1. When booking your flights, consider comfort and convenience as much as cost. Smaller airports, such as SNA/the John Wayne airport is easier to manage than LAX and the service personnel will often be more accomodating and friendly. Make sure you have extra time in the big airports such as EWR (Newark) and ORD (Chicago) when making connections and going through security. Southwest not only allows you plenty of free luggage and changeable flights (so you may not need insurance), it has a Customers of Size policy that allows individuals who have difficulty in fitting in one seat to purchase a second seat in advance. After completion of the flight, they will reimburse you for that second seat. They want you to be proactive and comfortable. I applaud them for that!
2. It's nice to fly first class, but a good alternative is booking a seat in bulkhead or as close to the front as possible. You can use the first class bathrooms. It's easier to stand up and transfer a senior if there is no seat in front of him or her. Alternatively, the first row after bulkhead works well because it usually has aisle armrests that lift. I recommend that the senior have the aisle seat for mobility, and window for quiet. If you are buying economy, you can call the airline (ASAP) and let them know you are a with a (mentally or physically) disabled person . In compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act, the airlines have systems to accommodate a disabled person with a specific seat, even if they say you can’t book it in advance. Plan to be the first people on and the last people off the plane.
3. Bring just a carry-on and a purse or briefcase. You avoid lost luggage and waiting at baggage claim. If you don't want to put your carry-on in the overhead compartment or there isn't enough room for it, you can gate check your bag and it will be outside the door of the plane when you disembark. However, be aware that many airlines now are charging for carry-on luggage. It is sometimes less expensive to pay for a large checked bag than a carry-on. Check the airline's policies. If you have a direct flight, you generally don't have to worry about losing your luggage. Also, it's nice to have an extra, empty duffel or other bag along, just in case you buy a bit of stuff or if your senior has poor or inadequate luggage.
4. I recommend bringing the following in your carry-on or purse:
*identification (current and easily reachable; I always take both my license and passport)
*medications (enough in a pill box to last the trip plus extra days in case of a delay)
*a change of clothes (a flight attendant spilled tea all over me on an international trip ...)
*an empty water bottle (you can fill it up at the water fountains after security and before you board)
*something to read or watch, plus earbuds or earphones
* a micro-fiber towel (it packs small and doubles as a blanket, wrap or pillow)
* an eye mask and earplugs (such as Mack's AquaBlock ultra soft plugs), especially good for international flights and noisy hotels
*currency local to your destination (Wells Fargo customers can get popular currencies at the teller or pre-order unusual currency) so that you don't have to find money after a weary flight
*a snack and mints/gum (clears ears)
5. If you have your own wheelchair or walker, it can be gate-checked. Get a bag tag from the gate agent before you board. If you plan to use the airport wheelchairs, notify the airline when you book. If you can't do it easily on line, call the airline's special needs line. Airlines also have "aisle chairs" for folks who can't walk onto the plane at all. Know how to transfer your senior, have plenty of time to do so, and let the airport personnel know if there is a special procedure for your particular senior.
6. If you want to use an airport wheelchair, some airports require that you use their wheelchair assistants, some don't. For those that do (often the big ones, for example, ORD/Chicago), have your driver drop you at the handicap entrance closest to your airline and inside you will need to show your boarding passes for assistance. That aide stays with the airport wheelchair you are using all the way to the gate. On arrival, the aide will often take you all the way to baggage claim or the parking lot. Tip that helper.
7. Going through security: If your boarding pass says TSA Pre-Approved, just go straight to the fast lane. If you are traveling with a senior who is in a wheelchair, use the special needs line, if available. Wheelchair users should stay in the chairs to go through security. It's usually a smoother process and less confusing for senior travelers, even with the extra attention on the other side. Seniors do not have to take off their shoes, light jackets or jewelry. If you have thickened liquids and/or liquid medications that exceed the 3.4 ounce limit on liquids, bring a medical note or at least let the TSA people know before you put it through the scanner. If you don't have pre-check and you are using a carry-on, put your bottles of liquids in one quart size bag. The size of the bottle matters, not how much is left in it. Semi-liquids also often won't make it, such as jellies or yogurt. Make sure your backpack, purse, cane, or whatever goes through the scanner has a legible luggage tag or sticker with current contact information. Tape an ID card to your electronics.
8. Driving/Car Rentals: Waze is a great app for navigating (it sometimes indicates crashes and speed traps ahead). AutoSlash.com has terrific rental rental car prices and if you use their tracker, will let you know if the price goes down before the trip so you can re-book. Hertz sometimes has a program called Quick Ride. If don't want to leave your senior at the terminal or take him/her on the shuttle while you return your rental, go directly to the Hertz return line and have a rental agent drive you all back to the terminal. Your senior doesn't have to leave the car and the luggage stays with you until you get to the terminal. Phone Hertz's direct, local number to make Quick Ride arrangements. They may charge a fee (PHX) or otherwise leave a tip.
9. Hotels vs. VRBOs/Airbnb: Hotels are more reliable as far as parking and accessibility. LaQuintas take dogs, and more hotels are getting pet-friendly all the time. I like VRBO/Airbnb for affordability, kitchens and option to have a common space to share with your senior. They are good for multi-night stays and groups. But beware; some hosts will look for any excuse to keep your deposit and may not have the best safety features, much less staff to step in when there is a problem. If your senior has dementia and wandering may be a problem, book adjoining rooms well in advance and/or bring a door alarm (available online for under $10). It also may be helpful to use a baby monitor in case your senior is across the hall and may need your attention.
10. Incontinence products are a good idea, just in case. Bring them along since you may have a hard time finding them in the airport. Look for companion care bathrooms located available in most airports. If your senior can't use the bathroom on the plane and you are concerned about leakage, bring a chux or waterproof pad to keep your senior comfortable. The microfiber towel may come in handy for that.
11. If you are traveling with someone with vision loss, it's helpful to wear light-colored clothes and a bright scarf or other accessory through airports and dark hotel hallways.
12. I learned in the UK that a caregiver who is accompanying a senior is called a "carer" and tickets to many of the castles, museums and other attractions are free. That fact is rarely advertised: you have to go up to the ticket window and ask nicely. Your senior will pay the "concession" price only and the agent is likely to put you both at the head of the line. So don't bother buying discount tickets in advance. The attraction, such as the Scottish castles, also often have free mini vans that senior and disabled people can take to the top of the hill so that you only have to walk down. The San Diego Zoo has a similar senior-friendly policy (free tickets for caregivers and a pager to call for transportation). Here's to hoping the trend goes international!
(Keep reading below for Resources)
The Sunflower Lanyard Program
Wearing a Sunflower lanyard (or lapel pin or bracelet) is a way for someone with a hidden disability (e.g. individuals with dementia, autism spectrum, hearing deficits, brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, speech difficulties, general aging-related decline, etc.) to discretely self-identify as someone who might require extra assistance, a bit of patience and/or more time from staff or colleagues. Wearing the Sunflower does not entitle anyone to special privileges. Anyone can get a free Sunflower item from participating businesses or services. Businesses and service providers who participate in the Sunflower program donate the Sunflower lanyards to customers who request them. For example, the Minneapolis Airports have the lanyards at their Traveler's Assistance booths. See www.mspairport.com/airport/accessibility/hidden-disabilities-sunflower-program. The employees of the participating businesses or services are trained to provide special assistance to people wearing the Sunflower. Details about the Sunflower are available at www.hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/us. Personal stories about the value of wearing the Sunflower are found at www.hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/blog/category/sunflower-stories. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower originated for use in airports, but in the UK, the Sunflower is now recognized in many sectors: transportation (all major UK airports, buses, trains), retail services, financial services, National Health Service clinics, football leagues, etc. As of the beginning of 2021, at least 10 major airports in the US participate in the Sunflower program.
The Dementia-Friendly Airports Working Group (DFAWG) is an international collaboration of professionals, academics, and volunteers in aging and dementia services and support systems, including present and former dementia care partners, and individuals who are living with dementia. DFAWG was formed in September 2018 after learning about Brisbane Airport’s dementia-friendly airport designation. I have been a member for some time.
DFAWG’s mission is to promote the definition and implementation of substantive dementia-friendly protocols in U.S. airports and airlines and the harmonization of relevant air travel regulations world-wide.
The DFAWG website, www.DementiaFriendlyAirports.com has a wealth of information about traveling with dementia-related conditions, and has a Resources for Travel section that has some of the information from my Travel Tips and this page, but much more.
TSA Cares (855)787-2227 is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. Call 72 hours prior to traveling with questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint.
Travelers requiring special accommodations or concerned about the security screening process at the airport may ask a TSA officer or supervisor for a Passenger Support Specialist who can provide on-the-spot assistance. Use the number, above.
Go to TSA.gov/travel for relevant information about getting through security, such as Special Procedures for those with disabilities and medical conditions, and for a copy of a TSA Notification Card, and Security Screening for what you can expect going through the checkpoint. If you have an experience with TSA that you want to share, go to www.tsa.gov/contact-center/form/complaints.
STEP stands for The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The website is www.step.state.gov. You can check the website to see if there are any concerns you should have about traveling to a certain country, such as if the terrorism threat level is high or certain areas are deemed dangerous. The notices they send out about what is required to travel outside of the country during COVID is invaluable.
MUST READS/ &Videos
An excellent resource is the easy-to-read Travel Well With Dementia by Jan Dougherty. A small price price to pay for great and comprehensive information!
Teepa Snow, a well-known dementia educator has completed a series of videos re: common scenarios that are seen in the airport for people with cognitive impairment with suggestions on how to best manage. Each video is only about 2-3 minutes in length. Here is the link:
Also see, https://journalofdementiacare.com/making-air-travel-easier-for-people-with-dementia, a fine article by Dr. Maria O'Reilly, a colleague on the Dementia Friendly Airports Working Group, from Brisbane, Australia.
Disability travel is a hot topic. See, https://www.travelagewest.com/industry-insight/business-features/accessible-travel?utm_source=pocket_reader.
Finally, if you or your loved one have doubts about whether travel is a good idea for someone with dementia, see "Tourism as a dementia treatment based on positive psychology", a comprehensive article by Dr. Jun Wen and colleagues published in Oct. 2022 and found at www.elsevier.com.locate.tourman.