I’m so excited for long-time friend of Travel with Aging Parents, MariF as she is traveling with her Mom to Costa Rica for the first time in August (and flying with an electric wheelchair). Of all the countries I’ve been to before, Costa Rica has a special place in my heart as I was basking in the infinity pool at the La Mariposa Hotel on my 40th birthday (I turn 50 this year). One of my best birthdays ever. The people are just lovely Mari so I am sure you’re going to have a great time.
Now, on to her question. Mari is going to rent an electric wheelchair for the trip, something I’ve actually not done for Mom yet. After exploring this topic though, it’s definitely something I would consider as it’s easier than I thought to arrange! The biggest caveat is to coordinate with the airlines sooner rather than later to ensure they have room on the plane (typically in the cargo hold). Most if not all airlines allow only one electric wheelchair per flight (due to weight limitations) so you need to confirm with the airline before actually booking your tickets.
Rent a Travel Power Wheelchair (vs. an electric wheelchair)
Mari, when renting a power wheelchair, you may want to look for a specific type designed for travel. This way, it can be folded or disassembled while on an airplane or in a car once you get in country (this is great because you can then jump in any taxi vs. needing a van with a ramp). Travel wheel chairs are lighter and take up less space than an electric power wheelchair. Once disassembled, the heaviest part of a travel electric wheelchair typically ranges from 80 to 60 pounds, and can support weight up to 300 pounds.
Checking an Electric Wheelchair
One option is to check the electric wheelchair at the ticket counter and instead use the airline’s wheelchair to get you to the gate. You may also take your electric wheelchair all the way to the gate and check it planeside (see below for more details).
If the wheelchair will fit upright through the aircraft cargo compartment door (ask dimensions when booking your flight) — or if it can be stowed upright in the cargo compartment — the airline typically will not need to disassemble your electric/battery-powered wheelchair and will leave the batteries attached. If the wheelchair requires disassembly before going into the cargo hold, mention this at the ticket counter before heading through security to ensure proper handling. Detachable items, like seat cushions and footrests, can be carried onboard or checked with the wheelchair in the cargo compartment. If disassembly of the wheelchair is required, always attach assembly/disassembly instructions, along with your wheelchair’s specific battery type, to the wheelchair.
If you’d prefer to use your personal wheelchair within the airport, arrange with the airline to check it at your departure gate and return it to you at your destination gate or at a connecting airport. Keep in mind, however, that the time between connecting flights may be insufficient to provide this service during layover, especially if disassembly and re-assembly of your wheelchair is required. If time is a factor, I recommend taking advantage of the airline’s wheelchair service to get you from gate to gate during a layover.
Final thoughts from wheelchairtraveling.com when taking your electric wheelchair to the gate:
It’s very important to know how to disconnect the power from the batteries when you get to the aircraft. Locate that cable and mark each half of the connector with yellow tape. Practice separating and reconnecting the connectors. This may keep them from pulling your batteries out of the chair.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Understand that airlines swap aircraft all the time. Therefore, call to reconfirm with the airline 24-48 hours before you fly to ensure they have your reservation and that size of the cargo doors. Secondly, even if the airline said it would fit through the cargo door when you booked the reservation, it’s always smart to have disassembly/assembly directions attached to the wheelchair just in case.
Getting an Electric Wheelchair through Security
Electric wheelchairs are permissible through airport security although it’s highly recommended that you get to the airport super early to ensure you’re not rushed if they do additional inspection (which they probably will).
Mari, I get the feeling that your mom can walk through the metal detector, but if she cannot, she can be screened in the electric wheelchair. This will involve a visual and physical (pat-down) inspection as well as an explosives trace screening. The pat-down inspection is necessary because neither a metal detector nor a whole body imaging device can be used on passengers who are seated in a scooter or wheelchair. You can ask for a private pat down if you like. Meanwhile, you’ll need to place baskets, saddlebags, wheelchair assembly tools, purses and other carry-on items on the X-ray machine belt. If this is difficult for you to do, ask your security screener to help you (although I would be prepared to help as I’ve found TSA is typically too busy and can get a little surly about it). In addition to the patdown, TSA may use technology to test for traces of explosive material.
Final Travel Tips with an Electric Wheelchair
- Be sure and rent from a reputable company (check for reviews and if possible, verify those reviews are real). You don’t want to have an issue with your wheelchair while on vacation (although if you do, just have your hotel order you a manual wheelchair).
- Discuss with the rental place what typically can breaks on your electric wheelchair and bring a toolkit along to fix minor issues. Good to be prepared!
- Mari: important to note, you may need to bring adaptive equipment for the battery charger (to convert from 220 to 110 voltage). Before you go, discuss the electricity they offer.
Good luck Mari and please send pictures! I’m SO excited for you!