Prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best! Here are seven tips for stress-free travel.
“My flight arrived late, my power chair got damaged in transit, it was 2:00 a.m., and the accessible van I rented was in a parking lot a mile away from baggage claim. What was I supposed to do?” recalls Jim, a frustrated business traveler.
Stories like Jim’s are more common than you might think. Business meetings, family vacations, romantic getaways, and global adventures—wheelchair users are traveling more than ever. Through my years of work with a national accessible-van rental company, I’ve learned a lot from customers like Jim, who came to us after a frustrating experience with another rental firm.
Here are a few of the best tips we’ve learned, from our customers and from our franchise owners who use wheelchairs:
(1) Protect your chair.
Airline employees don’t intentionally damage chairs, but it does happen, especially when baggage handlers try to load a 300-pound motorized chair. The biggest threat comes from a broken joystick, recline switch, or puff/sip control. The best defense is to bubble wrap those parts so they are less likely to be broken in transit. Some baggage handlers try to dismantle chairs to make them fit better, so label any areas you do not want touched.
Remember, your chair has to go into an area designed to hold luggage, not wheelchairs, so try to make it as small and as maneuverable as possible. Footrests, for example, can be removed and attached by bungee cords to the seat of the chair. Disconnect the power, and clearly label on the chair that you are using gel-cell batteries. (If you still use wet-cell batteries, be sure to remove them.) Clearly label your chair with your name and cell-phone number in case the handlers have any questions.
Take nonstop flights whenever possible, even if it costs a bit more. You’ll avoid more chances for damage to your chair and more hassles for yourself.
Pictured, from top to bottom: An Access Tours group takes in the scenery at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, David Lowy tries to hit the jackpot in Las Vegas, Bob and Binky Alonzo relish the Grand Canyon Skywalk experience, and a camper enjoys a Wilderness Inquiry outing.
(2) Take a spare.
Many of our customers travel with a spare manual chair. If yours is damaged, it’s always better to have your own than to use a loaner that may not meet your needs.
(3) Be specific when you book your hotel room.
Then get written confirmation. Say exactly what you need (i.e., a ground-level room with a roll-in shower, a bathroom with grab bars). Try to speak with someone at the hotel rather than at the chain’s call center; you want someone familiar with the details of the accessible rooms.
“Everyone says they’re accessible, but a lot of people don’t even know what that means,” one of our frequent-traveler customers told me. “Whether it’s a hotel, a tourist attraction, or a corporate office, I always ask a lot of questions about the width of doorways, the slope of driveways, the types of bathrooms, lifts, and so on.”
Ask whether you are guaranteed that room, or if it is simply listed as a request. If they can’t guarantee the room you need, try another hotel.
Get your confirmed reservation in writing by fax or e-mail, and take the printout with you. Paper proof is necessary in case of disputes.
(4) Ask detailed questions when you book your accessible van.
Then get written confirmation. Most car-rental companies offer cars with hand controls, but not accessible vans. Instead they’ll give you a list of referrals for companies specializing in accessible rental vans.
Always speak directly with the rental agent. Let him/her know if you or a companion will be driving, the level of experience in operating these vans, and how many people will be in your party.
Ask whether someone will meet you at the airport, help with your luggage, show companion drivers how to use the ramp and secure the chair, and make sure you have everything you need to be on your way. Some agencies also will deliver vans to offices, homes, hospitals, and other locations. On the other end of the spectrum, some companies merely tell you where the van will be parked and where you will find the keys.
Find out what makes of vans are offered and the age/mileage of their fleet. At our company, for example, the fleet is entirely vans less than five years old and with fewer than 60,000 miles.
Ask about roadside service: If something happens to the van, is a 24/7 help line available? Will they deliver a replacement van to you, or are you on your own?
Have your reservation confirmed in writing, by fax or e-mail, with all the details of your request.
(5) Plan well in advance.
Don’t wait until the last minute to reserve your accessible van. Sometimes family emergencies or unexpected business trips leave no time for pre-planning. But plan early for peak-demand times like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. Waiting until even a couple of weeks before a holiday can mean the difference between securing a van or staying home.
We suggest our customers plan in reverse. Instead of buying a plane ticket, reserving a hotel room, and then renting a vehicle, reserve the van first. A plane ticket and hotel room won’t do you any good if you can’t get around once you arrive.
(6) Reserve special equipment.
Medical supply companies will rent Hoyer lifts, shower chairs, beach wheelchairs, oxygen, and other equipment you might need on your trip. Your accessible-van company can refer you to a reputable local supplier if you don’t know one.
(7) Check and double-check all your reservations by phone or e-mail.
Create a travel folder and carry printouts of all your reservations, plus the names and contact numbers of booking agents you’ve dealt with.
Traveling can be a stressful experience for anyone, and wheelchair users have a lot of extra details to consider. The best way to make sure your travels go smoothly is to plan well ahead. The better prepared you are and the more you understand what to expect, the better your trip will be!