Tips for Traveling with a Mobility-Challenged Person

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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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