Since my accident, three years ago, I have been able to travel multiple times. This past week my family and I flew to California, which is now the farthest trip I have done. It was so much fun getting to see family and enjoy the weather but being in a wheelchair and traveling is not the best combination. There are twice as many obstacles in your way and stress added on top of that but if there is a will there is a way. And I have a whole lot of will. To make this easier to read I’m going to do sections on each main obstacle I had to overcome and the tips to overcome it. Keep in mind I was with my parents the whole time so they helped me a lot.
The obstacle of flying in an airplane-
This is my first time getting to travel by plane, post-accident so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Fortunately, I have a good friend who is very experienced in using a wheelchair and traveling. I evaluated our traveling experience and gathered up some tips.
What to expect at the security check and getting in the plane-
Security check- One perk about being in a wheelchair is that you get to skip lines. When I got to the security check they put me in the very front of the line (muahaha) and they pushed me through a gate onto a pad where they had to pat me down. They asked me if I was able to lift my arms up (which I can) and how far I can lean over. After that, they wiped this small piece of paper around my wheelchair- this is to check and make sure I didn’t have a bomb hidden (which sounds silly but I’m glad they did, they are doing their job and keeping everyone safe). After this obstacle, I was on to the next one.
When you arrive at your gate- once we arrived at our gate we checked in and asked the gate attendant to call the wheelchair assistance crew. Once we made sure everything was ready we just hung out until it was time to start boarding.
How I got in the airplane- another perk of traveling in a chair is that we were the first to board. I was in my own wheelchair until we entered the plane. While we were in the gangway, two of Delta’s employees transferred me onto something called an aisle chair. It’s a very narrow chair and extremely hard. There is nothing comfortable about it but you will only be in it for a minute. After they strap you in the aisle chair they push you to your assigned seat, and transfer you into the airplane seat. Make sure you’re comfortable before they leave, they can help adjust your hips/feet/whatever you need.
After this, you are good to go. When your plane lands you’ll be the last one to get off. They will transfer you to the aisle chair, and transfer you back to your own wheelchair.
Tips of traveling by air:
Tip #1: Call in advance. Tell them you use a wheelchair, make sure they are prepared as well.
Tip #2: Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for help. If you have trouble controlling your trunk balance, let the people transferring you know. A lot of people aren’t aware how easy it is for quadriplegics to fall over. I noticed my balance was also tested when we landed, so beware of that. Have something to brace on if need be.
Tip #3: I used the bulkhead seat. Typically, bulkhead seats have more leg room (which will help you if you have spasms). I reserve this seat for extra room when transferring and my muscle spasms (my legs kick out when contracted). It seemed to be very beneficial. Typically, the airline will assign you to a bulkhead seat automatically, along with your companion, when you inform them you will be traveling in a wheelchair.
Tip #4: Bring your seat cushion onto the plane. Be cautious about your pressure reliefs.
Tip #5: Important tip*. If you bring an air cushion (mine is a ROHO), deflate the cushion before takeoff. The air in your cushion will expand as your altitude increases. If your cushion is too hard it defeats the purpose of using one. Then when you land make sure you fill your cushion back up to its normal size.
Tip #6: If you are departing out of a major airport like LAX, make sure you give yourself plenty of time (3-4 hours depending on the time of day) to check your bags in, go through security, and get to your gate. It will take longer than you think.
Tip #7: I did not bring my power wheelchair. I’ve heard way too many horror stories about the power wheelchair getting damaged, therefore I traveled in a manual wheelchair. Ask your flight attendant if you are able to store your manual chair in a cabinet or any area where the chair will be safe. If there isn’t any room you can take the chair apart and store the wheels as carry-on. If you are using a power chair, I don’t have much advice for you. Wrap it up as much as you can make sure they are gentle with it. Take a picture of your wheelchair while you are at the gate, the day of your flight. If there is new damage done to your chair because of the flight, the picture you took will hold the airline accountable.
Extra tips for regular traveling:
Tip #8: See if there is a company, where ever you are traveling, that rents power chairs. When I went to California there was a company I rented the power chair from. I didn’t use it the whole time but it was nice to relax in and still be able to get around.
Tip #9: Renting a car. There are wheelchair accessible vans you can rent when you go out of town, but keep in mind they are a lot more expensive. My family and I rented a small SUV. The Mazda 5 was nearly perfect. It had sliding doors on the side and it gave plenty of room for transferring back-and-forth. The seat I sat in had plenty of leg room and arm rests on the side that helped me balance on turns. Also, this seat belt was easy to unbuckle.
Tip #10: Washing your hair without having the shower. Let’s face it, if you are in a wheelchair no matter where you go and no matter how accessible your room is, it is nearly impossible to take a shower. Therefore, sponge baths are the next best thing. When I’m on vacation and I need to wash my hair I use an inflatable sink on my bed. Its called a EZ- shower. I need help to use it but it’s my best option
Here’s a random picture of me and my service dog waiting to get our bags checked 🙂
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