV 950 in the carry on bag to always have vent backup. I try to only travel on large aircraft not turboprops,” she says. “As long as you are using an FAA approved vent and register it before a flight the airlines can’t discriminate or influence what kind of equipment you use.” She has the most luck with Virgin America airline, which is being phased out by Alaska Airlines.
Wheelchairtraveling.com’s Ashley Lyn Olson has her airport luggage routine down. “Personally I like using a more narrow backpack that doesn’t rub on my wheelchair and that may be used for daytripping, hiking or camping. It has to be narrow so it doesn’t rub on my wheelchair, but not so long that it’s dragging,” says Olson, a para from Pleasanton, California. “That is my carry on and I put everything I actually need to survive, like medical items I might need. Then I carry a duffle bag on my lap or sometimes I’ll use a bungee cord to hook on the back of my chair for a regular rolling suitcase. I can manage all three on my own.” Her website has an article on packing tips by Erik Kondo that you can read here.
But Nick LiBassi, vice president of partner expansion for United Spinal Association and a para living in New York City, probably should win a prize for Most Efficient Use of Luggage by a Wheelchair User. “If I’m doing a show and can get away with golf shirts, I just use a gym bag and put it on my lap,” says LiBassi, who is often on the road for United Spinal. “I almost always check it because I have a briefcase and am tired of carrying everything through the airport.”
For longer or more formal trips, “I’ll also bring a garment bag, and put the strap of the gym bag around the back of my head so it doesn’t fall off my lap. On top of that I throw my duffle bag and then my brief case. If the trip is five or six days long I’ll use a cloth Travel Pro because it has four-way rollers, a retractable handle and is good quality — you see attendants and pilots use them. I pick it up, put it on my lap, have a strap around the handles, put it around my waist, and then check it in.”
He also always has a backpack with some catheters in it. “I used to carry a day’s worth of medical supplies in case my luggage gets lost,” he says. “Now I just take a bunch of catheters so they’re with me.”
In addition to luggage you can buy in a store, there is now luggage designed for wheelchair users, says Lee. “It’s called Phoenix Instinct and it’s a suitcase made to attach onto a wheelchair.” Check it out in this video:
You’ll Want a Backpack or Day Bag
Once the plane lands and you are checked into your hotel, you’ll want a day bag to carry everything you need on your excursions.
“I like the backpacks we made for our New Beginning program,” says LiBassi. “They’re good quality, good size and have rings on all the zippers that you can grab or pull without taking the backpack off, and I had it made so it fits on the back of a chair.” These United Spinal backpacks, designed by LiBassi, are filled with SCI/D info and given out free to people with new injuries at rehabs all across America, but they can also be purchased empty from United Spinal for $19.95.
In addition to the United Spinal backpack, New Mobility’s Senior Correspondent Bob Vogel uses the smaller of the two wheelchair backpacks by TiLite for his carry on, “but if I am traveling out of the country I will travel with both of them,” say Vogel, a para from Loomis, California. If you don’t want to carry a backpack with you the whole time, Vogel suggests getting a regular day pack and tightening up the straps. “Places like Big 5 Sporting Goods are great places to look,” he says. “Also look at REI, Sierra Trading Post, or you could get something like the Advantage Sports Pack Bag from Sportaid.”
In addition to backpacks, Zoom uses a Skip & Hop stroller bag as her purse when out and about on a trip, “and when traveling internationally or in a big city I keep my passport, cash and one credit card in a pouch under my coat next to my chest,” she says. “Everything in the purse is exposed and so I don’t put anything in it worth stealing.”
Is Manual or Power (or Power Assist) Best for Traveling?
“I always take my power chair with me when traveling,” says Lee. “I know it’s a big risk, but when I’m at a destination I want to be as comfortable as possible.” His chair has taken a beating a few times, but so far has always been operational. “To avoid my chair getting damaged during flight, I put as many parts of it that I can in a carry-on bag. This usually includes the joystick, armrests, footrest and headrest. The less chance of something getting broken or lost, the better,” he says.
Similarly, Zoom also takes her everyday scooter on trips. “I have emergency repair parts ready to ship to wherever I’m traveling,” she says. “I take the scooter planeside, and have it brought to the plane on landing. This works in the United States, but is not reliable overseas.
Yet, other power chair users won’t take that risk.
“With the terrible track record of airlines damaging wheelchairs, I would sooner have my brain pulled out through my nose with a crochet needle than travel with my power chair,” says Heidi Johnson-Wright, who has rheumatoid arthritis and writes travel articles for New Mobility, along with her husband, Steve. And even her manual chair is damaged by the airlines on occasion.
“We once arrived in Mexico City on Christmas Day with my chair damaged. I’d never been to the city before, had no idea who could fix it, plus everything was closed anyway.” Fortunately the hotel’s engineering department was able to help. Once back home in Miami, it took the airline over two weeks to repair her chair.
Lilly Longshore, one of our newest travel writers, says she always brings her manual chair when she flies since it can fit in most vehicles. “This makes planning on the destination end much more flexible and affordable in terms of vehicle rental,” says Longshore, a quad from Vancouver, Washington. For her next trip to Portugal and Slovenia, she plans on outfitting her manual chair with a Firefly. “It’s a big wheel that makes my manual chair battery operated, plus it lifts the small front casters off the ground. I’ll let you know how it works out!”
And Olson, usually a manual wheelchair user, says if she’s on a road trip she likes to have two chairs. Recently the wife of a friend who died gave Olson her husband’s power chair. “And now I can do so much more and pull my boyfriend around so he’s not tired,” she says. Her boyfriend is also a wheelchair user. “Even if you have a power chair I recommend bringing a spare manual chair in case something breaks. It’s nice to have that extra security. If you’re worried about tires popping with a manual, you can get solid tires, which I do. Usually bike shops carry a tire that will work for a manual wheelchair. They’re good for repairs, too, if you get in a jam. There’s also the SmartDrive and Firefly so you can go over cobble stones easier. Power assist can also help you get up hills, which is a huge benefit.”
Also, she recommends getting a carrying case for your wheelchair, if you can. Wheelchair Caddy may be a good option. If you can’t get a carrying case, “you can add extra padding, take things apart so there is a less likely chance of them being damaged.”
Vogel is enthusiastic about add-ons like the SmartDrive, and especially loves the FreeWheel. “I always travel with a Freewheel because it makes pushing the chair easier and prevents tipping forward,” he says. For information on power assist products like the SmartDrive, read “Wheeling Beyond Limits: Add-ons for Your Chair.”
Here is the Firefly in action:
Here is the SmartDrive:
And here is the FreeWheel:
Be Sure to Take Care of Your Skin
Vogel highly recommends protecting your skin while you travel. “I always carry a mirror in my luggage so I can do skin checks every night,” he says. “And I always carry at least one ROHO Adaptor Pad and put it on the aisle chair seat before transferring. This has saved my skin on more than a few occasions.”
And don’t forget to bring a pump as one of your carry ons if you have a ROHO cushion, adds Olson. “If you’re sitting on that cushion all the time you should sit on it on the plane, too, and so you will have to adjust it while on the plane. It inflates while you’re in the air, becomes harder, so you may have to let some air out, and reinflate when you’re on the ground. Keep it on you, like your passport.”
LiBassi, like all seasoned air travelers who use wheelchairs, also removes his cushion and sits on it while flying — and under that cushion is a plea. “I go to the jetway, transfer into the aisle chair, take my cushion off, and on my seat I have a laminated placard in both English and Spanish asking the attendants to please be careful with my chair.”
You May Want to Bring Your Own Shower Chair
Once you’re at your hotel or final destination, you’ll want to comfortably use the shower and commode.
“I don’t do bathroom transfers and I want to enjoy the same quality of life on the road as I do at home, including hot showers,” says Collins. He brings an E&J shower commode wheelchair on his trips. “They are configured like a standard wheelchair, can be folded flat for traveling and set up when arriving at the hotel.” He puts the leg supports in his suitcase so they don’t get lost or damaged. If you want one, best to act quickly, says Collins. “They are being discontinued, but it is still possible to find one through some vendors.”
Lee takes Go Mobility’s shower chair with him on his travels. “I love this shower and commode chair because it folds up into its own suitcase, can be assembled with no tools in less than five minutes, and you can get all kinds of nifty accessories for it, so it’s customized to fit you. I used to always hate dragging my big, bulky standard shower chair through the airport, so this is much better and looks just like a regular piece of luggage. Also, since this is medical equipment, it flies for free. I’ll admit that I frequently stuff souvenirs inside of the suitcase with the chair if I run out of space in my regular luggage. This chair is multi-purpose.”
In addition to Go Mobility, Olson also recommends Drive’s portable shower bench, which can be found at some stores like Walgreen’s. “It’s a flat board with one small handle.You’d have to have good balance to use it,” she says. “Since it’s so flat it looks like a transfer board, but is made for the shower.”
The below video by Olympian Amy Van Dyken shows her putting together Go Mobility’s shower chair:
A Few Other Favorite Travel Products
Olson has a few favorite products she doesn’t like to travel without. “Travel with an extra ROHO cushion,” she suggests. “And I take the immune boosting essential oil DoTERRA’s OnGuard on the plane because I don’t want to get to my destination and go, oh shit, now I’m sick.” She also takes extra caths or other medical supplies in case the plane is delayed, extra tires, tools for wheelchair repair — especially Allen wrenches — compression socks and baby aspirin to avoid blood clots. “And, ooh, carry a Swiss Army knife in your checked bag — it comes in handy so much. Don’t leave home without one.” Yes, she was a Girl Scout when younger. Why do you ask?
Collins just has one suggestion: “Ear plugs for noisy, unfamiliar hotels.”
And Wright’s are similar to Olson’s: “Tape – duct and/or electrical; extra rubber bands, baggies and plastic bags, a three-ring binder containing our ‘travel document,’ including all essential flight, hotel, rental care info; locations of nearby wheelchair repair shops, drugstores, hospitals, groceries and laundromat, and so on.”
Zoom brings an electric blanket since she can’t regulate her temperature, Longshore tucks extra Depends in her backpack, “since my bladder control sucks,” and LiBassi won’t be caught without his briefcase. “I have a wheelchair pouch for my wallet, spare change, gloves, and transfer that into my briefcase before I get on the plane,” he says. “It’s the most important piece to me.”
Most importantly, says Olson, is “a positive attitude because things can and will go wrong. If something breaks, you may go to a bike shop and have a conversation with the person who works there, and it may be the thing about your trip that you remember the most.”