When I am traveling and need to make my own flight arrangements, my criteria is fairly simple: I want to get to my destination quickly, using the most direct route I can find, and do so as inexpensively as possible.
While I prefer a window seat, I do not mind sitting on the aisle or, if necessary, in the middle seat. I hope that the passengers sitting near me have bathed recently (although not in perfume).
I like to know where the restrooms are located, although I don’t need to sit near them.
And if I’m changing planes along the way and must hurry to catch my next flight, I can walk briskly or – God forbid! – jog to make my connection, dragging my carry-on luggage behind me. (And since I rarely check luggage, I know all “my things” will arrive at my destination with me.)
In a nutshell: As long as I get where I want to go, my transportation needs are pretty simple and I can easily adjust to changes and challenges.
Of course, I have the advantage of being able-bodied, so I don’t worry about “accessibility.”
Special Needs – and Expert Assistance – for Wheelchair Travelers
If I were a wheelchair user, however, my needs would change significantly. And that’s where a travel agent well-versed in special needs is an absolute treasure.
I recently connected (via LinkedIn), with Maria Casamento, travel agent and owner of High Road Travel in the Fort Worth / Dallas (Texas) area. Maria is a SNG [Special Needs Group] Certified Accessible Travel Advocate, and she periodically speaks to groups about traveling with a disability.
She also has Multiple Sclerosis, so she clearly understands the sort of travel challenges Carrieanna faces.
Maria and I discussed some of the following important points to be considered when making flight arrangements:
A direct flight is preferable; plane changes can be very challenging for wheelchair users, not only because of the time involved, but also because of the physical energy that must be expended to get from one gate to another.
However direct flights are not always possible, so having adequate time between connections is essential.
Maria says “When traveling with connecting flights leave at least 2 hours between connections and alert flight attendants you’ll be needing a wheelchair or handicap transport to your next gate.”
She also says that a good travel agent will be able to get bulkhead seating near the restrooms. (In Carrieanna’s opinion, this makes the travel agent worth her weight in gold!)
I asked Maria about the advisability of getting refundable airline tickets. She said, “I highly recommend taking out insurance rather than refundable tickets. But don’t get the generic insurance the airline offers. There are travel insurance companies that offer policies covering preexisting conditions and more comprehensive coverage at a comparable price.”
Carrieanna’s Tips for Wheelchair-Accessible Flying
When Carrieanna flies she needs to check her foldable wheelchair at the plane door, similar to checking a baby stroller. She has found that using a luggage strap to keep the wheelchair tightly folded reduces the possibility of it being damaged when being loaded and stored for the flight. And she keeps the chair’s seat cushion with her so that it doesn’t get lost or torn.
Along with the “usual” items a traveler packs, Carrieanna has other necessary personal items she must bring (including, when we travel overseas, her foldable shower stool). This necessitates checking at least one bag. Coupled with a cane, a carry-on bag and a small backpack-type purse, she has a lot of luggage to manage.
Fortunately she can wheel herself, and when she travels with a companion that person can handle the luggage. When traveling alone, or if she does need help, Carrieanna is comfortable asking for assistance, and her beautiful smile almost guarantees that she’ll get the help she needs!
(Another friend with MS is unable to use her arms to wheel herself, so she and her husband have found it easiest to check their luggage curbside. They also hire a special wheelchair-accessible taxi to transport them from home to airport. This enables them to get inside the terminal without leaving her unattended in her wheelchair while he parks the car. One of the many “little details” we able-bodied travelers may take for granted.)
Carrieanna has found that she can use the “premier” ticket counter to check her luggage and get her boarding pass, rather than wheeling along in the serpentine line of other passengers waiting to board.
She has also discovered that she is physically more comfortable if she is in the last boarding group. She is generally one of the last people to deplane, while waiting for her wheelchair to be retrieved and brought to the plane door, so boarding last diminishes the amount of time she must sit in the aircraft.
`(This also gives her the opportunity to use the airport lavatory – which is significantly larger than the plane WC – one last time before boarding.)
More Special Needs Travel Suggestions
Along with Maria’s suggestions regarding flight arrangements, she shared some other helpful travel tips:
- Take the time to evaluate the logistics of your trip in relation to your ability to keep pace.
- Make a list of your specific requirements. BE HONEST (Maria’s emphasis)
- What do you use or need or wish you had when shopping, sightseeing locally, dining out, and going to a sporting event, etc. at home?
- Traveling, whether solo or in a group, is no time for roughing it or trying to “tough it out.”
- If you own a scooter or portable oxygen, it’s important to know the policy and procedures for bringing that equipment on board all the transport vehicles included in your itinerary. Does that transport have a way to stow your scooter* or wheelchair?
- Whether you are headed for a cruise ship, hotel, or all-inclusive resort, double check for wheelchair access at that venue.
- Plan ahead. The earlier you book, the better your chances of securing fully accessible accommodations.
- Check on the access to public restrooms, restaurants, bars, pool, beach area and other amenities.
- Will road travel or car excursions be part of the trip? Check ahead to make sure a suitable vehicle will be available. If you will be hiring a car or van make sure the company is aware of your special needs.
*Maria also has very specific suggestions for traveling with a scooter. While this doesn’t apply to Carrieanna’s mobility needs, if others would like this information I hope they will contact Maria directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 817.266.3306
Thank you, Maria, for your helpful suggestions, and for making it a little easier for wheelchair users and others with special needs to get out and see the world.
I wholeheartedly agree with High Road Travel’s Facebook page tagline: Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer!