Whether you have a disability or not, traveling for the holidays means extra stress. November and December are the busiest travel months of the year, and like everyone else, people with disabilities are more likely to take trips during this time. But for those who don’t travel often, preparing for a trip, packing, and planning for accessibility can feel overwhelming on top of the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
I love to travel and don’t let having cerebral palsy and using a power wheelchair stop me. I spent 20 years living thousands of miles from my closest family, so traveling for Christmas was an almost yearly event. I learned a lot during that time, so in the spirit of giving, here are 12 tips for holiday travel when you have a disability and use a wheelchair or other mobility device.
1. Plan ahead.
When people with disabilities travel, we have to think about things others don’t. For holiday travel, there are additional considerations. Everything may and likely will take longer because of the sheer number of people traveling. Weather can also be a factor. Flights may be delayed, and roads may be slippery due to ice and snow. Allow extra time for everything compared to what you normally need to accomplish the same task or reach the same destination.
2. Organize your suitcase before you travel.
Throwing a bunch of stuff in a suitcase the night before you leave is never a good idea for any traveler, but as disabled travelers, we risk forgetting things we need for safety and mobility. Pack essential safety items such as medications first, and put them in a secure place where you’ll always have access to them, such as in a bag on your wheelchair. If you’re flying, they should be in your carry-on bag in case your luggage gets lost. Keep a change of clothing in your backpack or in a carry-on bag in case you get stuck at the airport, at a truck stop during a snowstorm, etc.
Whenever possible, have travel versions of items you absolutely don’t want to forget. For example, I have a small wheelchair travel battery charger that is about the size of a laptop power converter. It stays in my suitcase all the time, so it’s always ready for my next trip.
Karin and Aria at a hotel in Denver, CO in Dec. 2013.
3. Pack light, but not too light.
You can save space and time by planning outfits in advance. Instead of packing a stack of shirts and a stack of pants or skirts, pair them with each other when you put them in your suitcase. It’s faster and easier to get going quickly in the mornings during your trip, as your clothing is already ready to go. If you know your itinerary, you can even decide what you are wearing on each day; for example, a nicer outfit for Thanksgiving dinner, or your favorite ugly sweater for a Christmas party. Packing folders and cubes are a great way to keep your clothing organized. They naturally compress your clothing so it takes up less space.
If you’re traveling for a week or less, you really don’t want to have to deal with laundry. Bring extra clothes, especially extra pants, in case of bathroom issues, spilled food, etc.
4. If you’re flying, protect your wheelchair.
A terrible phobia and the lack of accessible bathrooms on airplanes have kept me happily on the ground and road tripping since 2000. However, when I used to fly, one of my biggest concerns was the airlines damaging my wheelchair. If you’re flying, it’s important to take steps to protect your wheelchair from breakage.
If you have a manual wheelchair, fold it and secure moving parts with straps or bungees. If you have a power wheelchair, remove easily damaged parts, such as the joystick. If they can’t be removed, wrap them in padding, towels, etc. to reduce the risk of breakage. Remove your back and/or seat cushion to use during the flight to protect you from skin breakdown.
For more flying tips, check out my fellow disabled traveler Curb Free with Cory Lee’s e-book, “Air Travel for Wheelchair Users.”
5. Bring the equipment you need.
Airlines can’t charge extra bag fees for transporting mobility equipment. If you need to bring a walker, shower chair, etc. with you, don’t hesitate. You want your trip to be as safe and comfortable as possible, and that means having the right equipment. There are awesome portable versions of many of these items, so even if you’re driving, they won’t take up as much space as you might think.
6. Stay where you feel comfortable and safe.
Holiday guests typically stay with family, but that isn’t always possible for those of us with physical disabilities. When deciding whether to stay with relatives, consider the accessibility of their home. Are there steps, and if so, how many? Is there a bathroom on an accessible floor that will meet your mobility needs? Is there a bedroom on the ground floor where you can sleep and have space for any medical equipment you may need?
Families often want to be supportive and accommodating, but sometimes the physical realities of their home make staying with them difficult or impossible. Well-meaning relatives may not understand the extent of your needs and think that just because their home doesn’t have steps, you can stay there. They may not realize that carrying your wheelchair up stairs isn’t an option. Don’t be afraid to politely turn down an offer of accommodation if the situation won’t work for you. Once you arrive, it may be possible to change things at the house to make the situation work in the future, or at least help your loved ones understand why you need to stay in a hotel.
7. Buy a portable ramp.
A portable ramp is a great investment that can help in many situations, such as visiting friends or moving to a new home and needing quick and easy access. Even if a relative’s home is not accessible enough for you to stay there, you may need to get in for family meals and festivities. In these situations, having a portable ramp can make the difference between smooth, easy access and a difficult, possibly hazardous situation.
Portable ramps are relatively inexpensive and can be transported easily in most vehicles. They are great for providing access to buildings with one to three steps, though I have done up to five. Obviously the more steps, the longer the ramp you need, but it isn’t necessary to meet ADA standards for a temporary situation. Even a fairly steep grade can be negotiated with assistance from family members pushing and/or guiding your wheelchair up and down the ramp. If you visit a particular relative on a regular basis, and they have storage space, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to keep the ramp at their home for future visits.
8. Make hotel reservations early.
Lots of people travel during the holidays, and hotels fill up. Be sure to make a reservation as soon as possible to ensure you get the accessible room you need. I always make my reservations by calling the hotel and asking them specifically to reserve the roll-in shower type of accessible room. That’s the only way to somewhat guarantee you will get the right room, but mistakes can still happen. Do your research online and check reviews; some websites even show pictures of the rooms, which may give you an idea of accessibility.
9. If you have a service dog, don’t forget his or her needs during the holidays.
Although service dogs are typically calm and well-trained, your dog may encounter things they are not familiar with, such as flashing Christmas lights, animatronic figures in store displays, or people playing musical instruments. Use patience and kindness to help your dog get used to these new experiences.
When visiting relatives’ homes, it’s a good idea to keep your dog on a leash. Even if he or she is great at your home, they might have hazards such as a poisonous poinsettia or breakable items on low shelves. Even the most well-behaved dog can be tempted by food on coffee tables or counters if not supervised. Your dog could slip out the door if there are lots of family members, especially kids, going in and out and not paying attention.
Oh, and Aria says don’t forget to buy your pup a present!
10. Challenge stereotypes in a positive way, and know when to “let it go.”
I’m a disability activist. I am strong in my advocacy, and in my everyday life I do my best to correct misinformation and point out ableism and stereotyping wherever I see it. However, at holiday gatherings, I believe it’s best to choose your battles wisely. Sometimes it’s easiest just to keep the peace. If Grandma wants to pray for you or says “crippled,” nodding and changing the subject may be the best choice. Sometimes it’s not worth hurting well-meaning older people over less than politically correct language.
However, it’s OK to draw the line somewhere, and you can decide where that is best for your family. If someone is making truly hateful remarks, you don’t have to sit there and take it. Everyone should be able to enjoy the holiday, and family members should all be aware of their behavior and show kindness and respect for each other.
I choose to challenge ignorance and correct stereotypes primarily by example. If you talk about your life openly, your work, hobbies, and interests, you can show your loved ones that you live a worthwhile life. Tell people about whatever you do that’s awesome and makes you happy. I often use travel to naturally change people’s perspective. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone, or doubt their abilities, when they road trip all over the country having adventures and writing about it.
11. Friends are the family you get to choose.
Travel and seeing family members can bring up old memories and conflicts. Remember you’re not alone in this; nobody’s family is perfect. Chances are, your friends with and without disabilities are dealing with similar struggles. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about what you’re feeling; they will probably have stories of their own to share. If you can, make time to share the holidays with friends too. Friends are our chosen family and understand us in a way our blood relatives sometimes can’t, no matter how much we love them.
12. Keep your sense of humor.
Traveling with a disability can be lots of fun, but things never go perfectly. Scratch that. All travel is lots of fun, but things never go perfectly. If anyone tells you they had the perfect vacation, they’re probably lying. You just remember the good parts when it’s all over. When things are not so good, the best defense is to laugh. Don’t take it too seriously, don’t scramble. Breathe, relax, and take the time you need to solve whatever challenges come your way. Don’t try to hide or cover up your feelings and difficulties from your loved ones. I struggle with this one a lot, because I always want to be seen as capable. But we all fall down sometimes, and honesty is the best policy.
I hope this guide will help you survive the holidays with your mobility equipment and sense of humor intact. Happy travels!