Air travel is stressful for the able-bodied. But navigating airport check-in, security, and boarding when you’re using a mobility device can be downright traumatic if you’re not prepared! Fortunately, I’ve flown many times to many places while relegated to my scooter, so I’m able to share some trips that might help, along with some outside resources for further reading.
Once you decide where you want to go and are ready to buy your plane ticket, the two main things you want to do are make sure the airline knows you’re traveling with a mobility aid, and ensure you select a seat in a location that’s good for you. As for informing the airline about your medical and mobility needs, every airline’s website is different. Some will let you select your needs during the online reservation process, and some won’t. In those cases, you will have to call the airline with your reservation number to let them know what you need. Some international carriers will require you to provide a certificate for your scooter or power wheelchair battery. You just have to provide them with your chair specs and they will send you the certificate. It’s also helpful to know the weight of your device before you leave. Most airlines will also have a dedicated page on their website that details the services they provide to passengers with disabilities, and sometimes even have a separate phone number for mobility-related inquiries.
When you arrive at the airport and check in, some airlines will tag your chair ot scooter with an inspection tag and a gate check tag. They will ask you how much your device weighs, and if you want it delivered to you during your layover.
Unless you are able to stand and walk a bit, you will have to receive a manual pat-down at the security checkpoint. The extent of the pat-down unfortunately varies by airport, regardless of your TSA Pre-Check status. Many inspectors have no idea what to do with a disabled traveler in a chair who has Pre-Check, so just be patient and let them do their thing. Most domestic airports and many international airports also have a shortcut line for passengers in chairs.
At boarding time, you will be in the first group to get on the airplane. You will roll down the jet bridge to the aircraft door, where you will either get up and walk to your seat, or get transferred to an aisle chair and get wheeled to your seat. This is where your seat selection comes in. Domestic carriers do not have aisle chairs on board to help you get to the bathroom. If you can walk a few steps, you may want to pick a seat close to the bathroom. At the gate, you can also request a bulkheat seat, which offers more legroom and is often also closer to the bathroom. On most international flights, aisle chairs are available and a flight attendant can wheel you to the bathroom. However, be aware that not all aircraft have an accessible bathroom. If you can’t stand, transferring to a standard airplane toilet may be problematic.
My suggestion for seat selection is to use SeatGuru, a fantastic website that lets you select the exact aircraft you’ll be flying on and maps out every single seat and bathroom on the plane, from the recline to the TV screen locations.
I also HIGHLY recommend purchasing the e-book Air Travel for Wheelchair Users by my good friend and travel blogger Cory Lee. He goes into much more detail about what to expect, as well as how to save time and hassle.
After going through the air travel ordeal, you’re likely ready to check in to your hotel and relax in your wheelchair accessible hotel room. But unless you do adequate research and ask the right questions when making your reservation, you may find yourself in a room that comes nowhere near to meeting your mobility needs.
Some hotels make it easy to reserve an accessible hotel room online. However, many won’t even show you that accessible rooms are available, leading travelers to believe they either don’t have any (a big no-no in the USA) or they’ve already been reserved. You will most likely have to call the hotel where you want to stay to ask if they have an accessible room available for your preferred dates.
There are usually two types of accessible hotel rooms: aside from the usual extra space, the bathrooms either have an accessible bathtub with grab bars, or a roll-in shower with a fold-down bench, permanent bench, or stand-alone shower chair. I will warn you now that the vast majority of hotel employees have no idea what the difference is between an accessible tub and a roll-in shower. To most hotel employees, an accessible room automatically means any person in a wheelchair can stay there. For a room in the USA, if the website specifically says “roll-in shower,” you can assume with a decent degree of confidence that it is what it says. But if you have to call, be as specific as possible when describing what you need so you know what you’re going to get.
When looking for an accessible room in another country, it can really be a crapshoot. Iceland is a relatively accessible country, and I stayed in a hotel booked through a tour company that was supposedly accessible with a roll-in shower. The bathroom had a flat floor, but that was it. It was tiny and didn’t have a single grab bar anywhere. However, in Vancouver, I reserved a room at a Sheraton that didn’t advertise a roll-in shower, and those rooms seemed notoriously rare (unless you stayed at the $450 per night Fairmont). Imagine my pleasant surprise when we arrived and the bathroom had one. My reserved room at the Intercontinental in Sydney had the right bathroom as advertised, as should the Jurys Inn in Dublin where I’m staying in April. However, both room reservations required lengthy phone calls.
Another thing I have learned through my travels is that “accessible” does NOT necessarily mean “convenient.” You will find accessible hotel rooms where the beds are so high you can’t get into them without help. Or curtain pull cords/chains located behind heavy furniture. Or night stands you can’t get to because there’s not enough space for you between the bed and the wall. The ADA regulates structures but not the furnishings, so don’t be surprised if you run into these sorts of things. Just politely speak to the manager and explain why the room setup isn’t practical for a wheelchair user. Use your experience to educate others when you can!
I will admit that the bulk of my transportation experience with my scooter has involved rental cars and taxis. However, I will share as much information with you as I can based on my own experience.
If you’re traveling with someone or have the physical capability to drive, you can rent a car in most USA locations with hand controls. Most of the time, you will have to call the rental car company at least 48 hours prior to your arrival to request hand controls in your vehicle. They will let you know what cars in their fleet have hand controls, and it may not be in the vehicle class that you’re looking for, so try to be flexible if you can. I’ve had nothing but good experiences renting cars in the USA with hand controls.
Taxis, depending on your mobility needs, can also be a real crapshoot in the USA. Some cities have several wheelchair accessible taxis (meaning you can roll right into the back of the van and stay in your chair for the ride) in their fleet, which means you don’t have to wait long at an airport or city location for one to arrive. In other locations (Texas is notoriously horrible, as is Reagan National Airport of all places), you may find yourself waiting for over an hour for an accessible taxi to show up. Oddly enough, some foreign cities have greater availability of wheelchair taxis than US cities. Vancouver and Sydney were an absolute dream come true, and I anticipate (based on my research) that Dublin and Oslo will be pleasant as well. The best you can do is to research taxi companies in your destination and have phone numbers of specific companies (or specific drivers you use after you arrive) that you can call to reserve the kind of taxi you need. I did this in Reykjavik and ended up using the same taxi driver almost every day for a week.
As for trains, I have ridden on Amtrak once since having to use a scooter for travel, and it was a piece of cake. When the train stops, the conductors will pull out a ramp that will allow you to get on and off the train. The cars that have accessible spaces have the international wheelchair sign by the doors. I had plenty of space in my car to park my scooter and transfer to a more comfortable seat. I didn’t have to use the restroom during my 2-hour train ride, but it looked very spacious from my views when others opened the door. Trains in other countries are probably going to be a mixed bag, if not for the trains themselves, then for the state of the platforms and stations. The Dubai metro system was easily the most wheelchair accessible I had ever seen anywhere in the world. However, not a single station I saw had a sidewalk surrounding it with a dropped curb or cutout. It was absolutely unfathomable. However, taking the train in Sydney was very smooth and easy. Doing online research for each city you plan to visit is your best bet.
When I toured with Iceland Unlimited in Reykavík, they included a local cell phone with my package. When I went to Sydney, one of the first things I did the first day was buy an inexpensive “throwaway” pre-paid phone. I could have used my personal cell phone, but that can get expensive. Also, it’s invaluable to have a local phone number when you travel in case cab drivers, tour companies, etc. need to get in touch with you during your stay, as they’re not keen on calling phones with an international number.