Although BJ has both a power wheelchair and manual wheelchair, we only travel with his manual chair. We find it’s more flexible for travel and BJ loves it. However, I’m regularly asked advice on travelling with a power wheelchair so I thought I’d get some tips from an intrepid traveller who does use a power wheelchair for travel.
Marlena, also known as the AAC Journalist, is an avid traveller, dare devil and disability advocate. She seems to always be eyeing her next adventure before the one she’s on has finished. She’s based jumped, sky dived and interviewed everyone from Sam Moran (ex yellow Wiggle) to Richard Branson. But like the rest of us, when Marlena travels she has to research and prepare her power chair to ensure it arrives in tact at her destination. Today she’s sharing her tips for travelling with a power wheelchair.
Tips on travelling with a power wheelchair
- When releasing your wheelchair to airport staff have written instructions on the dismantling process. There is nothing more frustrating than getting to your destination and having to put wires or pieces back together. Most wheelchairs in this day and age are dry cell batteries so there should be minimal dismantling required. When we travel we have a laminated A4 instructions that are tied to the chair. Here we show how to lift the chair, chair information (eg dry cell, weight , dimensions etc) and also a nice note stating how important it is for this equipment to be respected. As a measure I have a picture of me in it with a message “Have an awesome day” .
- If travelling overseas consider the voltage. You may need to get a voltage converter. I have never had a problem but I know of some people that have had major issues with motors not charging. If unfamiliar with this, drop an email to the supplier of your chair to get clarification.
- Consider installing something to make the lift easier for baggage handlers. Electric wheelchairs often are very heavy and the design of them rarely considers travel. To overcome this we modified my chair with bike pegs (see photo below). This gives the handlers something to grip onto. The cost for us to put these on was a measly $150 but worth every cent. As a frequent traveller I have had a fair bit of damage to my chair. Since installing these the only damage has been cosmetic such as a guard cracked.
- Do your research on places you go to and consider if a power wheelchair would be restrictive or not. I am fortunate I can use both chairs should I need to. This leaves the options open for me and when I do a larger trip to say Europe or the states often I’ll take both. Some south east Asian countries I choose not to take my power chair at all. I weigh up the pros and cons of my power chair and while I prefer it for independence at times it has restricted me. I went to Bali and thank god I had both, otherwise I would have been very restricted. Not to say it is impossible but the research into activities would have had to been a lot more than just rocking up and dealing with it as it comes.
- If you require your wheelchair that is prescribed to you for comfort, get a medical certificate stating that. This is on ongoing battle I have had with airlines wanting to get me into their chair at check in. I physically can’t sit in their chairs so it isn’t even an option for me. Having a medical certificate takes away some of the potential arguments one may have when airlines state “its our policy to put you in our wheelchairs at check in”
- Check out previous blogs, youtube clips or even Google searches of specific locations. Travelling is an enjoyable experience and there are many wheelchair users in every country. Get some local tips and don’t be afraid to try a place based on others experiences. Some of the best places I have travelled have been inaccessible. Places such as Venice in Italy , Tokyo or even Bali you can do in a power wheelchair . If you choose to go to these places however, keep an open mind as it won’t have the comforts of home. Knowledge is power when travelling and might prepare you for the unexpected associated with being a power wheelchair user. (Julie here – I’d also say pack a positive attitude which Marlena has by the truck load!)
- Keep an open mind when travelling in a power chair. While we are fortunate to live in a country with wider doors or true accessible hotels, simple things like this may not be the case when travelling. It’s all about the experience and rolling with it sometimes. Don’t sweat the small stuff and be prepared to adapt. If you can’t adapt or truely need some things then some countries may not be for you. Adapting can open the whole travel experience up and provide unique experiences. I recall a few years ago we went from Amsterdam to Paris on the train and we had no choice but to adapt to the situation in front of us. As we got out at the train station we exited with me in my electric chair and my companion with my manual chair with all the bags on it. We went to the taxi rank to request an accessible van as our AirBNB was in the city. I am non verbal and my mate only speaks bogan English so we were in a bit of a situation. To cut a long story short, 2 hours later we were still looking for a taxi. Eventually we threw our hands up in the air and said stuff it lets walk. Google maps told us it was 8.2kms so we thought yep lets do it. It was the perfect introduction to Paris as we saw many things we otherwise may not have. We met an amazing homeless woman that we shared a drink with that was so helpful . Travelling with a power wheelchair you are pretty much guaranteed something may go wrong but seriously roll with it as it can open up a new experience all together.
- If you are a rookie traveller with a power wheelchair consider travelling to places where the Para-olympics have been held . Often this minimises the chances of transport or accommodation not being up to standards you may be expecting.
- Start with small trips close to home and branch out from that. The more you travel the more you try to explore new things. Travelling is amazing as it broadens your horizons and allows you to experience new places, cultures and experiences.
- Consider group tours – This isn’t for everyone but as a power wheelchair user don’t discount these tours. I have done Contiki tours and “roughed” it. This was bit daunting at first as I had to make a few allowances . I have done 4 of these tours now and have loved every single one. I had to modify my chair to fit under the bus and liase with operators beforehand. Having many young people was the best thing as far as developing friendships were concerned. Where I couldn’t get in a club they found a way or even moved on to the next club with me. I am a huge fan of going with conventional tours (with support) over travelling with many wheelchairs in a group. In the USA there are even buses that electric wheelchairs can stay in your chair similar to that of a maxi taxi.
A big thanks to Marlena for sharing her tips and advice on travelling with a power wheelchair. Marlena’s next adventure is to the US where she intends to take videos of her travels in New York, Los Angeles, Disneyland and Las Vegas. She’s asked me to ask the HWWT community what you’d like her to video. What do you want to see? What would give you confidence to travel to one of those places? Let me know in comments below or over on Facebook and I’ll pass it on. Don’t forget to check out some of Marlena’s YouTube videos here.
We asked the supplier of BJ’s power wheelchair what they recommend for travelling with a power wheelchair and they have said to get a letter from the supplier confirming the battery type of your chair.
Make sure you speak to the airline’s special handling department and supply full information regarding your chair.
When I asked Marlena if she removes anything from her power chair before it is taken by the airline to be stored she said “just the seat base …. which I use as foot stability on board .” There’s another good tip. A seat cushion can provide additional stability when you are seated on the plane.
In the past I know some of our readers have said they remove the joy stick and take it onboard and others tape up any wires.
It’s always good to have a “just incase plan” if anything should go wrong. I recommend speaking to your power wheelchair supplier for tips on repairers in the country you are travelling to on your holiday.
If you’ve got additional tips, we’d love to hear them.
Ian over on Facebook has added his tips –
“Just a heads up on the “get a letter from the supplier about the batteries” In Australia it’s called a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). I had problems with an airline who I won’t name. I carry both a printed copy and a PDF on my phone. Ground staff and the dispatcher had delayed our flight because there was a debate in if the batteries were “cabin safe” As you may have picked up, I’m a little paranoid and contingency plan to the hilt. I handed the dispatcher my phone with the PDF and I was thanked for being so pro-active.
Flying with QANTAS it will help and is actually a requirement to get “dangerous goods uplift approval” It takes a few days to get the approval letter, but lasts 12 months. Of quite a few airlines we’ve flown, from my PERSONAL experience QANTAS have been the best in all regards.