Wheelchair Travel : Tips to Make Your Trip Smoother!

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wheelchair travel guide

I’ll be honest, there’s a LOT about travel that I don’t know, and one of those things is wheelchair travel. I’m completely clueless. As an able-bodied person, it is an issue that I unfortunately overlook sometimes. Do the sidewalks have crossing cuts? Do walkway closures have alternative detours that are accessible by wheelchair? What about the local transportation? Do buildings and restaurants have accessible restrooms?

When those aren’t a personal concern for you, maybe you don’t even notice.

I am traveling out of the country for the first time with my mother, who has some mobility limitations, and I was/am overwhelmed with planning. Will she have trouble in this particular country? Roadtrips in the USA are one thing, but internationally… I don’t even know where to begin asking the right questions.

Who you gonna call???

So, when in doubt, I turned to the experts. Yanno – people who regularly traveling with a wheelchair and can help me better understand some of the details to consider, common problems and concerns that pop up, and resources I could use to further educate and prepare myself. I found all of their tips and advice EXTREMELY helpful, so I thought I would share with all of you!

So whether you (or your travel partner) are someone who uses a wheelchair and wants to travel, or you just want to expand your travel awareness, I hope you enjoy this super helpful piece on wheelchair travel!

Let me introduce the experts!

Panelists

IG: @cardenofmilk

Hey! Carden Wyckoff here. I work in tech support at a Fortune 500 tech company empowering businesses thru marketing automation and assist with driving equality and awareness for people with disabilities. ATL grown and spaceship/power-wheelchair user.

I was born with a form of muscular dystrophy (FSHD) and due to the slow progression over the last 15 years, I started using a wheelchair in 2015. Once I was tripping and falling almost daily, and could not walk distances any longer, I was ready to make the switch.

I roll faster than I could have ever walked and now people can’t keep up with me ha! I want to include that currently am independent and can bathe and dress myself for now, but will see where that goes in the next few years. Traveling solo is my method of choice!

IG: @_giulia_lamarca

Hi everyone, I’m Giulia Lamarca, woman, wife, psychologist, co-founder of a startup and travel blogger. I am 27 years old and have been married for 3 years!

What are things to research or ask before visiting a new place or taking a tour?

Guilia: My main questions are if it is accessible, if it has a bathroom on board (for trains or bus tours), and if that country has specific rules for the disabled. There are temples in the world where it is not possible to go with the wheelchair for cultural / religious reasons.


Carden: Proximity is key for me. I always like to book my hotel within a quarter mile of a train stop where I can roll easily to it. Sometimes, the most confusing part is knowing what to ask. Things to keep in mind are:
  • Is the venue wheelchair accessible. Are ALL parts accessible or just some?
  • Are the restrooms handicap accessible?
  • Is there step free access?
  • What are the sidewalks like?
  • Are all train stations, subways, and buses accessible?
  • What are the sidewalk and street conditions? Aka IS THERE COBBLESTONE???
  • Do they offer wheelchair Uber or taxis on the fly?

What is the most accessible method of traveling?

Carden: This depends on length of time. Airplanes are the fastest. Buses are reliable. City trains can be hit or miss. High speed bullet trains are fine, but restrooms can be hit or miss. Wheelchair taxis/ Uber WAV if available are really nice. Personally, if I can, I will just roll everywhere within a mile when I’m in a city.

Guilia:  In short – it depends. Going to specialized agencies or asking in advance can make your life a lot easier when it comes time to your actual trip. You can also contact local authorities or guides directly once you arrive.

Kay: My mom loves taking cruises. Some things to look into before taking a cruise is whether or not the cruise has on-board wheelchairs or scooters to rent. My mom generally prefers her walker, but for larger cruise ships, having a wheelchair definitely helps with fatigue. Last year, she took a Mediterranean cruise with her gal pals, and one good thing to look for is how wide public spaces are, if they have lowered sinks, and if they have pool lifts and push-button doors!

Another reason my mom likes cruises is that they have pre-made little itineraries and ideas for when the boat docks. You can specifically ask for ideas and excursions that are accessible! It’s a little less work on your part!

Should you arrive at the airport or train/bus station even earlier if you use a wheelchair? 

How early should you be hitting the road??

Carden: Depends on the method of transport. Buses, no, trains – in most cities – yes. For airports, the day after you book your ticket, call the airline disability service line or customer service and provide the accommodations you are requesting.

If traveling with a power chair, they need weight, dimensions, type of battery (dry or wet cell), and if the battery is removable. They will also require a few personal questions, like if you need assistance ascending/descending stairs (walking level differs between wheelchair uses, fyi), and if you need assistance to your seat or using the restroom on the plane.

If you do need full body assistance, they will need your height and weight so they can anticipate to accommodate. A trick I’ve learned in the USA is to book a coach seat then when you call disability services, ask to be upgraded to the bulkhead seats! This is the first aisle (comfort +) with the most leg room and is reserved for guests with disabilities. You will be the first to board and last to leave the plane. Last because they have to let everyone off the plane, then bring on the people to do a full body lift. Meanwhile, they will offload your wheelchair from cargo and bring it up the elevator to the gate. This can take ~30-45min, so never plan a meeting or event an hour after your plane lands or you’ll never get there in time.

Guilia: Definiely yes, I would recommend arriving at the airport 2 or 3 hours before. People who may need extra assistance boarding, like wheelchair uses, are boarded first. You don’t want to show up late, especially because it can take longer to get to the gate and everything. I appreciate boarding first because it’s relatively “low key” and quiet. I don’t like become a living show so other passengers can watch in awe to see how we move between one chair to another.

Who do you contact for wheelchair assistance at the airport/train station/bus station?


Carden: In my experience, buses are wheelchair accessible with some version of a power lift or ramp installed to board. Street cars, however, are not always accessible and vary per city. When in doubt, I’ve always relied on buses.

Trains require more advanced strategic planning, depending on your destination. You might have to notify the correct personnel ahead of time. Not every station will have an elevator or ramp to enter/exit. While a station may be accessible to enter, getting on the train may not be (i.e gap is too wide/ too high). In Atlanta, all stations are accessible and the train is level with the platform so I never have to worry. If I were to travel to Chicago / London / Berlin, this is not always the case and only select stations are deemed “wheelchair accessible”.

Some cities require you to notify the station at least 24 hours ahead of time so they can ensure personnel are available on both ends. Some allow you to notify the ticket attendant to pull out the ramp. And then other cities keep a ramp in the front train car and tell you to always board at the front car where the conductor puts down the ramp. Most cities have a designated area for wheelchair users and this is notated either on the train itself or painted on the platform or via signage on the platform.
Since every city does wheelchair accessibility differently, check out the maps and details for the public transit on the city’s website.

Guilia: I use a car a lot because I drive with an adapted car setup. It is great for roadtrips because I can travel and stop/go at my own pace. For international travel, I prefer planes. For the plane, it is necessary to contact “the friendly room” (it’s the name in Italy…) in order to signal the assistance needed specifying which type. Trains in Italy, and Europe in general, can be a problem for disabled users, but thankfully I have had really good luck in some countries in Asia like Japan!

Have you ever experienced problems getting through TSA or at the airport in general?

“Ma’am – could you please stand up?” – and other things TSA ask……

Guilia: No serious problems… no. But sometimes it’s embarrassing because they ask you so many times to stand up…and then since I am not able to do it, they touch you VERY thoroughly. The more “attentive” and sensitive countries give you a more private pat-down area available. In others, they have asked my husband to pick me up so they can double check me.

Carden: I personally have not had issues with TSA. There are some benefits to using a wheelchair as there is either a designated priority line for wheelchairs and strollers, or am escorted all the way to the front of the line. The longest I’ve ever stood in a TSA line is about 30 minutes in Atlanta. The busiest airport in the WORLD.

I always ask TSA or an able bodied person in front of me to put my bags on the conveyor belt. Since I cannot stand and walk thru the metal detectors, I ask TSA for a ‘female assist’. This means a female pats me and my chair down and swabs my hands / wheelchair for particulate matter. The longest I’ve waited for a female assist pat down was 20 minutes. But 99% of the time, I wait a minute or two on the side until they can secure an available agent. During a pat down they will ask you if you can lean side to side and bend forward, if you have any sensitive areas or inserted medical devices to be aware of, and then they will literally pat you down using the back of their hands under the breast and buttocks area. A pat down takes about 5 minutes.
wheelchair travel tips for the outdoors

What does a bad airport experience look like?

Carden: Paris was a pretty miserable experience if I’m being honest. It took them over an hour to offload my wheelchair from the plane. Then, it was delivered to me on a rolly cart with no way to lift it off the cart. My power chair is 250lbs (110kg). So THEN it took then another hour to find people to get it on the ground.

For the majority of the major USA airports, I just roll right to the gate. I don’t need to check-in at the disability services counter when I arrive. They have ramped covered bridges to board the front of the plane so I don’t need to be driven to the plane and loaded outside. USA boarding time is also 30-45 min.

This is, however, the complete opposite for most European airports I’ve been to. I made the mistake one time thinking oh every airport has ramped covered bridges to load the plane and I can arrive to the plane 10 min before leaving. Not. At. All. Ha. Europe has many budget airlines and these board up a flight of stairs and from both ends of the plane. Boarding is finished in about 10-15 minutes because they are efficient.

I recommend always checking in at the disability services counter when traveling internationally. Often times, they will have to load you into a special lift cart or driven to the plane via cart. Also Europe is much stricter on flying with batteries. They need the make model and all specs of the battery. Lithium batteries must be taken on board with you (this is true also in US). 

Can you use your own wheelchair at the airport? 

packing tips for wheelchair travel

Carden: I ride my wheelchair all the way to the gate. This is more comfortable for me and also allows me to keep my freedom if I arrive at the gate early. If I checked my power chair at check-in and then someone rolled me manually all the way to the gate, I would be a sitting duck. Girls got places to go! Use the restroom/ grab some snacks/ people watch while I wait at the gate.

As soon as I arrive at the gate, I check-in with the gate agent to ensure there will be 2 people to transfer me to my seat, and they also tag my wheelchair. (If I bring my smaller collapsible chair which breaks apart into 3 pieces, I will have them tag all parts). It’s so important you tag your chair and/or all main pieces if it comes apart just in case any piece goes missing.

When they call for pre-boarding or those who need extra time to board the plane, I am transferred via a whole body lift (lifted under crossed arms and under knees) by 2 people into what they call an “aisle chair” this is just a fancy term for a wheelchair that can fit in between the aisles of the airplane. I always ask for the “ramp lead” to come to the gate so I can show him how to put my chair in neutral and roll it. Some people will tape signs to their chair to show how to operate. Personally I found this to be ineffective. I just turn the chair off, put in neutral and show them how to roll it manually. I then take my seat cushion and back rest on board with me so they aren’t lost in transit.

That…kinda seems like a lot of work, no?

Carden: This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. Going through the airport is the least of my worries and is the quickest part of my journey. Now hoping and praying that my chair isn’t damaged on the plane or broken during the off loading process…that’s another ordeal and very stressful.

Can you put a manual wheelchair in the airplane cabin?

wheelchair travel tips for airplanes

Carden: Check your local country regulations since it varies. Many airlines do allow for stowage of a manual wheelchair in the flat closet area.

Per the Air Carrier Access Act for the USA “§382.67 As a carrier, you must ensure that there is priority space in the cabin (i.e. a closet) of sufficient size to stow at least one typical adult-sized folding, collapsible, or break-down manual passenger wheelchair, without having to remove the wheels or otherwise disassemble it. This section applies to any aircraft with 100 or more passenger seats.

I use a power chair, and so this does not board the plane with me rather is stowed in cargo underneath the plane.

Are airplane bathrooms accessible? 

Guilia: This is a big problem for travelers, and not only wheelchair users. The bathrooms are always too small! I know some airlines are working to make them viable. But in my experience – no.

Airplane restrooms – DO BETTER.

Carden: They are “supposed” to be. But what I think of as accessible and what airlines deem accessible are very different. This is not your typical USA 5′ wide and long with grab bars 42″ long and mounted between 31-36″. I cannot use the “accessible” airplane bathroom without assistance being transferred to the toilet and assistance pulling my pants up. Thankfully that’s what flight attendants are there and trained to help you.

To prep for long flights (4+ hrs), I limit my fluid intake in the morning and take an anti-diarrheal so that it slows everything down for about 24hrs. Probably not the healthiest thing to do, but 🤷🏼‍♀️. Gotta do whatcha gotta do.

I know some men will use a catheter and there are feminine catheter type devices. Personally I haven’t explored or used any of these. I made it from London to Toronto (8.5hrs) without having to use the restroom. Not that I’m really proud of that, but it’s just stressful using the restroom on the plane. Going to sleep on the plane also helps to put your body in a restful state to slow everything down for me.

What are tips to make airplane travel easier for wheelchair users? 

Guilia: My advice is to make specific requests and specify what you need to fly, such as : having a companion nearby for assistance and aid moving in hand luggage. Another helpful trick that I use is to travel with a medical certificate that documents your disability. Also, try requesting a free seat next to you to be able to stretch your legs (many companies grant it if they have free seats)

Carden: Call ahead of time to the disability services line when you book your ticket. That’s my first tip! Also, take pictures of your wheelchair before loading and note any damages on your phone. That way you have solid evidence if it is damaged in flight. And, on that note, tag all parts to your wheelchair. Be sure to ALWAYS bring your removable battery on board with you. While you’re at it, bring any piece of your wheelchair that could be easily damaged like the seat cushion or back rest. Know that there’s a high risk of your chair being damaged, unfortunately, so just be prepared.

Which countries have been the most and least accessible for travel? 

Carden: Outside the USA: Spain, Germany, and London (not a country) were my favorites in terms of accessibility. Though note that there are aspects to wheelchair accessibility each does well but lacks in other aspects. Such as Germany (Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt) by far has my favorite accessible bathrooms. They are giant and the grab bars pull down if you need them. However, most public places lack step free access and train stops are hit or miss. London does a phenomenal job with providing step free access everywhere, though their train gaps can be a foot wide and not all train stops are accessible.

Not a country, but Paris is especially challenging. Sidewalks are a nightmare. And step-free access is pretty limited in Europe in general. It’s super hit or miss as the countries (in Europe) are much older in terms of architecture. Thankfully, many places now have a ramp they can set down if you ask or ring the bell out front. Cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris have cobblestone for miles. It’s so uncomfortable to ride on.

” Paris – Why you gotta be so lovely and romantic but have bad sidewalks and streets for rolling? Or how about the unending times you decided to block roads so only walking pedestrians can pass or close off sidewalks without notice in advance? ”

Carden: So again, highly variable and often times I just ride in the bike lanes to avoid the cobblestone. But it’s getting better. Many crosswalk buttons in Europe are equipped to chirp for those who are hard of hearing. In the high speed train stations, raised nodes line the station to guide someone who is blind or has low vision. I believe Europe is trying to improve accommodations for all types of disabilities.

Guilia: The most accessible country I have experienced is Japan, followed by Australia. “Newer” countries, or countries that emphasize technological progress, tend to be more visible in their care of local citizens and tourists. In my experience, Europe and the European mainland have most of the time big problems with the subway since they have been built many years ago.

Can you ever “travel on the fly” with a wheelchair? How much planning goes into a trip for you?

Guilia: It is not impossible, but it is difficult. I need some planning because my medical aids, which require me to decide the days in advance. ]

Carden: Haha this is my life! In the USA, I travel on the fly all the time since I’m very comfortable traveling in the US because I know their accessibility with wheelchair travel. The biggest planning caveat is trying to find a hotel that has a roll-in shower that is ALSO close to what I want to do. I can’t just get an Airbnb or Hotel Tonight right then and there. The shortest time in advance I’ve booked travel was a week before.

International travel requires more strategic planning and I use a travel agent that knows my needs to assist. Though, now that I think of it, I only had a one way ticket and a hotel for a week planned when I went to Europe – the night before. My mom basically had a heart attack. Even cities in the same country approach accessibility differently. I found this especially in Germany, so you can’t always know what you’re getting into traveling on the fly.

Has something ever happened to your wheelchair while you were on a trip?

Guilia: Yes, once they lost it within one stop. Another time they broke it. Here my advice: no matter what they tell you, go immediately to make the complaint! They WILL make it right for you, or at least try. Do not be afraid to call them out or seem “troublesome.”


Carden: All the time – as horrible as this is.

I arrived in Toronto after a 9 hour flight from London and my wheelchair shorted out 2 days into my work trip. Something must have jostled it in flight. Thankfully, I was with my teammates and we borrowed a wheelchair from the hotel and I called a local scooter rental company to drop off a scooter the next day. I landed back home in ATL and my home Go Go Elite travel scooter was completely bent in half. I called my parents to come rescue me at midnight from the airport. Wheels had been bent and warped, lots of scuff and scratch marks, bent arm rests you name it. It just is the risk you take.

My joystick and wheel cover have been popped off before too. In this case, for minor damages which happened in Dublin, I went to a local hardware store and the guys there were so nice to repair the damages and attach some bolts and screws for free. They felt really bad I guess haha. But I am forever grateful.

So what is the biggest quality issue for wheelchair travel?

biggest concerns with wheelchair travel

Carden: The biggest issue I encounter, and the most stressful, is you just never know if your chair is going to arrive inoperable after a flight. Anticipate scuff marks at the very least. When any damage happens, take pics then go to damaged baggage or baggage services, often located at baggage claim. You’ll file a claim and then, per country regulations, the airline will pay or partly pay for the damages depending on the cost.

Each airline and airport does chair servicing differently. If you’re back home and you have a local go-to person, suggest that as #1. Some airlines contract service personnel and they’ll come within a week to scope out the damages then order parts. Sometimes they will provide a temporary scooter or chair if yours is inoperable or give you the number of a local rental company.

What is your opinion on travel insurance?

Carden: I personally have not used it. I only take a carry on with me and if the airplane damages my wheelchair, the airline is required to pay and fix it per the Air Carrier Access Act.

Guilia: Personally the only unsafe thing is how they handle the wheelchair during loading and unloading from the hold, otherwise: get a good medical insurance if possible! But – that’s a general life tip!

you can skydive if you use a wheelchair

If an able-bodied person sees a wheelchair user in a situation they think they might need extra assistance, should they offer to help? Does this unsolicited help (even if they ask first) ever make you uncomfortable or bother you in any way? 

Guilia: In my opinion, the help is not bad but always ASK. My advice is to come closer and say: “Can I help you / do you want a hand?” The important thing is not to completely replace the person.

Carden: This is different for every person. I personally am not offended when people go ahead and start to help me do something: i.e put my bag on the conveyor belt. I’m forever grateful. Though not everyone is as open to receiving help.

It’s always polite to ask first. My Nana always told me declining someone who is offering to help eliminates the opportunity for them to feel good about themselves by helping someone out. That may have been someone’s only good deed they tried to do for the day and I squished it. I’m all for others helping out.

What advice would you give to someone hesitant towards wheelchair travel?

Guilia: You’re going to need to be courageous and just do it. If it helps, start with goals that are less daunting, like a roadtrip or traveling within the country, and then go further! The more you travel, the less nervous you will be.

wheelchair travel tips for cruises

Carden: Time is a tickin…! Go travel! See the world. You will overcome obstacles you never thought before and so much incredible food, people, life, energy, architecture, culture and language to explore! It can be challenging but the memories you make will never be forgotten.

romantic spot for wheelchair travel

**Conclusion on Wheelchair Travel**

GAH SO MUCH GREAT INFORMATION!! If there is anything you have learned from this post, it is that wheelchair travel is possible and achievable! So go do it! If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to our lovely panelists! I will go ahead and leave their contact info below!

Carden

instagram

Giulia

instagram

youtube

More information on wheelchair travel

This is not the end all be all of wheelchair travel. There are tons of great guides and articles out there! But hopefully, this was a good place to start! Also – certainly not exclusive to wheelchair travel, but I also have a post featuring more general information on traveling with a chronic condition. And here are a few more tips and tricks for traveling with a wheelchair!
I know it’s long, so feel free to save these wheelchair travel tips for later.

How accessible is your city?

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18 Comments

  1. Thank you so much! I am excited for my next trip!!

  2. Joanna Rath says:

    Wow! So much to think about and consider. I was truly ignorant. Very detailed and informative post. Thanks.

  3. What an incredible post with incredible women! Fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Wow what an amazing panel you’ve put together. Thank you for this informative post. I follow Cory Lee, who is also an inspiring wheelchair traveler. Traveling should be accessible for everyone! Love this article.

  5. Cherene Saradar says:

    I love that these ladies haven’t let the wheelchair stop them. I can’t imagine how hard it is and it’s great to share these tips.

  6. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad says:

    Wow, this is so inspiring! Great questions too. Also they ask you to stand up and then get really into your personal space because you can’t?!? That seems a bit wrong. I can’t imagine how difficult it can be to travel around some European cities in a wheelchair.

  7. What an excellent post! So helpful for people with mobility limitations and people like me who hate stairs too! Thanks for putting this together.

  8. Wow, that’s a really informative post. I’m in the same situation as you; currently planning a trip with my mom, who is dealing with mobility issues. There’s so much to consider that I hadn’t thought about before! I’m impressed with the contributors to the article who are chasing their travel dreams and making it happen. (Also, bless you for not having ads all over your site. It’s makes reading so much more pleasant!)

  9. interesting read! Especially the part Carden says about flight attendants helping with on-board toileting. Is that just a US thing? I’ve heard that flight attendants aren’t really allowed to do that in Europe.

  10. This is such a helpful post. I’d honestly never thought about things like having to use an airplane bathroom when in a wheelchair, there’s so much to think about. I have a few people in my life that would definitely find this info useful, I’ll be sharing a link!

  11. Jill Bowdery says:

    These ladies are absolute inspirations. As an able-bodied traveller, I’m well aware how lucky I am, but it’s still easy to forget on a day-to-day basis. It’s great to see this type of advice from confident, adventurous women who let nothing stop them!

  12. Such a great post! I love how you’re helping people travel more easily. Such great tips.

  13. Albína Mrázová says:

    These tips are so useful! and it is great that someone pay attention to people on a wheelchair, especially because traveling is so much harder like this. Great tips.

  14. This is so informative! I admit I haven’t thought about accessibility as much as I should, but this really helps me be more conscious of it. Great post!

  15. This has been truly fascinating! Thinking about airplane toilets now .. I can see how they really do not take into account people with disabilities. I’m shocked to hear that people need to resort to measures like deliberately taking pills and reducing fluids. This needs to be changed!

  16. Emah Purple says:

    Wow, what a great post. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Cheryl Waters says:

    I haven’t traveled very much, but I have discovered that when you ask “is it handicapped accessible” doesn’t always mean “wheelchair accessible”. My daughter has cerebral palsy and is always in her chair. To some people, handicapped accessible means adding bars to a normal bathroom stall. Things are getting better, but slowly. Good article.

    1. Thank you thank you thank youuuu for reading and sharing you and your daughter’s experience! Slowly indeed, but hopefully as the travel industry grows, so will awareness. Thank you again!

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