Traveling as an able-bodied person can be frustrating and challenging at times. But traveling for wheelchair users can sometimes feel downright impossible. Even if you find some great wheelchair accessible destinations to visit, sometimes random obstacles can pop up before you even make it to your first meal in a new city. In an attempt to make life a little bit easier for us, below I’ve compiled a list of a dozen travel “hacks” that I have found in my extensive explorations that might make your life a little bit easier while rolling across the globe in your wheelchair.
1. Suitcases with spinner wheels. I honestly don’t know how anyone survived the airport before spinner suitcases were invented. For those of you who don’t know what these are, it’s just a suitcase that has four wheels on the bottom instead of two, and they all spin and roll independently. That means you can pull the suitcase by the handle at an angle or just roll it along the ground while fully upright. This way, they’re easy to pull along with you no matter what your height. If you’re traveling with a manual chair, it’s also easier to strap a spinner suitcase to the back of your chair and pull it along when it has four independently moving wheels. They are a little more expensive than the old-school two-wheeled suitcases, but not by much. I have found that there are spinner suitcases to meet pretty much every budget.
2. SeatGuru. I never book an airline ticket without checking SeatGuru.com first. This website provides travel maps for pretty much every aircraft being used by almost every airline. You input the date of your flight, the airline, and the flight number, and it will show you the seat map for plane you will be flying on. Of course, aircraft can change at the last minute, but I find this website to be pretty reliable. You can see which rows have bulkhead seating, are closest to the lavatories, and have movable armrests. You can also see what rows may have limited recline, are more subject to noise, or have extended legroom. If you’re like me, you usually want a bulkhead seat for more room, and maybe an aisle seat so you can get in and out more easily from an aisle chair or to the restroom. SeatGuru will help you pick these seats more accurately.
3. Bed Assist Strap. I will caveat this “hack” by saying that I understand everyone has different mobility needs. This is for people who have some upper body control, but perhaps limited mobility everywhere else. I don’t have much trouble getting into bed, but rolling over and getting out of bed can sometimes pose some challenges — especially in so many different beds in so many different hotel rooms. This assistive device is a nylon strap that has several built-in handles like a rope ladder. The one I use is the Stander BedCaddie. One end of the strap loops around the leg or frame of the bed and clips to attach with an adjustable length. Then you leave the ladder portion next to you while you sleep, and you can use it to pull yourself up into a sitting position or help yourself change position while in bed. I have one that I keep at home, but this one takes up so little space that I keep it in my backpack and travel with it. I haven’t had any trouble yet attaching it to the beds I’ve used abroad.
4. Spot GPS. This hack is definitely for the more adventurous travelers. And by adventurous, I mean going somewhere that you have no cell phone service. I have a really good international plan on my cell phone, but occasionally I go on road trips in the Western United States where I can go hours without access to a cell tower. The Spot GPS device is basically an emergency beacon that you can use in different ways depending on the subscription you have. You can use it to summon an ambulance or emergency rescue, send regular pings to friends and family who can track your movements online, or send pre-written text messages at the touch of a button to let friends and family know that you’re safe. They’re not cheap; while they’re currently having a 50% off sale, the devices retail for $150, and the annual monitoring plans run at $199 or $20 a month. However, this is basically a really great life insurance policy if you’re going to be in a remote area without someone who does have local cell service.
5. Ultralight travel ramp. I first heard of the Dunslope Lite ramp on a Facebook group page, and I was pretty crushed when I saw that it was only for sale in the United Kingdom. However, it seems to have modified its name for distribution to the United States, and can now be found under the EZ Access brand. The ramp is made of carbon fiber, which makes it very strong – capable of supporting 600 pounds – and extremely light. The shortest version comes in at under 8 pounds! You can also get a carry bag for it so you can hook it onto the back of your wheelchair. It’s really ideal for international travel to help you get up that curb when there are no drops, or into that store or restaurant that just has one step to enter. painful downside is that it’s expensive; it usually retails for about $480. But if you travel a lot to places without much flat entry (like I do), it could be a real lifesaver and a great investment.
6. Google Maps. Having the Google Maps app on your cell phone is probably a no-brainer. However, did you know that Google Maps now has a crowdsourced feature that allows you to see if an establishment has a wheelchair accessible entrance? It’s definitely not a be-all end-all solution; it often says nothing about the accessibility of bathrooms (although that’s improving), and there is more information about accessibility in the United States than abroad. However, it may save you a phone call, and at least it bodes well for accessibility elsewhere in the establishment. To find it, look up a local restaurant that you suspect is accessible. Scroll up the bottom tab to see the features, then look at the second line of text, right below the description, It should have some features (happy hour, food, etc.) with an arrow pointing right to indicate more information. Click on that line and you’ll get a screen with highlights, offerings, and accessibility (if there is any).
7. Google Translate. If you are in a foreign country with access to data services, this app is invaluable. Before I go anywhere, I always learn how to say at least hello and thank you. But there are some countries in some situations where English isn’t an option and even hand gestures are helpful. Having a translation app can also literally be a lifesaver if you’re having a medical emergency and the people around you need to understand. You can preselect the language of the country that you’re traveling to so it’s ready and available, and in some cases it will even give you the option of reading the translation aloud on your phone. I used Google Translate to negotiate with a very nice Polish vendor over a beautiful hand-embroidered tablecloth. She thought it was pretty incredible because she had never seen it before! It’s also something fun to use to learn a few basic words while you’re on a bus or train or otherwise killing some time abroad.
8. Pacsafe. As travelers with physical disabilities, we’re probably some of the most vulnerable people out in the world. Travel advice meant to keep people safe and secure applies doubly to us, and that includes keeping our most precious documents and our money safe. Pickpocketers are very skilled and have developed a wide variety of tactics for relieving you of your passports, identification, and hard cash. It’s not enough to keep these things in a zippered backpack or purse strung across the shoulder, or even a belt pack. I use something called Pacsafe, which is a line of wearable gear that helps keeps your valuables safe. The straps have embedded metal mesh which keeps thieves from cutting them off of you. The packs have RFID protected pockets that keep skimmers from scanning the magnetic strips on your credit cards and RFID data on your documents. The holes in the zipper pulls attach to clips so someone can’t just casually unzip the pockets. Their products are also very reasonably priced, starting at under $20.
9. Seat cushion. I suffered for a year and a half with an extremely sore tailbone after spending a week at a time on my electric scooter in some foreign country until my best friend gave me the idea of buying a seat cushion. Why couldn’t I come up with that myself??? My power wheelchair at home has memory foam, so I suppose I never thought about it for my electric scooter. If you are going to be switching between different mobility devices while traveling or spending a lot of time in an airplane seat, I highly recommend buying a seat cushion if you don’t have one already. Many of my wheelie friends swear by the Roho cushion that inflates and deflates; however, keep in mind that the air inside will expand during a flight. Personally, I use a memory foam contoured cushion for my scooter that has a cutout for the tailbone area. I don’t know how I ever lived without it, and I’m much more comfortable when I’m spending up to 10 hours a day in my scooter.
10. Variable voltage charger. I see a lot of questions on accessible travel forms regarding the use of chargers and adapters and converters when traveling abroad. Every powered mobility aid is different, of course, but many of them also already have chargers with variable voltage. This means that you can plug it into an outlet that varies from a lower voltage, like in the United States, to a higher voltage like that in Europe. All you would need is just the plug adapter, which you can buy for probably $10. If your charger is only for one type of voltage, contact your manufacturer to see if you can attain a different one because it will save you the extreme hassle of lugging a very heavy and very expensive voltage converter with you during your travels. You can usually find the capacity of your charger on the main box about halfway down the cord. Look for something that says along the lines of 110V~240V.
11. Backup battery/power bank. Probably the worst power-based thing you can have die on you during a trip is your wheelchair. However, the second worst thing is likely your cell phone. You don’t want your battery to die right before you see something that is incredibly picture or video worthy. But more importantly, your cell phone is your lifeline if you need security assistance or medical help. Personally, I use a 22,000mAh Tiergrade power bank that has two USB outlets. It charges up my iPhone 7+ from 10% to 100% in about half an hour, and you can get roughly 5 or 6 complete charges depending on the phone you have. You can also get two or three full charges for an iPad or similar device. My only cost $28, and of course there are a variety of power banks with different capacities and different prices. My advice would be to stick with 30,000mAh or lower because there are airline restrictions on what capacity power banks you can bring on the plane.
12. A copy of ACAA highlights. I wrote a blog post about things you should know regarding the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) not that long ago. Unfortunately, not enough wheelchair travelers know what their rights are as airplane passengers. You’d be amazed at what you are entitled to, and even more so at the rights that are taken away from you every time you fly. I always have a copy of my blog post with me, which highlights the most important portions — meaning the most commonly violated portions — of the ACAA so I can show them to someone on the spot if they are giving me trouble. For example, you can request that an aisle wheelchair be placed on a domestic US flight so you can get to the lavatory. You also have the right to have your wheelchair or scooter returned to the door of the plane within a reasonable amount of time, and not sent off to the Customs area or baggage claim. Check out the post and make sure you have it with you the next time you fly.
I hope these travel hacks help simplify your future adventures! As a note, I have not been compensated by any company that makes any products I have mentioned. My recommendations are solely based on my personal experiences. And when you’re ready to book your next accessible trip, make sure to check out my travel agency website at Spin the Globe/Travel!