10 Tips for Traveling With Physical Disabilities
There's no reason for a family member with a permanent or temporary physical limitation to stay home during a trip. Accessible travel is more popular than ever and with proper planning.
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Plan in Advance
Whether you’re traveling with someone with a permanent or temporary physical disability, the challenges remain the same. The U.S. Department of State is a good general resource, while The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) details what accommodations should be made. Even though U.S. hotels, transportation, and cruise ships sailing in U.S. waters are required to be ADA-compliant, don’t assume that the foreign equivalent will be. If transportation, a cruise, hotel, or other lodging (such as Airbnb) isn’t ADA-compliant, call ahead to discuss what accommodations can be made.
Other planning resources include Mobility International USA, which has helpful articles on charging wheelchair batteries and taking a service animal abroad. Curb Free with Cory Lee blogs about traveling the world in a wheelchair, and is a comprehensive guide to everything from the most accessible destinations to the pros and cons of bringing a wheelchair.
Try to Replicate the Home Routine
Timothy Holtz is the group travel director of Flying Wheels Travel, an agency specializing in trips for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. When planning an itinerary, for example, he emphasizes the importance of factoring in the stamina of the person in the wheelchair. If that person has more energy in the morning, then plan sightseeing around that. Holtz says to avoid doing too much in a day. He adds that some people are resistant to taking naps while on vacation, even if they regularly take them at home, but that decision can make or break a trip due to fatigue. “If you require it at home, plan on requiring it in a vacation schedule as well,” he says.
Make Sure Travel Insurance Includes Medical
Some travel insurance plans only cover financial losses, and Medicare doesn’t cover overseas travel. Check the U.S. Department of State for a list of recommended medical providers. Be sure to choose one that includes medical evacuation, or medevac, in case of an emergency; that option could be cost-prohibitive if insurance doesn’t cover it.
Use a Specialized Travel Agent or Company
Nowadays, everywhere from Bali and Turkey to Russia and India are accessible for independent and group travelers with physical limitations. A knowledgeable agent can craft an itinerary that works for everyone, advise on whether or not a hotel is fully accessible, and arrange private transportation in a less accessible destination. Holtz says he’s taken people to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, and more, and made adjustments in places that aren’t ADA-compliant, such as modifying rooms by adding grab bars in the shower. Agents also have firsthand knowledge of accessible destinations. For example, Holtz says London and Barcelona are among his top picks for independent accessible travel. Both cities are sensitive to special needs since each hosted the Olympics and Paralympics. Further, all cabs are accessible in London. Holtz says Italy is popular for group travel, “but you really have to know what you’re doing.” He notes that even Venice is accessible if planned right, since it has accessible wheelchair boats—plus an accessible Gondola just opened this year.
In addition to Flying Wheels Travel, other companies that run trips for those in wheelchairs include Accessible Journeys. The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is another resource for finding agents and companies.
Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
The U.S. Department of State offers STEP as a free service that allows you to share trip information with the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate of your destination; this way it’s easy to be notified in the event of an emergency. More importantly, there’s a section under Traveler Information that allows you to enter any relevant information about a physical limitation.
Arrange Accessible Accommodation
If you're planning an independent trip, Holtz says to consider what you typically need to do at home. For example, if you have a roll-in shower at home with a shower bench, look for that in a hotel. ADA-compliant hotels should also contain grab bars. Holtz cautions that when contacting non-ADA-compliant hotels, “many people don’t understand what fully accessible means,” such as not realizing that one step can be a barrier to someone in a wheelchair. Other considerations to ask non-ADA-compliant hotels are whether a wheelchair can fit through the room and bathroom doors, and if there’s enough room to maneuver a wheelchair once in the room.
Arrange Assistance While Flying
Holtz says to allow at least two hours for domestic and connecting flights, and three hours for international flights. He also recommends arranging wheelchair assistance with the airline ahead of time, and double check 48 hours beforehand. At the airport, remind the check-in counter that you need wheelchair assistance. Holtz says family members should allow assistance, since agents can help with luggage and get everyone through security faster. At the very least, review TSA guidelines for special procedures. Remind the gate agent that you need assistance so that everyone in your group can preboard.
If someone is traveling with their own wheelchair, Holtz says to remove and take everything from the wheelchair that could fall off and get lost during storage, including the foot rest, head rest, and any cushions. On board, every U.S. airline that seats more than 60 and is equipped with an accessible bathroom is required to have an aisle wheelchair. Holtz suggests always requesting an aisle seat close to the bathroom. Finally, he notes that those in wheelchairs are last off the plane, so factor in that time and allow help through customs, if applicable.
Decide Whether to Bring or Borrow a Wheelchair
This depends on the nature of the trip and the needs of the user. The pros of bringing one include the known comfort level of the person using it, and not having to worry about arranging one for every step of the journey. On the other hand, if it’s electric, for example, you will have to factor in power outlet access for charging it. If you're flying, review the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Air Carrier Access Act for rights on U.S. airlines. It’s also important to understand the laws for where you’re going.
Take Advantage of Discounts
For example, Amtrak offers discounts (from 15%-50%) to wheelchair users and a travel companion. You must show proof of your disability, such as a doctor’s note or transit ID card; visit the site for a full list of approved documents. Reduced fares for those with physical limitations are also available on buses (such as Greyhound) and trains both here and abroad, including Japan, London, Singapore and more.
The National Park Service Access Pass is free for U.S. citizens with permanent disabilities and grants access to any of the national parks, monuments, historic sites, and more. Museums, zoos, and theme parks are some other attractions that typically offer discounts.
Don’t Forget the Needs of the Caregiver
If a wheelchair user is in a manual (as opposed to an electric) wheelchair, Holtz says the needs of the caregiver pushing that person are often forgotten. He advises against seeing too much in one day to account for the stamina of both people. Holtz also advises considering the amount of care someone needs, which affects how much energy the caregiver has to expend. For example, if the caregiver has to get up early to help the person in a wheelchair get ready, then both people might need a nap in the afternoon.
Flying Wheels Travel offers travel companions on both independent and group tours, which gives the caretaker or spouse a vacation as well.