Traveling with a Disabled Family Member

Airline travel while disabled is possible, with the right planning.

Many American families have a member who is disabled, whether it be a child, an adult, or an elderly person. Formerly, being disabled meant stuck at home, but in this new age, disabled people have gotten out of the closet, pushed for reforms in accommodations and transportation, and taken themselves from the category of tax user to tax payer. In other words, more independent! This also gives freedom to the family. Here are ways to accommodate a disabled family member in your everyday and holiday travel plans.

Accommodating a Disabled Family Member by Mode of Transportation

Traveling by car:

US and foreign automakers produce vans that can be adapted for wheelchair access.

  • Two popular kinds of ramps are:
    1. The fold-up ramp
    2. A ramp that slides in under the body of the van
  • Full-sized vans have sturdier lifts for heavy equipment

    Wheelchair ramps can be added to modified vans to allow for easier travel while disabled.
    Photo by Nancy Mitchell

For transporting our wheelchair-using daughter, we chose the fold-up ramp because it was easier to operate manually, should power ever be a problem. It does, however, take up more room inside the van than does the slide-in ramp. On all vans, the floor is dropped approximately eight to fourteen inches for easier wheelchair access. We had the passenger seat taken out so that the wheelchair user could sit up front and learn all about traffic!

Vehicles Adapted to Driving

When my daughter found the man of her dreams six years ago, she gave me an ultimatum. She said, “I’m not getting engaged until I can drive.” Gulp. I was looking at big $$$s. For those who qualify, the state may be able to help fund the van and adapted driving system, but she did not qualify.

Before an evaluation can take place, the aspiring driver must pass the written DMV test. Then evaluations begin. Your place of evaluation will depend on where you live and where the van modifications will take place. In our case, it was southern California for both processes, a 300-mile drive each way. A successful evaluation will include not only the kind of driving system the driver will use but the kind of van that will accommodate this system. This usually requires a new van, as new driving systems are generally not installed in older vans. Believe it or not, my daughter was driving her own van in one year and my blood pressure has never been the same. But she is happy!

Disabled family members can now drive with specially adapted vehicles.
Photo by Nancy Mitchell

Traveling by train

Last year I traveled with my daughter and son-in-law from LA to San Diego by train. The platform was almost level with the train – a small ramp was available aboard and was needed. The restroom was huge, large enough to accommodate both wheelchair user and attendant. Our experience was positive and we’ll go again next year.

Mass transit

City buses are usually accessible to wheelchair users. Check the lines in your city to be sure. Rapid transit systems like our BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – are easily accessible and have elevators at every station. Not all subway stations have elevators. The London Tube, for example, does not have elevators at every station, so choose your hotel carefully! Sorry, San Francisco tourists, the cable cars are not wheelchair accessible. The lines are too long, anyway – take the bus!


Perhaps the most rapid change in transportation for the wheelchair user has been in air travel. The CEO of a major airline once told my husband at a union meeting, “There will never be any wheelchairs on MY airplanes!” He was right in that people sitting in their own wheelchairs do not yet have a place in the main cabin. But aisle chairs are available to transport passengers unable to walk to their seats. The wheelchair itself can be transported in the belly of the airplane. Wheelchairs can be checked at the front counter if a person can use a manual wheelchair provided at the airport.

For those disabled family members who have special seating needs, the wheelchair can be checked at the door of the aircraft and taken down to the baggage area. Be sure to take off any parts like footrests and armrests that are removable and store them in the main cabin. To prevent damage, secure with bubble wrap, tape or zip ties any non-removable pieces that stick out, like armrests and joystick. The chair is often turned on its side to get it through the small cargo door. Wheelchairs used to utilize lead-acid batteries. Now that the batteries are gel cell, they are no problem in airplane transportation.

Airlines can accommodate wheelchair users, but disabled travelers usually need to check their wheelchairs.
Photo by Nancy Mitchell

Until my daughter’s marriage, she participated in a power soccer athletic program that involved airplane travel at least once a year. Passengers were always amazed to see 6 young people going down the jet bridge in their power wheelchairs. Disabled passengers board first and disembark last to allow for the most efficient boarding process for all passengers. Those disabled passengers with service dogs are seated at the bulkhead if possible.


My daughter has taken two cruises and enjoyed both of them. The first was a Carnival cruise to the Western Caribbean with my immediate family when she was 15. Although she was not able to join many of the activities such as taking the bus to Cozumel, hiking the falls at Ocho Rios, and swimming with the stingrays, she did manage to go ashore and get her hair braided with beads and do some shopping with me. She and my husband were “kidnapped” off the street in Montego Bay by a taxi driver who insisted they go on a tour with him. He and his fellow drivers maneuvered the wheelchair into his cab and they had a great tour. She didn’t want to go, but have you ever tried to argue with four Jamaican taxi drivers?

When she was 31, she and a friend traveled to Europe to join my brother-in-law and his wife on a Mediterranean cruise on Royal Caribbean leaving from Venice, Italy. Her attendant was a friend from college – I paid both their transportation expenses and stayed home. The only problem she had was with her battery charger. It is recommended to get a dual 110/220 charger before you leave – having the correct wall plug is not enough. The only inaccessible port was Santorini. She came home exposed to many new cultures and an appreciation of our diversified world.

Travel Tips for Disabled Family Members

Best Accessible City

The best accessible city we have found for disabled family members is Las Vegas. Mass transportation is excellent – we flew in and didn’t have to rent an accessible van. The hotel buses are all accessible and we went directly to our hotel, the Luxor. A monorail and local busses are available to visit other hotels up and down the strip and to the convention center. We especially enjoyed the Venetian and its art, the Bellagio and the production of O from Cirque du Soleil.

Equipment rental

Traveling with disabled family members is not the issue it once was. Many forms of transportation can now accommodate assisted travel.
Photo by Nancy Mitchell

I have a power soccer friend who travels by air with not only his wheelchair but with his bathroom equipment. He is a heavyset young man (younger than I am) and does well transferring himself from one kind of seat to another. He says that he cannot be sure that any rental company would have the correct size equipment that he needs, so he just takes his own equipment with him on the airplane. His advice is to zip tie any movable parts together to ensure surviving the baggage handlers!

Another power soccer family I know needs a Hoyer lift at the hotel for transferring hefty young men from wheelchairs to bed. The team now travels with a portable Hoyer lift, but if you are on your own, medical supply companies can deliver (and return) rental equipment to hotels for a fee. Check with the hotel for possible recommendations for vendors.

My daughter has the last word on her life’s travels.

“My family never treated me like I was disabled when I was growing up. My family and I went on vacation every summer, and we always did group activities that were accessible. My parents instilled in me a love of travel and adventure that persists to this day.”

Are you using a cane, a walker, a wheelchair? Want to go somewhere? Then, go! if you have a disabled family member, take them with you! Be careful of the water taxis in Venice, Italy. They are kind of tippy…. But otherwise, the world is yours!




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