Improving the quality of life with educational and recreational opportunities for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

I hate planning trips out of town. There are so many factors that need to be considered, so many things that need to be coordinated, so many opinions to be taken into account. It’s so complicated that before the internet, you could make an entire career just coordinating travel plans (i.e. travel agents). Even now, you might need to visit a dozen different websites just to book the essentials. If you’re going on a vacation somewhere exotic or unknown, you need more research on websites, blogs, travel guides, etc. I get overwhelmed sometimes, and I don’t have a spinal cord injury or use a wheelchair.

Traveling after a spinal cord injury adds more potential risk and complexity to your trip. There are many things to be considered long before you go, making spontaneous adventures sometimes impossible. To help empower people with spinal cord injuries to travel more and travel safely, several organizations have created travel guides and checklists to use before you leave the house. Below, review some general tips and concepts with links to some resources you might need.

Are you ready for this?

If you have a new spinal cord injury or an old injury but struggle to stay healthy at home, is traveling worth the risk? Will you have medical care and insurance coverage where you are going? One major hurdle for most big trips (by ground or by air) is sitting tolerance. Most people with SCI need to do weight shifts to prevent wounds (pressure injuries). For some, it may be as often as every 15 minutes. Think about your travel environment and try to simulate off-loading your skin at home. Can you do it? If not, what adaptations or accommodations could help keep your skin safe? 

If your skin is protected, will you have other barriers for sitting for long periods like bowel/bladder continence, blood pressure stability, or breathing treatments? Each challenge probably has a solution (such as a temporary catheter or diaper) but needs careful brainstorming beforehand. If you’re nervous about your safety, ask your medical provider for recommendations. 

What are my rights and obligations?

Several laws or policies exist to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities when traveling, including the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. As a result, every airline has policies designed to protect you; however, many cases require advanced notice (at least 72 hours) and early arrival at check-in. Call your airline and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Cares to ask about their policies and request accommodations (even if you’re usually completely independent). Contact information can be found on airline/TSA websites or on the United Spinal Association page.

Medications, Equipment, and Supplies

Some items can be purchased while you’re away, while others are difficult or impossible to get out of town. When you’re making your packing list, consider bringing enough medications and disposable supplies to last the entire time and more. If you need additional quantities from your vendor or physician, they may take weeks, so call early. Things get even harder out of state/country, where insurance coverage and medical laws may differ dramatically. Many payors only cover out-of-state emergencies, so review your policy before traveling and consider travel insurance when booking your trip. Asking your provider to send medications out-of-state is possible but may vary from provider to provider and medication to medication. Even over-the-counter items may not be available (or legal in the case of marijuana products) where you are going. Be prepared and plan ahead.

Creating a checklist

Remember when you first left rehab? You probably spent weeks or months just training and preparing to go home, but there are always unexpected surprises and complications. Many people with SCI need predictable routines to thrive. Consider the things you do every day. Leaving home breaks all those routines. So you need a new plan. A detailed checklist is vital to success. It can provide a reminder while you prepare or expose gaps in your plan, some of which may take weeks or months to resolve (like not having the right equipment or support for your trip). Luckily, reviewing one or more of the resources below can help you get started (especially with the unknown-unknowns).

Traveling can take a lot of planning, but it can lead to amazing experiences and improved well-being. Please take the time to read through one or more of these free, trustworthy online resources. Or call your medical provider for guidance.

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