Since flying is generally more do-able for the elderly than taking road trips or traveling by train, I am primarily addressing transportion by air. Check out my ten tips below, especially if you are arranging travel for an older, less-seasoned traveler. Here’s how you simplify flying for an elderly passenger:
1. You don’t have to book online
You can still book your flights by speaking with a human being at an airline’s customer service department. Before you call, write down the dates you want to travel, and your departure and arrival cities. Tell the customer representative and let him/her help you. If you cannot hear well, then let a friend or family member help you with your booking. It is common for the elderly to feel uncomfortable using computers and making reservations without talking to a person. Don’t be embarassed about that. I often call an airline to talk to a reservations rep in person if I have any questions that are not answered during the online booking process — or if I am booking open leg flights, etc.
2. Book flights that work for you
3. Give yourself plenty of time
Nobody loves being rushed, and there’s nothing worse than being rushed when you can’t move quickly. If you are flying on a domestic flight, arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight departs. This gives you the time needed to connect with your wheelchair assistant, check your bags, go through security, use a restroom, grab a snack if needed, and be ready to board your flight. If your flight is an international one, give yourself at least three hours! That’s the minimum. You might prefer even more time.
The above suggested times are good if you are being dropped off at the airport terminal. If you need to find parking or return a rental car and then shuttle to the terminal, add at least another hour. There’s nothing wrong with getting to the airport early. Nothing is likely to go well for you if you are rushed or late.
4. Use curbside check-in if it’s available
I never check on a bag. I’m too impatient to wait after a flight for my bags to catch up with me, so I travel with a carry-on and a personal item. This, however, is not the best option for the elderly. Keeping a small personal item with you is practical. Taking anything else when you can check it on is not.
If you’re using wheelchair assistance, you’ll be wheeled all the way to the baggage claim after your flight to pick up your bag. Your assistant will even grab your bag for you if you can point it out to him/her.
When you arrive at the airport, often there is curbside check-in service. This is a dream for the elderly. You will only have to walk a few steps from being dropped off, and there will be someone to check your boarding pass and ID, check on your bags for you (you should plan to tip $1-$2 per bag), and call your wheelchair assistant for you. The airlines offer these services to make it easier for those with special needs. Why not take advantage of it?
4. Ask for wheelchair assistance
You do not need to be unable to walk, to benefit from assistance. If you walk slowly or with the assistance of a cane or walker, by all means, use the free wheelchair service. Or if you know that walking all the way through security and to a gate will leave you exhausted or in pain, please use the wheelchair assistance. Every airline offers it, and you can make your request when booking your flights so the airline will be prepared for you. This also means you will board your plane among the first passengers to board. You will most likely sit near the front of the plane; that adds to the ease of getting to your seat and being closer to restrooms.
I have written a more detailed article about traveling with a wheelchair-assisted passenger that I think you will find very helpful. It also details why avoiding a rental car (which I’ll talk about later) is the best option.
5. Going through security
I’ve made going through security much easier by applying for TSA pre-check. At only $85 for five years, it has been worth every penny for me. The perks of not having to take off shoes or remove laptops/electronics/fluids from my bags are so nice. Plus I love the shorter lines at TSA. Who wouldn’t?!
But if you’re not a frequent traveler, TSA isn’t such a great deal. Especially if you’re elderly and on a fixed budget. So making travel easier for the elderly means helping them navigate the extra demands of security without using TSA pre-check. Be prepared for the demands that will come at security:
- Show your passport or ID
- Remove your shoes
- Remove items from your pockets
- Take out your liquids (and be sure they are all 3 oz or smaller)
- Take out your laptop
- Empty your water bottle
Sometimes, security officers are barking these demands at the passengers and trying to rush everyone through. That is very confusing and difficult to process for the elderly. In my father’s situation, the security officer took everything that was in my father’s pockets (including his boarding pass, wallet, and cash) and took them to another security machine 30 feet away. My father didn’t realize he hadn’t gotten them back until he arrived at the gate! Fortunately the gate agent went back to get them for him, but that certainly could have ended very badly.
Make it more simple by packing all small loose items you’d usually put in your pockets into a small personal item bag. Put your fluids in an outside pocket so they’re easy to grab. Slide a laptop into an outer pocket if you have one, too. If you’re using wheelchair assistance, you usually don’t have to remove your shoes. Just thinking ahead and knowing what to expect (ask someone if you don’t know!), will make it a less formidable experience. The whole flying experience is so different now than it used to be 30 years ago!
5. The boarding process
One of the things I really like about airline apps is the ease with which I can check-in for my flight and save my boarding pass to my phone. But what’s simple for me just isn’t intuitive for my aging parents. When I tried to show my father how to do this, it was NOT easier for him. After downloading the app to his phone, it wasn’t simple for him to find it and use it. Remembering a password to sign-in wasn’t easy either. When I tried to demonstrate for him, he told me I was just making him nervous. So how is that making travel easier for the elderly?
The old school method of printing out boarding passes really is better for the elderly. It’s what they’re used to, and sometimes change is NOT better.
If you are using a wheelchair, you’ll be one of the first to board, but even if you are not using a wheelchair, the airline is happy to give you boarding priority if you’ll just tell them at the gate that you need more time to get down the ramp and seated on the plane.
6. Consider not renting a car
First, ask yourself if you really need a car. If you’re staying with family or at a hotel with an airport shuttle, you may not need to have your own car at all. Don’t make your trip more difficult than it has to be. If you’re traveling to a place you’re unfamiliar with, not having to drive might make it a much more enjoyable trip for you.
These days, many airports have built offsite car rental centers, meaning you’ll have to navigate via shuttle to another location to pick up your rental car. This just makes a long day of traveling that much longer for you. Plus wheelchair assistance is not offered all the way to the car rental center, so you’ll have to be able to walk. How much nicer would it be to come out of the airport terminal and find your ride sitting right there waiting for you via your granddaughter or a friend?
7. Traditional car rental vs ride-sharing
If you absolutely have to have a rental car, use traditional car rental services. I know it’s all the rage to use ride-sharing services like Turo — and that even saves you some money. But if your goal is making travel easier for the elderly, you should use traditional rental car services. Here’s why…airports are not set up to support ride-sharing services. If you follow the airport signage to car rental locations, they are only for traditional car rental services like Hertz or Enterprise.
If you’re using a ride-sharing service like Turo, you’re going to have to communicate well with the owner of the car to determine where you will pick up your car. It might even be easier to take an Uber or cab to the car owner’s home to save yourself the costs and hassle of having the car delivered to the airport. Here’s an article about my experience using Turo.
Please remember that elderly travelers often feel uncomfortable using phone apps — another reason not to use services like Turo.
8. Use a non-passenger escort pass
- Go to the airline’s check-in counter and show your government-issued ID.
- Explain that you need an escort pass to accompany your relative to the gate.
- The airline representative will ask you for your relative’s flight information and may ask you a few questions about your relationship.
- If everything is in order, the airline representative will issue you an escort pass.
- Go through airport security with your escort pass.
- Accompany your relative or friend to the gate.
- Stay with your relative or friend until he/she boards the plane
9. Look up the resources your airport offers
I’m wondering how many people know that each airport lists on their website all the accessibility resources it offers. For example, here is the accessibility page for the San Diego Airport. On this page alone, I learned there is a shuttle to the Rental Car Center that accommodates travelers with disabilities and an airport traffic officer can assist you with calling a cab.
The LaGuardia NYC airport accessibility page even has a TSA request form you can fill out 72 hours before traveling. It will alert TSA to any special needs you may have, such as:
- Difficulty standing or waiting in line
- Difficulty following instructions
- Mobility limitations including difficulty standing, walking or lifting your arms
- Use of mobility aids or support devices
- Internal/external devices or other concerns that may affect your ability to use screening technology
- Transporting medically necessary liquids, gels, aerosols over 3.4oz
I would imagine that planning ahead goes a long way towards making travel easier for the elderly.
10. Travel with a friend or family member
It may not always be possible, but when it is, bring a friend or family member along with you. It’s always better to have a “buddy.” That way, there’s two sets of eyes on your luggage and belongings. There’s someone to go ask for help when it’s needed. And there’s someone else listening for important announcements so you don’t miss them. I don’t yet think of myself as elderly, but I still appreciate traveling with others!
That might be another key to making travel easier for the elderly — they may not feel elderly yet either. It might be difficult to admit a need for help. So do be sensitive when offering help.
Making travel easier for the elderly