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Tips for Traveling with Elderly Parents

By Edited Oct 7, 2015 3 12

My 70-something year old mother has very low-vision and cannot walk very far without help.  Her disabilities do not cause us too many problems at home as she knows her away around the house and when we go out, we usually just go to places where she only has to walk short distances.  I admit that we get around our local town pretty well.  However, on a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found that there are a new set of challenges to deal with when needing to get from Point A to Point B.  

At the airport, I wore myself out pushing her in the wheelchair while also pulling our two suitcases and carrying my broken backpack.  At the hotel and while going to the different local attractions, she struggled with walking longer distances than what she was used to.  

I have learned from this trip and for our next trip, I will be more prepared to travel with my mother by requesting airport assistance in advance and by planning our stay better to reduce any unnecessary walking.  

Here are a few tips that will help those that will be traveling with a parent, friend or any family member that has limited walking abilities.

Airplane over ocean
Credit: Colleen Lane, The- Lane -Team on Flickr

Airline Travel Tips

Tip #1: Learn What Types of Special Assistance are Available
First of all, keep in mind that under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), airlines are required to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities.  I did not know this until after our trip and by not being informed, I made it more difficult on myself than it should have been. Therefore, before your trip, I recommend at least reading a summary of the ACAA so that you understand what rights disabled passengers have and also the rules that airlines must follow to accommodate them.   

Tip #2: Identify Your Special Assistance Needs
Now that you know that the airlines are required to help passengers with special needs, it is time to identify what your special needs are.  In my case, my mother needed to use an airline supplied wheelchair to get from the ticket counter to the boarding gate.  

Tip #3: Obtain Information From Your Airline on How To Request Assistance
Even though the ACAA gives the rules that the airlines must follow, you will still need to check with your airline to find out their policies on how you must request special assistance and what to expect from them.  Either call the airline or look for a "Special Needs" or a "Customers with Disabilities" section on their website.  From here you should be able to have most of your questions answered.

It's a good idea to read their policies as soon as possible as some types of assistance require 48 hours notice.  For example, if your parent needs a special dietary meal on a longer flight, requesting that at the check-in counter doesn't give the airline any time to prepare the meal.  

Tip #4: Request Assistance As Soon As Possible and Confirm at the Airport
We flew on Southwest Airlines and on their website, they say you can request a wheelchair at the airport either with a skycap or a ticket agent.  Getting a wheelchair upon arrival at the airport was a simple process.  However, on the way home, a skycap checked us in and it was never put into "the system" that we needed a wheelchair waiting at the gate after we landed. Even though it's not mandatory that we give advance notice of needing a wheelchair, I will make sure I do so next time and also confirm our special assistance requests at the airport.  Doing so would have saved me time and hassle from getting a wheelchair after we arrived at our home airport.

Tip #5: Allow a Minimum of 90 Minutes Between Connecting Flights
The ACAA  states that airlines are required to provide assistance to disabled passengers that need help with boarding, deplaning and with making connections.  The good part is that disabled passengers get boarded first.  The bad part is they get helped off of the plane last. Therefore when making your flight reservations, if there is a layover, it is recommended that you allow at least 90 minutes between connecting flights.

Tip #6: Request Help with Pushing a Wheelchair Though Security
It never occurred to me to ask for assistance with pushing my mom's wheelchair because at the time, I didn't know that the airlines provided that service and I also didn't mind pushing it.  With the wheelchair, we were allowed to bypass the long security lines and enter the security section by going through the employee line.  But once it was our turn, I had the task of taking both our shoes and coats off and putting all required items in the bins while pushing the wheelchair and helping my mother go through the proper line to get scanned.  Doing all that frazzled me so much that I dreaded doing the same on our return trip home.  However, I didn't need to worry as a wheelchair assistant wheeled my mother through security on our return trip home and it was nice.  Just be sure to bring a few extra dollars for tipping.

Airport security. Get ready to de-shoe
Credit: Redjar - Jared and Corin on Flickr

Even under the best of circumstances, going through security is a hassle.

Tip #7: Pack Light
At some point throughout your trip, you will have to deal with hauling your suitcases around.  Since I didn't know about the great help available that the airports and airlines provide,  I had the terrible task of pushing my mom's wheelchair, pulling our two suitcases and carrying my laptop in 95 degree weather through a long taxi line after we collected our luggage at the Las Vegas airport.  I consider myself to be a fit person but I do admit that I was worn out by the time we got to our taxi.  At the time, I was thankful that I didn't bring my large oversized suitcase as I don't think I could have pulled that with everything else I had to take care of.  On our next trip, I will again fit everything into my smaller suitcase and ask for help.

Tip #8: Bring Any Medications With You On Board the Flight
This is a general tip, but an important one as you don't want your parents to be without their medicines if their suitcases get lost.  Another tip that I have is to carry a list of their medications with you at all times.  This way if you have to make an emergency trip to the hospital, you can give the medication list to the doctor rather than guessing at it.

Travel Pill Organizer

7 Day x 5 Large Capacity Pill Box. e-pill Weekly Pill Box Organizer System for Medications, Supplements, and Vitamins. Black Canvas Travel Bag included.
Amazon Price: $49.95 $38.88 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 7, 2015)
A great way to store medications in your carry on bag.

Travel Bag for Laptop

Targus Drifter II Backpack for 17-Inch Laptop, Black/Gray (TSB239US)
Amazon Price: $79.99 $54.99 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 7, 2015)
The weight of my laptop broke one of the straps on my backpack. I will need to get this before my next trip.

Hotel Travel Tips

Tip #1: Request a Room by the Elevator
The Las Vegas hotels on the strip are very large and it's a long walk just to get anywhere.  My regret was that I didn't request a room by the elevator.  Again, this is a detail that I didn't think about when booking our reservation or checking in.  Sometimes my mom was so worn out from walking that it would have been nice if we didn't have to walk would seemed like another half mile from the elevator to our room.  I know that I'm exaggerating, but it was a long walk for someone that isn't used to walking so far.

Tip #2: Request a Room on the Ground Floor
Also, next time we travel, I will request a hotel room as close to the ground as possible.  We were on the 17th floor and if their was a fire, I don't think we would have been able to run down 17  flights of stairs in a timely manner.

Tip #3: Request a Handicapped Room
We had a very nice room with a cool bathroom that had a TV built into the bathroom mirror.  However, our room lacked any grab bars by the toilet and inside the shower and bathtub.  Luckily, this didn't pose a problem for us on this trip, but I was worried at first.  The last thing that I want is my mother to lose her balance while showering.

TV in Bathroom Mirror

Plan Your Activities

Tip #1: Plan Your Activities in Advance
The second day into our trip, my mother said that she wanted to visit a hotel that was located three hotels away from us.  On our past Las Vegas trips, going places on the spur-of-the-moment wasn't a problem as she was able to walk long distances back then.  On this trip, we started to walk to that hotel and only made it to the second hotel down the strip from us.  If we planned in advance, I would have had us stay at that particular hotel as there was a specific attraction that she wanted to see.  

Tip #2: Repeat Tip #1 - Plan Your Activities in Advance
Again, if we had preplanned better, we could have done more.  My mother wanted to ride the monorail so that we could visit the hotels at the other end of the strip.   That also didn't work out too well.  Even though our hotel was on one of the monorail stops, it was a very long walk from our room to the monorail station.  By the time we got on the monorail, my mother was tired and didn't have the energy to stop at the other hotels and endure more long walks.  So, we ended up spending $24.00 for a quick round trip ride on the monorail.  Again, we should have preplanned better by either bringing her walker on the trip or by skipping the monorail and paying the same amount for a taxi to get us to the other end of the strip.

Frommer's Las Vegas 2013 (Frommer's Color Complete)
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(price as of Oct 7, 2015)
There is a lot to do in Las Vegas!

Lessons Learned

Vacations are meant to be fun, enjoyable and relaxing.  We did have a nice time but on our next trip, I will do a better job at preplanning.  The main lessons that I learned are to:

  1. Request airport assistance in advance
  2. Request a handicapped room at the hotel
  3. Preplan activities in advance to make make sure we aren't doing any unnecessary walking

My mom is planning to travel by air alone in a few weeks.  I did my research and I am glad to know that I can get an escort pass to take her to the gate and that I can request assistance for people to help her in the airplane and after she lands.  The ACAA and the airline websites are a great source of information to help you plan your airline travel so that it is as hassle-free as possible.

If you visit Las Vegas, be prepared for long distances between hotels and attractions.



Jul 3, 2013 2:30pm
I'm scared of taking my mother on a trip. The tips you suggested will help.
Will your mother be alright if you allow her to travel alone?
Thanks for writing.
Jul 3, 2013 8:15pm
Hi moronkee - my mom just flew on plane by herself to visit my brother. My brother and I each requested "Escort Passes" so we could accompany her to and from the gate. The airline employees assist her on and off the plane. She made it back and forth safely! Thanks for reading my article!
May 27, 2014 9:49pm
These are excellent tips - I had no idea there was wheelchair assistance available at airports. And it's brilliant to request to a room beside the elevator (although, it can be noisy around there). I've certainly found that using hotel shuttle buses help a great deal. Thumbing and pinning.
May 28, 2014 8:55am
Hi RoseWrites - Now that I'm aware that the airlines offer assistance, I observe them whenever I fly and noticed that they will help passengers traveling alone. I've seen the employees sitting in waiting rooms with passengers and walking them all the way from the gate to baggage claim. It's great that they do that! I wish my mom can use the airport shuttles, but now she can't go down the steps to get out so we have to use the more expensive taxis. Thanks for dropping by!
May 28, 2014 12:22pm
I learned a great deal by reading this article, especially about going through security and getting the escort pass when dropping off a disabled person who is travelling alone. I had no idea!

Your advice on packing medications in the carry-on is crucial - and remember to include the dose of each pill and the number of pills taken throughout the day on your list of medications! If something happens to your drugs the doctors will need to have this information in order to ensure they are replacing them with the right amounts of each medication.

Write the names(s) and contact info for your primary care physician and any specialists on that list, too. And carry it somewhere separate from the medications (say, inside your purse instead of in the carry-on bag with the drugs.) It's best it's not in the same bag as the meds, in case that bag gets lost or stolen.
May 28, 2014 5:50pm
Thanks Ruby3881 for the tips on the medications. My mom is leaving again tomorrow to visit my brother so I'll make sure that we have her medication list - I actually should email it to my brother. I always take my mom to the gate and pick her up there, but I have observed airline employees taking care of people that travel alone. I've seen the employees sit with them in the waiting areas and take them to the baggage claim.
May 28, 2014 10:57pm
Definitely, emailing the list to a contact at the destination or leaving it with an emergency contact at home are fantastic ideas. You can also include all of this type of information when you use a subscription-based medical ID service.

We use Road ID, which gives both a phone number and URL for first responders to access our medical info. It has specific pages for doctor contacts, medications, and info about the individual's condition, alertness, communication, etc. If there is any sort of accident or natural disaster this type of information can help emergency personnel assess for head injuries and other changes to mental status that might indicate a hidden problem.
May 29, 2014 8:52am
Ruby, I didn't know that the Road ID service existed! I'll look into that - it'll be good to keep everything online in a central location.
May 29, 2014 2:12pm
Diana, Road ID is a service originally intended for athletes (runners, cyclists) who might be on the road without a wallet or ID. They offer a series of bracelets, pendants, shoe tags, etc. with a sort of "dog tag" system that records the person's name and emergency contact info, and any relevant medical info.

We originally looked into it because my son is autistic and only semi-verbal. He is a teenager who has the mind of a preschooler, and he tends to wander. Road ID allows us to provide him with a visible aid for first responders, plus the backup of having all his medical data backed up on the database in case of a natural disaster or an incident while we're travelling away from home.
May 29, 2014 7:43pm
Ruby, I just looked at the RoadID website and I bet it puts your mind at ease with your son. Actually, I think it's a good product for almost everyone because it does provide first responders with emergency contact info quickly. This way they don't have to go through a person's cellphone looking for the most obvious number to call. I think I'll get some bracelets for my family as well.
Dec 29, 2014 4:21pm
Very good advice. This should help a lot of people.
Jan 3, 2015 6:00am
Thank you javrsmith!
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