Jennifer Bridgman

The Family on Wheels



Travel Advice from the Family on Wheels

The following is expert advice on how to have a stress-free family vacation. To ensure some level of authority on the matter, I’ve written this article a full six weeks before our first-ever flight as a family. This way, I can pretend to have some credibility before my cover is blown. Now when it comes to travel, I should clarify that our family has a few “extras” to take into consideration—my husband is in a wheelchair, and we have an infant son. We are the “Family on Wheels”—or at least that is the name bestowed upon us by a mumbling homeless man outside McDonald’s in Tahoe City.

Albeit peculiar, HM’s declaration was spot-on. We are the Family on Wheels, and pretty much everyone notices. We draw the most attention whenever our small-but-mighty family travels the streets by caravan: I serve as the caboose, pushing my husband in his wheelchair, while he in turn pushes the stroller. Sharp turns are particularly tricky, but we run our operation like a well-oiled machine.

“Pothole: ten o’clock!” my husband booms over his shoulder.

 “A-hole driver: three o’clock!” I call out.

Our caravan causes so much rubbernecking around the neighborhood, one would think our rig was equipped with flashing lights, caution tape, and a marquee that reads: “This is how we roll!”

Traveling by vehicle requires ingenuity and brute strength. It also requires lots and lots of spare time, which thankfully all new parents have [insert laugh track]. By the time we have loaded in the wheelchair, stroller, car seat, diaper bag, purse, baby, blankets, burp cloths, booties, binkies, Bjorn, snacks and medical supplies for my husband, we a) need a nap, b) no longer have a place to sit ourselves, or c) forgot where we were headed in the first place. Forget upgrading to a minivan—we’ve got our sights on a pre-owned, 17’ U-Haul with hitch, tie-downs and rub rails.

Now that you have a better idea of our family situation, let’s get back to the topic at hand: Travel Advice. For most of us, we take a vacation to enjoy quality time with loved ones while unwinding from the stresses of daily life. In my childhood, our vacations were more Griswold than Cleaver. We somehow always made it on time, we never lost the tickets, and we rarely lost any luggage, but if my father still acted like he knew us by the time the “window versus aisle” dispute took place, things were in pretty good shape. Now that I’m the grown-up, I see where he’s coming from. Taking a family vacation can be overwhelming, so here are some tips to keep things wheeling right along:

Search for Flights Early. Book non-stop flights if possible when traveling with small children and/or disabled persons. Travel at non-peak times (avoid mornings, weekends if possible). We began looking for flights three months in advance, and we couldn’t believe our luck when we found a non-stop Alaska Airlines flight to Maui from our local airport for less than $400. We decided to book the tickets right then and there—in the middle of Supercuts using my husband’s iPad. Moments later a stylist called out my husband’s name, somehow managing to butcher the highly unusual moniker of “Chris.” Before wheeling off to get trimmed, he offered me the iPad, credit card and famous last words: “Get ‘er done.” I was downright giddy as I punched in the pertinent information, juggling both infant and iPad on my lap. Never one to miss out on the action, Baby slapped his pudgy hands on the screen and shrieked with delight as the webpage refreshed. Within a few minutes, my eyes were transfixed on the unbelievably low final price on the screen, including federal excise fees, federal segment fees, government-imposed security fees, airport passenger facility charges and the optional insurance. What a steal! I clicked the “CONFIRM PURCHASE” button while bouncing baby on my knee and fielding Twenty Questions from all corners of the room. Apparently my fellow Supercuts patrons found Baby more entertaining than the neon ‘87 Hairstyle Guide in the magazine rack. I looked over to see Chris offering a sign of the cross while attempting to explain what a Number 2 clipper blade looked like to his stylist, and I nuzzled Baby’s cheek. “We’re getting Maui’d, Little Buddy!” I whispered.

It wasn’t until 4 a.m. the next morning that I awoke in a cold sweat and tiptoed over to the home computer to confirm my fears. We got the Deal of the Century, all right…on flights arriving in Maui at 2 p.m. on February 1 and departing at 3:10 p.m. on February 1. Somehow I didn’t think a 70-minute vacation would be all that satisfying. After simultaneously inhaling steeply and dry heaving, I looked up Alaska Airlines’ policy for “infant-hand-slappage on touch-screen computer leading to incorrect booking.” The booking office opened at 5 a.m., and thankfully, they only charged a minimal fee to amend our tickets. I have always liked Alaska Airlines—only now it’s not just because the smiley-man on the tail of the airplane reminds me of Jerry Garcia.

Tips for Booking Rental Car. We went with Enterprise, paying homage to my husband’s place of employment as a college student in Chico. Not only does Enterprise offer to “pick you up,” but they treat their employees to “Blue Shirt Fridays.” I was very pleased to discover they will install child car seats and mobility devices (hand-controls and spinner knobs) for disabled drivers at no additional cost. Be specific with your flight details when booking your reservation. I called customer service to verbally reconfirm my already-confirmed reservation details, and by amending my drop-off time by just one hour, I saved over a hundred dollars. I have a feeling this trip could be revolutionary. After all, I heard once you go minivan, you never go back. (Yes, even for the couple who rented a Harley last time we vacationed on Maui.)

Pack Lightly. Remember, “Less is More”—unless you are referring to baby diapers, baby wipes and Excedrin. Many properties allow you to rent Pack ‘n Plays, strollers, and other essential baby gear, so call ahead to inquire. If you are traveling with a wheelchair, you can often keep it all the way to the gate before transferring to the airplane seat. While there are fields to indicate special needs when booking online, call the airline anyway once booking is complete to ensure there are no surprises on your day of travel.

Consider a Babysitter. Or bring some along. For Christmas this year, we surprised my parents with a vacation to Maui with travel dates that ironically coincided precisely with our own. Should Baby get feisty as I’m trying to read Us Weekly—er—Newsweek from seat 9B, I am comforted in knowing the passengers in seats 10A and 10B will be thrilled to takeover. My husband and I consider bringing my parents to Maui the ultimate win-win, but I realize some of you may consider a vacation with relatives an oxymoron. For those requiring a vacation from your relatives, contact your concierge desk for recommendations on babysitting services. Most destinations offer this service these days.

Book the Right Property. Or just ensure your mother-in-law’s Significant Other is a really, really generous man who owns a brand-new, ADA compliant, two-bedroom/two-bath condo with pool, fitness center and beach access where you can stay free for the week. My mother-in-law met her beau through mutual friends in the real estate community; for others less fortunate, may I suggest www.sugardaddy.com.

Know the Hot Spots. This used to mean finding the best Happy Hour or live music venue. Our new “hot spots" include the local Emergency Room, Costco, Babies“R”Us and drug store with a 24-hour pharmacy. (Starbucks is a runner-up on this list—extra points if they offer a drive-up window.) Memorize the coordinates, hours, phone number, website, e-mail address, Facebook page, iPhone App and closest major intersection.

The Importance of the Carry-On. Packing the all-important carry-on is a work of art. When emergencies arise, I pride myself on being able to reach into my bag and save the day. From Band-Aids to Breathsavers, trail mix to Tide Stain Sticks, knowing what to carry usually comes from learning the hard way. When there are children or special medical needs involved, packing the carry-on can challenge even the most advanced traveler. Some extra tips:

Know the 3-1-1 Rule. (www.tsa.gov) The 3-1-1 Rule does not apply to baby food, baby formula, breast milk and medications, which are allowed in “reasonable quantities.” Declare these items when you reach the Inappropriate Fondling/Strip Search/ Radiation Treatment checkpoint.

Bring Toys. Be prepared to pull out a new toy/book/snack on rotation every 20 to 30 minutes to combat fussiness. This technique is applicable to children ranging from three months to 960 months in age.

Get out and L-I-V-E! Many young families or disabled persons mistakenly believe that outdoor adventures are not a viable option. Not so! Even though our son can amuse himself for hours with a single doorstop (b-o-iiiiin-n-n-g!), we plan on enjoying many family outings in Maui: the Old Lahaina Luau (www.oldlahainaluau.com), a whale watching excursion (www.sailtrilogy.com), and the Live Shark Feeding Cages (www.yesimjoking.com). For my adrenaline junkie Hubby, I located a guide who specializes in small-group adaptive kayak tours (Ron Bass, 808.572.6299), a place that rents adaptive snorkel gear (www.snorkelbob.com), and I surprised him with reservations for a tour of the entire island by helicopter (www.bluehawaiian.com).

Additional Travel Resources:

www.access-able.com. Chock-full of travel information for the disabled, including wheelchair accessible trails and beaches, mountains with adaptive skiing, service animals, airport screenings, and real-life tales from travelers; Also offers an extensive list of travel agents who specialize in travel planning for the disabled.

http://www.travelinsurance.org/additional-resources/traveling-with-disabilities. Another fantastic resource for disabled travelers, with the latest rules, regulations and advice for air vacations.

www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/children. The Transportation Security Administration‘s website for everything you need to know about traveling with children.

http://stlucianow.com/info/traveling-resources-for-the-disabled. A comprehensive site containing useful travel info/links for the disabled, including the deaf and blind.

www.onestepahead.com. High-quality, innovative products for babies, children and their sometimes-paranoid parents. I purchased SPF sunhats/swimwear, temporary child ID safety bracelets, an airplane seat harness, an airplane bag to check our travel stroller, and the “Mommy I’m Here” beeping child locator—one end goes on their shoe, the other on your keychain. The product ratings feature allows you to read reviews from other parents before purchasing; I mean, who doesn’t want tried-and-true advice from FreeLohan11, XanaxSaves or GoodTimeBambiNJ?