The AMS Vans blog posted about a new phone hotline for travelers with disabilities today:


You’ve gotta read the whole post to get the number, which I’m going to stick up here for your convenience. The number is 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). Hours: 9am-5pm Eastern Time, Mon-Fri.

Yeah, those hours suck. Usually when I’m having a travel problem, it’s not in Eastern Time’s biz hours, boys and girls. Must be nice to have a government job. 

I plan to give ’em a ring to discuss my experience with Prospect. I’ll report back here.

wheelchairs at baggage claim

Photo by Doug Waldron on flickr

Did you know that the wheelchair attendants at U.S. airports often work for less than the minimum wage? That’s because they’re eligible to receive tips from the people they attend.

Wait, what?

Yup, you read that right.

Your wheelchair attendant may well be working for $5-7 per hour, plus tips. So tip your wheelchair attendants!

I like to tip $3-5 for good service, and $10 for great service.

Wheelchairs at SFO

Wheelchairs at SFO by applerom on flickr

I have a lot of compassion for the people who push my wheelchairs at airports. It’s a physically demanding, often unpleasant-looking gig. If nothing else, imagine having to go through airport security a couple of dozen times a day. Even without the long lines able-bodied passengers face, you still have to deal with taking your shoes off, going through the various detectors, getting patted down, and all that other fun stuff. (Yes, wheelchair attendants also get subjected to random pat-downs and extra searches.)


My experience with the wheelchair service provided by Prospect Airport Services, Inc. at SFO, coming of a British Airways flight from London Heathrow, on Tuesday April 22, 2014 sucked goats.

There were about 7 of us coming off that 10+ hour flight who needed wheelchair service. Only 4 attendants were deployed to help us. Coming off the plane, we were pushed into a group just off the jetway in the terminal, then abandoned for a bit. The way they stacked us up, I felt like a poorly parked car in a valet lot.

We were told we’d be pushed to Passport Control “relay style.” Which meant that we’d get pushed a little ways, then sit while the one attendant pushed someone else. When I asked why this was happening, I was told that there weren’t enough attendants for each person in a chair to have one. Then I was told that sometimes there are 30 people needing wheelchairs coming off flights from Asia, with only 8 attendants assigned to deal with that flight.

That was the extent of personal communication I got from any of my attendants. They talked to each other and traded comments with other airport employees. We might as well have been baggage for all they engaged us. No, this wasn’t a language issue. My attendant at Heathrow spoke little English (she’s Romanian, and I exhausted her English vocabulary pretty fast), but she managed to be smiling and friendly and to convey that she thought of me as a person.

How does this suck, let me count the ways:

1. It takes longer for each chair-user to get where he or she needs to go. After a long-haul flight, that’s a pretty big deal. If you’ve got pain, a long-haul flight makes it worse. Then you end up in this frustrating and stupid situation.

2. It’s dehumanizing. I seriously felt like a cow, or a piece of luggage, or a car. Not like a person.

3. No chance of a bathroom break. If one of your problems is a bladder or bowel condition, that’s just flat unacceptable.

4. This encourages attendants to engage in unsafe practices, such as pushing two chairs at once and forgetting to set the brake on the chair. I witnessed the first of these and was subjected to the second.

5. Being treated like this makes it unlikely that any chair user will tip an attendant. For people who are working this kind of job, tips make a difference. (When I get good wheelchair service, I’m a generous tipper.)

Prospect might contend that this is just how it works–that they can’t staff to a 1:1 attendant to client ratio because of the ever-fluctuating numbers of people traveling each day.

That’s crap.

On this one trip, I landed in four airports in three different countries. SFO was the ONLY airport using the “relay” system with too few attendants for the clients using wheelchairs. SFO was the ONLY place where the attendants didn’t talk to me. In fact, I landed in Ireland at about 6am local time, and yet the attendant was cheerful and chatty and gave me great advice on what to do and see in Dublin. (I landed at SFO at about 6pm.)

Prospect–you need to do better than this. Will it cost more to have enough attendants available for every wheelchair client at SFO? Yes. Might it eat into your corporate profits to do this? Yes.

Here’s a thought on that issue: Cope and deal.

The way you’re doing it now is likely to lead to expensive lawsuits later. I’ve found info about your “push two chairs at once” problem going back to 2007. That this is still happening–not so good, kids.

Also, you’re looking at more blog posts like this, which will get reposted on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. If you’re really unlucky, a post like this could go viral. Ask some of your corporate brethren how much fun it is to have negative customer experiences go viral. And how much $$$ it can cost.

Or, you could fix this problem by providing the service you’re employed by SFO to provide. This isn’t the first time I’ve been treated like this at SFO. It’s not acceptable. Fix it ASAP, please. I will be paying attention. So will other people.

I haven’t even left California yet and I’ve already screwed up. Awesome.

Checked my e-tickets two days ago and discovered that for reasons lost to the mists of post-menopausal memory, I booked us on a 7am flight out of San Francisco.

Which means we need to get to the airport no later than 5am. Crap.

Much furious consultation with my spouse ensued. We decided to get a motel room at a place near the airport that offers free shuttle service, plus a well-lit place to park a car for the 10 days we’ll be gone.

Of course the problem isn’t confined to the California end of the trip. We arrive in Dublin at 6:55am. Which means that we’ve got ~9 hours to kill before our room in Dublin City Centre opens up.

I can’t manage sightseeing after a transcontinental+transatlantic flight. My body absolutely will not tolerate that kind of nonsense.

The answer is yet another airport motel room. I emailed customer service at the Radisson Blu Dublin Airport and discovered that they’re set up to deal with situations like this in a couple of ways. They’ve got what they call Day Rooms that are available from 9am-5pm, or they’ll let a weary traveler rent a room overnight and check in very late (like, say, early the following morning), then check out at 3pm for no extra charge.

I went with option B, which will allow me to stagger/roll out of Customs and Passport Control straight to the free shuttle, straight to my motel room to collapse in an insensible heap.

While I haven’t yet stayed in their motel, so far I’m quite happy with the Radisson Blu customer service folks. They’ve followed up with me and seem intent on making sure I’m taken care of.

The morals of this story:

1. Pay attention to your flight bookings, and try to make your departure and arrival times work for you rather than against you.

2. Flexibility and good problem-solving skills are key for traveling with pain. Be willing to change your plans to make yourself more comfortable.

3. Money helps. A lot.

Next week I’m off to Ireland. I’ve never been to Ireland before, so everything will be new and different and shiny.

Here’s how I’ve planned around my pain so far.

Flying out

I’ll do all the right stuff to make the long flight more tolerable, including:

  • Get to the airport ~3 hours before my flight leaves.
  • Use the wheelchair service
  • Bring my own food
  • Bring my neck pillow
  • Do in-seat stretching exercises
  • Get up every hour and walk the length of the cabin and back at least once
  • Stay hydrated
  • Relax when disembarking–the prize for the “race” to the baggage carousel is to wait 20-30 minutes for the luggage to appear, and I don’t want to win that prize


All my hotel rooms are booked. Because I’m traveling on my parents’ budget rather than my own, they are nice hotels. Which means working elevators, other people carrying the bags, soft comfy beds, bathtubs, and room service. It’s not politically correct to say so, but rubbing money on the pain really does help.

On the ground transport

In Dublin, we’ll be walking and taking public transit. Because it’s a big touristy city, I know I can catch cabs if I need them. I also know that if I’m having an iffy day, I won’t stray too far from the hotel.

We’re hiring a car and driver for the longer hauls and our time out beyond Dublin. The ‘cars’ will actually be minivans, which means I’ll have a place to lie down if I need it.


I’ll be refilling all my prescriptions before I leave. None of my current meds are restricted in the EU. All meds will still be in my carry-on, in their original (labeled) bottles.

Ireland is a civilized country that sells codeine-based painkillers over the counter in pharmacies. I will likely take advantage of said civility.


I’ll be getting in touch with my bank early next week to inform them of the trip. These days, you want to do that, so they don’t suspend your account (for suspected fraud) when you suddenly start making charges in another country.

Yup, that’s a lot of planning. But every practical thing I take care of at home makes it easier for me to relax and enjoy


This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.  Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

This is the Ostrich Pillow. You can get one of these and wear it on a plane. Seriously.
Photo by Kevin Hale on flickr

One of absolutely most important parts of traveling with pain is sleep. To manage my pain on the road, I must must MUST get enough sleep every single night.

I ran across this article in the New York Times today. The author tried out a number of supposedly sleep-enhancing apps and products. While the article is very smart-phone-and-tablet-app heavy, it’s also got a few serious sleep masks and funky pillows mixed in towards the end.

I haven’t tried any of these products. And I won’t be trying the apps–I wear earplugs to sleep, even at home, and they work for me. But I may give the masks a whirl. And if I’m ever feeling really brave/uncaring of how ridiculous I look, I might try the Ostrich Pillow for the humor value.

Have you tried any of these products? If yes, what did you think?


Liz’s update: Nope, I still don’t go to Burning Man. I’m slowly working my way up to attending bigger SCA events. But a 69,000-person dust-choked baking-hot week at Black Rock City with a chance of severe thunderstorms? Nope. Here’s why, with updates on how to do it if you really really want to.

A confession: I’ve always wanted to go to Burning Man. I’ve got firm roots in subculture; any number of my friends have Burned. Burning Man has long since gone semi-mainstream–families bring their children to the no-holds-barred festival of art and weirdness.

But I don’t go. For a traveler with pain, Burning Man really isn’t a good idea. Neither are other big multi-day festivals, like the Coachella Music Festival in California or the Pennsic War in Pennsylvania. This is one of the big bummers of being hiddenly disabled–I/we can’t go anywhere and do everything that healthy people do. Huge crowds encamped over hundreds of acres, miles of walking over uneven ground every day, crappy bathroom facilities, zero quiet for sleeping, ridiculously awful camping conditions or insane parking…it’s all a recipe for painful disaster.


It may be super-popular, but Burning Man remains a giant camping event out in the middle of the barren desert. Black Rock City has street signs, but no running water, no electricity, and only the most basic of medical facilities. While, er, certain pharmaceuticals do tend to be easily available at Burning Man, actual medications are much harder to come by. You’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, for real, with no cell phone signal and little chance of getting immediate help if your condition flares.


Here’s my most serious reason for not Burning–the climate out on the playa. Triple digit heat, endless winds, and of course the raging dust storms. As exciting as it sounds to fling off my clothes and run around in the pounding sun, then have dust particles blown into every crevice of my body, I’m going to pass for the next while. I can’t handle bunches of dust in my sinuses and lungs–and anyone with asthma or any other respiratory condition should think twice before packing up the RV.

If you choose to go, don’t just wander out into the desert unprepared. Read and reread this manifest by the operators of Burning Man about keeping yourself safe and reasonably healthy.


Speaking of lung-clogging dust, Burning Man patrons also get to inhale plenty of smoke. Leading up to the Man’s burning, other flammable art installations go up. As do pounds of smokable substances within the encampments. Folks with allergies and sensitivities are unlikely to find their fellow Burners to be interested in accommodate requests for a smoke-free area.

Recreational Pharma

I can’t do most recreational drugs. Which does in fact mean that I’d miss out on a pretty big aspect of the festival. Why can’t I? Because reliable research (not hysterical government-inspired propaganda, nor “it’s all good man” wishful thinking) tells me that many/most fun drugs don’t play well with my prescription medications.

If you’re planning to play that way, DO RESEARCH FIRST. Then be safe first, and entertained/amused/high second (or not at all). Combining ‘scripts with recreational drugs can have severe consequences, and no high is worth having a heart attack or seizure. (Remember, on the playa you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest real hospital.)


Finally, there’s the USD cost of going to Burning Man (called Burning Wallet by an acquaintance who goes to the playa every year) or to any other major festival:

  • Tickets to get in the gate cost hundreds of dollars per person.
  • RV rentals go for super-premium during Burning Man. Seriously–many renters charge double their high season rates for the week before and the week after Labor Day. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for one week for a small RV, and $2,500 for a larger one. Or more.
  • Food and drink: All on you, and you’ll need more non-alcoholic drink than you imagine. Figure $100 and up per person.
  • Gas to get to the event, and to run a generator in your RV.
  • Equipment: Why bother going to an event like Burning Man if you’re going to cower inside your RV all day? To get out and join the party, you’ll need stuff. Camp chairs, shade structures, some sort of vehicle to get around Black Rock City is big–to explore, it’s necessary to walk or bike or somehow travel several miles in the blazing heat of the day or weird dry chill of the night. Oh and a storm poncho and good sunglasses and a hat. A respirator if you’re sensitive. A giant art project or shareable community thingo.

It adds up to thousands of dollars. Thousands.

The Bottom Line

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to go to a festival with pain. I am saying that it’s likely to be really really hard. And maybe not a great idea. For me…I’d probably get about two hours of doing kewl stuff out on the playa, then get to spend the next two days of the festival in bed. That’s not the best fun vs pain ratio, and it’s always key to estimate the fun vs pain ration when traveling.

HOT TIP: Yes, you can go to Burning Man in a wheelchair. No, it’s not at all easy, and no, Black Rock City is not subject to the ADA. They’ve got some accessible port-a-potties, and that’s about it. They’ve also got square miles of alkaline dust that can harm or destroy your chair. But if you insist, they do have info about Burning in a chair here.

If you’re out on the playa now–awesome! I hope you’re having an amazing time. And I’m sorry I won’t be joining you.

Photo (c) Wonderlane on Flickr