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Don’t handicap your vacation!

Dan’s traveling tips for vacationing with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Some of you may know that I just returned from a trip to the Sunshine state, Florida. We stayed in the Orlando area where there are many, many, different attractions to be seen. As I made my way to and from the airport this past week, it occurred to me that many of you who are also disabled may be afraid or unwilling to take trips or go on vacation due to the mistaken belief that you will be unable to cope with the rigors or traveling. To that end, I have decided to use this installment of my column to share with you some of the traveling tips I have learned in my years of vacationing with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Don’t worry, it’s not impossible – it’s just requires a bit more planning (and maybe some yelling).

The first tip I can impart to you is one that begins before you even plan your trip. You are going to want to vacation somewhere that won’t be a hardship on your illness. For instance, if you suffer from Ulcerative Colitis, it may not be a good idea to plan a trip to India or Thailand. On the whole, the food there contains many more spices than our “bland” chow here in America. Of course, this is just an example, but this is the type of common sense planning I am referring to. If you are a double hip-replacement recipient and you plan a trip to tackle football camp, well, then, it’s your own fault if it doesn’t go well. Knowing your limitations is the golden rule put above all others when going on or enjoying your vacation. 

Once you’ve got a suitable destination in mind, it is time to purchase the plane tickets. You may not know this, but now, airlines are charging a small fee for anyone who wants or needs an extra eight to ten inches of legroom, but cannot afford first class. If you take these enhanced seats, you can choose which specific spot you want when booking online. For people like myself, the extra legroom is a godsend. Eight to ten inches may not sound like much, but it is the difference between cramped and normal. The seats don’t cost more than an extra fifteen to thirty dollars, and in my book, that’s worth the price. If you think you may not be able to pay the added fee, make sure to book your tickets at 3pm EST on Tuesday, which is the accepted cheapest time to buy airplane tickets all week. The money you save can be used for the legroom fee. 

Once you have your flight, it’s time to pick a hotel/resort. You want to choose a place that is accepting of people with disabilities, and has all the required elevators, ramps, and other facilities you need. You should also request a room on the first floor when you book, and do not hesitate to tell the person on the phone that you are handicapped. You may even be able to get a special discount or upgrade. 

Unfortunately, this time around, I did not take my own advice, and it was a nightmare. The hotel staff was non-existent, and despite knowing of my handicap, they never once so much as picked up a suitcase, offered to help with my bags, or even stopped their little tram to offer me a ride to my room, which was one-half mile from the front desk. Yes, I said one-half mile. This conveniently brings me to my next point, though – scooters and wheelchairs. 

When you book your airline ticket, you can inform the airline that you are disabled and require a wheelchair. They will mark this down on your record, and have a wheelchair waiting at all of your airport arrival gates. They will also have a wheelchair reserved for you when you arrive at the airport to take you to the gate. Now, you can also ask for a wheelchair when you arrive at the airport without pre-booking one. We found this to be the preferable way to do it because once the airline marks you down as handicapped it will preclude you from doing such things as sitting in an exit row on the airplane. The less the airlines know, the better. In addition, travelers in wheelchairs get priority access when passing through security which means almost no line and assistance with all of your shoes, belts, and all the other ridiculous items of clothing they make you remove. 

Just a quick note, when you pass through security, make sure that you have any medical cards or doctor’s notes you will need. I carry the cards for my metal joint prosthesis and my internal defibrillator with me at all times. In addition, I have a doctor’s letter stating that I must carry syringes with me because I require them for medical purposes. In this day and age, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

Now, about the scooter -- I have to give credit to Allison on this one, she had the idea of getting a scooter, looked up rental companies in the Orlando area, and booked me one for my entire stay. It wasn’t that expensive either, just about twenty-five dollars a day plus a small fee in case of theft or damage. In retrospect, I can say for sure that without scooter there is no way I would have been able to make it through one day at the amusement park, much less four. That scooter was a lifesaver, and it is imperative you rent one, wherever you end up going. Most vacation destinations have a local company that will rent you a scooter or electric wheelchair. 

Now, here is a secret tip that you probably don’t know about, and it’s one that is worth its weight in pure gold. Once you get to whatever amusement park you are going to, first make a stop at guest services. If you tell them you have a disabled person in your party, you will receive a “guest assistance pass.” The name sounds benign, but it is so much more than it’s moniker suggests. This pass will allow you and your party to bypass any line on any attraction and usually proceed right on to the ride itself. We bypassed lines of ninety minutes and two hours to wait no more than ten minutes at most, and nine times out of ten I was allowed to take the scooter in with me! Frankly, I don’t know how the regular people get to ride more than three rides a day without this pass. You don’t even need to show proof you are disabled to obtain it! I mean, anyone who would fake a disability to get a ride pass is surely scum, but if you are in a wheelchair or on a scooter, I don’t think they need to ask. Either way, don’t go anywhere at all without your “guest assistance pass.” This is something that they have at every park I’ve ever been to, keep in mind. This is not just something one company offers. 

So, there you have a few tips to make traveling a bit easier for those of you who suffer from diseases like mine. You don’t even have to be officially disabled to take advantage of these services, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for them. In some airports, the walk from the entrance to the terminal can be up to five miles! Yes, I realize it is a bit embarrassing to push to the front of the line on a scooter, but you’ll forget all about that when you are whooshing up, down, and side-to-side at 80 miles per hour on the best rollercoaster in the park. In fact, if you love the ride that much, you can do it again because the wait is only five minutes!

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