How to successfully travel with a person who is living with paralysis.

February 26, 2019
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Travel is something that many of us enjoyed before paralysis became part of our lives.  I am excited to share with you that travel is still possible even after paralysis.

I don’t want to sugarcoat the truth, the first time you travel after an injury/illness that results in paralysis you will absolutely have challenges. It will be challenging, but in a good way. You will learn things you never knew you would need to learn, sometimes trial and error are the best teachers.

In this blog post I would like to share with you some of our travel experiences, things we have learned and what we do before we travel to make the experience mostly positive.  Every level of paralysis is unique much like a fingerprint. I can tell you my husband is a C7 incomplete SCI but that doesn’t mean his ability is the same as another person with the same level of injury.  Keeping that in mind, certain levels of paralysis require more or less preparation than what I will share, but in general, there are some smart ideas to help make your travel adventures a little easier.

When we travel for vacation or just a weekend getaway, we try to pick a place that is easily accessible for wheelchairs.  We look at the weather for the area specifically at the time we plan to travel and try to find others who have traveled there to rate the accessibility.  There are a few places online that you can find specific reviews for destinations. I also love to ask the people in my Facebook SCI Spouse/Caregiver support groups for information.  I usually get at least a few people who have been where we are going with some helpful information.

Once we decide on the location and travel dates it is time to get some reservations booked.  I start by searching out accommodations that offer wheelchair-accessible rooms. Here are some of the questions I ALWAYS ask (usually several different times, over the course of several different phone calls and always at least once with a manager.)

  1. Is the shower a ROLL-IN shower?  I am sure to explain that a bathroom with a tub that has grab bars is not helpful when your loved one is in a shower wheelchair that must roll all the way into the shower.  We have been told by reservation agents several times that the room had a roll-in shower only to arrive and find out it did not.
  2. Does the bed have a platform around it that prevents a wheelchair from getting close to the mattress?  I have no idea why they put these in accessible rooms but they do, so asking ahead will at least help you plan for a trickier transfer.  My hubby usually does the transfer from chair to bed himself at home, but if we know there is a platform, we can plan ahead and bring a slide board to make that easier.
  3. Can a wheelchair fit under the sink in the bathroom? You would be amazed how many aren’t tall enough for my hubby to fit under with his 6’3” frame. This one is not a deal-breaker as we can work around it, but I just like to point out when they aren’t really ADA accessible so they are aware.

Once I have the room booked, with the name of a manager that I can call back later to confirm our reservation with, I start to look for flights.  (Just be sure to follow up with the manager about a week or two before you travel to confirm they have the correct room reserved for you.)

We have flown Southwest many times and have had great flights each time.  We usually book them online and then once we have our flight information, I call Southwest and tell them my husband is in a wheelchair and will require an aisle chair to get onto the airplane. They give you 2 free pieces of luggage and you can check “medical supplies” at no cost.  I usually pack everything I need to take care of hubby’s SCI related needs in one bag so we can check it as “medical supplies”. We have a portable shower chair that has its own travel case so we can check that at no cost as well. They also allow each person a carry-on and personal item.    Southwest allows you to “pre-board” so there is no rush of people to deal with and you can take your time to get comfortably seated. When we check-in at the gate desk, we always let them know he will need and isle chair which they can usually see in their notes on the computer but I always tell them just in case. They move us to the front of the preboarding line and we go on before anyone else…it is great!!  And, when we are traveling with our 3 kids and my Mom, we all get to preboard together which is really awesome. Once we get to the end of the jetway, there is usually a team of 3 or 4 people ready to help him transfer into the aisle chair. This is a very narrow chair and getting hubby into it with his 6’3” legs is always kind of hilarious. (We have learned to laugh about a lot of things which is key in our book to Thriving with Paralysis!) Once he is in the aisle chair, they take his wheelchair and put it under the plane with the luggage and wheel him onto the plane and down the aisle.  We then get to pick wherever we want to sit which is great. We always put his ROJO cushion from his wheelchair on his airplane seat to protect his skin.

We flew Hawaiian airlines last Fall for a family vacation.  What we didn’t know when booking our flights was how small the seats were compared to Southwest.  Hubby is 6’3” and he fits pretty well in the economy seats on Southwest. We literally could not get him into the seat on Hawaiian because there wasn’t enough room for his legs!  Thankfully they were able to find a seat in the next section up that was available and they didn’t charge us the $75 upgrade fee. However, this meant hubby was about 10 rows up and on the opposite aisle from me for the 5-hour flight.  I had to walk up to the flight attendant’s area and back down the other aisle just to get to him to help him. Basically, it was horrible and made for a less than pleasant flight there and back. I share this to caution you that if you fly Hawaiian you might want to pay for the upgraded seats if your loved one is big and/or tall.  Also, Hawaiian was the only airline that actually folded down his backrest to his wheelchair that is not meant to be folded down. They asked as they started to take it if they should fold it, we said absolutely not. They brought it to us when we landed in Oahu broken! Thankfully an airplane mechanic came to our rescue and he was able to “rig” it to work for the duration of our trip.  By God’s grace, we had no issues while we were on vacation other than some squeaks and squeals. We were able to have our medical supply company that does all his wheelchair maintenance fix it once we were home. We have never had that happen on Southwest. Now I make sure to have a note attached to the backrest that says “Do Not Fold Down Back Rest”.

We are getting ready to fly on Alaskan Airlines next month so I will have to do a follow-up blog once we know how that works.  We have not yet traveled out of the country, although we did just book a flight to Cabo San Lucas in March on Southwest so we will see how that goes as well and I will write about it in a part 2 travel blog post.

Getting through security is a fun experience (I hope you picked up on my sarcasm there).  The first time we went through security I cried, not even joking. I had no idea they would have to feel every inch of my hubby’s body.  It was much more emotional for me than it was for him, it didn’t seem to bother him at all. Over time, I have come to accept that is just what they have to do.  The first time the TSA people were exceptionally rude and unkind which made it worse, I am sure than it should have been. Now I take all the bags through and just sit out of sight and wait for him to get done so I don’t have to experience it.  Once you make it through security, check-in at your gate desk, remind them you need and isle chair if that is the case or any special assistance you will need.

Ground transportation once you arrive can be tricky as well. I always book our transportation before we travel that way we have no issues (well at least not in theory) when we arrive at our destination.  We have used Super Shuttle, local shuttles, hotel shuttles, and private taxi services. We have had a much better experience with Super Shuttle than any of the others and we feel it is worth the price to travel in a vehicle that feels safe with drivers that clearly know how to secure wheelchairs.  When we went to Hawaii, we had Super Shuttle pick us up from our home and get us to the airport and then bring us back home as well. It took all the stress away so we could just enjoy our trip from the very beginning to the very end. (No, I don’t get any kickbacks from Super Shuttle but I am always willing to share good and bad experiences to help others make decisions when they travel.)

Tours and excursions are another consideration to book ahead of time.  If you are staying at a resort or hotel that has a concierge, I highly recommend calling them and having them help you plan your tours and excursions.  They tend to be very helpful and they usually know a lot about the place you will be visiting so they can offer insight you might not find in an online search.  They can also call around for wheelchair accommodations for you. We stayed at a Wyndham Resorts condo in Oahu and our concierge was invaluable in making plans from afar.  He called every excursion I asked about to find out if they were wheelchair accessible or not. He helped me book an entire week of fun and took a lot of the stress out of planning for me.

Traveling after paralysis is completely possible.  Be sure you plan ahead, make lots of phone calls and reconfirm all reservations before you actually leave on your trip, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.  The travel/vacation industry businesses are very hospitable and they are truly there to help make your experience better. With careful planning, you can have a great vacation without allowing paralysis to keep you from your next great adventure.

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About the Author: Julie Davis

Julie is the wife of Bill Davis and serves as both his spouse and caregiver. Julie has learned to embrace the struggle and thrive in the midst of insurmountable circumstances with her husband Bill. She has a heart to bring hope and healing to spouses, caregivers, and paralysis survivors for the glory of God.

You can connect with Julie by joining TWP Wives of Paralysis Survivors on Facebook

2 comments on “How to successfully travel with a person who is living with paralysis.”

    1. Natalie thank you for your question. This is the portable shower chair we use https://goesanywhere.com/collections/portable-commode-shower-chairs-tub-slider-chair/products/go-anywhere-commode-n-shower-chair-portable-rolling-shower-commode-chair. It is really great you can even use it if you do not have a roll in shower available. It also has its own travel case. We have been using ours for about five years and have not had any problems with it. Thank you for being part of the community.

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