Here are the Most Important Travel Tips for Wheelchair Users:
Have a shower cap with you at all times!
This may seem like a weird tip for wheelchair users, but a simple shower cap can come in very handy. Imagine that you are out exploring a city and rolling from place to place, then suddenly it starts to rain. What do you do to protect your chair from getting soaked and potentially malfunctioning? If you have a shower cap, just throw it over the joystick controller area. It is the perfect size to completely cover the joystick area, but you will still need an umbrella to protect the rest of your chair of course.
Whatever you do – FIND A LOCAL WHEELCHAIR REPAIR SHOP BEFORE YOU TRAVEL!
Before you even think about traveling somewhere new, use the magical powers of Google to locate a wheelchair repair shop in your desired destination city. You never know when your chair will tear up or when the airline will damage your chair. There is nothing worse than arriving somewhere, only to learn that your chair isn’t functioning. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!
Take more money than you think you will need.
This is one of my favorite travel related quotes and couldn’t be more true. I always try to calculate how much money I need to take on a trip to cover meals, attractions, taxis and souvenirs, and then add at least $250-500 for unexpected circumstances that could arise.
Book transportation before you leave home.
Many cities do offer wheelchair accessible transportation of some sort, but it may not always be readily available when you want it. At the least, book in advance an accessible taxi from the airport to your hotel and then from your hotel to the airport for your departure. After arriving at your hotel, the concierge should be able to help you get transportation around the city, but feel free to book as much as possible beforehand. It’s no fun sitting at your hotel waiting on a taxi. Trust me, I know from experience. I once waited almost three hours for an accessible taxi that never even came.
Take parts of your wheelchair as a carry-on.
Plan to take an empty bag to the airport with you to put parts of your electric wheelchair in as a carry-on. I always detach the footrests and the joystick of mine, and I have detached the headrest before as well. I have heard horror stories of disabled travelers arriving to their destination to discover that parts of their wheelchair are banged up or even missing completely. Luckily, I’ve been pretty fortunate to not have experienced this, other than losing a joystick knob once. Also, take your wheelchair cushion on the plane to sit on throughout the flight. It is much more comfortable than the plane seat.
Never ever EVER book a vacation over the internet!
When you are booking flights and hotels, always be sure to call instead of booking online. Sure, it’s fun to browse online and the web can definitely help you make a decision as to where to stay, but somewhere saying that it is wheelchair accessible online can mean many different things. I once found a hotel online that said it was wheelchair accessible, so I called them to reserve it and I asked what was accessible about the hotel. The receptionist responded by saying “We have an elevator”. They did not have a roll in shower, wide doorways, or anything that I needed… just an elevator. As far as flights go, when you book a flight you have to request bulkhead seating (the front row of seats) over the phone. The bulkhead seats usually have much more room to get into the seat and sometimes the armrest will lift up, making these seats ideal for wheelchair users.
Request bulkhead seating
When you are booking your flights, call the airline and explain to them that you are in a wheelchair and will require some assistance. Also, be sure to request the bulkhead seating if you’d like it. Bulkhead is the front row of economy class and these seats are usually more spacious than average economy class seats, which makes it easier to maneuver around during the boarding process. Bulkhead is an extra cost on many airlines, but for wheelchair users it is free (there are some perks!). Be aware though, that sometimes the armrests on bulkhead seats do not lift up. If this is something you’ll need in order to transfer into the seat, just tell the airline when you are making the reservation and they will know which seat will work best for you.
Arrive extra early to the airport
Most airlines say to arrive at least one hour before a domestic flight and two hours before an international flight. As a wheelchair user, I always add at least an hour to that suggested time. Trust me, the last thing you want is to be running full speed to your gate with only a minute to spare. It’s happened to me and I promise you that it isn’t any fun. Since I can’t walk through security, I always get a pat-down and this takes more time. The security officer wipes down my wheelchair, my shoes, and more to test for any dangerous chemicals.
Only one time has this process gone bad: the night before flying, my mom cleaned my wheelchair with furniture polish. When the security officer wiped my chair down and tested it, it showed up that there were explosive materials on my chair. Luckily, after a while, the situation was resolved, but I’ll be sure to never use furniture polish on my chair again before jetting off.
Check the voltage at your destination
If you’re traveling internationally, always be sure to check the voltage at your destination before going. In America, it’s 110 volts, but most other countries in the world are 220+ volts. If you use a powered wheelchair like me, and need to charge it in a foreign country, a converter and an adapter could potentially work, but I haven’t had the best of luck with converters. Wheelchair battery chargers are just so strong that they can’t properly convert. After plugging my charger into an outlet in Germany a few years ago (even with a converter and adapter), it literally blew up. Sparks were flying and the entire hotel managed to lose power for a few minutes. To prevent that from happening to you, I would highly suggest purchasing a 220-240 volt wheelchair charger before going on your trip. Your local wheelchair repair shop can help you find the right one. It may be quite expensive to purchase (around $250 usually), but trust me when I say that it will make your life much easier in the long run.
Book any transportation in advance
Some cities have readily available transportation that is wheelchair accessible. Sydney, Australia and London, England are included on that wonderful list. However, the sad truth is that a lot of cities do not have as much accessible transportation as they should. By researching online beforehand, you can discover if there are accessible taxis or accessible public transportation. I have waited over three hours for an accessible taxi in the past, so booking as much as you can in advance will save time once you’re at your destination. If you can’t book all of it in advance, at least book your accessible transportation from and to the airport. You’ll be able to lay your head on that comfy hotel pillow that much quicker…
Hopefully these five tips will make traveling as a wheelchair user a little easier for you, and give you an idea as to what to expect. Now, get out there and start exploring! As my favorite quote by Saint Augustine says, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only a page.”