Photo courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.

Navigating an airport can be stressful for any traveler, especially if you deal with flight anxiety or a fear of flying; but navigating an airport with a disability and not knowing what to expect can get your trip off to a rocky start.

Here are some travel tips to help you navigate the airport, your luggage and the plane ride without encountering turbulence.

There was one instance I remember where my flight had landed and passengers began to unbuckle and remove their carry-on bags from the overhead storage compartments.

I waited patiently while reading my magazine until an older man stopped in the aisle next to me and motioned in front of him while saying “ladies first.”

It wasn’t until then I realized the passengers that boarded the plane after me did not know that I was paralyzed.

I kindly told the older gentlemen that I used a wheelchair and I was waiting for it to be brought on board.

I knew all the ins and outs of flying with a physical disability, but it hadn’t occurred to me that others did not.

Katie demonstrating how to use a carabiner to tow your luggage


Traveling involves creativity when it comes to being independent, and one aspect where I have to think out-of-the-box was with my luggage. The size of your luggage depends on the length of your trip, but if you are a fashionista like me, you tend to over-pack because you like having options for outfits.

For shorter trips I pack my belongings in a duffle bag because it fits nicely on my lap. Moreover, duffle bags usually have a large fabric handle that makes it fairly easy to grab your bag from the conveyor belt.

For longer trips, I use a rolling suitcase. When I tell people this, their first question is always the same: how do you wheel your luggage and push yourself? Surprisingly, it is fairly simple. Once my rolling suitcase is packed and ready to go I pull out the plastic handle and use a large carabiner clip (Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – One Size – Green) to attach the handle of my suitcase to a bar on the back of my wheelchair. Essentially I tow my suitcase just how a truck tows a trailer. I personally enjoy traveling like this because it is amusing to see the awe on people’s faces as I tow my suitcase throughout the airport.

The first time I tried this technique, I didn’t consider my turn radius. I was towing my suitcase that was almost as big as me, when I turned and my suitcase ran over someone’s foot. Normally my wheelchair can turn on a dime, but I hadn’t thought how it would turn while towing luggage. The most embarrassing part of it was the foot I ran over belonged to a really attractive guy.

boarding pass
Boarding pass. Photo courtesy of barchonok.


Pre-boarding: loading the plane first because you require assistance or use a wheelchair. In other words, a total perk! When booking your flight online there is an option for you to inform the airline if you require any kind of assistance. Once you arrive at the airport and check your bags, they will put a ticket on your wheelchair and give you a stub; this is proof that the airlines checked your wheelchair and that it belongs to you.

After you receive your boarding pass and go through security, you need to check in at your boarding gate. This is crucial. By checking in, you are informing the airline staff that you require pre-boarding. They will attach an additional paper to your boarding pass and tell you what time pre-boarding will take place (this is usually 20 minutes before everyone else). Boarding first sounds great doesn’t it? The only downside is that pre-boarding passengers are last off upon arrival.

airport security
Airport security. Photo courtesy of Josh Hallett.

Getting Personal With Security

“Mam, I’m going to pat down your body and use the back of my hands on the sensitive areas.”
Wait…what? I remember the first time I experienced the pat down by airport security and felt uncomfortable. It may seem strange but it is the alternative security method since wheelchairs cannot go through the full-body scanners. Take note that it will take a few extra minutes since it requires an attendant instead of just stepping in and out of a machine.

If you feel uncomfortable with doing the inspection in front of people you can request a private screening, but in my opinion it is nothing to be worried about. Just remember, the person doing the inspection is just as thrilled about the situation as you are.

Floating above the clouds. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

Aisle Chairs

You’ve mastered carrying your own luggage and navigating airport security and now you are at the terminal about to board the plane. Wondering how you will actually get on the plane? This can be tricky because it differs depending on the airline and the size of the airplane.

From my experience, Southwest Airlines’ cabins are spacious enough for my wheelchair to wheel right onto the plane and self transfer into the first row. In the case of smaller planes where your wheelchair does not fit on the airplane or planes with assigned seating, you will be required to use an aisle chair. An aisle chair is a narrow, portable seat that requires you to transfer from your wheelchair to the aisle chair in the terminal. Once in the aisle chair, a flight attendant will push you to your assigned seat on the airplane. One way or another, you will get on the aircraft.

Photo courtesy of Ruthanne Reid.

Length of Flight

When flying with a disability, there are some medical concerns to take into consideration. This will vary depending on your disability. If you are a wheelchair user, I suggest you keep your wheelchair cushion with you in the cabin rather than in the cargo hold with your wheelchair and luggage. I’ve heard horror stories of cushions being popped or lost, so keeping it with you is a pre-cautionary step. Also, it is a smart idea to sit on your cushion if you are prone to pressure sores.

Another issue to consider is whether or not you will be able to use the restroom on the plane. For short flights, this isn’t much of an issue; however, if you are flying internationally, resisting the urge to go for ten hours is difficult. In these situations, you may want to consider a layover so that you can get off the plane and use the restroom. Airplane bathrooms are extremely small, and challenging to maneuver but are not impossible. If you need to use the restroom during a flight, a flight attendant can bring the aisle chair to you and push you to the restroom. You must be able to transfer from the aisle chair to the toilet without any assistance from the flight attendant. This is an alternative to scheduling a layover during your trip.

Just like anything else, navigating an airport efficiently takes practice. As you travel, you will learn what techniques work best for you and your disability. Keep an open mind and get ready to explore new horizons!

This is the second article in an original Epicure & Culture series, The Wheel Deal, which looks into how to travel and have immersive experiences around the globe with a physical handicap. We hope you feel inspired to see the world, despite any physical difficulties.

Do you travel with a disability? Please share your stories and tips in the comments below.

By Katie Estrella. Follow her adventures at DiscoverKatie.

Also Check Out:

Going Local On Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Traveling With Disabilities: Ultimate Research & Planning Guide

Total Immersion: How To Make Your Life More Like Travel

Katie Estrella

Katie is an adventurous soul who enjoys exploring new places. She loves drinking too much coffee, expressing herself through dance and getting lost in a good book. In 2006, Katie fell from her horse and suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. This injury has not stopped Katie from pursuing her dreams, and she hopes to inspire others to do the same, regardless of what obstacles they may face. Stay connected with Katie and follow her new blog DiscoverKatie

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  1. Thanks for the tips! It sounds like you have a lot of experience traveling. I agree with the way you approached the problem of having a wheelchair. It’s not a reason to stay home– it’s just a reason to think outside the box. There’s no reason to travel less just because you can’t walk. You’re an inspiration to a lot of people.

    1. @Jenn: Thank you for the kind words!

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