PDX airport renovation poses new challenge for those with mobility limitations

This post will benefit those of us who fly in or out of Oregon’s major international hub, PDX. The airport, it is a-changing, and if you think you know it and how to navigate it, but you haven’t traveled much during the pandemic, think again!

Until now (December 2021), perhaps my favorite thing about PDX was the elegant simplicity of all airside (post-security) amenities being accessible to each other. There used to be a connector between this airport’s two sides. Adding 150 feet of space inside the terminal is displacing the old walkway.View of construction at PDX from Lounge

R.I.P. airside connector!

The good news is that this generally sensible airport will regain such a connection when the major construction is done. The bad news? That is scheduled for 2023.

As of 2021, travelers need to exit security and re-clear the TSA checkpoint to go from the B/C side to the D/E side. That’s a bummer, and a change, but it makes PDX similar to many other poorly designed airports.

Note: Crossing from B/C to D/E always has been a long-ish walk, and those with difficulty walking should get assistance or allow lots of time here even when the option comes back. Fortunately, most domestic connections don’t require crossing the airport in this way.

Here’s something that had an even bigger impact on me, a person who travels with some mobility limitations due to chronic illness: the walk from check-in to gate before departure, or from gate to baggage claim upon arrival, has grown from manageable to torturous according to my abilities.

This update may also affect families with young children. Little legs on very tired, very young people may also find the new trek difficult.

If you think you already know you can comfortably handle the walking distances at PDX, please look at updated construction maps and reconsider before travel if it’s been awhile since your last transit of this normally pleasant airport.PDX airport winter day - 1

I flew into PDX in the summer, visiting my dad, and the modern “one way valve” security exit didn’t seem so very different from before. The walk was longer, yes, and around to the side whereas one used to enter and exit the secure area from a central location, but at that point the airport still felt familiar with a slight redirection.

Landing in early December, 2021, however—after an, admittedly, much longer-than-average flight time due to a fierce jet stream—walking from arrival gate to baggage claim felt like personal judgement by a cruel god. I thought I might have to stop and rest at one point. I regretted failing to ask for a wheelchair escort before I was halfway out.

Checking in, just before the New Year, to fly home again, I asked an Alaska Airlines representative if the way in was now as convoluted as the exit route had been.PDX airport Alaska Airlines gate C11 - 1

“For the next four years,” she chirped. I opted to visit the special assistance group over by the windows and take a ride to spare my feet.

If you struggle with walking long distances, I strongly advise electing wheelchair assistance at PDX until its renovations are complete. Arrive very early, and accept the help that is available.

As it happens, there was no free assistance agent to help me at 07:30 on New Year’s Eve, though someone was present with the flock* of empty wheelchairs checking boarding passes and explaining the process.

Lucky for me, they gave us the option of having one of my able-bodied kids push me in an airport-owned chair, so we were off within five to seven minutes. An elderly couple traveling on their own who’d arrived before us was still waiting as we left.

I didn’t ask for an official estimate for how long the process of being assisted might take, but I’d add at least half an hour to one’s airport dawdling allowance if traveling alone with special mobility needs requiring an airport-provided wheelchair and attendant.

It goes without saying that one’s teen may not steer a wheelchair as expertly as an experienced, paid professional. Then again, I’ve had my feet bashed by at least a couple of strangers in the past, so a strong kid who loves you isn’t the worst option at an airport.

The “traffic cop” airport employee who directs passengers into the correct TSA security line did cause us some confusion by pointing to the “Express” lane when we were actually eligible for the “PreCheck” lane.TSA Precheck logo

It’s worth knowing that PreCheck trumps Express as far as convenience goes, so use that lane if your boarding pass indicates you are eligible.

Travelers transiting the airport from one no-longer-connected terminal to another are eligible for “Express” lane priority, which did have a markedly shorter line this December morning when compared with the standard security queue. PreCheck, on the other hand, allows one to leave shoes and light jackets on one’s body, keep liquids and electronics inside one’s bag, etc.

Fortunately, the split between Express and PreCheck was very close to the body scanners and X-ray machines so we backtracked only 15 or 20 feet.

It is possible that simply being in a wheelchair caused the “traffic cop” airport employee to direct us to the Express lane. In the past, I’ve noted that wheelchair assistance often allows one to skip the security queue. If this policy is universal, that could shave off a bit of the time “wasted” waiting for an assist. Then again, I didn’t stop to interrogate the employee in question, so don’t count on cutting the line due to mobility limitations without consulting a higher authority than me.

When I make use of airport assistance in the United States, I do tip any wheelchair attendant $5 per ride.

This is not a mandatory fee—services for travelers with disabilities are the responsibility of places of public accommodation—but it does seem to be expected, particularly in the northeast region. In foreign airports when I’ve relied upon similar services, I’ve gotten baffled looks from employees less accustomed to our tipping culture, with gratuities being politely refused in New Zealand, for example.

If you only occasionally need an airport mobility assist, and haven’t typically taken advantage of one at PDX, reconsider your habits there for trips from 2022 to 2024. If your toes are anything like mine, they will thank you!Red walker on hardwood floor in home

Airport assistance is a public good meant to serve all of us who travel; don’t be ashamed to take advantage of services designed to allow everyone equal access to the world.

*What is the correct plural noun for wheelchairs, I wonder? If I get to choose, let’s go with a “roller” of wheelchairs.

10 hour airport layover teaches me: airport showers are awesome & often accessible

If you’ve never stepped foot in an airline lounge, you might not know that some of them have shower facilities. That isn’t very important for most of us who take the occasional domestic flight, but it can be a real game changer after a red eye or when laying over before an international long haul.

img_7364You don’t need a First Class ticket to use an airport shower facility, though you’re more likely to gain access for “free” if you spent a lot more for your ticket. At DFW, for example, the Minute Suites Terminal D location–a nap cubicle “hotel” past security in the airportalso sells shower passes with no private suite rental required.

Expect to pay around $30 to buy access to a fee-based airport shower facility, or around $50 per traveler if you’re purchasing access to an airline lounge like the American Airlines Admiral’s Club I used at DFW.

I probably wouldn’t have paid for a shower during my ten hour layover in July, but, having taken one in part to kill time after I’d visited every terminal and viewed all of the public art in DFW’s brochure, I would consider paying for a shower the next time I’m spending more than a few hours cooling my heels en route.

For me–an introvert with arthritis–I got about equal pleasure from two separate aspects of this experience. First, being totally alone in a room after hours of being in public. Second, the nice, warm shower itself, which always does some good at easing my joint pain.

DFW Terminal A Admiral’s Club shower

img_7366img_7367Can you ever feel really, REALLY unhappy when looking at a pile of fluffy white towels someone else has placed for your comfort and convenience? I can’t!

Everything you need comes with the key to the private shower room at the Admiral’s Club-DFW Terminal A location. Ask at the front desk to get access.

Shampoo, shower gel, Q-tips, and cotton balls are in place in the room, ready for your use. I used my own, of course, since sensitive skin is another fact of my life, but the products offered weren’t overly perfumed. This is a reasonably safe space/experience for those of us who get headaches from strong fragrances.

DFW Admiral Lounge AA shower - 1There were more towels than I needed, enough that I might ask, next time, for just what I would plan to use to save the water/energy of washing untouched linens. The space was quite scrupulously clean. There’s also a luggage rack to keep your suitcase above* the damp, and a hairdryer if you want it.

Since I was feeling quite well, I forgot to ask if there were accessible showers, but either they all are in this Admiral’s Lounge, or I just happened to get one that was. It had a fold down bench in the shower enclosure and an adjustable height hand shower wand in addition to the rain shower head. You won’t lose out on luxury if you just need grab bars sometimes, like me.

If you can’t stand at all, you might need to ask the staff to lower the hand shower to an appropriate height on your behalf. Mine was set way up at the top of its range when I walked in.

London Heathrow AA Arrivals Lounge shower

In addition to the Admiral’s Club shower at DFW, I took advantage of the same perks included with my First/Business ticket, purchased with Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles on AA, and visited the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge after retrieving my checked bag at London-Heathrow (LHR).

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 2LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 3

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower toiletries - 1Though without a doubt the more hygienically important shower I enjoyed during the trip, the Heathrow shower room was smaller, less well appointed with little extras, and decidedly not accessible. (Again, I failed to ask specifically for a stall equipped for mobility impairments, so this is what you get without asking for special treatment.)

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 1There was no luggage rack in the compact LHR Arrivals Lounge shower room, leaving me to wedge my full size carry on next to the sink on the lavatory counter itself. I had checked a mid-size rolling suitcase, which you can see standing on the floor beneath the counter and blocking the exit door in my photo.

Perhaps there was luggage storage somewhere else for those who pack heavily, because there certainly wasn’t space in the shower room for large checked bags!

It was as clean as you would expect, however, and made the transition from night flight to the Tube less stressful than it might have been in spite of temps in the 90’s on London’s non-air-conditioned subway cars.

 

Dublin, Ireland 51st & Green Lounge shower

Upon my return from the United Kingdom to the USA, laying over at Dublin (DUB) airport, the 51st & Green Lounge, post security, was free for USA-bound Business and First Class customers, but accessible to anyone willing to pay the €39 entrance fee.

DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green shower - 1Shower use is included in the price, but there is just one accessible stall available, and it is combined with the only wheelchair accessible toilet in the space.

img_7478 This accessible bathroom/shower—also serving as the sole baby changing space— is in a different area than the main restrooms, also off the main entrance hallway but a bit further along from the front door. Thankfully, this made it a bit closer to the lounge’s seating areas. The primary restrooms felt like a real trek as my arthritis acted up during my wait.DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green showers - 1

Knowing that no other handicapped toilets were available if I opted to use the shower made someone with generally good mobility like me hesitate to even consider taking one, though I was having noticeable symptoms even before my nine hour flight home and the hot water might have felt good. There was another passenger in the lounge who appeared to be confined to a wheelchair when I was there, reinforcing my feeling that taking an unnecessary shower would be a bit selfish.

The standard shower room looked reasonably spacious for my purposes, but it didn’t have a safety hand rail. With a knee acting up that day, it didn’t seem worth taking a risk.

Fortunately, it was neither a blazing heat wave such as I suffered in London, nor a double digit hours layover like my time in Dallas, so foregoing a test of the 51st & Green shower facilities an hour after I’d left my Irish hotel was no real sacrifice, except to my ability to share the experience with readers here. There are few reviews of this particular shower, but most USA bound flights from Ireland leave in the morning, so perhaps the demand is simply low, and a single stall is adequate.

The 51st & Green Lounge was lovely, very new, and everything else was to a high standard, though, leading me to expect the showers would measure up.

*Though the shower drained properly and no water spilled out of the enclosure or anywhere near my luggage, I would advise travelers to always assume the worst with unknown plumbing and place all belongings somewhere high and dry, just in case.

I thought I was going to see a man laden with bags die in front of me on the London Underground. Ugh! 

Have Segway; will travel… into the Alps

My first Segway tour of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was a lot of fun and well worth the fairly high hourly cost. My second Segway tour, along an Alpine trail from the Austrian resort town Seefeld in Tirol, was positively magnificent.

At €78 per person for a two hour tour, the cost of entry was lower. With the option to follow a scenic trail to a kitschy-charming Alpine inn otherwise closed to me due to pain and fatigue, the experience turned out to be invaluable.

Training to use Segway

Segway training before a tour takes between five and 20 minutes

My teen said this excursion was the most fun thing he did during our two weeks in Europe. And, by the way, I let him select most of our activities after I chose the cities we would visit.

Maybe I shouldn’t tell the friendly owner-operator Maximilian this, but I would have paid a lot more for such a wonderful experience. If you find yourself in Seefeld, definitely give him a call and take one of his Segway scooters for a spin!

I discovered Segway Tirol on TripAdvisor, but here’s the website and contact email: info@segway-tirol.info *

I’m extolling the virtues of the Segway today because I live with chronic pain as part and parcel of an autoimmune condition. Aside from arthritis, I also broke a bone in the sole of one foot many years ago… and now it feels like I’m always walking with a pebble in my shoe. I.e., annoying

Before my foot injury, my major occupation when visiting new places was to wander. I could happily lose myself for hours along the twisting byways of an historic city. I don’t enjoy driving, and I hate doing it in an unfamiliar, crowded place.

Public transit is hit and miss for me. I’ll use it, but unfamiliar fare systems provoke anxiety. Did I stamp my ticket correctly? Do I have exact change? With buses, I fear taking the wrong line; on subways, I compulsively check the map at each stop to confirm I’ve headed in the correct direction.

I also fear not getting a seat and falling down on lurching trains and buses. At times—sometimes unexpectedly—my weak hand and wrist joints won’t cooperate with my clinging to a post. Then again, I don’t appear deserving of special treatment or priority seating. Autoimmune conditions are often invisible to the casual glances of strangers.

I prefer the freedom and pace of walking… but I can’t go very far by foot any more.

Riding a Segway scooter does require one to stand. It wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with major foot or knee, or ankle problems. My pain seems to be exacerbated by the striking motion of stepping, however, so standing on the Segway is pretty much all right, most of the time.

I do have days where even my knees are affected by my arthritis, but most of my issues, most often, involve the small joints in my hands and feet. I wouldn’t try to ride a Segway if I were having a major flare, but the fatigue would probably stop me before joint stiffness anyway.

Stepping aboard a Segway scooter is like stepping back to a healthier, more able time and condition for me. It feels like freedom.

Mobility is a key component of personal empowerment. That’s true for the ability to afford a car in many American suburbs, and even more so for the giant leap from total dependence upon others or being housebound to the liberty of self-conducted, autonomous activity for those who can’t walk in the average way.

You get a taste of the utility of curb cuts, ramps, and automatic doors as a parent pushing a baby stroller, but it is hard to appreciate all the little motions a healthy body allows until some aspect of “what’s typical” is removed from your arsenal.

I didn’t stop grinning for a single moment I was aboard Segway Tirol’s scooter. The scenery was beautiful. The guide was kind and accommodating. Mostly, though, I was exhilarated to be conducting myself along an Alpine path without pain or fear of going too far and then succumbing to fatigue in an inconvenient place.

Some people think Segways are goofy looking toys for nerds; others consider them a sidewalk nuisance that should be banned. I’d guess most of those people are fully physically able and have no idea how poor the options are for those who aren’t.

For myself, I will be spending more time on two low, gyroscopically balanced, electrically powered Segway wheels in the future. I will seek out tours and rentals of these stable, easily controlled mobility devices. I may look goofy, but I will be grinning like a fiend.

It’s hard not to be happy when you’ve been set free.

Around $150 pp for 90 minutes, if memory serves.

*I booked our tour just the day before we took it. Maximilian was quick to respond and very flexible. Our “group” was just the two of us. There was no upcharge for the creation of a tour at our convenience!

Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel in Christchurch, New Zealand: everything you need, with a smile

We didn’t choose the Roma on Riccarton Luxury Motel near Christchurch‘s Hagley Park and a reasonable walk from the Central Business District. Since DH was traveling for work, his extraordinarily helpful host from a local University made our reservations.

Sometimes, collegiate sponsorship means staying in student housing that is barely adequate though students these days are getting fancier digs than I remember! Other hosts seek to thrill my illustrious spouse with “charming” accommodations in historic properties. Those are my favorite, but his nightmare. DH prefers predictable, three- to four- star chain hotels with room service offering standard American fare. If there isn’t a basic hamburger* available on the menu, he’ll come home sighing about his stay.

Getting back to the Roma on Riccarton, the most important thing a foreigner should know is that the motel designation does not carry a downmarket connotation in New Zealand like it does in America. It would be hard to take a name combining “Luxury” and “Motel” seriously back home.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - street viewIn the USA, I tend to avoid motels when traveling alone or as a solo mom with children in tow. I prefer the greater security of indoor corridors and staff at a centralized front desk. It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of convenience to unloading from the car straight through a motel room’s door. It’s also true that crime, both violent and petty, makes that same easy access doorway a risk in many places.

This time, I was staying with my husband, and the Roma on Riccarton parking lot was small, open to bustling Riccarton Road, and frequented by the cheerful owner and his wife.

I felt quite safe staying here, and we were confident enough in our surroundings to leave windows open for ventilation night and day.

NZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - doorNZ Motel Roma on Riccarton - parking lotThe entire property presented a welcoming and cheerful aspect. The central car park wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t create any noise nuisance for us, either. The light colored, stucco exterior had an almost Mediterranean appearance, but was modernized by the extensive use of glass in large doors and windows.

Perhaps it was due to New Zealand’s strict building codes for seismic resilience, etc., but noise from other guests or the busy road simply was not an issue. If I hadn’t seen cars and people coming and going, I could’ve assumed I was alone in this motel based strictly on volume.

Though centrally located, rooms here are very quiet.

Motel comfort and amenities

Bed

Most vital to any lodging’s rating, in my opinion, is a comfortable bed of reasonable size. We found that at the Roma on Riccarton. Our room—of the standard, Executive Studio, not spa bath type—had a large (queen?) bed made up with crisp white linens.

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Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

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