man in wheelchair looking at mountains

As a person who routinely gets around in an electric wheelchair, there are plenty of things I’m used to doing a little differently. Travel is no exception. If you’re going to be traveling soon or joining a companion with a disability in the near future, there’s a lot to think about.

Like anything else in life, difficult doesn’t mean not doable. You just need to be prepared and know what to expect. Whether you need oxygen, accommodation for your service animal or assistance with a wheelchair and getting to your seat, be sure to tell the airline ahead of time so you can get the help you need and get on with jet setting.

Oxygen

Breathing is a fairly underrated life activity. We do it every day and give it no thought whatsoever. Maybe the only time we really notice is when something isn’t working right.

If you need oxygen, you know just how important that is. However, we also know that oxygen and jet fuel is a dangerous combination, so it’s important to take the proper precautions when flying.

If you need oxygen, the airlines will provide it because the FAA prohibits bringing your own tank on the plane. What you can bring is a portable oxygen concentrator. Instead of making their own oxygen, these concentrate oxygen from the atmosphere nearby. The FAA has a list of approved devices.

 

Service Animals

I don’t have a service animal, but for the people I know who do, the animal is beyond best friend and fully an extension of the person’s body and physical capabilities. Therefore, it’s a good thing that service animals are allowed in cabins on flights.

In my experience, these are generally some of the most mild-mannered animals in the world, thanks to their rigorous training. However, just as a flight can be a stressful experience for you, it has the potential to freak out your four-legged companion as well.

Hopefully you actually have an advantage in this area because unlike other pets that might be on the flight, your companion will be with you rather than in the luggage area, so you can keep them calm and comfortable. That said, it’s important to take some basic steps to prepare for travel with your service animal.

  • Make sure the airline (and your lodging) know you’re bringing your service animal. This avoids any surprises.
  • Take a trip to the vet to make sure the animal is up to date with vaccinations. Locate a local and emergency vet just in case your animal gets hurt or sick on the flight or at any other time on the trip.
  • If your animal has a snub nose, it probably won’t be able to fly because animals with this condition often have trouble breathing, and this can be made worse by high altitudes. Check with your vet to evaluate your animal’s flying ability.

Wheeling Around Town

When you spend the majority of your life in a wheelchair, at some point the chair becomes a part of you. Not only is it your mode of getting around, but it’s often heavily customized for your needs.

I say all this because being in a different city without their own chair is a real pain in the neck for some people. If you’re going to go somewhere, you want to make sure the chair goes with you.

Air Travel

Personally, I’ve never flown with my electric chair, but I have a friend who estimates he’s done so a dozen times. I gave Jeff a call.

A power chair can be a bit heavy and awkward to handle. My friends always have to work out the best handholds just to lift it up a couple steps. Now imagine trying to get it in the cargo hold. Jeff said you want to minimize the potential for damage.

“I would advise that you remove all of the components that you can remove, like the stuff that can potentially break off,” he says. “If it can be removed, you should remove it.”

The parts that can be easily removed will vary depending on the chair, but might include the head rest, the foot rest, any cargo containers, etc.

Airlines have different policies regarding batteries. They may need to be disconnected. The airlines should know how to handle this safely, but in case you have to do it, review the instructions in the chair manual before leaving for the airport. You should also be able to tell them what type of batteries you have. You may also want to have instructions on how to put the chair in manual mode.

So what’s the worst-case scenario? How about if the chair goes on the wrong plane? That sounds implausible, but that’s exactly what happened to Jeff.

He related the story of landing in Oklahoma City only to find out his chair was sitting 800 miles away in Chicago. Thankfully for Jeff, they had it on the next direct flight and he had his chair within about six hours, but you may want to tag your chair with the appropriate flight number and destination. Durable medical equipment like this can cost as much as a decent used car, and you don’t want to take a chance on losing it.

Rolling Out

Once you get to your destination, unless everything you plan to see and do is within walking distance, you’re going to need transportation. This requires some advance planning.

Make sure you research van rental agencies at your destination. There are also a couple of national van rental networks. Really make sure you budget for this one, because I can tell you from experience it’s not cheap to get accessible transportation, but it can be a necessity.

Hotel

When you get to the hotel, you need to be ready to go through a mental checklist. Jeff took me through his, starting with basic space considerations.

“I definitely do check it out to make sure that it is larger than the standard room, because if you booked a room with accommodations, you’re paying for it,” he says.

Beyond just having a spot to put a wheelchair or other necessary equipment, Jeff says to consider the way the room is laid out so that you can maximize your function within it. Are the beds too close together or too far apart to easily make the transfer from the chair? Figure out the best way to maneuver throughout the room.

Power Up

When I go places, I have my fair share of equipment and general stuff that has to go with me. Sure, there’s the usual stuff like clothes, phone charger and sunscreen, but when you have a disability, it’s important to remember there’s a whole other set of concerns.

My personal ideal list of things I like to travel with includes, but isn’t necessarily limited to:

  • Wheelchair charger
  • Walker (In my case, not for walking. It gives me something to hold onto in the restroom.)
  • Nonstick shelf liner to put down so plates don’t move on me at restaurants
  • Fat handle fork
  • Straws

It also may be harder if you have a physical challenge to use a public restroom easily. If you think you’re going to be in that situation, pack your backup plan.

The list of things necessary will depend on the person and the disability. If you need medications, absolutely don’t forget them.

Plan in Advance

If you take one thing out of this article, I hope it’s the fact that there’s just no substitute for advanced planning. I won’t say you can go anywhere, since zip lining through the Amazon would probably be a difficult excursion to undertake for someone with a disability (or anyone else for that matter), but a lot can be accomplished if you think it out ahead of time.

Advanced planning prevents you from unnecessarily limiting yourself. One of the philosophies we live by here at Quicken Loans is “Yes before no.” It’s something I’ve tried to adopt in my personal life – to always challenge myself to take a closer look at things before I decide it’s not for me. Another one of my favorites? “We’ll figure it out.” That’s key here with travel. The more you figure out in advance, the easier it will be to do all sorts of things.

The above holds true whether you have a disability or not, and whether your destination is in the United States or one fit for a world traveler.

Do you have any tips for other readers? We’d love to see them in the comments.

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