Q. I love travel, and before my injury I used to travel a lot. I’m getting ready to take my first big trip since I became a T5 complete para a year and a half ago. In late November I will be flying from Los Angeles to Miami, then renting a car to spend a week in the Florida Keys. What differences should I expect traveling as a wheelchair user?
A. Sarah, I envy you — between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a magic time to visit Florida: no crowds, low-season pricing and perfect weather.
Here is a list of air travel tips I’ve picked up — in 27 years as a T10 complete paraplegic — while accruing (and spending) close to 500,000 frequent flyer miles for my jobs in freelance journalism and marketing.
I book my air, rental car and hotels online. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I use Kayak.com, which checks all other sites to find the lowest rates. During the online booking process, keep in mind that seating assignments, rental car hand controls and accessible rooms can be sorted out after booking. You should check all applicable boxes, such as “wheelchair user,” “hand controls,” and “accessible room,” but my experience has proved that follow-up phone calls are the only way to make sure this information is entered into the system the way you want it.
After online booking, allow 24 hours for reservations to get into the system, then follow-up by phone with the airline, rental car agency and hotel(s) to make adjustments and make sure your wants and needs are covered. This is also a good time to write up an itinerary with reservation numbers, phone numbers, and name of the agent(s) you spoke with — I find when I politely ask the spelling of the agent’s name at the beginning of a conversation, they take things much more seriously and my reservation processes and follow-through works much more smoothly.
When calling an airline, explain that you’re a wheelchair user, that you can’t walk and that you will need an aisle chair (a narrow chair you transfer into before entering the cabin door of the plane). As a wheelchair user, you can request a specific seat assignment (some airlines like Southwest don’t do advance seat assignments, but they do pre-board wheelchair users — and usually friends and family as well — and let you choose the seat). Requesting a seat in a row as close to the cabin door as possible means less time spent going down the narrow aisle in the chair. Bulkhead seats are usually closest to the door and have the most legroom, but they have fixed armrests and are more difficult to transfer into. For ease of transfer, I prefer to sit in a row with a movable aisle armrest — something airlines are required to have. As far as seat choice, transferring to an aisle seat is easiest; however since you board first and deplane last, this means you’re more likely to get bumped and jostled as other passengers board and deplane and as the food and drink services go by — not to me