I’m Tabassum Chagani. I’ve flown all over the world, and it just so happens that I travel in a wheelchair. Air travel can be uncomfortable for many people—with or without a wheelchair, but maybe my tips can help!
Plan Your Airline, Accommodation and Transportation
With or without a wheelchair, the best way to see a city is to take transit, get off in the heart of it, and wander around. I’ve lived in L.A., Atlanta, and Pakistan—so I’m not afraid of big cities or traffic. However, here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re planning a wheelchair accessible trip of your own.
- Think “AAT”: Airline, Accommodation, and Transportation. This seems pretty obvious, but it’s even more important for disabled travellers or their companions to consider when booking travel. Like many Canadian travellers close to the border, I find flying out of the States much cheaper. When I plan these trips, I like to drive myself to the airport because then I know exactly how I am going to get there and back, without worrying about accessibility. Unfortunately, Greyhound and Quick Shuttle are not very wheelchair friendly, so driving your own car makes sense. Take a bit of time to search for those extra services. When you’ve arrived at your destination, and get off the plane, how are you going to transfer to your hotel? What tours will you be taking? How will you get to the tour departure areas? Will the tour providers pick you up? Do they have accessible vehicles? How will you get back to the airport, and from the airport back home?
- Accessible parking: Just like anyone else, I like a good bargain. I always look for long-term parking. The handicapped designated spots are wider than others and closer to the entrance. For example, the parking lot at SeaTac airport in Seattle has a shuttle bus with a lift and drops me off right at my car. When I fly back, I simply use the courtesy phone. If I have a good experience with a specific airline, then I’ll be a loyal customer; I appreciate nice people, general seating in the plane (first come first served) and good prices. If you have a favourite long term parking company or airline that you’ve dealt with that you think has great service, feel free to share it in the comment box below.
- Take a Cruise: I love cruises! I’ve been to Alaska, the South Caribbean and the Nile. Cruises are a great way to travel in a wheelchair. Cruise ships already cater to travelers with accessibility, mobility and health needs. When I book a cruise, I always ask for an accessible room. These rooms are slightly bigger and have an accessible bathroom including a roll-in shower, hand rails and anti-slip/anti-fall flooring. Dining is also well set-up for wheelchairs, and I can take full advantage of all the entertainment, services and shows too. My Alaska cruise was my first King Crab “experience”. I loved dipping the giant legs in garlic butter! It was definitely worth the money for the seafood alone.
- Have fun: I don’t see myself as having a disability; I’d rather see it as an ability to enjoy life. I find humor wherever I go- even in the airport. I remember arriving at Chicago O’Hare and heading down the long corridors; I rolled my chair onto the moving walkway and heard the constant drone of “keep walking, keep walking, keep walking…” I thought that was funny- it should have been “keep rolling, keep rolling, keep rolling”! I love those moving walkways- getting on and off of them in my chair is fun. I’m like a kid at the airport.
Always keep these tips in mind too, when planning a wheelchair accessible trip:
- Look for and expect extra services. Remember, there should be no extra cost to you to book accessible travel or rooms.
- Speak up! Ask for Assistance. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you need- you might even get upgraded!
- Know your rights
- Be firm, be kind
- And lastly, choose a great travel companion.
Plan Your Plane Ride
- Have an air travel routine: I like to arrive at the airport 90 minutes before an international departure. I prefer to check in with an agent and not the self-check-in because I might miss something. This way I can let the airline know my boarding needs, have them check my wheelchair, prepare an aisle chair, and make arrangements to have a wheelchair at my transfer gate or destination.
- The aisle chair: The aisle in an airplane is too narrow for your regular-sized wheelchair, so you’ll have to check it as special luggage. You’ll use an aisle chair provided by the air carrier to board the plane and use the bathroom. Make sure you ask for assistance when transferring from your in-flight seat to the aisle chair. Or if you’re traveling with a friend or family member with a disability, familiarize yourself with the aisle chair’s location during flight.
- Baggage checking your wheelchair: Air carriers should ensure your own wheelchair is waiting for you at the gate upon arrival, but don’t make the same mistake I did. Make sure you’ve properly checked in your wheelchair and received a special item luggage tag. You don’t want to arrive at your destination to find your chair isn’t waiting for you! It happened to me when I flew to Pakistan; I arrived in Karachi, but my wheelchair was in Montreal! Thankfully the Red Cross rented me a wheelchair and my own chair arrived the next day.
- Long haul flights: When I fly from Vancouver to Pakistan, it’s over 15 hours in the air, not including the lay-overs in London or Hong Kong. For long-haul flights, this well-known tip applies to passengers in wheelchairs too: drink lots of water and avoid alcohol! More specifically though, ask for a bulkhead seat: it’s the row of seats directly after the partition. The bulkhead offers more “leg room” or in my case, more space to manoeuver the aisle chair. It’s not possible for people with disabilities to sit in the emergency exits. Keep this in mind if you’re booking on behalf of a traveling companion in a wheelchair.
- Know your Rights: Every traveler should know their rights, but especially people with disabilities. International Air Transport Association and the Association of Air Passenger Rights are both excellent resources for all passengers. The Canadian Government Flight Rights site is also helpful. Depending on where you’re traveling, you may also want to compare your passenger rights in Canada versus the USA or Europe, for example. In general, here are the rules that airlines should follow to serve passengers with reduced mobility:
- Assist in interline journeys and airport transfers
- Communicate passengers’ special needs, and services provided on the ground and in-flight between air carriers
- Provide special equipment when necessary
- Offer priority boarding and individual briefings on safety procedures, aircraft layouts, and specialized equipment
Take care and keep traveling!