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Travels with a Wheelchair - Lessons Learned the Hard Way
by Evangelina Vela

Travel can always be looked upon as an adventure, but when you travel with a wheelchair, the adventures just keep on coming!

Part 1 - Hotels

In the seven years that we have had the honor of owning at least one wheelchair, we have discovered quite a bit about traveling with an additional set of wheels. The "accommodations" that hotels make to disabled travelers are quite varied and sometimes quite puzzling.

Much of the traveling we have done has been for my mail-order gift catalog business. On one such trip, which was actually in town but far enough away to warrant staying at a hotel, we made reservations for a handicapped accessible room. We got to the hotel, checked in, and had a bellman help us with our bags, which included my merchandise for the exhibition the next day. He led us to our room, unlocked the door, and stepped back so that we could enter first. I got behind my husband's wheelchair and pushed. The chair hit the door frame. I pulled back and tried to line it up again. Still no luck. I checked the width of the door. It was definitely narrower than the wheelchair.

The bellman quickly sized up the situation and said we were going back to the desk to get a room we could get into! He took us back and explained the situation. The desk clerk frantically searched for a room in the newer section of the hotel that she could give us. Finally, she found something. It wasn't "handicapped accessible", but it was much larger than the original room we had been assigned and worked out wonderfully. The extra cost of the room was waived in light of the situation.

At the other extreme is one of the nicest hotels for traveling with a wheelchair that we have been in. In New Orleans, down at the end of Poydras Street, where the city meets the river, lies the beautiful Hilton Hotel. Its accessible rooms, at least the one we had, feature spacious paths, wide doorways, full-length mirrored sliding closet doors, lower closet rails and door peepholes. A very nice way to get away from it all.

A few tips about hotels: Make your reservations with the actual hotel, if possible. It will cost you for the phone call, but the 800 number reservations agents don't usually know how wide the doors are, what kind of accessible showers the rooms have, or if the area next to the side to the bed that you need is wide enough to fit a wheelchair into. The clerks at the hotel may not know either, but they can have someone look.

Ask if they have shower chairs available and how to get one if you need it. If you do get one, carry a container of disinfectant wipes to wipe down the chair before you use it. You might also want to ask the housekeeping department for extra towels. You can put one on the seat to keep your loved one from sliding, to keep him or her from the cold seat, or to pad the seat. Others can be used to cover parts of the body that are not being washed at any given time. Make sure the hand-held showerheads produce enough water to shower quickly - a must for some temperature-sensitive wheelchair users. They should also be adjustable so that they do not spray too hard or too finely for nerve sensitive people.

Find out about room service or delivery services available from area restaurants. Sometimes, when we have to travel, we get so worn out just getting there that we don't feel like getting ready to go out to eat. Some restaurants have room service available. Others that have no restaurant on the premises offer takeout menus from area restaurants that deliver to the hotel. This is a common practice in the small French Quarter hotels of New Orleans. I can tell you from experience that you can get great food at very reasonable prices delivered very quickly!

Another food alternative is to stay at a hotel that has kitchens in its rooms. Hotels like Embassy Suites and some of the extended-stay, weekly rate hotels fit this category. Then, you can bring your own food or buy it in a local grocery store. This really helps if you have to deal with special diets. There is also the extra advantage of being able to eat out and bring "home" the leftovers.

One last tip: Take a large rubber doorstop with you. Keep it handy when you enter or leave the room. You can put it in a wheelchair backpack or a purse. It is a real help in keeping room doors open long enough to get a wheelchair into or out of the room, and it keeps your toes from getting run over!

Coming next, Part 2 - Air Travel.

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