You absolutely can fly while managing your condition!
While there aren’t generally travel discounts (airlines are private companies), there are rules to help you travel safely, referred to as the Air Carrier Access Act.
Your carrier’s services should provide you with supports for your trip, but it is your responsibility to let them know that you need them!
When you first book your ticket, you want to call attention to what supports you will need—you can notify them then if you have a mobility impairment and how much assistance you will need between the gate and the plane.
Some conditions will be worsened by your trip
There are also a lot of invisible conditions that can be worsened by air travel.
Besides anxiety and stress-associated conditions and symptoms (which planning ahead can often help calm), I know that many people with various sensitivities are often at risk for getting overwhelmed, and that folks with circulation issues or other poor reactions to immobility also need some extra protection.
As an example, I’ve heard people with EDS and/or circulation issues choose to wear compression socks for their journey to help with blood flow in their legs.
Also, because both airports and airplanes tend to be a bit variable in temperature, you’ll likely want to wear/pack layers of clothes so that you can more easily handle whatever the climate is wherever you are each step of the way!
Think about how you can best manage the travel stresses that will likely set off your symptoms, or what possible triggers you might encounter.
By recognizing the risks ahead of time, you can pack or plan your solution to these challenges so they don’t actually disrupt your trip.
When I prepare for travel, I suspect I think like a parent planning to take their toddler along.
My condition is the toddler, and I want to do everything possible to keep it appeased while traveling so that we can both arrive ready to have fun!
Considerations for scheduling your flight
If you can schedule a flight without stopovers, that will likely be easier for you unless you need to break up the flight time.
Any time you need to deplane, that’s another opportunity for flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, and the physical and emotional stresses that go with those things!
For the flight itself, besides the usual cost considerations, you also may want to think about the timing of the flight—both in terms of dates and times of day.
If you can fly during off-peak times and days, the airport is likely to be less crowded, which often reduces stress. You’ll likely have shorter waits, less-harried staff, and often more space to sit when waiting for your flight.
These off-peak options are often cheaper as well, though that may not always be the case.
Examples of off-peak days would be Tuesdays or Wednesdays as opposed to Fridays or Sundays, or more than the day before or after a holiday. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year, followed closely by the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
As for times, evenings and early mornings are often popular, so you may be better served getting a late morning or early afternoon flight—this does also vary based on how far you are traveling or where you are going.
Use common sense and if you need to, do a bit of research into your options—you’ll likely want to avoid flying standby as the uncertainty can be stressful and is more challenging to plan for.
Once you select what flight you want to take, look over the layout of the plane itself and consider your needs for the trip.
For many of us, extra legroom may be very important—I often aim for the bulkhead seats for that reason. With a high likelihood of having movement symptoms during the flight, I worry that in a regular seat in coach/economy, I will slam my face into the seat in front of me—which won’t be any fun for me or my fellow passengers!
By sitting in the bulkhead seat, when I do get symptomatic and lunge forward, I am highly unlikely to slam my face into anything (just my back into the seat, which is more difficult to avoid).
If you are dealing with circulation issues, balance concerns, or many other limiting issues that a little extra space can help with, you might want to request bulkhead seating.
The primary downside to bulkhead seating is that there is no space to store anything in front of you, meaning you need to hold what you have on your lap during takeoff and landing.
I often only need a couple things, so it works out relatively well.
If you feel like you need this seating but the seats are taken, you can also make this request at the gate—so far each time I’ve asked, I have ended up with a bulkhead seat, but it is a bit more stressful.
If you don’t feel you need that extra leg and head space, or prefer or need to have that storage space in front of you, think about if you need an aisle seat or window seat, and where on the plane you need to sit to be the most comfortable.
Generally seats toward the front are preferable, but if you are managing anything that might increase your need for the bathroom, you might want to sit further back (seats near the bathroom are rarely in high demand).
If you know you will need to move often (like bathroom trips or walking the aisle to calm anxiety or increase circulation), you likely are better off in an aisle seat—and window seats often give you a little more space and a more comfortable way to lean, as well as a view to distract yourself with—but getting out to move around becomes more complicated.
If you are traveling alone, all of this is especially important; if you are traveling with somebody, the focus usually becomes sitting together.
Often, having a supportive traveling companion can reduce a lot of your stress or anxiety by managing some of the more stressful components of travel.
Wheelchairs at the airport
As fair warning, many airlines have, on occasion, severely failed people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs.
When your flight is reserved, you want to make sure that they know when and where you need help, and what they need to do in regard to carrying your chair.
With any mobility or fatigue issue, you can request a chair to help you through the airport itself—I have done that several times, mainly to ease my trip through security.
The program also offers airport guides to assist blind individuals.
If you have requested assistance, you generally go through a shorter security line and have assistance from the staff member—and if you are traveling with others, they can come along.
With my symptoms being stress-responsive (and I have learned, especially likely to happen if I feel pressured or rushed), that extra assistance greatly reduces my likelihood of being badly symptomatic when going through security.
The only real downside to this is that they expect you to stay in the wheelchair from the moment you get in until the moment you board the plane, and about the only exception is going to the bathroom (they stop the wheelchair at the door to the restroom).
Not only do some airlines and airports short these employees of pay because they “should” be tipped—while others provide it (like other accessibility features) with no presumption of tipping—a large percentage of the disabled population hasn’t planned or budgeted to tip for this support.
Generally, you connect with your help in customer services—if you are checking a bag, those employees should be able to instruct you on where to go if you are uncertain.
Boarding the plane
Be prepared to be the first (or one of the first) to board and one of the last to deplane at your destination, especially if you use a wheelchair.
When you arrive at your gate, you’ll likely want to check in and let them know that you have a disability, especially if you need extra time to board.
If you are a full-time wheelchair user, you’ll need to transfer to an aisle wheelchair when you board and let them gate-check your chair.
Usually disabled folks can board early, around the same time as first-class passengers.
If you can afford to travel first class, the seats are generally larger and more comfortable, so the extra cost may be worth it, especially if you have a long flight.
Al and I flew from Newark to Seattle first class and appreciated the seating and legroom improvements, but given the expense of the seats, it felt a little hard to justify.
This was, however, before Al broke his hip, so the equation might be a little different to us now.
The plan had been to travel with my mother, her husband, my sister, and her wife. The decision to get first-class seating was primarily for the comfort of my sister (who has severe movement sensitivity, fatigues easily, and has a bad back) and my mother (she has asthma and is sensitive to strong scents, like certain perfumes, and was dealing with some pain issues).
In the end, only Al and I went, as my mother discovered that she had microfractures in her hip and needed a hip replacement, and my sister’s symptoms flared a bit before the trip and she wasn’t up to going at all.
Another consideration may be medications.
If you have a mental health condition or anxiety disorder, you may be able to either discuss anti-anxiety medications to help you on your trip, which you’ll likely want to take shortly before your most likely big stressors.
This could mean popping a Valium as you board or on your way to the airport, or simply ensuring that you continue to take your medication as normal despite the schedule upsets that travel will cause.
Also, if you are managing a pain-associated issue and have the option of pain medication, ensure that you have those medications with you on your trip, just in case you need them. This may well be a very useful time to take some of those medications labeled “take as needed.”
It’s always going to be helpful to have your medications accessible at all times, and with a little forethought, taking your medications slightly early or slightly late may really help you to handle you trip.
Preparing for delays, cancellations, and misplaced luggage
Unfortunately delays and cancellations can and do happen with air travel, so it’s important that you think ahead.
Ensure that you have enough of your medication in your carry-on to last at least a few days (if you are traveling less than a month, you’ll likely just want to have all your medication in your carry-on if it’s not too bulky), and likely some basic toiletries (hairbrush, toothbrush, etc.) and a change of underwear.
If, like me, you’re dealing with incontinence issues (or have other bodily dysfunctions that you have ideal gear for), bring enough with you to last about twice as long as your trip is supposed to take (be generous).
This way, you’re unlikely to have an unpleasant surprise near the end of the trip.
As I mentioned earlier, airlines have become infamous for damaging or losing wheelchairs.
The airlines are held responsible, but only if the damage is reported right away.
A damaged or lost wheelchair can ruin a trip, as they often are essential for independence.
It’s likely a good idea if you are a wheelchair user to do some research ahead of time and find somewhere near your destination that could do emergency repairs should you need them.
I can’t imagine a worse feeling than learning that you don’t have essential supports because your bags (or chair) didn’t make it to your destination.
Arriving at your destination
There is always a bit of a rush to leave the plane—I recommend that if you will take extra time or if you don’t like feeling rushed, you will want to wait until the plane is mostly cleared out to deplane.
If you need assistance deplaning, they won’t come for you until after the plane is empty.
You’re likely to be tired and low on spoons when you reach your destination, so anything you can do before your trip to make this part easier can be helpful.
When I’m visiting friends, they’ll often pick me up at the airport, and we’ll have prearranged where to meet and when I’m checking in or arriving.
When I’m traveling somewhere I don’t know people, especially if I’m traveling alone, I preplan whatever I can.
I often look at airport maps of my destination so I know where to go, and I know what my final destination for the day is.
I figure out one or two ways for me to get there (for example, a train or bus and where the taxi stand is), so depending on my spoons, I know I can safely get myself where I need to go.
Generally, I’ll be planning my routes from the baggage claim, since I know I’ll be going there to pick up my bags.
My travel experiences
The farthest I’ve traveled since my diagnosis was to Denmark to visit a friend of mine.
I was in relatively good shape at the time, so didn’t use a wheelchair, but I warned folks each step of the way about my movement symptoms.
The travel I did in my worst shape was when I flew to Louisville, Kentucky, from my home in central New Jersey. I went there to participate in the MoRe program to treat my FND symptoms.
I did have a wheelchair and attendant for my trip down, but the Louisville airport was small enough and I felt good enough after treatment that I didn’t need that support for my trip back!
Louisville has a bus system, and I did my research and found a bus route that would take me to the hospital, but I couldn’t easily find the bus stop once I got there and I took a cab instead.
The ride was really affordable, so I did that for my trip home as well.
Flying with a disability is possible with some forethought!
When you plan your trip, do your best to preplan and take your needs into account.
When flying, you can pick flight times that are less popular (and often cheaper) to make your trip through a less-crowded airport and (potentially) a less-crowded plane.
You often can select your seat on the plane as well. Use that to your advantage by selecting the optimal seat for you—whether that’s the bulkhead seating, first class, or near the bathrooms.
Take advantage of early boarding when possible—give yourself some extra time and improve your odds of being able to easily store your bag and get comfortably seated
You deserve a quick and easy flight to your destination, whether it’s for work, pleasure, or health reasons.
While you may not get it, I hope these suggestions help make your trip easier and more comfortable no matter what else happens.