Travel Tips when Flying with a Manual Wheelchair

Here are some tips and tricks to make flying with a wheelchair easier.

1. Book Special Assistance in advance 

Even if you can manage with the wheelchair on your own, remember that you’ll have your hands full with boarding passes, keeping the family (if you’re traveling with your family) safe and together, hand luggage & figuring out where to go! Having special assistance also helped us skip most lines, and porters usually knew the shortcuts through the big, busy airports.

2. Call 24 Hours before your flight to double-check the details of the booking 

Call the airline 24 hours before your flight to ensure they have all the necessary details to make your flight as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Double-check your seat numbers for accessibility and confirm that somebody booked special assistance, which is reflected in the system.

3. Tagging the wheelchair 

When you check in, ask them to tag the wheelchair frame. Some wheelchair handles will be removed for storage, and wheels may be removed to save space, so the frame is usually the safest bet. Also, double-check that your destination and the wheelchair’s destination match up!

4. Make sure you get to the airport on time 

“In time” when you fly with a wheelchair means early! Make sure you are there with plenty of time to spare so that you’re not in a rush. Being early will also give you time when you check in to ensure they have everything in place on their side.

5. Request the use of an aisle chair 

If you can’t walk a short distance on your own to get from the airplane door to your seat, request the aisle chair in advance. It works well to get to your seat without hurting yourself or the people assisting you. Airlines have trained staff members who can help you transfer onto the chair if you can’t do it alone.

6. Ask them to keep the wheelchair in the cabin 

If the airline allows it, take your wheelchair to the airplane door, move over onto the aisle chair, and ask them to keep the wheelchair in the aircraft cabin instead of in the airplane cargo hold. That way, the chances for damage are less, and if you have a stop-over, it can easily be accessed and taken out to use during your stop-over.

7. Ask the airline to pre-board 

This will give you more time and space to get to your seat without other passengers on board. It will also be easier to get the aisle chair out of the aircraft after you’ve been seated if the other passengers are not in the airplane yet. Ensure the staff realizes that pre-boarding means getting onto the airplane BEFORE the other people board. Some airlines will let you board first, but with the rest of the passengers right behind you, which won’t necessarily help!

8. Remove detachable items from the wheelchair if possible 

Whenever possible, remove the wheelchair’s cushion, seat cover, cup holder, detachable third wheels, etc., before they store the wheelchair. In that way, fewer things can break or get lost. If you use a specialized cushion for support or comfort, it might also be better for you to sit on the cushion on the airplane seat.

9. Fold your wheelchair yourself – or tell the staff how to

As soon as you’re seated on the aisle chair, fold your wheelchair yourself, or tell the staff how to fold it if it doesn’t have a rigid frame. There are many types of wheelchairs, and they fold in different ways, so the risk for damage will be lower, and you will save the staff some effort and time as you know exactly how it folds! You can also take a strap to tie around the folded chair if the wheelchair has no strap.

10. Using the bathroom/restroom 

Remember that airplane restrooms are small, difficult to get to, busy, not hygienic, and highly uncomfortable. There are many ways to manage incontinence during a flight, so I highly recommend you consider your options beforehand. If you need to use the bathroom/restroom during the flight, ask the cabin staff to use the emergency medical area (more floor space with a curtain for privacy). Also, remember that you can request the aisle chair again during the flight if necessary. 

Different airlines might have other procedures and policies, but we’ve found that the tips above work in most cases with most airlines. 

The bottom line is that you know your condition and your needs best, so the golden rule is to ask and never take “No” for an answer… at least not on the first three attempts 😉

Dave Thompson