My husband and I recently took his mom to visit family in the Seattle area, and the experience inspired me to write about some tips that could be helpful to others. Travel is such a life-enhancing experience, and as one’s parents or other loved ones get older, travel is at the same time more special, more challenging, and more rewarding.
So, to make the experience easier and more enjoyable for everyone, here are some tips for traveling with senior companions, especially with mobility limitations.
Choose Bulkhead Seating
I don’t know the last time you or your travel companion flew in a commercial airplane, but the seats and legroom have possibly shrunk since then. Your travel companion may or may not need the extra room, but if they do, it’s worth the cost to pay more for the extra leg room.
The seat with the most room will be the “bulkhead,” which is at the front of the section of the plane for your class of service. The only downside is that there is usually no seat in front of the bulkhead, and thus, no place to put a “personal item under the seat in front of you.” There will be no seat in front of you. All items will have to be put in the overhead bins for taxi, take-off, and landing.
Note: Travelers with mobility or strength limitations will not be able to sit in the exit rows, even if that is the seat chosen at booking. Do not choose the exit row; your senior or less-mobile companion will be required to move.
Read next: What are the Benefits of Airline Loyalty?
Call the Airline to Request a Wheelchair Throughout Your Trip
Once you’ve booked your flights, call the airline directly to request a wheelchair, if needed. You will possibly have to wait on hold and go through an automated system, but that is just the process. It’s better to request this in advance instead of hope for the best when you arrive at the airport!
The wheelchair attendant will take you through the TSA wheelchair lane, so there will be little to no waiting in long lines, and they will wheel your senior to the gate. They won’t wait there with you, but if your senior needs to actually be wheeled onto the plane, someone will come at boarding time to wheel them down. If your senior can make it down the ramp on their own steam (or with your assistance), no one will come back to help.
Most importantly: Re-confirm
Re-confirm at every stage. When you get to the airport, check with any of your airline’s employees to confirm that they see the wheelchair reservation, including all layovers. At the gate, ask the gate agent to check again, especially if you have a layover.
When we got to our gate at the Seattle airport for our flights home, I’m glad we asked the gate agent to re-confirm our wheelchair reservation at our layover in Chicago. She said she’s glad we checked because there was no reservation for us! She was able to reserve one for us in Chicago while we waited to board our flight in Seattle.
Keep reading: The Best Ever Air Travel Tips
Keep all Medications in a Carry-on or Personal Item
When packing for your travel companion or helping your loved one pack, it is extremely important to make sure all their medications, vitamins, prescriptions, etc., are accessible in their carry-on or personal item, not in checked luggage.
It’s great to keep pills in a days of the week pill box. It’s also helpful to keep all medications in easily-accessible pockets or compartments in their carry-on or personal item. No one wants to be digging for medication in-flight, especially if it becomes an emergency situation.
Note: If your loved one needs to travel with prescription creams or liquids, they do not have to comply with the 3.4oz (100ml) liquids rule. Just make sure the prescription label is clearly visible on the packaging, or bring a doctor’s note or prescription paperwork with you. See this webpage from TSA.gov for the latest information.
Note: CBD products are not legal in all states, so check laws in all states you’ll visit during your trip (including layovers). These will be confiscated, and you or your loved one may be arrested if they try to fly with any medical marijuana products or byproducts (like CBD) in states where it is illegal. Read this helpful article from Travel and Leisure for more. Also consult this webpage from TSA.gov about medical marijuana.
Essentials: The Best Bags and Luggage for Travel
Check a Bag
With the exception of medications and one set of extra clothing, pretty much everything else can and should be checked. My husband and I can each check up to two, 70-lb pieces of luggage for free when we travel, but we choose not to because we like to travel carry-on only.
This was not the case when we traveled with his mother, and that was okay! If you’re not typically a bag checker, trust me, it’ll be okay! You can certainly carry-on your own luggage, but unless you’re also committed to carrying your travel companion’s luggage, do everyone a favor and let them check a bag. That way, they can bring all the full-size liquid products they need, they can overpack, and they can use that luggage they bought a hundred years ago and get all those sentimental feelings.
More here: The Pros and Cons of Traveling Carry-on Only
At the TSA Check Point
The most important thing is to get there early! Arriving two hours before your boarding time is recommended, but it never hurts to have a little more cushion. While you’ll be able to get through security rather quickly, you may have to wait a while (we waited 15 minutes) for the wheelchair attendant to meet you in the waiting area before security, your senior travel companion may need extra time to use the restroom, and they may want something to eat–airport restaurant lines can be exceptionally long during peak hours!
Also, bring snacks: The Best Snacks to Pack for the Flight
Exceptions for Seniors
Seniors age 75 and over may leave on a light jacket and their shoes. If your senior travel companion does set off the security scanner, they may need to take off their shoes in that instance. If the passenger is unable to walk through the security scanner, they may be screened in a different way. For more, see the TSA.gov website.
Also helpful: How to Handle a Layover
Tell the TSA Agent if There is a Device or Joint Replacement Inside Your Senior’s Body
Letting the TSA agents know that there is metal inside your travel companion will speed up their screening process and get you both on your way faster. This could be a pacemaker, replaced joint, etc. Instead of going through the metal detector and setting off the alarm, which they may find embarrassing, TSA agents can skip that and screen them in other ways, such as a body scanner or pat-down. See the TSA.gov website for the most up-to-date processes.
Read on: How to Plan a Trip with Others
Remember All Accessories at TSA
While getting through TSA was easy and fast, it was also discombobulating. Somehow we ended up with my mother-in-law’s carry-on going through the scanner with my husband and me, her cane going through a different scanner, and her needing a pat-down because the body scanner wouldn’t work for her due to shoulder mobility issues. We ended up leaving her cane behind at the TSA checkpoint and didn’t realize it until we were nearly to our gate. Thankfully, Evelyn was happy to go all the way back and get it for us!
Read next: How to Pack the Perfect Carry-on
Designate One Person to Handle Boarding Passes
I saw someone doing this for their travel companion with mobility issues, and I realized it was a great idea to use myself and pass on to you. Because you and your travel companion will likely be out of your element, there is a high likelihood that someone will lose their boarding pass, not have it on their phone, try to use the wrong boarding pass if you have a layover, etc.
To simplify and streamline, choose one person to keep up with the boarding passes. If you’re all on the same reservation, all boarding passes should be available on your airline’s app (but apps and airline standards vary, so do some research on that first).
Or, if you prefer, get paper boarding passes at the counter at the airport, and designate one person to keep up with them for everyone. This is even something your senior loved one could do if they will be in a wheelchair and feel strongly that they want to contribute and be helpful, since you’ll be doing so much!
More here: Tips for Flying United Airlines
Ask Them What Would Be Helpful
You’ll be doing a lot of the legwork, a lot of the toting, and keeping a lot of logistics under control. Your parent, grandparent, or senior loved one will undoubtedly be grateful for all you’re doing. However, you’re not in their mind or body, and you’re only human!
So, try to remember to ask along the way if there is something that they need. Ask if they want something to eat or drink. Ask when they need their next medication. Just ask. And then listen.
Want more? Check out my Travel Planning Page for everything you need and then some!
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