Planning a family holiday for kids with special needs requires a lot of forethought, especially if you’re thinking of flying with wheelchairs. But it can be done, says Ashely Lyn Olson, Founder of Wheelchair Traveling. Even if you are flying with autism or some other form of special need that isn’t always immediately visible, you need to be prepared adds Juliet Cooper Principal of Melbourne Specialist International School (MSIS) in Singapore and mother of 3 kids – Charlotte and Emily (18) and Monty (14) who has an intellectual disability and galactosemia. Ashley and Juliet share their travel tips and excellent expertise with suitcases&strollers on flying with wheelchairs, disabilities and kids.

How can you identify a disability friendly airline? Are some airlines better with wheelchairs and catering to the needs of people with disabilities than others?

Ashley The more disabled friendly airlines will at least have some information on their site and hopefully a way to indicate [how to book if you have] special needs. It is still always best to call the airline and make sure the proper procedure is in place. On the day of flying, it is a good idea to also remind staff at check-in and the gate as well as on the plane of any needs you might have. Staff training lacks consistency overall, so being politely vocal ensures a smoother ride. 

Do wheelchairs count as extra luggage?

Ashley If it is a domestic or international flight within the U.S., wheelchairs or any other medical equipment cannot be charged a baggage fee. This is the law covered under the Air Carriers Act. Even power wheelchairs are able to fly. The key, however, is disconnecting the battery properly and securing the wheelchair as much as possible to prevent damage. If the equipment you are traveling with is expensive then consider travel insurance for peace of mind.

[For more travel tips on how to choose family travel insurance, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Is it best to check in a wheelchair and then use one of the airport ones to get to the gate or take your wheelchair all the way to the gate with you?

Ashley Many personal wheelchairs are custom built and are designed to fit the person using it comfortably. A standard wheelchair at an airport is never as comfortable.

When you fly, you can “gate-check” a wheelchair, which means riding in it to the door of the plane. It is then taken below with the rest of the cargo. If a wheelchair can collapse then it can possibly be stored on the plane in the captains closet but airline crew are nearly always reluctant to do this because of space limitations.

How does an airline typically get people in wheelchairs from the gate down the aisle and into their seat? 

Ashley The only airline that I have traveled on that is just big enough for me to wheel up to the bulkhead seats in my manual chair is Southwest. Most child-sized wheelchairs will have no trouble.

Otherwise, there are two options. One, the child can be carried by a parent or travel companion or an aisle wheelchair can be used if the child cannot walk or is too heavy to be carried. An aisle wheelchair fits down the narrow passageways on a plane. The ride in the aisle wheelchair begins at the plane’s door. A person is well belted in for safety. Once a person is wheeled down the aisle, if he or she cannot transfer on his or her own then they will receive assistance. Clear communication improves this process, especially if you want the person in the aisle wheelchair to be transferred a certain way. Some airlines claim to have sliding boards and hoists to help with the transfer from aisle wheelchair to seat, but I have yet to see one. 

What about other equipment (such as walking canes or crutches)? How will the airline store these during the flight? 

Ashley Crutches and canes are stored in the overhead bin on the plane. Those traveling with disabilities are able to board first so there is no need to worry about space.

Which is the best seat on the plane for people flying with disabilities?

Ashley On some planes access to all bulkhead seats is possible with the aisle chair, but generally the aisle seat is the easiest to transfer into and is in the best position if you need to use the restroom in flight.

If a child cannot hold themselves up then request shoulder straps to attach to your seatbelt when you book. Shoulder straps are not required by law so be sure to ask the airline about options. You may want to purchase your own too so you are always prepared.

[For more travel tips about special child harnesses designed for inflight use, see the suitcases&strollers story Flying With Car Seats on the Plane.]

Juliet The aisle seat provides easy access to toilets and the ability to move if the child is a movement seeker.

Do any airlines have special toilets for people flying with disabilities? 

Ashley An airline with two aisles or a 30-passenger aircraft (or bigger) that was made after around 1992 or has been refurbished is required to have an accessible toilet onboard.

If a person cannot walk to the toilet then an onboard aisle wheelchair must be requested. Some airlines claim to always have this onboard while others are on a request basis. The onboard restrooms are just a hair bigger than the regular ones, just large enough to get the onboard aisle wheelchair in halfway. The aisle wheelchair is removed and door closed after person is on the toilet. Once a person is ready to return to his or her seat, the call button is rung and the procedure is reversed.

What is the best way to deal with mealtime on the plane with a child who might not be able to control his or her body movements?

Ashley If you are talking about a child who is a quadriplegic, for instance, then the confined space is intimate enough for easy assistance.

Bringing your own food always best so you get what you need. It’s also cheaper obviously but, most importantly, you can prepare however you need to. Plane flights can be quite dehydrating so salty foods are not the healthiest choice. I do recommend bringing a variety of snacks cause they are easy to pack and will satisfy hunger until a meal can be had. 

[For more travel tips on travel snacks for kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Juliet Many families take their own food as the airline food is [limited to] “vegetarian” or “standard”. I get standard for my son he never eats the veg option, so I just remove what he can’t eat from his plate when it arrives.

The food is getting better for those who have dietary issues. [If you have a child that has special dietary needs, tell the airline.]

[For more travel tips on traveling with allergies or dietary requirements, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

What if your child has a special need or disability that might not be immediately obvious? (For instance, they are autistic.) What is the best way to handle this situation?

Juliet YES you need to tell the airlines if your child’s disability is severe otherwise they may throw you off the plane for inappropriate behaviours that they do not understand. To be honest of the many families I know with children who have a ASD (severe autism spectrum disorder), they leave their children at home with carers and give themselves the holiday as they need it. The severely autistic child will not cope with change or the plane or the new places. Some will buy holiday home that they can drive to and the ASD child becomes familiar with that as their holiday destination. You can fly with mild ASD but you will need to have their favourite movie on hand to keep them engaged.

[Did you know there is a nanny service specifically for parents traveling with kids with autism? To find out more and for more travel tips on traveling with autism, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Ashley Informing the airline in multiple ways as is a must. Be honest. Airlines want all their guests to have reasonably enjoyable flight. If you have an autistic child then speak up; ask if it is a full flight and where the best seat would be in case the child gets restless (for instance). You may feel like a broken record but it ensures that everyone gets what they need.

Training on how to service disabled people is different at every airline which creates inconsistencies. Communicating openly and preparing the airline staff will also educate those around you. 

Any other special travel tips parents should know about when flying with disabilities?

Ashley If an aisle chair is needed to board the plane or while in-flight to use the restroom it is highly recommended that you notify the airline and make sure the procedure is in place the day of because there are a limited number of aisle chairs at any given airport. With this in place, you board first which is more comfortable for all.

Also, take off anything and everything that could fall off a wheelchair and store it with you on the plane. Add directions (sometimes in different languages) about how to store a power wheelchair if that’s what you have. If traveling with a power wheelchair, consider taking a manual chair as well as a backup just in case. 

[To read about a suitcases&strollers family who traveled around Cambodia with a child in a wheelchair, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Juliet I work with a lot of children who are autistic. Sorry to be so negative but it’s hard work [traveling with disabilities] and takes a heap of planning. Don’t be tired or emotional when leaving to start the holiday. Be honest with yourself about will it really be a holiday if you are spending the whole time attempting to stop your autistic child from inappropriate behaviours in a strange place.

Have a calendar and pictures of where the kids are going and when [that they can refer to so they can be prepared].

Have a backup plan for potential health issues (such as epilepsy) and find out the local doctors and hospitals for where you are going. Make sure you can take child’s medication on to plane. [For medication that requires a doctor’s prescription, bring] a letter from your doctor stating why you need to carry it.

[For more travel tips on what to put in your medical emergency kit, see the suitcases&strollers story Travel Checklist for Kids: Travel First Aid Kits (For Kids)

Have travel health insurance. Make sure the child is covered for their disability (your premium may be more if you are honest and declare this upfront).

For a list of family friendly airlines compared, see the suitcases&strollers story here