Road trips aren’t just one way that people get from one place to another; they’re a staple of American culture. They evolve from college students on pilgrimages to see their favorite bands to families visiting relatives for the holidays. The United States is one of the largest countries in the world, and while air travel is certainly still the fastest way to span it, road trips are the only way to really understand what America is all about. They’re also one of the easiest ways for wheelchair users to travel, and with some planning and preparation, accessible road trips can be truly amazing!
There was a time when power wheelchair users were confined to their homes and immediate neighborhoods because there was no economical way for them to get around. Thanks to technology and the vision of the car industry, different types of vans, SUVs, and even recreational vehicles have been modified to allow people with physical disabilities in even the largest of power wheelchairs to drive or be driven anywhere. I’ve been to 40 U.S. states and 36 countries, but I have more to see. In May 2018, my goal is to hop in my Ford Explorer MXV (modified by BraunAbility) with my Pride Mobility Go Chair (aptly nicknamed Bumblebee) and take a three-week road trip from Orlando to Mount Rushmore and back. I’m in the planning process right now, so I wanted to share with you some tips for planning your own amazing (and accessible) road trip.
Select a Method of Transportation
This may sound like a no-brainer; you need some kind of vehicle for a road trip, right? Well, it’s not that simple for everyone. You have some things to decide. Do you want to use your own accessible vehicle (if you have one) and start your journey from home? Do you want to fly somewhere and rent an accessible van or RV? If so, will it be a one-way trip or a loop from your departure city?
Many things will determine your ultimate vehicle selection, but the two biggies are cost and convenience. It’s most convenient if you have your own accessible van. You’re familiar with it, you know it will hold all your stuff, and you (or the person driving you) doesn’t have to learn all new buttons and features. However, what if the location where you want to road trip is far away? Do you have to drive a thousand miles through boring nothingness before you can even get to the good stuff? However, using your own vehicle will still save money on airfare, and you don’t have to lug all your things on a plane across the country.
Another option is to fly somewhere and rent an accessible van in that location. The upside is that you can get right to where you want to go and what you want to see. However, renting an accessible van is usually very expensive (upwards from $120 per day) and rental locations can be very limited (or non-existent) depending on where you want to go. There are numerous independent dealers around the country where you can rent a wheelchair van, and I recommended the MobilityWorks chain. They have locations around the country, and since this is where I purchased my own accessible SUV, I can attest to the fact that their service is top-notch.
A third option is renting a wheelchair accessible recreational vehicle (RV). This is easily the least practical and most expensive option, but it’s an option nonetheless. RV dealerships usually don’t rent out accessible models because the vast majority of them are custom-designed. However, there are websites and forums where accessible RV owners rent them out to other wheelchair users. One such site is called RVShare. However, accessible RV listings are mixed in with all the regular ones, so you have to invest a considerable amount of time to find one that might work for you.
Choose a Route
I initially thought about titling this section “Choose a Destination,” but we all know that road trips are about the journey. When you plan your road trip, there are a lot of things you need to decide when planning your route. How often do you need to or want to stop? Do you want to limit your time in the car? Do you need to go through mostly urban areas so you have quick access to a restroom? Do you like cities or natural landscapes? You also want to take into consideration the availability of hotels with wheelchair accessible rooms.
If you already know where you want to go and what you want to see, this part may be simple. Think about whether or not you want to spice things up by taking slower back roads or speeding up the trip by sticking to highways. Some people like to plan every detail of their trip, while others prefer to go off the beaten path and stumble across new places. And there’s also no reason you can’t do a little bit of each.
The determining factor in choosing your route may very well be hotel considerations. Able-bodied travelers can often just walk into the first hotel they see and find a room. For wheelchair users who need features like roll-in showers, it’s often not that easy. This means that we need to make reservations in advance. That doesn’t mean you can’t explore in between cities, and you can also stay in the same hotel room for more than one night and branch off in different directions to explore different parts of that city or town.
Choose Your Travel Companions Wisely
I love solo travel, and road trips are no exception. However, not all wheelchair users can travel by themselves. Hey, even I don’t like to drive alone if I’m going for long period of time or far away. Many wheelchair users also can’t drive their own vehicles, so they require a relative, caregiver, or personal assistant to travel with them. I promise you that spending several days to a couple of weeks with the same person 24 hours a day is not for the faint of heart! You may be used to this already if you have someone that needs to take care of you recently. However, if you’re like me and live alone and/or independently, not just anyone will do for a longer road trip.
If you need to recruit a friend or family member to accompany you, try to find someone who shares your travel style. This means someone who can align with your preferences for a schedule or lack thereof. Somebody who’s pretty strict about things or very laid-back. If you have certain things that you want to see, like museums or national parks, make sure your companion will be okay with visiting the same sights you want to see. You’re also going to be sharing a hotel room with this person every night. Do they snore, and if so, will they keep you awake? If one of you is messy and the other isn’t, will this cause conflict? Do they talk way more or way less than you do? Nothing detracts from the fun of a road trip more quickly than conflicts with your travel partner, so see if you can suss these out before you leave.
Pack Light and Smart
Not everyone has the luxury of being able to travel light. Some wheelchair users have medical equipment they need to bring with them or various changes of clothes. Depending on what time of year you plan your road trip, you may need bulkier items of clothing. Just keep in mind that you will be taking a bag or suitcase in and out of your car every night on a road trip. Many hotels have laundry facilities, so you may want to consider bringing some powdered laundry detergent and washing your clothes as you go to save up on suitcase bulk.
One thing I like to do is keep my toiletries in a separate bag from my clothes. Sometimes you can just pop a few items of clothing out of the top of your suitcase without having to bring the whole thing. You can also take advantage of special bags where you can squeeze the air out and compress your clothing. You probably won’t be going anywhere fancy on a road trip, so see if you can get away with using just one pair of shoes – preferably, the ones on your feet so you don’t have to shove any in your suitcase and take up space. Roll your clothing items instead of stacking them on top of each other to save space. Ladies, leave the makeup at home if you can. You can probably also leave your blow dryer since pretty much every hotel room has one.
For me, electronics are a biggie. This includes my scooter or power wheelchair charger, phones, laptop, and Kindle. Keep these items separate from your clothing in a smaller bag like a backpack. That way you can take them with you in case you have any worries about them being stolen out of your car. You also don’t have to worry about pulling them out of your suitcase in case you can leave the bigger luggage in your car for a night. Consider bringing back up chargers in case one of them craps out on you during the trip.
I mentioned the Spot GPS locator in another blog post about accessible travel hacks. This little device is an absolute safety must on any accessible road trip. I have a really good international plan on my cell phone, but occasionally I go on road trips in the Western United States where I can go hours without access to a cell tower. The Spot GPS device is basically an emergency beacon that you can use in different ways depending on the subscription you have. You can use it to summon an ambulance or emergency rescue, send regular pings to friends and family who can track your movements online, or send pre-written text messages at the touch of a button to let friends and family know that you’re safe. They’re not cheap; the devices retail for $150 (they’re 50% off until 12/31/17), and the annual monitoring plans run at $199 or $20 a month. However, this is basically a really great life insurance policy if you’re going to be in a remote area without someone who does have local cell service.
If you’re driving in your own accessible vehicle, make sure you get the oil changed right before your trip, and you probably want to take it into your local dealership or mechanic to get it checked over. They can check the integrity of your tires, whether you have any leaks or problems that might pop up on your trip, and just give you that confidence that you can rely on it over the upcoming miles.
Other items you want to make sure you have with you are an emergency car battery jump starter (I use a Genius Boost GB40) in case your battery dies somewhere, a good first-aid kit, plenty of water, snacks, and any and all medications you might possibly need. I would also recommend a cell phone charger for your car if you don’t already have one. You may run into delays and you don’t want to be stuck relying on an outlet in your hotel room to charge your phone. Don’t rely solely on your phone for directions because if you don’t have service, you won’t have access to Google maps or other navigation software. If you already have a GPS unit, make sure the software and navigation data is up-to-date. I hate paper, but it can’t hurt to have trip details like printed hotel reservation confirmations and paper maps handy as a backup. Finally, make sure you keep an eye on the weather. Have at least one umbrella handy, and maybe a poncho so you don’t have to deal with holding something while you’re out and about.
Sometimes I like moving at breakneck speed to see as much as I can in as little time as possible – especially if I’m on a schedule or have a time limit. But on longer road trips, I don’t like to be rushed. Even though you’re sitting in the same position, driving long distances can be exhausting. I try to limit my drives to five or six hours a day or less. Even as a passenger, being confined to a car or the same exact position for many hours can be tiring. Whether it’s at a restaurant or a rest stop, try to get out and shift positions or splash some water on your face to get a break.
You also want to leave yourself some time to pull off the road and see something that looks interesting, whether it’s a store or museum or just a great photo opportunity. If you try to pack too much into one day, you may miss out on some really great surprises. It never hurts to arrive at your destination for the evening early. You can have a relaxing dinner, go to a movie at a local movie theater, or just relax in your hotel room for a good night’s sleep.
Gain Confidence by Starting Small
I’m something of a seasoned road tripper, so hitting the highway for a three-week adventure is really nothing new for me. However, if you’ve never really embarked on a longer journey, it makes sense to start out small. Pick a cool spot the next state over, or if you live in a long state like me in Florida, find a nice place only a few hours’ drive away. Take the back roads and stay in one or two different hotels to get a feeling for what it’s like not to sleep in your own bed. Find out how long you can stay in the car before needing to use the restroom or to get out for a stretch/movement break. Visit some family members or friends, and have them play tour guide instead of just staying in their home the whole visit.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be ready to hit the road!
Need some help planning your accessible road trip? Contact me at Spin the Globe / Travel and we’ll get started!