Flying with an injury is no fun at all, but it’s a lot easier if you know what to do. Take my tips from traveling with an orthopedic boot and learn how to handle airline check-in, airport security and getting around the airport.
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Disclaimer: What I am sharing here is my own personal experience of flying with an injury. I am not a medical professional. You should check with your doctor before you fly. I am also not an airport professional, so you should also check with your airline and/or airport to see how things work for them.
I’m taking a break from regularly scheduled cocktail recipes and travel recaps to tell you about something I’ve been going through lately, in case it helps you or someone you know.
A few weeks ago, I could barely walk around my own house without yelping or limping. I went to an orthopedic specialist and was diagnosed with achilles tendinitis in my left foot.
My first thought when the nurse handed me an orthopedic boot to wear for three weeks was something to the tune of, “Well, #$%*! I have to wear this thing on an airplane next weekend.”
Not going wasn’t an option — I definitely wasn’t going to let achilles tendinitis keep me from attending my cousin’s wedding in Houston or my work trip to Maine.
But as I got used to wearing the boot around the house and to normal places like the grocery store, I realized just how clunky this Velcro monster would be in the airport.
Friends and family with boot experience had lots of suggestions. I also researched wearing an orthopedic boot when flying. All I found was a lot of conflicting advice, especially with regard to airport security.
A few people suggested I ask for a wheelchair at check-in. A few suggested that if you could walk, to just brave it based on how you are feeling.
I have now flown while wearing my boot on two trips (over four flights) in the last month, and I’ve tried both methods — walking and with a wheelchair. So I thought I’d take a moment to describe my experience in flying with a boot.
Y’all. Flying with an injury is no joke.
Life happens though, so if you or someone you know ever finds themselves in this fashionable footwear, bookmark this post. In case you ever need to know.
(I REALLY hope you don’t ever need to know, because being in a cast or boot means you’re hurt, and I don’t want that for you!)
This post might even help you if you have a non-foot injury or had a surgery and can’t function as you normally might. (For example, having your arm in a sling means you can’t carry your luggage — what I have to share below might help you too!)
And if you do ever wind up with a boot or cast on your leg, here’s what you should do — and what you shouldn’t. Take it from me.
I’ll go into more detail on each of these below, but here’s a few quick tips.
Quick tips for flying with a foot injury
- Arrive early. Give yourself some extra time — more than usual — just in case you run into any snafus.
- Pack what you can handle. Check your bags if you can, but also know you can get help with your carry-ons.
- Be comfortable. Wear clothes you like traveling in.
- Ask for a wheelchair. You won’t regret it. It’s free.
- Be open-minded. It sucks to be injured, but you can still have fun when you travel.
What to pack for travel with an injury
Let’s first talk about what to pack for your trip, because traveling with a boot is a little different. Make sure to only pack what you can handle. If you can hardly walk, it might not be a good idea to bring two big carry-ons. Be smart. (Affiliate links in this section! I may earn a commission if you purchase one of these items.)
Medication: This one’s important! Be sure to pack your painkillers and anything your doctor prescribed. And if you need snacks to take with your meds, don’t forget those either! You never know if you’ll be stranded on a plane for an hour delay without access to food.
KT Tape: My dad introduced me to the wonder of KT Tape. I needed my fiancé’s help to put it on (and I made him watch a YouTube video first) but I honestly feel like the KT tape helped so much. A little extra support and relief. If you need to cut smaller strips, make sure you cut them ahead of time or pack a pair of travel scissors in your checked baggage.
Epsom salts: I have been enjoying foot soaks in epsom salt baths. These travel-size packs of epsom salts would be great at the end of a long day of travel. If you won’t have access to a bathtub, you can pack an inflatable foot tub for your soaks.
Shoe freshener: I stick a small lavender sachet in the boot whenever I am not wearing it. Even though I wear it all the time during the day, I didn’t want it to smell that way! A deodorizing bag helps keep it fresh. You could also use sneaker balls or a shoe spray to help deodorize.
Extra shoes and socks: The good news, you really only need to pack shoes for your one good foot! And that leaves some room for more souvenirs of course. But in general I think it’s a good idea to have a backup shoe. You know, in case the one you are wearing gets soaked in the rain or if you step in something gross! You never know…
Ice and heat: If your doc told you to give your injury cold or hot compresses, pack those supplies! An ice pack or heating pad will be a huge help. Some can provide both hot and cold relief, which might be ideal if you are tight on luggage space. Hopefully your destination has a freezer — if not, these cold packs only become cold when “activated.”
What to wear when flying with an injury
Let’s also talk about what to wear on the plane. If you travel a lot, you may already know the drill. Comfortable clothes are key, injury or not.
Ladies: In general, I like to fly in leggings or yoga pants. They’re ultra soft and fit nicely inside my boot. Paired with a T-shirt and a sweater or jacket to layer, and you’ll be fine. Skinny jeans are another favorite.
Guys: Sweatpants or comfy shorts would be ideal for you. Make sure it’s easy to remove the boot, just in case you’re asked to.
My doctor also recommended these silicone heel cups to fit inside my shoes, for extra height and padding. They come in different thicknesses and shoe sizes, and they fit neatly inside my shoes.
Oh, and make sure you wear socks! Trust me on this — because I am not a ‘sock person.’ You’ll be moving a lot and it can get sweaty and gross inside that boot. I wore a long sock on my injured foot and an ankle sock with my tennis shoe. Rocking the mismatch!
Flying with an injury
Hey, you. Listen to me. You have a boot on your foot. You are not at your best right now. Don’t try to be brave.
Let the airport folks help you. They want to help you. They literally hire people who are paid to help you. And they know the airports backwards and forwards, so you can trust them to get you where you need to go.
So PLEASE, I beg you: Do not be Me-From-The-First-Leg-Of-My-Trip-to-Houston. That version of me was very sure she could walk to the gate like a normal person. Her foot wasn’t absolutely killing her right then, so it seemed doable. Most of all, she did not want be a burden to anyone or get special treatment.
But it wasn’t awesome. At all.
You have a couple choices for getting to your destination with an orthopedic boot: With a wheelchair and on foot. I did both and you should decide what’s best for you!
Checking into your flight
What NOT to do: On my first flight to Houston, I didn’t ask for help at check in. This was a very huge mistake. Anything can (and probably will) go wrong, and if you don’t ask for help, you might be sore by the end of the day.
When we got to our gate, (which was so far away, it was possibly in the next state) the agent told us we had been bumped from that flight because it was overbooked.
We were rebooked onto another flight, at another gate, which unfortunately had almost every problem imaginable. We were delayed for weather, for a new pilot, for a new crew, for a supplies delivery. (And missed my cousin’s wedding ceremony amid all of this. We made the reception though!)
Oh, and we got another new gate. So not only did I have two walk to our first gate on my bad foot, but two more as well. And they were all in different terminals. Of course.
They almost didn’t let us onto our long-awaited second flight due to another booking technicality but thankfully we made it on. I was so very grateful for our three-hour flight so I could rest my foot after all that unexpected walking.
Lesson learned? Ask for the wheelchair assistance. Because this experience completely sucked for me. (And my fiancé too, because he was pulling two suitcases.)
I’m sure I could have asked for assistance at any time but, remember, I was feeling proud and like I could do anything. But let me tell you: I did NOT feel like that at the end of the day. Especially after also being on my feet even more when we got to the wedding.
I treated my foot way way better on the way home, and on my trip to Maine three weeks later. You just never know what will happen when you fly. There is so much out of your control.
But you know what IS in your control? Standing up for yourself and asking for what you need.
What you should do: At most airports, they offer help on the curb where you are dropped off, and they’ll help you get around from the beginning.
Even if you don’t check your bags and get your boarding passes online or print at home, you can still stop by the airline’s desk and say, “I have an injury. Can I get a wheelchair?” One look at your boot and they will be glad to help.
The airline might tell you to wait at a certain spot, or the wheelchair assistant will come get you. Hop in and let them do the driving! Your travel companions will walk with you, so don’t worry about leaving them behind.
The airline will also make a note to have someone wait for you at your destination or layover to take you where you need to go.
Bonus: These folks know the airports really well. Like, really, really well. They know things you will want to know when it hurts to walk hurting, like where the elevators are. They also can wheel you straight through security, to the bathroom, to Starbucks, to your gate, to baggage claim, to your Uber — wherever you want to go!
What to do with your bags
What NOT to do: Wear your boot and drag your carry-on suitcase everywhere. If you’re anything like me, you’ll wear yourself out — fast.
What you should do: If you have bags to check, I say do it. Take a load off. I’m typically a carry-on person for short trips, but I checked a bag for one of my recent flights and it was heaven.
If you prefer to carry on, you can still get assistance with your bags. There’s a spot under the wheelchair for your small suitcase, or the wheelchair assistant will roll it for you.
If you have a purse or backpack, it can hang on the back of the wheelchair or you can put it in your lap.
You may have to carry everything onto the plane and place it in the overhead bins, but if you’re sticking to the two-bag rule, you should be fine. Ask a flight attendant for help lifting if needed.
I do also recommend trying not to stash anything under the seat in front of you, if you can avoid it. You’ll need that extra legroom for your boot, and you won’t be allowed to sit in a roomy Exit Row seat with a boot on. (You need to be able to help folks if you sit in the Exit Row, which you probably can’t do if you have an injury.)
Going through airport security with an orthopedic boot
What NOT to do: If you’re not using the wheelchair service, you’ll wish you were. You’ll likely have to remove your boot, place it on the conveyor belt and walk through the body scanner — which might suck depending on how well you can walk without it.
When I did this, we had a very long line (longer than I am used to, and I travel a good bit) and my foot was already sore by the time the agent looked at my boarding pass and ID.
They had me remove the boot and put it on the conveyor belt, and then I had to put it back on on the other side. It always takes me a few minutes to get it on just right and I felt hurried because I felt was holding up the line.
What you should do: The wheelchair service. Again, it’s awesome, and free. As a reminder, do not let your pride get in the way. There’s absolutely no shame in being in a wheelchair so please just roll with it. Pun intended.
At the security checkpoint, you’ll breeze right through. Yep, you get to skip that long, long line whether you have Pre-Check or not. Ahh, the boot’s silver lining.
Please ignore the side-eye you will get from annoyed passengers. I was not expecting this, but dang, are people rude.
Once you’re at the front of the line, a few things will happen.
Your stuff has to be scanned. The wheelchair assistant will ask you if you have any tablets, laptops, liquids, etc. and will ask for your help finding them. They’ll help you place your belongings in bins to scan and help you pack them up on the other side as well.
YOU have to be scanned. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t give you TSA immunity, so here’s what you need to know.
If you can walk okay:
- The TSA agents might let you keep your boot on but will ask you remove the shoe on your good foot. Then you walk through the scanner like normal, and they’ll swab and scan your boot on the other side.
- They might make you remove your shoe and your boot and place them on the conveyor belt. Then you walk through like normal.
If you can’t walk well:
- They will likely use other scanners and swabs to check you out. Crutches, etc. may have to go on the conveyor belt as well.
Your wheelchair assistant has to be scanned. They will have a badge to scan since they are an airport employee, but on one of my trips the scanner wasn’t working so I had to switch wheelchair assistants. (This is why you need extra time.)
Getting around the airport with an injury
In case you think, like I did, that you can’t grab a coffee once you get through security, that’s absolutely not true!
Our wheelchair associate was happy to wheel me through the line at Starbucks. We got coffees and breakfast and went on our way to our gate to eat.
She also offered to wheel me to the bathroom or to one of the various shops for magazines, bottled water or chips, but we declined. I was glad to know this was an option if we wanted to though!
I asked what happens on a layover (since I had direct flights each time) and was told they’re also happy to take you to a restaurant, shop, the bathroom or right to your gate.
Boarding the airplane with an injury
When you arrive at your gate, they’ll drop you at a front-row wheelchair seat to await our flight.
I was offered a wheelchair to go down the ramp when we boarded, but I declined since I felt okay enough to walk short distances. However, it’s fantastic to know you can get wheelchair service straight to the plane.
I checked with a gate agent to make sure we could be some of the first folks to board, and she assured me we would be allowed to.
When it came time to board, they called our names before anyone else’s and we handed in our boarding passes. (If they don’t call your names, just listen for when they call for families and those who need special assistance, and line up with them.)
I was lucky to have my fiancé to help me put our bags up, but in my experience the flight attendants and other passengers are usually happy to help.
Once on the plane, it’s time to rest that foot!
Getting off the plane and to your next stop
Once you land, you can deplane with everyone else, or get off last. I chose to wait since I am slow and I didn’t want to hold up the line.
On the other side of the ramp, another wheelchair assistant was waiting for me. (I think you could request they pick you up at the ramp — just ask a flight attendant before you land.)
Whether you have another flight ahead of you, are picking up a rental car or are meeting an airport shuttle or car pick-up, the assistant should be able to take you where you need to go. And of course you can stop at the bathroom, an airline lounge, a shop or a restaurant if you need/want to.
Bonus: The wheelchair assistants will know WHERE to go as well. I mentioned this before, but it was super handy!
In Houston, the Uber/Lyft area was so hard to find. In Charlotte, they took us right to our parking lot shuttle, which was wonderful because our airport is laden with construction right now and it’s stupid hard to get around even if you can walk normally.
Since I experienced travel both for fun and for work, I have some extra tips for you:
How to vacation with an injury
- Be kind to yourself.
- Plan activities that are easy on you. Like, go to a shop or two, then take a long coffee shop break next door. (See that beach photo at the top of this post? I sat on a bench while my family took a walk.)
- Rest as much as you can!
- Take a car or rideshare and try not to go on long walks.
Work trips with an injury
- Let your supervisors know you have an injury in case you need to make alternative plans.
- If you’re going to be on your feet a lot (such as at a conference), carry your meds with you and wear your boot.
- Sit down whenever you have a chance!
- Do your stretches.
- Ice/heat your injury in your hotel room.
- Take Ubers/Lyfts or limit yourself to short walks.
- Rest as much as possible.
What I learned from flying with an injury
Should you fly with your injury? YES. Travel is still wonderful and possible (if your doctor says you can) but you must take care of yourself. And please, please, please ask for help if you need it.
I had no idea how easy and available the FREE airport wheelchair service would be, and I am so glad I made myself take advantage of it.
After this experience, I am very grateful to be ambulatory, and that there is healing in my future. But I am also so thankful that the airport offers this service for anyone who needs it.
I absolutely felt the cruel stares when I skipped security lines, and it pains me that people have to endure that everywhere they go, day after day. Accessibility is more important to me than ever, and it makes me happy that airports are so awesome at helping people who need it.
Again, I hope you never have to travel with pain, a boot or crutches or anything like that, but if you do, I hope this post was helpful in some way. We gotta stick together!
If you have any advice or stories about your experience traveling with an injury, I’d love it if you shared them in the comments below. // susannah