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Lifestyle & General Interest

Tips for Traveling With a Wheelchair


Travel can enhance your sense of well-being and lead to a better overall quality of life. The act of visiting new places and interacting with new people can help those who feel isolated engage with the world and reduce feelings of loneliness. For example, older adults who live alone can benefit from visiting family or friends.

However, people with limited mobility, such as those who are disabled or older adults confined to wheelchairs, may find the prospect of travel intimidating. Though wheelchair travelers may encounter challenges, most forms of transport can accommodate travelers with limited mobility.

Wheelchair travel can be convenient if you plan ahead, ensure you have the correct equipment, and understand the accessibility processes that airports, airlines, and bus companies use to accommodate travelers with limitations. Here is a look at what to consider when traveling with a wheelchair.

Air Travel With a Wheelchair

Airports are stressful for everyone. People with wheelchairs may be intimidated by the prospect of having to navigate the chaotic terminals, get through security checkpoints, and deal with impatient fellow travelers.

However, airports are actually among the most accommodating sites for wheelchair users. Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA/Section 504) requires airports to provide an accessible environment. Both airlines and airport authorities have trained staff on hand to help wheelchair users and others with mobility limitations get to their flights on time and without undue stress.

Even with these accommodations in place, it is important to plan ahead and ensure that everything is in order so that you can enjoy a smooth process and get the necessary help once you arrive at the terminal.

Here are four essential steps to plan for a successful and stress-free airplane trip with your wheelchair.

Call Ahead

Airport and airline staff will make accommodations for wheelchair users. However, they are better able to provide the necessary services and support if they are aware of your needs beforehand.

For example, you can call to request assistance from the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at screening checkpoints. If they are aware of your arrival, they can offer alternative screening procedures to ensure you get through the checkpoint easily.

Airlines will also have staff members to assist you when boarding the plane and seats that are easy for wheelchair users to access. Airlines can offer these services upon request, but the process is more streamlined if you call ahead.

Prepare Your Wheelchair

The airline will check and stow your wheelchair once you have boarded the plane. If possible, you can streamline the boarding and stowing process by selecting travel-friendly mobility aids.

Here are some options.

  • Use a lightweight wheelchair: Lightweight chairs are easier to stow. If the chair is the right size, attendants can roll you right to your seat without requiring you to change to a different chair. These smaller chairs are easier to stow, as well.
  • Consider a different mobility aid: If you are able, you can use a rollator or other mobility aid for boarding or to move around the plane once you are airborne.
  • Get a sling or lift: If you need assistance getting into your seat, you can use a special sling or lift with handles so that staff does not have to grab onto you directly when helping you transfer to your seat.

These steps can help streamline the process of getting on and moving around the airplane.

Organize Your Luggage

You will need to organize your luggage to ensure you have everything necessary for your time in the air. You will also need to comply with security and safety requirements for carry-on luggage and equipment.

The TSA offers a list of medical-related items that you can take with you on the plane. Medical devices are typically allowed, but you need to notify TSA agents of any implants or other equipment, such as feeding tubes.

You should also ensure any liquid medication or other necessary items meet security requirements. For example, liquid medications or solutions in carry-on can’t be more than 3.4 oz (100 mL).

Arrive Early

Thanks to ADA/Section 504, airports are well-equipped to accommodate wheelchair passengers. However, you could experience delays or have to wait or ask for assistance upon occasion.

It is always best to arrive early to avoid feeling rushed or getting stressed if you need to wait for assistance. For example, staff may have multiple wheelchair passengers to assist, meaning you will have to wait your turn.

Airline staff may also be unaware of your needs, so it never hurts to ask for help. Even if they do not know how to assist themselves, airline and TSA staff can usually call someone who can help.

Passengers who use wheelchairs who are both proactive and able to advocate for themselves can have a lower-stress air travel experience.

Car Travel With a Wheelchair

If you are driving to your destination, you will have to contend with a different set of challenges.

Cars can typically accommodate a foldable, lightweight wheelchair in the trunk. However, if you require any more assistance, you will need a specialized setup that can help you access the vehicle, transport your chair, and travel by road comfortably.

Here are important factors to consider when traveling by car:

  • Use ramps to ensure easy access: Car or van ramps can allow you to get into the vehicle yourself, which can allow more independence and flexibility when on the road.
  • Plan to transport the wheelchair: Lifts and carriers can help you transport your chair without having to worry about folding it or removing pieces.
  • Ensure accessibility: You can also bring portable ramps to help you get into places that might not be ADA-compliant. For example, while major hotels are wheelchair accessible, smaller ones or vacation rentals may not be. A portable ramp could help you get inside.
  • Take parts and tools: With the right equipment, you can make repairs yourself instead of having to find a repair service.

With this basic equipment, you can enjoy the flexibility and freedom of the open road without feeling limited by your wheelchair.

Bus Travel With a Wheelchair

Bus travel can be convenient for wheelchair travelers. These large vehicles can usually accommodate wheelchairs and someone else takes care of the driving, so you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

If you take group tours, which often travel by bus, you do not have to play the itinerary or handle the logistics of where to stay and eat.

There are a few things to consider when traveling by bus.

  • Call ahead: Charter bus services, which most group tours use, must accommodate wheelchair passengers if given 48-hours notice. Most can anyway, but you should always make sure. If there are multiple wheelchairs, the bus may not have enough space to accommodate all of them.
  • Check itinerary: You should always double-check the itinerary to ensure the places visited on the tour are wheelchair accessible.
  • Carry extra equipment if needed: If you need extra equipment, such as batteries for an electric wheelchair, you should always bring them yourself.

With proper planning and the ability to ask for help and information when needed, wheelchair travel by car, plane, or bus can be convenient and stress-free.

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