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TURNING THE VOYEUR INTO THE TRAVELLER

If my son BJ could have any super power, I suspect he’d want teleportation – the ability to magically transport himself from one place to another.

BJ (pictured below) has cerebral palsy and has needed a wheelchair since he was 4 years old. He is non-verbal and his condition means he has lots of additional movement which can make travelling – and particularly flying – a challenge.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy the social side of flying.  He is an expert at making friends with every flight attendant and schmoozing his way into their affections. He loves the exhilaration of take-off and landing but he’d like the bit in between to be faster and more comfortable.

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The schmoozing starts before BJ even gets on the plane!

Travelling with a wheelchair and additional needs poses many challenges but the joy and liberation of a wonderful holiday makes the extra planning worthwhile.

I might not have found a way to teleport us to our destination (yet!) but here are my top tips for helping travellers with a disability and their families find the joy and freedom in travel.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT DESTINATION

The choice of destination can make or break a trip.  When planning a holiday be realistic and choose a destination which has a range of accessible activities to enjoy. Beach wheelchairs, TrailRiders and accessible attractions will enhance an experience.

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BJ & AJ enjoying being at the beach together using a beach wheelchair, Disneyland adventures and BJ and AJ using the TrailRider to access a bush walk.

Check out the video below to see BJ enjoying some of the accessible activities we have found in our travels.

GET COVERED

Travel Insurance – don’t leave home without it.

If you have a pre-existing condition contact your travel insurer to ensure you can obtain insurance for your chosen destination. This is particularly important if travelling to the US where medical costs are astronomical (think $2000-$5000 a night in hospital in a general ward and $5000-$10,000 for intensive care.) I’m often contacted by families who book their holiday and then find it difficult to get travel insurance for complex health conditions.

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Having been in Hawaii during a Hurricane, a typhoon in the Philippines and an earthquake I never leave home without travel insurance.

At the very least, take out travel insurance at the time of paying for your holiday. Cancellation, or delay resulting from unforeseen circumstances (the recent volcanic ash in Bali is a good example) is something you want to have covered.  Lastly, remember your wheelchair is probably the most expensive piece of equipment you will travel with, so consider insuring it in case of loss or damage.

I have a whole blog post dedicated to insurance and my day spent behind-the-scenes at Cover-More Travel Insurance HQ.  Click here for an insight into the application, claim and emergency process if the worst should happen.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT AIRLINE

Not all airlines are created equal.

Do your research and ensure your airline can meet your needs prior to booking. Most airlines have extensive information regarding additional needs on their website.  Each airline calls it something different.  Do a general search of their website using “travelling with a wheelchair” to access general information.  For specific enquiries contact the airline’s special handling or Priority Assistance team. If you can get the phone number for that department, hold on to it.  Virgin’s Priority Assistance team can be contacted on 1300139303.  Do not book online, phone and speak to the airline about your needs.

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If you are travelling with a wheelchair you will need to provide the airline with information regarding your mobility needs:

  • The airline needs to know the type of wheelchair you are travelling with – i.e. manual or electric (what kind of battery for electric) wheelchair dimensions and weight.
  • We always request to use BJ’s own wheelchair to the door of the aircraft. The airline supplied wheelchairs are not supportive so BJ feels much more comfortable and stable in his own chair.
  • Make seating requests at the time of booking.
  • Domestic flights have a limitation on the number of wheelchairs that can be carried due to space limitations in the hold.  Always book your flight as early as possible.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT SEAT

We all dream of flying at the pointy end of the plane but sadly our budget won’t stretch that far.  For BJ the confines of economy class can be particularly challenging so any extra room is appreciated.

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The dream seats, first row of economy class on Virgin Australia.

A seat with extra leg room allows us to assist BJ with his meals and transfer him into and out of his seat when he needs the bathroom.  We always request (beg is a more appropriate word) a seat with as much room as possible.  It makes an enormous difference to our family and I’ve often wanted to jump across the check-in counter and kiss the airline staff when we have been allocated seats with extra room. Make sure you make a seating request (plea) when booking.

How to SIT TIGHT 

When the aircraft seating light turns on for take-off you want to be sure you are as comfortable as possible.

An upper torso harness can assist passengers with poor torso control and these are available on many aircraft.  These can be requested through the airline’s Priority Assistance or special handling department.  BJ has used the harness and it worked well to keep him comfortably seated but sadly it didn’t make the flying time go any quicker. The harness can be used from 2 years old to an adult.

Heidz, one of our Facebook friends, uses an extender belt to keep her comfortable. She says, “Each time I fly I always ask for an extender belt to put around my knees so I am not flapping in the wind so to speak. Having the belt around my knees helps to keep my feet flat too preventing pressure areas on the sides of my feet.“

One of our little Facebook frequent flyers, Toby, loves to travel with his Meru seat.  He used it to travel to the US in Virgin’s premium economy class and his Mum reports the airline was very accommodating.  To use it on the plane the family needed to supply the dimensions of the seat and the way it attached to the airline seat.  Toby needed to be seated in the rear section of premium economy as the Meru has a strap that fastens around the seat which prevents the tray table behind being used.

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Toby’s Mum says “the Meru provides Toby with a 5 point harness when flying.  The adult harness that the airlines use is good but he tends to slide forward and ends up hanging in it. The Meru also has a foot rest that hangs and you can strap the childs feet in, which is great when Toby decides that it’s great sensory fun to kick the seat in front for hours on end!  Before the chair I had spent a few flights just holding legs for hours on end.”

It sounds like this is a great solution all round.  No parent wants to be holding their child’s legs for hours and other passengers don’t want to be on the receiving end of having their seat kicked!

HOW TO PACK

Clearly, packing light is not our forte.  In my defence, the photo below was taken after we’d been shopping in LA.

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Clearly we do not pack light!

BJ’s wheelchair is worth a lot to us in monetary value but also for his independence at our destination.  To minimise the risk of damage or loss we remove everything possible including the armrests and cushion.

Some of our Facebook friends have advised they bubble wrap the exposed paint work on their chairs to avoid damage. Others have said they attach a sign to their wheelchair with operating instructions.  If you are travelling to a country where the cargo staff are likely to speak another language, make the sign in English and the language spoken at the final destination.

DON’T CHECK-IN ONLINE

If you’re travelling domestically with a wheelchair, do not check-in at the kiosks.  You need to look for the special assistance requests check-in desk (try saying that quickly three times in a row).

At the international terminal we have been advised not to queue in the cattle grid but to go straight to the service desk (which is a huge bonus when you have a wheelchair and lots of luggage).

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You will be given your boarding pass and asked how many pieces of luggage you are checking in.  Keep in mind your wheelchair is a piece of luggage (although this is not counted in your luggage allowance as it is a mobility aid and therefore free), so if you have four bags and a wheelchair you are checking in five pieces.

A luggage tag will be attached to your wheelchair.  If you have requested to take your wheelchair to the door of the aircraft, you will only be leaving your bags with staff at this point, unless you are happy to use an airline provided wheelchair.

HOW TO GET THROUGH SECURITY

We are the family you do not want to queue up behind at airport security.  Along with a myriad of bags and electronic devices, we have a wheelchair which requires additional attention.

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If you or your child has never been through this process it is good to know what is involved. A wheelchair cannot go through the ordinary security scanner so a member of staff will approach you and take you through a separate gate on the side.  If it’s a child being taken through, security staff will usually ensure the child can see a parent at all times and will not do any screening until a parent is present and can assist them.

The security staff will ask if BJ can understand their instructions and he is given a pat down.  I feel it is important to assist in any way possible so I offer to stand BJ up and I show them the compartments in BJ’s wheelchair and help lean him forward so they can check behind him.  Whatever checks they do are for everyone’s safety and I like to give them the feeling that it is okay to check someone in a wheelchair just as thoroughly as everyone else.

Often swabs of BJ’s shoes, wheelchair and my hands are also taken.

We have only ever encountered pleasant security staff who are friendly with BJ and ensure his comfort is a priority at all times. In fact, I think he rather likes all the attention.

Top tip – count up your bags to ensure you have everything after the check.  It is always busy and a bit of a whirlwind with people grabbing bags, putting on shoes and general chaos, so it is easy to leave things behind.

HOW TO TRAVEL WITH DRUGS (LEGAL ONES, OF COURSE)

On long-haul flights we travel with dry ice for BJ’s medication.  The company that supplies the dry ice labels our esky with the full details of the contents.  We alert the airline at the time of booking that we will be travelling with dry ice and the fact we need yoghurt to administer the medication (yoghurt is treated as a liquid).

Always travel with medication in its original packaging and have a letter from your doctor listing your medications.  Keep your medication in your carry-on luggage if possible just in case your bags are delayed.

For international flights, check the liquid limits and adhere to them.  Have them in a clear snap lock bag and ready to show at security.

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If you are thinking of taking or administering relaxation or sleep medication, check the boards beforehand and ensure your flight is on time.  No one wants to be asleep in the waiting area for hours and then wide awake during the flight.

HOW TO BOARD THE AIRCRAFT (including video of Eagle Lift)

I am always amused at people jostling to get on the aircraft first; it’s not like the plane will take off any earlier.  Due to BJ’s disability our family always boards first, along with anyone else needing extra time.  I am grateful to have this time to get BJ in his seat and it gives me a chance to talk with the crew.

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Aisle chair for boarding the aircraft.

BJ uses his wheelchair to the aircraft door and then walks with assistance to his seat. An aisle chair (see photo above) is a narrow chair provided by the airline.  It fits between the aircraft seats and is used by people reliant on a wheelchair when boarding the aircraft.  Passengers can either use a slide board to transfer to the aisle chair or some airports supply an Eagle Lift which is a hoist transfer from the passenger’s own wheelchair to the aisle chair or vice versa.  Not all airports have these available and it is therefore important to chat to the airline about alternatives.

If you are new to travelling with a wheelchair it can be daunting and it is wonderful that our generous Facebook friend Heidz has shared a video of how she recently used the Eagle Lift to transfer to the Virgin aisle chair at the airport.   

WHEN IT’S TIME TO GO

I should start this off by declaring that I have an unhealthy obsession with restrooms and bathrooms.  The Beverly Wiltshire and Park Hyatt Hotel get honourable mentions for luxury and Disneyland gets the gold star for disabled bathroom facilities.

Airline facilities are less exciting and most of us have to contort our bodies to get in and out the door.  This does not make it easy for people with a disability but I am hopeful that as aircrafts are refitted accessible bathrooms will become the norm.  At the moment the bathrooms are no bigger on the majority of airlines so here are my bathroom tips:

  • Most airports have fully accessible bathroom facilites so use these just before boarding.
  • If your flight is a short one, limit fluids.
  • On long-haul flights, discuss using the bathroom with the flight attendants when you board. Even though this is not an easy conversation be assured flight attendants have heard it all.  It will be an ice breaker if nothing else.
  • Allow plenty of time to get assistance with an aisle chair to the bathroom.  Flight attendants can assist you to the bathroom but cannot help in the bathroom.
  • The busiest time for the bathrooms is after the meal service so try to go before, or at another quiet time during the flight.

IN SUMMARY

Now that I have overwhelmed you with information here are the key points again:

  • Book as early as possible.
  • Have your wheelchair’s dimensions ready when you phone.
  • Speak to the airline’s Priority Assistance team or special handling, not regular reservations.
  • Check the seat map on the airline website to see if the allocated seating will suit your needs.
  • Phone the airline the day before departure to ensure all the details in your booking are correct and your wheelchair information is noted. Double-check your seating request.
  • Allow extra time for check-in and to clear security and customs.
  • Communication is the name of the game. Provide information regarding your needs and flight crews usually go out of their way to help.
  • Flight attendants are your best friends. Not only are they helpful in flight but they know all the insider tips of where to eat and play at your destination.

STILL SCARED?

We could have taken the easy approach and shown BJ the world through documentaries, books and travel magazines. But we didn’t and as a result he’s crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a fire truck, experienced the exhilaration of cable hang-gliding in Tasmania and visited the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. And the best bit? He still has so much more to explore.

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This is my entry into the ProBlogger and Virgin competition.  Can you Imagine the adventures we will have if we win?

Do you have any travel tips to add?  We’d love to hear them so pop them in the comments here or over on facebook.

If you like this blog post why not subscribe to receive our blogs via email.  Head to the top right-hand side of the page and you will find the subscribe tab.  If you are not already a member of our facebook community, why not head over and ‘like’ our page.  We are very fortunate to have a generous and well travelled facebook community full of ideas and information.  

 

 




 

 

13 thoughts on “TURNING THE VOYEUR INTO THE TRAVELLER”

  1. I commend for getting your son “out there”, seeing the world and getting the education of different cultures and experiences. My daughter is 39 and was injured in an auto accident 4 yrs ago and is paralyzed from right below her breasts. We are flying for the first time (to NYC) and I, of course, have my concerns regarding this adventure but am optimistic. You have given me confidence and the assuredness that we can do this!

    Reply
    • Hi Deborah,

      So lovely to hear that our website helps give people confidence to give travel a go. It must seem like a daunting challenge for your first trip but an optimistic attitude goes a long way to helping ensure it is a positive experience for all.

      We loved New York. I hope you’ve checked out our blog posts on New York.

      Happy travels and remember to check, double-check and phone ahead to confirm arrangements.

      Kind regards,
      Julie

      Reply
  2. Last year flew Air Canada to / from Vancouver. At check in for our return trip my Assistant who wheeled me to the gate tried to get us upgraded from Economy to Business. When that failed she found us seats with extra leg room at no additional cost. She was fantastic.

    Reply
    • Hi Andrew, I use my electric wheelchair right up to the door of the aircraft and then have it stowed away in the cargo hold.

      Reply
  3. My assistance request allows me to book my flights with Virgin online now. They seem to have my details recorded as I fly often and I have not had any issues yet. I take my electric wheelchair regularly and I have taken it overseas for the first time 2 years ago. I flew with Qantas and they were fantastic.

    Regarding using the airplane bathroom, I have also found that talking to the staff first really helps. We discuss the closest toilet and how I will let them know about 30 minutes before I need to use it. This really helped when I flew with Singapore Airlines as the disabled toilet was in FIRST CLASS and I had to ask permission to use it and then wait until no-one wanted to use the facilities. It was a palace inside and I am sure you could fit a soccer team in there!! So much easier that the regular disabled toilets on the aircraft. I always dream of being upgraded.

    Reply
      • I flew Qatar airways earlier this year to the UK. I also used the first class bathroom. It was so big it even had a flat bed/seat in it. I did not think to take a photo.

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          • Julie, Qatar were marvellous to me. As soon as I was seated a dedicated crew member was assigned to me. Nothing was too much trouble. I would definitely fly with them again.

  4. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for having this blog!
    I have a toddler with CP and now that we’re planning our next vacation trip, all those accessibility issues have come to our minds. Besides, we love to travel and want to keep this now that we have our son, it’s part of who we are (or at least of who we want to be) and he is part of us now. I was getting frustrated from only seeing blogs and websites on therapy and educational matters. I mean, of course this are super relevant topics but vacation, leisure, and hobbies are also so so so important. It was soothing finding you blog <3

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your message Marilia. It’s messages like yours that spur me on to keep sharing reviews and travel tips. Therapy is important but it’s a part of our lives not all of it. We all need to have variety in our lives.
      The very best of luck to your family. I hope the many stories on our website help you navigate some of the challenging times and inspire you to travel and enjoy day-to-day with your toddler.
      Warm regards Julie

      Reply

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