Traveling With a Wheelchair: The Pros, the Cons, and How to Plan

For Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or Other Chronic Illness

A wheelchair can be both a blessing and a curse when you're traveling with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or another debilitating illness. It might make traveling possible with far less pain, fatigue, or other symptoms, but it complicates things, too.

Many of us who use a chair for travel don't use it full time, so we end up learning the ropes while on vacation. That's not ideal, so do some practicing around town before your trip.

Questions to Ask

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First, let's look at what type of chair is right for you or whether it'll be helpful where you're going. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Will you be alone at all? Wheeling yourself around is harder than it looks. Fatigue, post-exertional malaise, or pain in the hands, arms, shoulders or back may rule out a manual chair.
  2. Will the chair need to go in cars, busses or trains? Few personal vehicles are set up for electric scooters, which are bulky and extremely heavy. Even SUVs often need a special carrier, with a ramp, on the back. A manual chair will often fit in the trunk or cargo area. While most public transportation is accessible, it can be quicker and easier to walk on than to wait for ramps or lifts.
  3. Are the places you're visiting accessible by chair? Some historic places may not accommodate you, so check before you go. Parks, gardens and other outdoor places may have gravel trails, uneven or rocky ground, or other pathways that don't work well for a chair. In these cases, electric is generally best.
  4. Consider whether you need the chair all the time or whether you could use the ones provided by some attractions, such as zoos and museums. Be sure to check websites for the places you're visiting and call ahead to get questions answered.

  5. If you don't need to chair while you're getting to or from your destination, you may be able to rent one once you get there. Be sure to call ahead and reserve it.

If you're buying a chair, make sure you know what mistakes to avoid.

Be sure to take your handicapped parking placard with you. If you don't have one, consider getting one.

What "Accessibility" Really Means

A blue sign has white icons of a wheelchair and an arrow.
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Yes, we have laws that require accessibility. That doesn't mean you'll be able to get anywhere you want without problems.

Businesses are required to follow certain guidelines, including:

  • Doors wide enough for wheelchairs
  • Alternatives to stairs, such as a ramp, lift or elevator
  • Pathways through the space

Historic buildings are exempt, though, when alterations would mean changing or destroying protected features. Safety concerns can also lead to restrictions.

Some businesses are just too small to accommodate chairs and are supposed to offer an alternative, such as curbside service.

In the real world, you do run into tricky situations, and more than you might expect when you're new to a chair.


handicap push button
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Doors have to be wide enough, but they don't have to be easy for you to open.

To reach the handle, you have to maneuver close to the door, which means you don't have room to swing it toward you.

A lot of business doors are really heavy. If you're not careful, pulling on one can move your chair more than the door.

Doors are also difficult for someone pushing you because, again, the chair gets in the way.


Your companion may need to open the door and keep his/her back to it, maneuver the chair, and then go through backward. You may have to help with the maneuvering.

When alone, you may need to stand up to open the door and back the empty chair through.

Be sure you practice this before your trip to avoid frustration.

You'll learn to love doors that open with a push button. They're the best, even if you have to go out of your way to use them.

Carrying Stuff

A woman in a wheelchair gets something out of her purse while waiting at the airport.
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If you're on your own, it's hard to carry anything. You might think you can just hang things on the handlebars, but if they're not the right kind of bags, they may get in the way of the wheels or get knocked off when you go through tight spaces.

Laps aren't a good solution, either. The items can get in your way while maneuvering or fall off while you go down a ramp or slope.


Make sure you have a bag that works well for the back of your chair. If you don't have anything, you can find a lot of wheelchair accessories online.

Don't forget about cup holders! They're a necessity.

For a purse, a slim, cross-body style can work well. The strap should be long enough for it to rest on your lap or on the seat at your side so it doesn't strain your neck. It's hands-free and easily accessible, plus it goes with you when you stand up, so you won't forget it and risk theft.

That raises a good point. If you do get up and walk, anything on the chair is an easy target for thieves. They know you can't chase them down, right?

Make sure bags close securely so contents aren't visible. You may also want to tie things on in a way that makes them hard to grab.

Alternatively, you (or a companion) can push the empty chair.


A man in a wheelchair holds a large suitcase on his lap at the airport.
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Imagine this: a woman in a manual wheelchair with a man pushing her through a huge parking lot while also trying to manage a rolling suitcase with a duffle bag and camera bag slung on his back. That doesn't sound fun, does it? It wasn't. Be smarter than I was.

Take a look at the picture above. You can tell that guy's not actually going anywhere because he's got a hand on the suitcase, plus the case is wide enough to interfere with maneuvering. It also adds weight, which makes it harder to get around.

Airports present a lot of challenges because you're almost always carrying a lot of stuff.


The first rule of air travel is: call ahead. Your airport or airline should be able to have someone meet you at the curb, handle your luggage, and push you to your gate if need be.

Take advantage of help, even if you have companions who think they can manage it all. Don't wear them out before you've even left town.

Electric scooters need to be checked, so the airline will provide a chair to get you to your plane. The crew may need to disassemble your chair or scooter if it's large, and certain types of batteries may need to be disconnected. That'll mean you need to be at the airport especially early.

A manual chair can either be checked at the ticket counter or right at the door to the plane. Make sure it's tagged with your name, contact information and destination.

Different airlines have different procedures, so visit their websites and make sure to call ahead. And don't forget to call ahead. You get how important this is, right?


A man in a wheelchair waits for an elevator.
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Hotels need to be handicapped-accessible and offer accessible rooms, but that doesn't always mean everything's easily accessible.

You can run into problems with narrow elevator doors, awkward approaches to elevators, and long distances from exits or elevators.


Again, call ahead. Ask what's different about their accessible rooms and where those rooms are. Know the width of your chair and ask if the elevator is wide enough and if there's a straight path into it. (Angles or curves can make it difficult or impossible.)

If you prefer to leave your chair in the car and walk to and from your room, one that's got a short walking rather than for a handicapped room.

Don't do well with showers? Ask for a bathtub.

The Stigma

A wheelchair on a white tile floor is viewed from above.
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When you switch between a chair and walking, you might worry that people will think you're lazy or that they'll make nasty comments.

That can happen. Some people are jerks who don't understand what we go through.


The best solution is to not care what they think. That's their problem, not yours.

If you want to be prepared for comments, come up with something like, "Yes, I can walk, but I can't walk without pain."

Or just ignore them. They don't have to live with the consequences of over doing it. You do.

Don't let the fear of judgement keep you from doing what's necessary to make your trip, and your life, better.

On the Bright Side

There is an up-side to traveling with a wheelchair, besides not having to walk. You can get your stuff carried through the airport, go through the shorter TSA line, board the plane first, and skip a lot of lines. That helps make up for some of the problems we encounter. You may also occasionally get a discount. Of course, there's also less pain and fatigue, which means you can actually enjoy your trip. Just don't forget to call ahead!

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