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Traveling With Your Loved One

Keys to a smooth trip: research, planning and building in downtime

Rear view of affectionate mature couple on airplane

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Plan ahead to avoid complications while traveling.

Of course, your loved one wants to toast the bar mitzvah, kiss the bride and meet the new baby. Maybe the dream is a vacation at the lake or a bucket list adventure. Skype doesn’t let you hug the ones you love. And it makes the Grand Canyon look like a screensaver.

You’d like to make the milestone trip happen, but caregiving can be tough even in familiar surroundings. The thought of leaving the routine you have carefully established to guide the person you love through the complications of modern transportation may fill your head with dread. Is it wise? Is it even doable?

Yes — if you plan ahead.

By air

Step 1. Contact the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

TSA Cares is designed to help travelers with limitations get through security as easily as possible. The call center is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET weekdays and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET holidays and weekends. Contact them at 855-787-2227 or by email 72 hours before departure.

  • Explain your loved one’s situation and needs. If you have specific concerns — like traveling with a service animal or with oxygen, medical gels, liquid medication such as insulin, medication that must be kept cold or medical accessories such as syringes — ask for restrictions and guidance.
  • Ask what you can do or bring to help the security check run smoothly.
  • Should you bring medical documentation? Generally, it’s useful to have a letter from your loved one’s medical provider that notes conditions and implanted medical devices, and lists medications, including medical accessories such as liquid medication and syringes, IV bags, oxygen tanks and pumps.
  • Print and fill out the TSA Notification Card

If wait time is a concern, consider applying for TSA PreCheck several weeks before the planned trip. More than 50 airlines and over 200 airports accept TSA PreCheck. And, as of May 2018, 92 percent of TSA PreCheck travelers waited under five minutes. Becoming a Known Traveler with TSA approval:

  • Costs $85 per person.
  • Lasts five years.
  • Requires the applicant to fill out a five-minute form online.
  • Requires a 10-minute in-person background check and fingerprinting at a local office or airport.
  • Allows the traveler to enter through a designated line.
  • Means the traveler is not required to take off light jackets, shoes or belts, or unpack laptops and liquids that fit the 3-1-1 requirement.

Security is still tight for precheck travelers:

  • They are screened by technology or a pat-down.
  • Hands, mobility aids, equipment and external medical devices may be swabbed to test for trace explosives.
  • Mobility devices may be X-rayed.

Step 2. Call customer service

Pick a few direct flights (if available) for the dates you want, but — before buying tickets — call the airline’s customer service.

  • Tell customer service you’re traveling with someone who needs assistance.
  • Ask if you may arrange for early boarding, onboard assistance and being met by a wheelchair attendant at the other end.
  • Tell customer service if your loved one is traveling with a wheelchair. Most wheelchairs are too wide for airplane aisles. Request an aisle wheelchair and assistance boarding the plane.
  • If the care recipient cannot climb, make sure the flights that you’re considering board via skywalk, not steps. If they have steps, ask for help finding a suitable flight.

Step 3. Buy the ticket

Choose two seats, one on the aisle, near a bathroom.

Step 4. Pack

In your loved one’s carry-on put:

Legal identification, Medicare/insurance card, medical documentation, a list of doctor contacts and prescription refill orders. Include prescribed and over-the-counter medication with original labels. This includes medical liquids, gels and creams (these and aerosols may exceed the 3.4 ounce/100 milliliters limit for liquids), as well as freezer gel packs (must be frozen solid). Also enclose medical accessories, such as syringes, IV bags and pumps. Pack items in clear plastic bags to make it easier to unload for screening.

Step 5. At the airport

  • Arrive early.
  • Save energy and reduce stress by getting wheelchair assistance, usually found at curbside check-in and the ticket counter.
  • An airport wheelchair attendant will ease your loved one through the crowd, wait during security check, continue to the gate and leave the wheelchair to use on the skywalk. (The service is free, but a $5 tip is customary.)

Get through airport security

  • Have medical documentation ready.
  • Get plastic bags with medication and medical supplies out before screening starts. You or your loved one is responsible for handling all medication during screening.
  • Tell the TSA officer you have essential medication.
  • Your loved one can ask to be screened while sitting.
  • Shoes are not required to be removed, but TSA will inspect for trace explosives and may also test for them.
  • Medication can go through X-ray screening and be tested for trace explosives.
  • TSA officers may open the containers, and X-ray or test for explosives or concealed prohibited items.
  • Mobility devices may be X-rayed, swiped or otherwise examined.

At the gate

  • Buy water or fill up a sport bottle to stave off dehydration.
  • Tell the airline counter person if your companion needs assistance boarding.
Older man and young boy traveling in a train looking out the window

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By train

Step 1. Call customer service.

Whether you are traveling by Amtrak or another line, call customer service. Explain your loved one’s needs, disabilities and medical conditions. Ask these questions, if relevant.

  • Are there any restrictions on service animals?
  • Are there any guidelines about portable oxygen tanks?
  • Will railroad employees assist your loved one when boarding and disembarking?
  • If your loved one cannot climb steps between the platform and train, is there a lift or an alternate way to board? Will it accommodate a person using a wheelchair or other mobility device?
  • Is there a size restriction for mobility device? Ask if you can reserve a wheelchair accessible space on the train.
  • Does the train have transfer-accessible seats with nearby storage for a wheelchair? (If so, book early as spaces are limited.)
  • Are there discount fares for older people or those with disabilities?
  • If traveling a distance on Amtrak, ask if there are available roomettes on the train. These small, cleverly designed rooms have seats that reconfigure into a comfortable single bed with a drop-down single bed directly above, a toilet and sink. There are a limited number of accessible bedrooms. Book as far in advance as possible.

Step 2. Taking your leave.

  • Bring a knapsack or tote containing train tickets, bottled water, snacks, ear buds, reading material, device for movies, phone, wallet, ID, Medicare/insurance card, doctors’ contacts, prescribed and over-the-counter medication, and a list of all prescribed medications, dosages and refill information — including pharmacy phone number. (That information also can be stored on your phone and backed up by emailing it to yourself.)
  • Arrive at the train station early.
  • Let a redcap take your luggage to the gate so you can focus on your loved one.
  • Tell a railroad employee in advance if you need help getting your loved one and the luggage onto the platform and into the car.
  • Ask which cars have accessible bathrooms. Sit in one of them.
Female caregiver helping  woman step from a van into a wheelchair

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By car

Tips for a smooth drive:

  • If the ride will be longer than a few hours, consider leaving a day ahead. The extra time will let your loved one relax, rest and stockpile energy for the next day.
  • If the drive is more than six hours, consider staying at a hotel midway. Use the extra time to rest, relax and eat.
  • Choose the route ahead of time. Check out the distance between rest stops. Plan to stop for bathroom breaks a minimum of every two hours (some may need to stop every hour).
  • Bring healthy snacks and bottled water.
  • If your loved one can walk, stop every two hours for a stroll or flex their feet. This can help prevent a blood clot.

At the hotel

  • If the event is in a hotel, make your reservations at the same place.
  • You may want to book a room with two queen beds, one for each of you. If you prefer rooms of your own, book a suite or rooms with a connecting door. This will let you hear if your loved one gets out of bed during the night. (Waking up in an unfamiliar place can be confusing.)
    • If you cannot get a connecting room, book the room next door. Make sure you have a key to open your loved one’s room.
    • If you are not sleeping in the same room as your loved one, an audio or video monitor will let you hear and see if help is needed.
  • Make the room feel familiar. 
    • Put out any items you brought from home — a CPAP or white-noise machine on the night table, along with bottled water and, perhaps, a book.
    • If there’s no nightlight, plug in the one you brought. If you forgot, ask the front desk for a loaner.
    • Even if you are there for a short time, hang clothes in the closet. Put foldables in the top drawer.
    • Put toiletries on the bathroom counter.

Settling in

The difference between a fabulous trip and an exhausting one can be as little as an hour a day. Build in breaks, during which you hang the “do not disturb” sign on the door and your loved one rests or naps in a quiet room for as long as is needed. Try to have downtime before celebrations.

  • Don’t rush. Plan to arrive early, especially if your loved one is anxious about time. Leave time for transportation, transitions and getting dressed.
  • Plan some quiet activities, such as getting hair styled, a manicure or a haircut.
  • Encourage the care recipient to prioritize. Being fully present for the wedding is more important than staying at — or even attending — the rehearsal dinner.
  • Notice if the person in your care is losing steam and offer to move to a quieter place or return to the hotel room for a nap. If your loved one wakes up refreshed and interested, return to the  event.
  • If your loved one can’t hear well or gets overwhelmed in a crowd, arrange 15-minute visits from a few friends and relatives, leaving space between callers. If there are not enough chairs for guests, ask the hotel to bring a spare.

Flying solo?

If your loved one is able to fly alone but you want to be sure there are no airport snafus, ask the airline to issue you a gate pass at the ticket counter. (You will need to show legal ID.) With the pass you can go with your loved one through security and on to the gate, where you can stay until takeoff. The person on the receiving end should call the airport a couple days ahead of the flight and ask how they can get a pass that will allow them to be at the gate when the plane lands. Or, even if your loved one can disembark without assistance, arrange for a wheelchair attendant to take the passenger to the friend or family member waiting on the other side of security.

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