Living With Polio

And Away We Go! Traveling with Mobility Aids

Travel overseas – or anywhere – can be enjoyable, enriching, enlightening, or a complete disaster if your equipment ends up mutilated or at the wrong destination. You should have the adventures, not your wheelchair.

I have flown with a power scooter and a manual wheelchair, and have accompanied others who traveled with power wheelchairs. Air travel affords you less control over the destiny of your equipment than bus or train travel. But knowledge is power, and the more you know about traveling with equipment, the greater your changes of having a problem-free trip.

Travel within the USA has become much easier for people with disabilities. Most hotels and motels, even in smaller cities, have at least one or two wheelchair-accessible rooms. The major auto rental companies have vehicles with hand controls or vans with lifts or ramps. Cities are more likely to have curb cuts and you should easily find restaurants without steps at the entrance.

Travel outside the USA is certainly more challenging. The ADA-mandated changes we take for granted haven’t always made the leap overseas. But if your are flexible, resourceful, and have done your homework, experiencing the charm and beauty of other countries and cultures is well worth the effort.

When making travel plans, consider the availability of ground transportation at your destination. A folding manual chair will fit into the trunk of most cars. Although small scooters can be disassembled, the largest component may not fit into the trunk of most cars. Power chairs and scooters require a van with a lift or ramp, which are available for rent in most large US cities but less common in other parts of the world.

Making Airline Reservations.
If possible take a flight which is either nonstop or direct (where you can stay on the plane at intermediate stops). If it is necessary to change planes, asked your travel agent or airline reservation clerk to put “MAAS” (meet and assist) into your reservation record to help you get to your connecting flight. It is best to use the same airline for all flights, then one airline has the responsibility for getting you to your next flight on time.

If you are ambulatory but will need wheelchair assistance to get to the boarding area, ask for this information to be put into the computer. A wheelchair and pusher can meet you at the check-in counter.

Let the airline know what equipment you will be bringing – manual wheelchair, power chair or power scooter. Tell them if you need an aisle seat. Bulkhead seats are hard to reserve in advance and exit rows are not available for people with disabilities due to safety reasons. For ease in transferring, ask if any aisle seats are available with lift-up arms.

Tell them whether you can walk short distances or will need an onboard wheelchair for boarding and using the restroom. Most airlines require at least 48 hours advance notice if you will need the use of an onboard wheelchair, will need to use oxygen during the flight, will require respirator hook-up to an aircraft’s electrical power, or require the packaging of a wheelchair battery for shipment as checked baggage.

Keep reconfirming your seat arrangements until the time you leave. Sometimes airlines have to substitute an aircraft with a different seat configuration and the computer changes the original seating plan.

For overseas flights, arrive at the airport three hours early. Most larger aircraft can store one manual wheelchair in the passenger area, but if you’re not the first person to check in with a wheelchair yours will go into the baggage compartment. Power chairs and scooters always go into baggage.

With advance notice, most airlines can provide supplemental oxygen for use during the flight. Check with the airline whether a doctor’s statement is required. Due to safety reasons, you cannot use your own oxygen unit and cannot use the aircraft’s built-in oxygen. There is a charge for onboard oxygen service. If you will need to use oxygen between connecting flights or at your destination, you must make your own arrangements for all ground locations.

Before You Leave.
Be sure your equipment has gel batteries. Acid batteries will be taken off the chair or scooter and packed in a separate box before being loaded into the baggage compartment. This is a time-consuming stressor that will not add to the enjoyment of your trip. If possible, carry printed information which confirms that your batteries are the gel type. This will minimize potential problems if the airline personnel want proof that the batteries are not the acid type. Also carry a copy of the U.S. Government publication, “New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with Disability.”

Put identification tags on any parts which could become separated from your chair or scooter. Have bungee cords or stretch cords with carabiner hooks ready for strapping loose parts to your equipment after you reach the boarding area.

Make two copies of your passport, travel documents and credit cards: carry one set in a separate place from the originals and leave one set at home.

At the Airport.
Okay, you’ve reconfirmed all the flight arrangements and you’ve arrived very early at the airport. When you check in, have baggage tags with your name and address placed on your equipment which state they are to be delivered to the arrival gate.

Now here is the most important travel tip I can give you. Do not surrender your chair or scooter at check-in. Stay in it until you are ready to board the plane. This is not usually a problem, but occasionally the check-in person will want you to check your equipment along with your luggage and then have airport personnel push you to the boarding area in a manual wheelchair. Don’t do it! This will only increase the chances of your equipment being misdirected, mishandled, or damaged, and you will not have the independence to move around while you are waiting to board your flight.

When you get to the boarding area, remind the personnel that you need to board first and estimate how much extra time it will take you to do it. Early boarding for people with disabilities and parents with small children is supposed to be done automatically, but sometimes this rule is forgotten or not enough time is allowed. On one of my recent flights, the call for early boarding was announced but before I was halfway down the jetway the regular passengers were allowed to proceed and I was soon engulfed by people. Sit close to the door so you can start as soon as early boarding is announced.

Have clear instructions for disassembling and assembling the equipment attached to the chair. When you are ready to board the aircraft, supervise whatever dismantling is necessary before you get on the plane. Remember that the crew at the arrival airport has not witnessed this process, so clear instructions with diagrams are crucial.

At Your Destination.
You will have to wait for everyone else to walk off the plane before you disembark. It is difficult to predict whether your chair or scooter will be brought to the arrival gate (even though it is tagged for such) or will be taken to the baggage claim. I have seen it done both ways. If it goes to the baggage claim area, the airline will bring a wheelchair to the plane and push you to baggage claim and stay with you until you find your chair.

Make a thorough inspection of your equipment. If you see any damage, document it in detail on a form and do not use the word “minor” on your report. Get a claim number and a phone number to call for follow-up on having your chair repaired. Do not leave the airport until this is done.

Every U.S. airline is required by Federal law to have a designated Conflict Resolution Officer available, by phone or in person. If you cannot settle a difference, you have the right to discuss the problem with the CRO who by law must always be available and willing to deal with your grievance. The CRO hears both sides of the story and then decides who is right. Ask for a copy of the outcome in writing in case you need it for future reference.

Hotel Accommodations.
Even if a hotel claims to have accessible rooms and bathrooms, remember that “accessible” means different things to different people, especially outside the USA. When you make reservations, be very specific about your abilities and what you need. Do not use “lingo” which may be meaningless to hotel personnel. Before my trip to Israel I made hotel arrangements via e-mail with an Israeli travel agent. In frequent e-mails I kept stressing my need for a walk-in shower. Although she assured me that the hotels had “walk-in showers”, all three hotels she booked had only over-tub showers. When I complained after my return, she said she didn’t understand what a walk-in shower meant and thought that since I could walk into the bathroom there would be no problem.

Make up a form of what specific accommodations you need, such as a higher bed for easy transferring, widened doorways, roll-in/walk-in shower, grab bars, lowered sinks, raised toilet seats, lowered closet bars, wheelchair-height peepholes and light switches, and whether you would be able to exit the room by yourself. Ask about electrical outlets – how many and where they are located. Also ask about emergency situations: if the elevators were shut off due to a fire, who would assist you if you are not on the ground floor?

Outside the USA, the first floor is up one level, so request a room on the “ground floor” if possible. If you take a room above this level, check that there are no steps to reach the elevator and that the elevator is large enough to accommodate your chair. Also make sure there is a flat or ramped entrance from the outside into the hotel.

In the USA, do not use 800 numbers when inquiring about accessibility. Phone reservationists are not familiar with the individual hotels. Contact the hotel directly and ask to speak to someone who can provide you with details about the rooms they consider accessible. Ask the person to write down the details and call you back.

Outside the USA, do your research by fax or e-mail. Send the form and ask them to fill it in and return to you, or ask them to hold it and you will call in three days.

At one Scandinavian hotel advertised as “accessible” the bathroom was up 6 inches and opened onto a narrow hallway which led to the bedroom. The hotel had placed a small platform in front of the bathroom entrance to eliminate the step; however, there was a short, very steep ramp on each side of the platform. My roommate, a wheelchair user, would have had to push herself up to the platform with such force that the chair couldn’t be stopped before it continued down the ramp on the other side, which could have resulted in her being thrown from the chair to the floor. There was also not enough room on the platform to turn the wheelchair to enter the bathroom door.

Another charming little hotel had a large roll-in shower but the hand-held shower head was attached so high that a seated person could not reach it. In a Belgium hotel, the roll-in shower did not have a shower bench to transfer to. Even if you think you’ve pinned down all the details regarding accessibility, expect to be surprised when you get to your hotel.

Charging Your Equipment.
Most American hotels have several electrical outlets in each bedroom. Many European hotel rooms have only one electric outlet and it may be located where your chair cannot fit, so take a long extension cord.

You will need to convert voltage from American 110 to European 220. The standard converter used for hair dryers should not be used for the long slow trickle charge required by wheelchair batteries; it can burn out the batteries. You can take a separate transformer (which weighs several pounds) or have a dual voltage battery installed in your equipment. I did the latter, and it just takes a screwdriver to switch the voltage on my scooter. Check with your equipment manufacturer or supplier to find out exactly what is needed.

You will also need adapter plugs for the foreign outlets. Adapters come as a set of four or five which accommodate all the different outlets throughout the world. Even if you plan to visit one country, it would be wise to take the whole set. I unexpectedly spent two weeks in Ireland when my husband had a heart attack on the plane coming home from Europe. Electrical outlets are different in Europe and Britain but fortunately I had taken the complete set of adapters.

What to Pack.
Pack necessary items, such as medications, extra eyeglasses, and small tools and spare parts for your equipment, in your carry-on luggage in case your checked luggage is lost or stolen.

Also in your carry-on: Inflatable neck cushion, sleep mask, ear plugs, and socks for maximizing comfort on long plane rides.

Many foreign hotels do not supply washcloths so take one of your own. For washing out clothes take a flat sink plug, concentrated liquid detergent, an elastic clothesline with suction cups on the ends, plastic clothespins, and inflatable hangers.

Ziploc bags are indispensable when traveling. Take different sizes for storing food, film, liquid items that might leak, or snacks you purchase along the way. A large Ziploc bag can make do as a hot compress when you stuff a hot wet towel inside, and you will find many other uses as you go along.

Other essentials: A Swiss army knife (no longer a carry-on item), masking or electrical tape, large safety pins, dental floss for dental hygiene and emergency sewing needs, collapsible plastic drinking glass, a roll of toilet paper. Keep handwashing gel with you at all times; many public restrooms have no soap. Take a full supply of any essential medical-supply items, especially if you are heading outside the USA.

Use a fanny pack, backpack or wheelchair bag to carry items such as a camera or water bottle but be aware that anything that is visible to others can be easily nabbed. Place your money, passport, credit cards, and other important items where they cannot be seen or snatched, such as a money belt around the waist under your clothing, or – under slacks or jeans – an elastic leg band with pockets. Visit a travel store before you leave home.

Take clothing and underwear which can be washed and dried overnight. As others have said, pack everything you think you will wear and then take out half. It is much easier to wash a few things every other night than to transport bulging suitcases. You don’t need to impress others with numerous changes of clothing. I have never taken more than a 22-inch carry-on suitcase and a flight bag, even for a whole month overseas.

Bank credit or debit cards are more convenient than traveler’s checks for obtaining local currency. Cashing traveler’s checks requires you to find a bank that’s accessible and open for business when you need the money. Some hotels will cash them but at a lower rate of exchange.

Take at least two different credit or debit cards in case one accidentally gets demagnetized, and carry them separately in case one gets stolen. Take a small supply of traveler’s checks just in case all other options fail for any reason.

Most countries have automated teller machines located on the street so that the time of day and degree of accessibility are not issues when you need to withdraw cash. If you use a debit card, be sure you have enough money in the bank at home to cover your withdrawals. Purchase items with a credit card for a better exchange rate.

Travel with Accessible Tour Companies.
Several links to web sites are listed below for companies specializing in tours for people with disabilities. This does not constitute my endorsement of any particular company, but many people have chosen this travel option, including me. You will want to ask the company how long they have been in business and get names and phone numbers of people you can call for references. Ask to be given names of people who travel with the same type of equipment and have the same level of ability as you. This is especially important if you will be traveling without a companion.

It is wise for anyone with a chronic condition to purchase trip cancellation insurance. These policies also cover trip interruption due to illness, and may also pay for medical care and emergency flights as needed, for you or your traveling companion, if the illness starts during the trip. However, some companies will not pay for a previous condition which has necessitated your seeing a doctor during the six months prior to the trip, so check the details carefully.

Also check your household insurance before you leave. Airlines are liable for any damages to your wheelchair or scooter up to a maximum of $2500, which may not cover extensive damage to a power chair. Your household insurance may make up the difference, but find out beforehand

With advance planning, you can enjoy the rewards of new sights, new friends made, and new experiences. Bon Voyage!

© 2000-2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark.

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