Air Travel Tips for the Chronically Ill: Meeting TSA Regulations, Wheelchair Advice


(EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an update to TRAVEL TIPS article written for by Karen Brauer. This was and still is one of our most popular and helpful articles. Click here to read the original.)
If you haven’t flown for a few years, you may be confused by the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules or how best to abide by them. Here are some up-to-date suggestions for dealing with
security checks in airports and traveling with assistive devices such as wheelchairs:

The most notable change in what you are allowed to carry on the airplane concerns liquids and gels. You are limited to individual containers holding no more than three ounces, and the sum total of these containers must fit in a clear plastic quart-sized zip top baggie. This includes ANYTHING liquid or gel like toothpaste, shampoo, lotion, lip balm, makeup, eye drops, water, even certain types of food. Containers larger than three ounces or groups of them in excess of what will fit in a quart bag must be packed in the checked luggage. What the TSA wants you to do is to have all your carry-on liquids and gels in the baggie, take the baggie out of your carry-on luggage, and place it separately on the security conveyor belt so that it can easily be inspected. This will ensure you get through the checkpoint without undue delay.
The TSA still wants you to keep all medications in your carry-on. So what do you do if you require liquid or gel meds that exceed the three ounce/quart baggie limit? You are still allowed to bring them, but it may slow down the security process. The easiest solution is to have your doctor write a note stating that these are medically necessary and put the note along with all your liquid/gel meds in whatever size clear zip top bag they will fit into (more than one if necessary). Then take this bag or bags out of your carry-on and declare these to security. That way, they won’t have to take a lot of extra time inspecting your carry-on. It is best if you have all your meds in their original containers with the prescription information on them so that security can see that these indeed belong to you.
What about food and drink? Bottled water is usually available for purchase in restaurants or vending machines in the airport once you’ve gotten through security screening. So make sure you bring some small bills with you to buy water to stay hydrated. As for food, if you are on liquid nutrition due to a medical condition, treat it the same way as you would prescription meds and bring a doctor’s note and declare it to security. Allow extra time for any special screening that may need to be done.
Pack carefully the suitcases you intend to check. Despite the necessity of putting your non-medical liquids and gels in your checked bag if it exceeds the three ounce/quart bag limit, there is still a 50 pound total luggage limit per bag if you want to avoid a fee. Unless you need specialty toiletries, consider purchasing stuff like shampoo, soap and lotion at your destination or use the ones the hotel provides if you’ll be staying in one.
Another thing that has changed in the past few years is the issue of locks on bags. The TSA wants to be able to inspect any checked bag, but if you leave a zippered bag unlocked, it can come unzipped during handling. Fortunately, there are combination locks for suitcases that are approved by the TSA. Set the lock to open to a combination of your choosing, close it up, and if the TSA wants to inspect your bag, they have a special key to open the lock temporarily. Keep in mind that while they are supposed to put the lock back on when they are done, they sometimes forget to do this. If the TSA does an inspection of the contents of your suitcase, they will leave a note inside your bag stating that they have done so.
With the increased incidence of lost and misdirected baggage, you’ll want to make your checked bags easier to identify and find. Always have your name, address and phone number securely attached to the outside of your bags. Put a copy of your itinerary inside your bag so that the airline can figure out where it’s supposed to go should it not arrive at your destination airport. And if you have the typical black, rectangular, nondescript suitcases, make them more distinctive by attaching colorful ribbons or fluorescent address labels to them.
If you normally require assistive devices or get highly fatigued walking long distances, consider using a wheelchair, particularly in large airports. If you already have or use a wheelchair, you can bring your own. Tape a 3×5 card with your name, address, and telephone number to the side of the chair so it won’t be mistaken for one belonging to the airline. On most airplanes, the airline will store your wheelchair in the baggage hold and will retrieve it for you for use after you’ve exited the plane. When traveling with your own wheelchair, make absolutely sure you are given a receipt for it prior to them storing it. Airlines do lose wheelchairs from time to
time, and your receipt will help them locate it.
If you don’t have a wheelchair of your own or won’t be needing one once you’ve reached your destination, you can use one provided by the airline. Inform the airline at the time your purchase your ticket that you will be needing a wheelchair so that they will be prepared. They will want to know if you will need someone to push the chair for
you, whether you you can board the plane on your own or whether they will need to manually transfer you from a wheelchair to an airplane seat. The advantage of using the airline’s wheelchairs is that you don’t have to worry about them losing yours. The disadvantage is that busy airports may take their sweet time getting an airline chair to
you, and it can take a half hour or more in some cases for an airline employee to be available to push you where you need to go. You can get around this dilemma if someone who is flying with you will navigate your chair. In some airports, they will allow a friend or relative who is not traveling with you to get a special pass to go through security screening and push you to the gate. If that will work for you, request this at check-in. This privilege may be rescinded during times of heightened security.
Whether you bring your own wheelchair or use one provided by the airline, give yourself extra time to get to the gate. At the security checkpoint, you will be asked to walk through the scanner if you can. After that, you’ll have to have your chair thoroughly examined. And you’ll want to be at the gate at least 45 minutes before departure,
if not more, because wheelchair passengers board first. When you reach your destination, don’t be in a hurry to get off the plane because your wheelchair probably won’t be ready for you right away. You may be asked by the flight attendants to wait until the all other passengers have departed before you exit.
Traveling by air can be complicated for the chronically ill, but it can still be doable. Make it as easy for yourself as you can so that you’ll have spoons left for enjoying your destination.
Submitted by: Karen Brauer,

  • Rebecca

    A few more tips:

    If you use a wheelchair, plan for a longer layover. You’re first on, but last off, so you need a bit more time.

    Print and carry the Air Carrier’s Access Act. It’s the law that governs accessibility when flying and it can help you educate people who don’t know it.

    Plan for temperature changes on the plane!

  • June

    I have Secondary Progressive MS and i just got back from a week in Connecticut. i have always found the airlines and security to be very helpful as long as you are not pushy. they are there to protect us and do the job that they have been hired to do. they always thank me for thanking them and being so pleasant to them. they said most people are rude and mean. now thats just not necessary. leave yourself lots of time. i am in a wheelchair and when i go thru security sometimes i have to wait for a female agent to wand me and/or pat me down. they have always been pleasant and respectful.
    they always put me in the aisle seat because it is easier for me. every person i have been seated next too understood they had to climb over me and did with humor. one poor guy had a knee brace on.
    what i found very annoying was the rental car companys. we told them we needed a handicap car because i have no use of my legs. they rented us a car with basically a lazy susan in it. they called it a twist seat. we thru it in the back seat and my husband struggled horribly every time he had to get me in the car by himself. oh they also gave us what they called a transfer board. it looked like a big paddle that your Grandparents may have used on you. it was a joke! but not funny.
    much of the trip my legs, ankles and feet were very swollen. my Neurologist said the next time i fly i need to wear those constricting socks and that would cut down on the swelling.

  • Julia

    Thanks for the helpful tips…

  • sheila

    I just got married on 4/24 and my husband and I knew we didn’t want to go on our honeymoon right away because of how air travel affects me.

    I took a trip to Pennsylvania last year and when I reached my destination, I had large, hot welts all over my legs. When I returned home to Texas, I was so swollen, we had to use one of the airline’s wheelchairs to wheel me from the gate to the baggage claim and then to the car.

    I really love to travel and have been to many countries (before Lupus). But now that I have Lupus, I feel like I am so limited on where I can go.

    Does anyone have any tips on traveling long distances by air?

  • Synj

    A note on hydration– you can bring through security as many *empty* water bottles as you want. Most of the airports I’ve been in have a decently accessible water fountain outside the restrooms closest passed security.

    I try and get to the airport early enough to get through security and fill my water bottles. Admittedly, much of the water is over-chlorinated, but I tend to bring powdered electrolyte powder with me to flavor it and help me with the dry air in the plane.

    (Granted, this is assuming one can operate the water fountain while holding the bottle, and open the little packages; however, assistance can usually be found)

  • sam brown

    Update – I just read online about a website called that specializes in TSA sized “stuff”. Name brands and free shipping on orders over $100. I don’t do well traveling any more, but for those of you who can and do, perhaps this site will help a little.

  • Cyndy

    I’ve been avoiding flying because of these restrictions. Thanks, this will help if I have need to fly in the future.

  • Penelope

    As a note, they are supposed to let you bring non-prescription items related to a medical condition (for example orange juice if you have diabetes and need something with you in case of a low blood sugar reeding) through security since depending on the airport there is no garantee of your being able to find an appropriate substitute on the other side, however, often they refuse you anyway.

    If you do require assistance boarding or deplaning, expect to be the first on and the last one off. Also, if you have a special seating request try to make it at the time of booking or sometime before the day, rather than waiting until you check in. There’s no garantee, but sometimes airlines block off certain seats as priority for fliers with disabilities. Also, think about what will work for you and don’t be afraid to insist on it. For example, many airlines assume that because I’m a wheelchair user, I’d do better with an aisle seat. However, I can get on a flight and then not move for the duration and having people climb over me to get to loo is painful so I much prefer a window seat so that no one is climbing over me. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve had to repeat this to airlines over the years, but I’ve noticed that more recently they’ve assumed less so I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

  • Carol

    I now, before getting off the plane at Philly airport, will ask if there is an available wheelchair for me.
    I think this time I will ask at check-in at Heathrow (UK)if they can be, just to make sure.
    The Philly airport seems to go for miles.
    I also ask for an aisle seat in the middle rows. I figure that if a couple sits next to me the one who needs the loo will bother their mate rather than a stranger.
    I’ve also learned to pay for an upgrade coming back. It’s a night flight and after last time I could never endure another 5 hours of a brat kicking the back of my chair.