When you are an adult child planning a trip for your elderly parents, there are a few things you can do to minimize the stress and inconvenience of air travel for your loved one.
Beyond taking advantage of boarding early (which of course they should do), there’s a few common sense and worthwhile tips to help smooth the way.
1. Never underestimate the power of a phone call.
The most crucial aspect of air travel planning for seniors is communication. These days, most travel planning and airfare booking is handled online. While this is fine for booking the tickets themselves, you should plan to call as early as possible to communicate any special requests/needs for the trip. What special requests should you ask for? Well, consider seats at the front of the plane for easier boarding/deplaning. ‘Bulkhead’ seats provide extra legroom. True, these days it may cost you for the ‘upgrade,’ but it’s worth a conversation and it may actually be worth the extra cost.
When your parent is on a portable oxygen machine, find out if your airline requires any special medical forms signed by an M.D. for transportation. Some of them do.
Wheelchair assistance will be best coordinated in advance as well. You may not have thought this through as thoroughly as required. If your parent needs assistance all the way to their seat on the plane, that will require a different level of care than someone who just needs help to the jetway and can manage to get into their seat on their own. It’s also not a bad idea to follow-up once the request has been made. By follow-up we recommend a few phone calls. You may feel like a pest, but it’s worth the peace of mind. Your parent may not feel a wheelchair is in order, but you may feel he or she is being overly ambitious. Airports are vast and can be overwhelming for people in the best of health. If your parent is getting around a bit (or a lot) more slowly than they used to, you can also ask about those little golf carts that zip around the airport. They are free, and not always available on a busy travel day. Asking in advance could secure your folks a reliable mode of transport.
2. Don’t be hesitant to request a helping hand.
You might not know that airlines do allow non-traveling escorts through security all the way to the gate for passengers that require extra help. You don’t need to give the airline any special advance notice or request security clearance to take advantage of this option as long as the escorted individual is elderly or incapacitated in some way. If your parent is spry and obviously very fit, the airline personnel might not think that an escort is necessary. If you’re helping dad to his flight, just allow a bit of extra time to get yourself through security. Make sure you have your own government issued I.D. on you, just as you would if you were traveling. It’s a good idea to check in with a desk agent (yes, even if you’ve already completed his check-in online) so you can assure as smooth an experience as possible.
If no one is available to help dad through the airport, talk to the airline about extra assistance. Delta can provide extra help with 48 hours notice, and American Airlines has a few categories of service that they will provide based on mobility constraints.
If you’re extra concerned about dad’s safety and comfort while navigating the airport and/or you’d be more comfortable with a dedicated escort, there are a few companies that offer full service travel companions (booking tickets all the way up to and including flying with/vacationing with a passenger). A reputable company servicing the senior market is Flying Companions. The fees for using their service vary based on the level of service required. This sort of option is also good for an independent-minded elderly parent with some disposable income, as they can coordinate many of the services themselves with a simple phone call.
Royal Airport Concierge can also be hired to porter your parent’s luggage and can also coordinate passport control and customs clearance. This can be an especially nice service for international travel. Again rates vary depending on airport and access to the gate can also be varied depending on the country/airport in question. Make sure you are clear on the level of service possible before booking.
3. Pain-free security clearance is a reality for the elderly.
If your parent is over 75 or older, he or she qualifies for expedited security clearance. He or she will not be required to remove their shoes or jacket ,and many airports have designated security lanes for the disabled that will insure no waiting. You should ask about these services when you are planning.
If your folks are on meds, they are also exempt from the typical carry-on allowances for liquids. We STRONGLY SUGGEST you keep all medications in carry-on bags in case of lost luggage. There’s nothing more stressful for a traveler (or their kids) when they have elaborate medication regimens that get upset when bags go missing. No one wants to spend precious vacation time with loved ones (or in a foreign country) trying to coordinate necessary pharmaceuticals. You will not get medications in the carry-on confiscated. The best thing to do is to collect all meds in one bag and pack them in an easily separated container (a gallon-sized Ziploc will suffice for most people). They will be screened separately, but this simple packing tip will save your parent the indignity of having a TSA agent rifling through all of their bags.
A few links to the domestic carriers with the most comprehensive special needs services follow.
We’d love to hear from readers if you have any additional tips, or if you had an experience with an airline that could be improved upon in the future as it relates to travel for the elderly and/or disabled. Reach out to us in the comments below or tweet to us @CheapAir. Happy travels!