Packing for Easier Travel with a Mobility Disability
Experienced travelers with physical disabilities know there are a lot of tools that can make international travel easier.
- What to pack: Handy devices to add to the checklist
- Wheelchairs abroad: To bring a manual or power chair or both?
- More travel resources and links
People with mobility disabilities have many considerations to make when choosing luggage. How long is the trip? Will the traveler be transporting his or her belongings alone, or will someone be available to assist? If in a situation that requires transporting one's own belongings, the traveler might try experimenting with different ways of doing so to determine what is most comfortable before making a new luggage purchase.
Meanwhile, another traveler shared that he prefers bringing a duffel bag with wide straps that can fit on the back of his power chair. Other people who use wheelchairs can maximize their chair's carrying capacity by slinging backpacks or duffel bags over the back handlebars, storing smaller items in a net under the seat, or mounting a small carrier to the front of the chair to help carry boxes, equipment, luggage, and other packages.
People with other mobility-related disabilities can also find specialized solutions for storing items. Those using crutches can carry small necessities to crutch bags, which are designed to attach to crutches' handles. Similarly, walker bags can be mounted to the sides of a walker for lighter items, or to the front for slightly heavier loads.
Scott Rains, author of the travel blog "The Rolling Rains Report," uses a wheelchair for mobility and has traveled the world in support of inclusive tourism. Scott explained what he looks for when selecting suitable luggage:
- It is often easiest for me to load luggage onto my lap and roll. I always have a large leather backpack on the back of my chair.
- I look for lightweight luggage with a good handle or handles, and at least one flat side to orient toward my lap. I avoid slippery outer materials, since they make stacking difficult.
- I prefer a large pocket on the outside of a carry-on where I can easily access my ticket and keep it visible during boarding.
- To get the luggage onto my lap I do a forearm curl with my elbow planted on top of my thigh since my trunk muscles don't allow me to bend and pick anything up. This means that it is painful to pick up hard-sided luggage as it presses against the outside of my forearm in the curl.
- I look for zippers with a large pull.
- Luggage that can nest inside each other is helpful for the return since, when I head out on a trip, I'm loaded with consumable personal care items.
Although Scott prefers using "old, ugly luggage" because he claims it's easier to identify and discourages theft, he admits that some of the recent, high-tech models have caught his eye. These products are by Live Luggage, and use flat motor technology built into the suitcase wheels, as well as an "anti-gravity handle system" to help relieve the user of part of the burden. Such features may be helpful to someone who has difficulty pulling heavy loads, although they might also be expensive or hard to find.
The links below may be useful in the search for luggage and bags to carry equipment such as power wheelchair batteries, ventilators, portable shower chairs, and more. MIUSA does not endorse these companies nor consider this an exhaustive list of possible sources.
Adaptable Designs Inc.
Shop for bed rail caddies, packs that strap to crutches, privacy covers for urinary drainage bags, totes, and other supplies for keeping items within reach.
Case Logic carries a line of wheelchair backpacks and other “Mobility Accessories,” that are available for purchase online. These organizers and catch-alls mount to walkers, under wheelchair seats, over armrests, across the lap, and more.
Manual wheelchair users can buy wheelchair packs, pouches and holders from brands like Adaptable Designs and E-Z Access.
Sportaid has grown from a supplier of wheelchair racing related equipment to a supplier of everyday wheelchairs, wheelchair cushions, medical supplies, urological supplies, and daily living aids. Find a vast selection of bags, pouches, straps and a Wheelchair Luggage Carrier under “accessories."
Purchase carrying cases to protect wheelchairs during air travel.
Browse wheelchair bags, backpacks, minipacks, and other tools. A link from the homepage provides illustrated instructions for attaching bags and clips to wheelchairs.
3-in-1 Comfort Grip Handle
This ergonomically designed handle clips to any wheeled upright bag, so users can pull luggage behind them without twisting their wrists or arms. It can also extend the height of the telescoping handle a full eight inches.
Packing like a seasoned traveler is all about deciding what and how much you need. If you use crutches, braces, canes or adaptive (orthotic) shoes for mobility, bring extras of any adaptive equipment you use from home, and arrange to ship replacements from home if necessary. Wheelchair users may wish to bring tools required for wheelchair maintenance or easy transfer.
Read what other travelers with mobility disabilities suggest bringing, and then find the travel-friendly version of products they use every day.
- Small bungee cord. “Bringing a bungee cord was a wise move, as we frequently needed it to keep the trunk of our cab secure when transporting the wheelchair” states Kyra, a wheelchair user who went to Hong Kong. Read her story, "A Feast for the Senses."
- Extra stump socks and stump shrinkers. Amputees can experience loss of volume in their residual limb during travel due to air travel, additional walking, changes in climate and irregular eating habits, according to the Association of Children's Prosthetic-Orthotic Clinics. "Packing extra socks of different plys and/or liners can help prevent many problems that can be caused by such volume change." Learn more on APCOC's Traveling Tips for Amputees page.
- Maintenance kit for wheelchair or other adaptive equipment. WheelAdventure.com advises wheelchair travelers to bring a zip-top bag of tools for wheelchair maintenance, including a large wrench for the bolts and nuts that make up the axles of the chair, a small Allen wrench that fits the pipe sockets of the chair, a small wrench for the spokes and smaller bolts and nuts, spare inner tube for pneumatic tires, and a thin, portable air pump. A multi-tool or utility knife will need to be packed with checked luggage if traveling by air. Make sure mobility equipment is in good working order before departing and bring replacement parts for your wheelchair or other adaptive equipment.
- Hand wipes or gel. Such products can help keep a traveler healthy and are easy to tuck into a pocket. "In a wheelchair, you use your hands more than you probably like...If you go out to eat and the bathroom isn't [accessible], you can just use the handwipes." (WheelAdventure.com)
- Replacement cane or crutch tips. Depending on the length of the exchange, bring some rubber replacements for worn-out cane or crutch tips.
- Voltage adapters and extension cords for your electrical equipment such as battery chargers, ventilators and nebulizers. Read more on electrical currency transformers and plug adaptors for charging Power Wheelchairs and Other Electrical Devices during International Travel and avoid getting stranded!
- Catheter supplies and sanitizing liquid. Keep in mind that the catheter set-up (sizes, etc.) in your destination country may be different from what you're used to. Some travelers stock up on catheter supplies and bring them abroad to ensure that they have the right-fitting tubes.
The following products are examples of tools and equipment that are not only designed to provide easier access for people with mobility disabilities, but are also lightweight or portable for easier travel. MIUSA does not endorse these companies nor consider this an exhaustive list of possible sources.
Portable ramps can be used to access buildings where there are no permanent ramps. Although they are mainly used by people who use wheelchairs, people who have difficulty with steps may benefit from ramps as well. Some of these ramps have hinges and fold for easier storage.
Dunslope Suitcase Ramp
Light, portable fiberglass ramps can be carried like a suitcase and are available in a range of sizes. Customers have the option of purchasing a carrier bag allowing them to store the smallest-size ramp on the back of their wheelchairs.
EZ-Access Suitcase Advantage Series Wheelchair Ramp
The Suitcase Advantage Series ramp is a light, portable ramp that allows wheelchairs and scooters to access steps, vehicles, and raised landings. The ramp, available in a range of sizes, can be separated into two lightweight sections, each with their own carrying handle, resembling suitcases.
Learn how to widen doorways that are too narrow for a wheelchair or walker to clear, and bring simple devices to aid in reaching or grasping doorknobs.
E-Z Pull Door Closer
The E-Z Pull is an assistive device that enables wheelchair, scooter and walker users to close doors behind them when the doorknob is out of reach.
Great Grips fit over round doorknobs and are designed so anyone can turn a doorknob with a finger, elbow or closed fist.
Swing Clear Offset Door Hinges
These special hinges are designed to swing the door clear of the opening adding about 2" additional clearance for wheelchairs and walkers.
Shower and toilet equipment
For showering, look for a sturdy shower chair or commode, which can double as a shower chair or seat. For extra support, bring grab bars and non-slip transfer boards.
"Go Anywhere" Chairs from Go! Mobility Solutions
Each of these portable chairs comes in a lightweight case and unfolds into a sturdy, full-size commode and bathing chair. Besides being adjustable and equipped with a padded commode seat, customers may also choose the sliding bath bench and self-propulsion wheels.
These portable grab bars use rubber suction cups to support a person's weight in the bath or shower.
Lumex Everyday Transfer Board
The one piece design of this non-slip aluminum and plastic transfer board is ideal for travel and fits to accommodate most tub widths without the use of tools.
Rifton Hand Anchor
Rifton is a manufacturer of disability aids and has come out with a line of portable, palm-sized grab bars featuring a clamping suction cup. The bars can be placed on any smooth surface for transfers or stability.
Walkers, reachers, and other products
Inflatable Komfort Kollar
This collar makes it more comfortable to sleep sitting up during travel. Deflates to take up less space.
This portable, lightweight walking stick folds out to become a sturdy seat when the user needs a break from walking.
TeleStick Portable Reachers
TeleStick's telescoping portable reachers require very little grip strength and easily stow into purses or carry-alls. The TeleStik reacher can fold down from 34 inches to eight inches, making it an ideal travel companion for those who have difficulty with reaching objects. Three tool heads allow the user to pick up a range of objects using either a hook, adhesive pad, or magnet.
Carrier of portable medical equipment, folding reachers, tub bars, shower chairs, walkers and chairs, most of which are designed to be lightweight, foldable, or easy to carry.
For wheelchair users, trying to decide between the portability of a manual chair and the independence of a power chair can be a difficult decision. Some travelers choose to bring both in order to use a power wheelchair as a primary means of mobility while having a back-up manual wheelchair with them in case it becomes damaged.
For those who do not use a wheelchair at home but who have other mobility impairments, renting or bringing along a lightweight wheelchair could offer benefits while abroad, especially if travel over long distances or over difficult terrain is expected. Ask wheelchair users for tips and practice using a wheelchair on different surfaces before you leave.
Choosing a chair for mobility is often a question of personal preference, but other factors can help inform your decision about whether to bring manual, power, or both wheelchair types. Consider these questions and tips from Survival Strategies for Going Abroad: A Guide for People with Disabilities:
Does your power wheelchair take apart easily? Chairs that can be disassembled or folded will be easier to load onto a bus, car or taxi than those that do not. Some power chairs require some extra effort or equipment to disassemble, but may be a fair compromise to someone who values both independent mobility and portability.
What is your destination? Modern industrialized nations are more likely provide conditions that are accessible to a power wheelchair, such as lifts on buses, sidewalks with ramped curbs, and relatively easy access to most public buildings than are developing countries. Charging wheelchair batteries is not practical in remote rural areas with unreliable or nonexistent electricity.
How manageable are repairs? If your chair becomes damaged in transit, will you have difficulty getting it fixed in the host country?
If you bring a power wheelchair:
- Consult the tipsheet on Power Wheelchairs and Other Electrical Devices for International Travel.
- Choose a compact, lightweight power chair with a detachable frame.
- Bring any tools required to disassemble the chair, if necessary.
- Purchase voltage converters, which can be purchased in any luggage store or electronics retailer.
- Know your battery. Consider this tip from AbilityTrip.com: If flying with a motorized wheelchair or scooter, bring documentation that describes whether the device is powered by a wet, dry, or gel battery. The battery type determines whether the battery must be removed for transit in the airplane.
If you bring a manual wheelchair:
- Consider bringing along a narrow folding chair with push handles for easier lifting when there are steps to navigate.
- Use tubeless tires or bring along plenty of extra tubes and patch kits.
- Try to have larger front rollerblade casters installed to help prevent the front of your chair from getting caught on cobblestone streets.
- Traveling somewhere snowy or icy? Wheel Blades are adjustable clamp closure covers that span caster wheels 1 to 6 centimeters wide.
Online wheelchair retailers
If you are in the market for a new chair, use this list of manual and power wheelchair providers to find options that are lightweight, low-maintenance, and easy to assemble and disassemble.
Go-Go Travel Scooters from Pride Mobility
Go-Go Travel Scooters disassemble easily and quickly into a few lightweight, easy-to-manage pieces. Choose from several models based on important criteria, such as increased weight capacity, increased range per charge, or indoor maneuverability.
Find the right mobility product. This website carries a large stock of manual and power wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers, many of which are portable and designed to fold.
Get more suggestions for deciding what to pack, preparing for flights, and a checklist of necessities on the Wheel Adventure website. Wheel Adventure aims to inform other disabled travelers, especially wheelchair travelers, about international travel.
Traveling Tips for Amputees
The Association of Children's Prosthetic-Orthotic Clinics lists items to consider for a travel kit for amputees. The Amputee Coalition of America also has a Travel Information for Amputees PDF fact sheet to download online.
Rick Steves’ Packing Light & Right
Though not written specifically for travelers with disabilities, everyone can learn to travel smarter with Rick Steves’ advice on what to bring, debating backpack versus roller-bag, and more.
Refer to the Ouch! Messageboard to read comments from others with mobility impairments and learn how they choose the right luggage for travel.
Find or add your own profiles of wheelchair-accessible destinations, browse reviews of accessible lodging, and get recommendations for mobility-related travel gear.
Are you an international exchange alum with a mobility disability who has a suggestion for convenient travel? Email your advice on luggage selection and transport, portable assistive devices or equipment, and other strategies to email@example.com.
Information from this tipsheet gathered from Mark E. Smith's columns in New Mobility magazine and other online sources.
All information provided by MIUSA and the National Clearinghouse on Disability & Exchange (NCDE) is subject to change without notice. Although efforts have been made to ensure accuracy, MIUSA/NCDE cannot be held liable for inaccuracy, misinterpretation or complaints arising from these listings. Mention of an organization, company, service or resource should not be construed as an endorsement by MIUSA/NCDE. Please advise NCDE of any inaccuracies you may find.