Welcome to Ask Ardra Anything, an advice column about life with multiple sclerosis from blogger Ardra Shephard. Ardra has lived with MS for 2 decades and is the creator of the award-winning blog Tripping on Air, as well as the hashtag #babeswithmobilityaids. Got a question for Ardra? Reach out on Instagram @ms_trippingonair.
As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease and things are starting to open up, I’m getting the itch to travel again. What advice do you have on how to successfully travel with mobility aids when you have MS?
— Kellie C
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I was a dedicated traveler. I worried that my chronic illness would keep me from my passion for globetrotting, especially as my MS progressed and I started to need mobility aids.
However, I’m happy to report that while traveling with a disability requires extra planning and patience, I’ve been actively able to feed my wanderlust, exploring at least one new place every year. Well, almost every year. MS can’t stop me from seeing the world, but it turns out a pandemic can.
Now that things are starting to cautiously open up, many people are dreaming of their next getaway.
Traveling with mobility aids has its own set of considerations. Even without this added baggage, your chronic illness is coming with you. The good news is, there are things you can do to ensure that you have the best possible experience, even with your uninvited companion.
Before booking travel, consider your COVID-19 vaccination status. Travel restrictions are changing quickly, so keep up to date with your destination’s regulations.
The pandemic isn’t over, and it’s a good idea to continue to wear your mask in crowded areas, for your own safety as well as for those who may not be fully protected.
With that in mind, here are my top tips for traveling with a mobility aid.
If you use a mobility aid, think about your destination’s terrain. Whether you’re hoping to spend time off the beaten path on trails or in old cobblestoned cities, there are now rollators and wheelchairs with off-road tires designed to make these experiences more accessible.
Beach wheelchairs and beach mats are becoming increasingly more available. Do some research, and keep in mind that you may need to reserve yours ahead of time. You may also be able to rent or borrow a beach wheelchair from a local medical supply store.
When choosing a location, it’s generally a good idea to consider the weather and time of year. If your MS is sensitive to extreme temperatures, you may wish to limit travel to spring or fall, when conditions are more comfortable.
Whether you use a mobility aid or not, there shouldn’t be any destinations that are off limits (COVID-19 notwithstanding). People travel the world with a wide spectrum of abilities, and the tourism industry is accustomed to finding creative ways to be inclusive.
If fatigue is an issue, save energy by using wheelchair assistance at the airport (even if you’re not a regular mobility aid user). You can book this when you book your ticket.
Book an aisle seat near the bathroom. Airplanes are notoriously dehydrating, and not getting enough water can worsen fatigue and even encourage urinary tract infections.
There’s always the possibility that a mobility aid could get mishandled or damaged on flights. This scares many mobility aid users into not traveling at all. However, knowing how you’ll troubleshoot should anything happen to your device may give you the peace of mind to make this risk more tolerable.
Always gate-check your mobility aids. Flying direct to avoid layovers as much as possible decreases the risk of lost devices. As a bonus, flying direct helps lessen fatigue and jet lag.
Pack medical supplies and medications in labelled bottles in your carry on, and always include a couple days’ worth of extra supplies.
Changes in sleep, diet, and activity can aggravate symptoms like fatigue and bowel and bladder problems. Maintaining your at-home eating habits can help mitigate this. Drink plenty of water, and don’t overdo it with alcohol.
I like to stay in apartment-style hotels that have a kitchen so that I can stick to my high-fiber morning smoothie routine.
Talk with your doctor about how to best manage jet lag.
If you’re used to resting in the afternoon, rest in the afternoon. Don’t fall into the FOMO trap of thinking you have to fill every moment seeing sights and doing all the things.
Pacing yourself can prevent crying in the hotel room later because you’ve overdone it. Trust me.
Taking the subway is more affordable than splurging on taxis, but using the underground can add extra energy-sucking steps.
I found a 6-day trip using taxis to be much more enjoyable than a 7-day trip where I was too tired to appreciate a museum or gallery because I’d used all my energy getting there.
Consider where you’re traveling and what your transportation options are, and try to budget accordingly.
Even if you don’t need a mobility aid in your day-to-day life, travel activities can be more demanding on your body. A cane, trekking poles, or a rollator can help conserve energy and keep you from having to explain the invisible illness exhaustion that’s so hard to communicate.
If you already regularly use a mobility aid, consider whether there’s a more portable or comfortable option that will fit your mobility and travel needs.
Again, do your research ahead of time, and consider renting a rollator or wheelchair at your destination if you don’t want or need to bring one on the plane.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn about the many concessions that are made for people with disabilities throughout Europe. For example, I’ve received deep discounts on theater tickets, tourist attractions, and even rail passes. I once took the Queen’s private elevator at Palace of Holyroodhouse in the U.K. while everyone else took the stairs.
In most cases, having a mobility aid will be enough for you to be offered these perks, but certain countries and attractions are stricter, requiring written proof of disability. Bring a letter from your doctor or a copy of your accessible parking pass. You may be eligible for concessions even if your symptoms are invisible, so bring documentation.
Read reviews and use search terms like “wheelchair” or “accessibility” if you have concerns about hotels, restaurants, or attractions. Don’t be afraid to contact reviewers, as definitions of what’s accessible vary widely.
If you have greater needs or are a less seasoned traveler, consider using a specialty agent or tour guide.
People with MS deserve equal access, and it’s incumbent on the travel industry to be inclusive.
Always speak up if something doesn’t feel right or if your rights are being compromised.
You’re not the first person to travel with a chronic illness, and you won’t be the last.
Be flexible and go with the flow — MS or otherwise, something is bound to go wrong. But if you’re prepared, it’s often the unexpected adventures that create the best memories.
Ardra Shephard is the influential Canadian blogger behind Tripping On Air – the award-winning, irreverent and funny, insider scoop about life with MS. Ardra is a story consultant for television network AMI and has partnered with Shaftesbury Films to develop a scripted series based on her life with MS. Follow Ardra on Facebook, and on Instagram where Yahoo Lifestyle reported that “@ms_trippingonair is the number one chronic illness account to follow.”