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Air Travel Secrets for Wheelchair Users from a Frequent Flyer

I half-joke all the time that the Orlando airport is my second home. To say that I spend a lot of time in airports and airplanes as a wheelchair user is an understatement, and I have the stats to prove it. Since I started keeping track through TripIt in 2011, I’ve flown over half a million miles, visited 48 countries and 165 cities over 133 trips, and spent 637 nights in hotel rooms–all as a wheelchair user. During this time, I’ve amassed a stockpile of travel tips, tricks, and secrets that can help make the flying experience at least a little less painful for fellow wheelchair users.

1. Call the airline right after you book to request bulkhead seats. Technically, the best way to guarantee that you will get a bulkhead seat is to pay for it. But if you are unable or unwilling to do so, you can call the airline right after booking your flight, let them know you are a wheelchair user, and request to be placed in a bulkhead seat. Very often, airlines block off bulkhead rows for wheelchair users, or on long-haul flights, travelers with infants who need the bassinet attached to the bulkhead. Sometimes they will tell you that you have to wait to request the bulkhead seat at check-in at the airport, but I find that just making the phone call right away will work. This also often means a free upgrade to the premium economy section. Just make sure that you put in the wheelchair request or make note that you are a wheelchair user when you book the flight.

Tired of airport employees awkwardly lifting you into your airplane seat? Try using a patient transfer sling with handles. Drive Medical Full Body Patient Lift Sling, Mesh, Medium

2. Request that an on-board wheelchair be placed on your flight. This is more relevant for US domestic flights, as all all wide-body double-aisle jets for international flights already have on-board wheelchairs. Until I became intimately familiar with the Air Carrier Access Act, I didn’t know that by law and by request, all airlines need to provide this chair for lavatory access with advance notice. Considering that many airline representatives don’t know about this requirement, they may confuse I your request for this on-board wheelchair with a request for an aisle seat on the plane. If you are able to get to the airplane bathroom using these aisle wheelchairs, rest assured that you don’t have to hold it for a long domestic flight anymore. Just make sure you call the airline at least 48 hours prior to your flight to give them enough time to fulfill your request. Please be aware that most flight attendants have no experience using an on-board wheelchair after their initial training however many years ago.

3. Buy some chocolate for the flight attendants. I actually learned this little tip from my experience as an accessible travel agent. No, you’re probably not going to get upgraded to first class – not that it would be easy to get you up there if you’re a wheelchair user. However, flight attendants are often overworked, underfed, tired, and frustrated. Something as simple as a chocolate treat from a passenger can totally make their day. Don’t be surprised if you get some freebies like food or alcohol, a blanket, or pillow. Just make sure that whatever you buy for them is in a sealed package, preferably purchased in the terminal so they know it’s safe to eat. I highly recommend Hershey’s chocolate kisses or plain M&Ms.

4. Pack duct tape and zip ties in your carry-on bag. Until you have a need for duct tape or zip ties, you really have no idea how valuable they are when you travel as a wheelchair user. The sad truth is that, on average, 25 wheelchairs are getting damaged every day on US domestic flights. Some of that damage could potentially be severe and anything short of a mechanic can’t help you on the spot. But after you file a damage report, you’d be amazed at how quickly you can get going again with some on the spot repairs using duct tape and zip ties. They will hold anything short of the San Andreas Fault together.

This is the duct tape I use for emergencies when I travel. Scotch Duct Tape, Jet Black, 1.88-Inch by 20-Yard

5. Know ALL your wheelchair specs in English and metric units. All airline reps will ask you at some point what the measurements are for your chair, the weight, and the specs for your battery. It is VERY important that you know the measurements and weight in English units for US travel and metric units for, well, everywhere else. Keep them on your phone or a card or piece of paper somewhere easy to access. As an aside, it would also help you considerably to find out the dimensions of the cargo hold door on your aircraft. This will let you know ahead of time if your wheelchair will fit. If it won’t, you won’t fly that day. You will also need to know the watt-hour rating (amps x voltage) for your battery if it’s a lithium model. If the rating exceeds 300 wH, you will not be allowed to fly with your chair. You should also know the exact kind of battery you have; here’s a guide to help.

If you’re traveling abroad with variable voltage chargers, you’re going to need a good plug adapter. This one works in 160 countries! International Travel Adapter Universal Power Adapter Worldwide All in One 4 USB with Electrical Plug Perfect for European US, EU, UK, AU 160 Countries (Blue)

6. Use the SeatGuru app or website to select the best seat. I don’t know how I survived air travel before discovering SeatGuru, and now it’s one of my favorite travel apps as a wheelchair user. Just type in your flight information and your date of travel, and the app will pull up the seat configuration for your aircraft. This will allow you to see what rows have armrests that lift up to allow for easier transfers, where power outlets are located, if there are certain rows that have restricted seat recline, or which rows might have extra legroom. If you will be sitting in an aisle seat, it will also tell you which rows might have higher potential for boarding and deplaning passengers to bump into you.

7. Download any airline apps that use baggage tracking. Many airlines will allow you to track the status and location of checked bags using their phone apps. American Airlines and Delta are two examples. I’m a fan of the Delta app because wheelchair users are given a pink luggage tag with a barcode to attach to their chairs. American Airlines uses a sticky paper tag like the ones they put on suitcases, but they work the same way. These are scanned the same way as suitcases, which means that you can electronically track the location of your wheelchair during layovers or upon arrival at your destination. I don’t know exactly how many airlines have this, but find out if your airline uses this feature so you can take advantage of it.

This spinner suitcase has been with me through thick and thin to over 40 countries! Here’s where you can get one to hold your travel necessities. SwissGear Travel Gear 6283 Spinner Luggage, 29 inches

8. If you are on a flight that originated in the US or just arrived in the US, don’t get off the plane until your wheelchair is brought to the jet bridge. Per ACAA guidelines, your wheelchair needs to be brought to, or as close to, the door of the plane within a reasonable amount of time. This can be a challenging task after a flight arriving in the US from a foreign country, as more often than not they will send your wheelchair to wait for you at customs and immigration to save time and facilitate a quicker aircraft turnaround. Please make note that quick aircraft turnaround is the number one priority for baggage handlers, definitely above your needs as passenger and wheelchair user. This is an AACA violation. If you get off the plane before your wheelchair is brought to you, the airline no longer has any motivation to bring you the chair because now they can turn the plane around since you’re no longer on it. Stay in your seat and politely insist that you will wait there comfortably until your chair is brought to you. Their need for speed will encourage them to move faster so they can get you off the plane.

9. If your wheelchair’s seat cushion is removable, take it with you on the plane. This isn’t necessarily so you can sit on it for comfort, although many wheelchair users do that. It’s so that you don’t have to sit on a soaking wet seat if it’s raining at your destination. Last year when I flew to Madrid, Delta Airlines left my power wheelchair sitting in the pouring rain for 20 minutes after they took it out of the cargo hold. They had to put two airplane blankets over the cushion so that it wouldn’t soak through to my pants, and that’s after they did the best they could to wring the water out. Baggage handlers, again, in the name of saving time, will not cover your wheelchair with anything if it’s raining or snowing.

Many airplanes have no foot rests, and definitely not in the bulkhead row. These cushions are a lifesaver for my feet and legs on long flights! STYDDI Travel Foot Rest Pillow, Grey and Blue, Pack of 2

10. Don’t send your belongings through the x-ray machine until a security screener comes to get you for your pat-down. It can take a really long time to get screened at security, especially if you’re a woman and need to wait for a female screener. If you send your stuff through x-ray right away, your belongings–including your passport, ID, money, etc.–could be sitting at the other end of the belt unattended for a while. If you have a travel companion, they will have to choose between waiting with you or watching your stuff. The screeners will tell you that you need to put your items through, so just let them know you want to keep an eye on them until someone comes to get you.

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Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

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4 thoughts on “Air Travel Secrets for Wheelchair Users from a Frequent Flyer

  1. Good day,

    I plan to travel to Puerto Rico next year, what do you recommend (tours, etc) as a wheelchair user? Love your blog. I follow you all the time. Can you generate a list of all the places you have been abroad (listing the most accessible first), I know if you have been there travel to that part of the world is possible. I am generating a travel bucket list.

    Thank you for all your help.

  2. Another helpful hint, if you have a power chair, put instructions on a laminated paper and zip tie it to the chair. This really helps the luggage guys and has caused my chair to be broken less often since I started doing this.

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