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Tips for Traveling with a Mobility-Challenged Person

by on December 9, 2011 · 16 comments

in Points Guy Pointers, Travel Health

As I mentioned in a previous post, as a special present, I took my grandmother to visit our cousins in Santa Barbara over Thanksgiving weekend. She’s 89 years old, still sharp as a whip, but like most people who get to that age, her mobility has become somewhat limited. She still gets around, but she uses a walker and is quite fragile. While I was thrilled to be able to treat her to a trip she really wanted to take, I was also anxious about traveling with a mobility-challenged person.

Based on our experience a couple weeks ago, I thought I’d put together a list of some helpful tips to keep in mind when traveling with a person with limited mobility. Obviously this was my first and only experience so far, so if any of you have tips or suggestions of your own, I’d love to hear them!

1. Give yourself extra time. Then pad your schedule with even more time ahead of your flight. The last thing you need, especially with all the stress that comes with travel anyway, is to feel rushed, or worse yet, to realize you won’t make your flight at all because of any issues that might come up.

2. Reserve a wheelchair. Do this when you’re making your reservation, for use both at your departure airport and at your arrival airport (as well as any layovers, of course), so it’s in the system and ready to go. Then when you check in at the airport, make sure they call for a wheelchair for you. There are two types, one that you push yourself, and another where an airport employee pushes it for you. I think the $5 tip you give this person is well worth the time and effort their presence saves you.

3. Prepare for the pat down. I’m 28 years old, and usually do the TSA dance pretty quickly (you’d be shocked at how quickly I can whip off my shoes and belt!), but I knew going through security would take a lot of extra time in this case. However, our experience with the TSA security was actually pretty good. My grandmother couldn’t walk through the metal detector, so we had to request special security screening, and that basically meant a pat down. I’ve had my own TSA massage many times, but there wasn’t really a choice in this case, and they were thorough. It’s basically the same process as if you had a standing-up pat down, plus, because of the wheelchair, they had to do a mirror test for explosives on the chair (you know, like they use to look under cars at a special event or when entering a restricted area), which was sort of ridiculous, since it was an airport wheelchair. The one issue was that they made my grandmother take her shoes off—like anyone would have to—and it took us a long time to get them back on.

5. Lounge access. I love lounge access anyway, but in this case, it made an even bigger difference. Since it was the week of Thanksgiving, the terminal was totally crowded, there were no real seats to be found anywhere, and everyone was rushing around in a holiday-induced stress haze. My Amex Platinum got us into the US Airways Club, though, which was a great, quiet place to relax before the flight, and made a nice break between the stresses of security and hectic boarding experience we knew was to come. Plus, it had a nice, clean, individual handicap bathroom that my grandmother could use before the flight. Little things like that made a big difference in our experience.

6. Up to the front. I think being as close to the front of the plane as possible is a must when traveling with a mobility-challenged person since you don’t want to have to walk the whole length of the plane, and then back again when you are deplaning. I used miles to book us both tickets in first class, but even if you don’t have miles or elite status, check-in and gate agents also tend to hold bulkhead seats and other rows close to the front for physically challenged passengers, so be sure to ask both at check in and at the gate itself to see if they can do anything for you.

7. Board first or board last. If you can get to the gate for the call for passengers with special needs to board, try for that, otherwise, it’s best to board at the end. First is better, though, because you don’t want to be stuck standing on the jetway for ages while everyone boards with a 100 people staring at the back of your head, and then standing and creeping down the aisle while everyone else puts their bags overhead (and you might have to gate check your own bags if overhead space fills up).

8. Find the wheelchairs. We were row 2 of first class, and since walking a short distance wasn’t an issue with my grandmother, I thought we would just deplane immediately. However, we were surprised to find that there were no wheelchairs waiting on the jet bridge just outside the plane door. Instead, they were parked all the way up in the terminal, so we stood aside on the jet bridge as everyone else deplaned, and waited for the wheelchairs to come down to us and the other passengers waiting for them. However, it turns out that passengers who made it up the jet bridge to the terminal TOOK the wheelchairs that were waiting there, just claiming that they were for them. So we ended up waiting another 20 minutes until they could call some more. Of all the things people steal in an airport, who would have ever thought wheelchairs would be among them!? My advice would be, if you’re in first class and can see the jet bridge, check if the wheelchairs are there. If so, go ahead, otherwise, wait till everyone has deplaned and have them call one down for you.

9. Get the aisle seat. This just makes it easier for your companion to get in and out when boarding and deplaning, and for you and the flight attendants to help them get to the lavatory if need be. I don’t think it’s part of their job description, but in the past, I’ve always seen them be super nice about helping mobility-challenged passengers, and that makes a huge difference.

10. Coordinate the rental car. When we got to LAX, I had to leave my grandmother on a seat near baggage claim (and the door so she’d be ready to go!) and hop on the rental car shuttle to pick up our car, then come back to the airport to pick her up. While there, though, I couldn’t just leave my car parked, I had to leave the keys in and the engine running and explain to a security official what I was doing so the car wouldn’t be 1. stolen, 2. towed or 3. ticketed. Even under the best of circumstances that’s stressful, but on Thanksgiving week, it was especially so since the airport was so busy. Next time, I might ask Hertz if they can do a pick up at the terminal itself just to make things easier, save a little time, and take some of the pressure off.

Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert on traveling with a mobility-challenged person since I’ve just done it the one time, so I’d love it if other people could share their own experiences and tips.

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  • Elisabeth

    Great post, TPG. I haven’t traveled with a person with mobility challenges, but I am more sensitive to the issue because both my parents use walkers.

  • MSPpete

    All good tips. A seat in first class also increases the chances that the bathroom is available when your companion needs it and the aisle is not blocked with food service carts. Using the valet parking, if available, makes the trip to security much shorter. I also carry a day pack with Mom’s purse and book so both of us have both hands free to negotiate the twists and turns of boarding. Car rental shuttle vans are very difficult to enter and exit. Either park mom on a bench in the terminal pickup area while you get the car and come back, or if you are lucky, choose a rental car company that actually has cars in the terminal parking garage.

  • Susan

    Stealing wheelchairs is really low! On a recent flight (AA) I saw at least 6 attendants with wheelchairs on the jetbridge, each with a placard with a pax name. I suppose it would be awkward to require photo ID to get your wheelchair, but apparently it’s come to that. (yes, it was a crowded jetbridge, but we ablebodies can maneuver)

  • http://www.ipbrian.com/ IPBrian

    Brian, I am so glad you got to do this with your grandmother. I lost my grandmother this year and I wish I still had the chance to do something like this for her. I am sure this trip will be special to you both for the rest of your lives.

  • Kara

    I took my grandmother to DC this summer and my recommendation is to rent a Gogo scooter from your local pharmacy, it cost $200 for a month and we had no issues with security or plane-side checking of it. We boarded first and de-planed last, so she was never rushed. The scooter allowed her to keep her independence and not feel uncomfortable with a wheelchair attendant. She liked it so much, she ended up buying one when we got back! The Gogo scooter comes apart in 4 pieces so I was able to lift it into the car on my own and we were able to arrange it how we liked around our baggage. We had no issues with it. Great article, I would have loved to have had these suggestions while planning my trip. Leading up to leaving, the TSA caused me the most stress.. I can deal with the pat-down (and often do!) but I didn’t want my grandmother (or my 4 nieces and nephews that went as well) to have to deal with it.

  • Guest

    Can somebody please think about the children.

    The children.

  • Rob

    My dad uses a cane to walk and has a metal rod on his leg. That translates to a guaranteed pat down. We’ve found it easier and more comfortable for him to bring his own wheelchair, get that massage sitting down, waiting is less a bit more comfortable, and nobody takes your private wheels.

  • Donnie

    All good tips that I have used when travelling with my grandmother. When we would go on long flights I always choose wide body planes. That way we could sit in the middle row in First Class. I wouldn’t have to bother her when I got up but I could easily help her when she needed assistance. Also I purposely would choose longer layovers so we would not have to rush if a flight was late.

  • Rob

    Most of the new Hertz buses have a function where they can load on wheelchair people, and then they can go to the rental car facility with you.

  • MDAccount

    I’d also be mindful of how far it is between gates during connections. My 81 year-old mother is quite fit, and gives lengthy walking tours at a museum. During a recent connection in Detroit, however, when she had 50 minutes to make her connection, I insisted she book a wheelchair just for the sake of speed.

    The agent who greeted her in Detroit told her it was the right move, because it was TWO MILES from her gate to the commuter gate she needed next. Some of that involved a tram, but still, for anyone who might move more slowly, a wheelchair can be the difference between making your flight or not.

    I have no idea if it was actually two miles (I find that hard to believe) but I do know that just getting from an arrival gate to baggage claim can be a long, long walk, full of turns, escalators, hallways and doors. For anyone with compromised vision, mobility or speed, it’s a nightmare.

  • Rick

    My son is in a wheelchair so I know how difficult it can be. Even finding a handicap spot for parking could be tough. The only problem I had was that we were boarding a plane and there must have been 10 wheelchairs lined up to get on. That wasn’t the problem, it’s when we were getting off the plane that only 2 of those people used wheelchairs and the rest seemed to be able to walk fine to the baggage area. With Southwest they can board first and get front seats.

  • GuestQuest Vacations

    Thank you for this post. It’s the first one I’ve seen that gave tips on ‘how to’ travel with a mobility challenged person. It takes patience and time. The most important thing is to make sure the person is comfortable and has a great time.

  • robin.joshua

    I love tourism, hence, this I want to take my old granny on travel with me to Asia, hence, this post seems , much helpful to me.

  • http://www.paramounthotelblog.com/ New York Attractions

    Most of the new Hertz buses have a feature where they can charge for wheelchair people, and then they can go to the rental car facility with you.

  • Richmanemail-home

    I have problems breathing after about 20 feet and also neck, back and leg problems so I always book a wheel chair and bring my cane instead of the walker since I am by myself. I am not an old granny, just a middle aged disabled person but I really need assistance even if you cannot tell with me just sitting there. Yea, I travel by myself.

    I am let off at curbside check in by my park and ride bus (tip the bus man for taking my bags off the bus) or a cab at curbside check in and rid myself of luggage. Then I then sit and wait there for the wheelchair assistant.

    On Southwest Air, If someone is helping you and traveling with you, they also get to preboard when children and disabled people preboard and they have no seat assignments.

    I tip them when they get me to my gate. (Most assistants are so nice they will take you to where you can buy water, chips or to the restroom and I think many people tip them v. little or nothing from the expressions I see when I tip them. They have even helped me get my baggage off the baggage circulating machine! I don’t mind paying them for each service they help me with because I am in so much pain it is a blessing to have them help.

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