Airport wheelchair services are GREAT. Use them. You will be very glad you did.
They will provide you with a wheelchair and a person (or series of people) who will push it. Often friendly young men. Sometimes they will put you on an electric cart.
You do not need to be on disability or show any special documentation. Any person with mobility problems can request this. Just call and ask for wheelchair service to be added to your ticket, or look when you book the ticket online, there will be a box for wheelchair.
Bonus: Free Advocacy Skills Training
In addition to being a great way to get through an airport, wheelchair services are also a great opportunity to practice speaking up and advocating for yourself! You will probably need to.
TIPS FOR WHEELING AROUND AN AIRPORT
Booking Your Ticket
☸️ Make sure all your layovers are longer than one hour, ideally two. Trust us, you will lose your mind from stress if you don’t do this.
☸️ When you book your ticket online, check the box for wheelchair service or call the airline company and request this be added to your ticket.
Preparing Your Trip
☸️ Bring lots of cash for tips. However many tips you are planning, double it.
☸️ Airline employees don’t accept tips. Wheelchair wheeler people do.
☸️ Plan to arrive extra early to leave plenty of time.
☸️ Sunflower has some brilliant advice for how to make arrangements by contacting the airline disability services ahead of time: Sunflower Goes on a Trip
Arriving At the Airport
☸️ When you arrive at the airport, if there is an outside kiosk or employees outside, you can tell them you need a wheelchair service and ask them to bring the wheelchair right up to the car or curb.
☸️ Alternately, if you are able to walk inside, or have someone with you who can walk inside, tell the person at the counter you need a wheelchair.
☸️ If you are at a large airport, and waiting on lines is going to overtax you, it may be better not to go inside. You may be happier pulling up to the curb and ask the first employee you see to call a wheelchair. If someone is driving, you can try staying in the car til the wheelchair arrives.
☸️ If someone tells you to walk over somewhere else to request a wheelchair, you are allowed to say “no.” Don’t get stuck dragging your bags around and waiting on lines if this is going to make your symptoms worse. Stay where you are, and ask they bring you the wheelchair right where you are. Hold up the line and sit on the floor if you need to.
☸️ You may have to wait 10-15 minutes for the wheelchair and wheelchair wheeler to arrive. If it does not arrive, nows your time to practice your speaking up skills again!
Getting to the Gate
☸️ They will wheel you to the gate and leave you there. If you get up and leave your chair, you are on your own, and may have to wait on lines and carry your bags. If you stay in the chair, when boarding starts, they will board you first and wheel you all the way to the plane.
☸️ If you need to go to the bathroom, you can walk your wheelchair there with you. If you cannot walk that far, you can try to flag down an airport employee and tell them you need someone to take you to the restroom.
☸️ Don’t leave your wheelchair sitting with just your bag on it. Unattended bags can be considered bomb threats in airports.
☸️ If they leave you at the gate, make sure they leave you right in the priority boarding line, so the line cannot move without moving you. The priority boarding line is for people with wheelchairs, and for first class passengers. If they leave you over by the chairs, they may just forget about you.
☸️ They do not guarantee you will make your connection. This is a going to be good practice for you to become a great advocate for yourself!
☸️ You can let an attendant on the plane know that you are expecting a wheelchair and are trying to catch another flight. Ask if they can help you by calling for the chair as soon as you arrive. If it doesn’t arrive, don’t be afraid to let them know your timeline and ask them to keep calling.
☸️ Lesson learned: Don’t leave your wheelchair unattended. They will take it away! If you need to lie down on a bench or floor, it’s a good idea to keep the wheelchair next to you so you are touching it and put your bag on it.
☸️ Occasionally, someone may park you somewhere, and then forget about you. This is good practice in speaking up for yourself! Waive down the nearest airport employee you see and ask for a wheelchair attendant.
Arriving At Your Destination
☸️ On the other end, they can wheel you straight up to a taxi cab door (Now you are starting to see why you want so many tips).
☸️ Happy wheeling!
Free Training in Honoring Your Limits
☸️ In addition to being a great training in self-advocacy, it’s also a great way to practice learning and respecting your limits. Throughout the day, there will probably be various times when you are given the choice between walking part of the way or using the wheelchair at every step.
☸️ Instead of asking yourself, “Can I physically walk this extra bit myself?” Try asking yourself “If I walk this extra bit myself, on top of taking this huge trip, will I be doing the best thing for my health? Will I feel ok later or tomorrow?” If the answer is “no,” then your answer is “no.”
HOW DID YOU WHEEL AROUND AN AIRPORT?
The hardest part: deciding to use the service the first couple of times. Our society is so negative about disabled and old people, that we feel vulnerable just sitting in a chair. But energy you spend walking when you should have been sitting doesn’t come back – you’ve lost it forever – and it won’t be there in the places there are no wheelchairs. – ABE
They will wheel you through to your gate like a queen. Helps me immensely!! Also speeds up getting through TSA. Let them know you need one at your arrival gate. They ask for no documentation to prove you need one. You just need to ask. I’ve done this twice now. The first time I had to emotionally process asking for help. Now I can’t believe I didn’t do it earlier! You deserve it!! That may be the biggest lesson in it for me. Happy Travels! – BAZ
Give the wheelchair attendant a good tip. They don’t make very much here in the USA. Bonus: not having to wait in the security screening line. Wheelchairs get to bypass the line and go straight to the front! – GC
The most important thing: never take one step. Be in the wheelchair from the minute you get out of the car, to the minute you are in the car on the other end. (I did probably take few steps to my seat on the plane to go to the bathroom but that is it). They may try to ask you to go to a ticket counter to request the wheelchair, or to leave you at the gate so you can walk the runway to the plane yourself, so it’s just a matter of saying: “I cannot walk there I need a wheelchair.” It is really easy to think, “OK, it’s not far, I’ll try it” and then wind up overexerting and getting sick the next day. – YO
Flying was easier than I was expecting. I thought I would be really sick after the plane, but I was OK. I have visited my family a few times this way. Once I arrive, I do not try to go out at all and I never plan a trip for less than 30 days, so I have enough recovery time to make the trip home. – PA
The airline would not accept my electric wheelchair – they asked about battery and size. I took a manual one. I was still looked after very well though – SJNM
An upside to requiring a wheelchair: In some countries they go out of their way to help you. The Swiss Guard at the Vatican took us out of the long line we were waiting in and admitted us immediately. – TB
The bad thing about wheelchairs is the extra security that can involve a same-sex security person patting down every square inch of your body. To avoid this, I now get up from my wheelchair and walk through the security scanners. – CK
I would have never considered using a wheelchair in an airport! But walking yesterday and waiting for a late bus I was in tears from the pain. I was awakening to see how much I bear simply out of my perception of who I should be. I had hidden fears of what it means to admit I am disabled. – AM
I flew from Manchester to Dublin in a wheelchair and I’m delighted to say I had a fabulous experience. – SJNM
Buttercup Wheels Around an Airport
I used to feel uncomfortable using wheelchair services and I was plagued by the obsessive thought that I would run into someone from my high school who would look at me funny. As time has passed, I have come to feel differently.
I am incredibly grateful for this wonderful service that makes it possible for me to travel, grateful to the kindhearted young men that push these wheelchairs, and most especially grateful to our disabled activist brothers and sisters, whomever they may be, who made such things possible in this world.
Also: If you have an emotional support animal, they may be legally allowed to ride in the airplane with you.
Lilan Wheels Around an Airport
The last time I was able to travel was 8 years ago. I used the wheelchair service in San Francisco and Frankfurt. It was pretty much as fabulous as you describe it: friendly service, flew through the gate, a ride on the electric cart, and I saw Martin Sheen! (I don’t think that’s always part of the package?)
Here’s where it went south: At the Lufthansa gate in San Francisco, the flight attendants REFUSED to wheel me onto the plane. This not only meant I had to walk, but I had to carry my own bag. I was near tears. Lufthansa is notoriously rude, and I can’t imagine it’s legal to deny disabled access.
Still, perhaps it’s safest to call the airline in advance to make sure you will be wheeled onto the plane? And don’t let the wheelchair guy abandon you at the gate until he has gotten the flight attendants to pinky swear they will roll you into the cabin and help you stow your carry-on luggage.
Also, if anyone feels self-conscious about using wheelchair service, my SF wheelchair attendant told me that most people who ordered wheelchairs were entirely capable of walking. In his experience, these were women in their fifties or sixties from one particularly country, who were clever enough to get the free ride and free baggage transport. He was quite curious about me needing a wheelchair at so young an age, but he was really nice about it.
Christine Wheels Around an Airport
I’ve used airport wheelchair services ever since I was diagnosed with ME.
The worst experience was Heathrow. When flying in, they were brilliant and when above and beyond in taking me where I needed to go. It was just leaving from Heathrow that was stressful. They put me in a giant lounge full of disabled people using the wheelchair service and forgot about me (I kept shouting to them and just made the flight). They abandoned me at the gate and I had to try to get to the front of the queue to get on as I couldn’t queue.
The best experience was at Basel in Switzerland – they were wonderful and even had a special truck that we were wheeled onto and then lifted up to the level of the aircraft door (it was a cheap airline so wasn’t linked to the gate via a walkway). In Europe no one tips wheelchair pushers.
I’m not registered disabled (I don’t actually know how to go about doing that in the UK) but I use these services every time I travel as I couldn’t go fly at all without that sort of support.
Thanks for Reading
🌸 Page Updated: 10/1/19
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