I am so enamored with Europe it’s not even funny. Considering I spend probably three months out of the year combined in the Old World, it should come as a surprise to no one. I visited several European countries while I was still walking prior to my MS diagnosis in 2005, and after I began traveling again as a full-time wheelchair user, I thought Europe would be closed off to me forever. Fortunately, that’s not the case, and MUCH of Europe is quite accessible for all manner of wheelchair users. However, there are some things you should know that are particular to Europe – especially when it pertains to accessibility – before you visit in a wheelchair. Here are my travel tips for you, with the caveat that I’m an American and will be writing from that point of view.
There are some countries with a version of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it’s not the same. Many Western European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany have accessibility laws that put forth certain requirements for buildings and structures and transportation. However, most don’t, and even in the countries that do, you can’t have the same expectation of accessibility that you would in the US (where it’s nowhere near perfect anyway). In some cases, accessibility is even better than in the US, like the requirement for emergency pull cords in bathrooms. However, things like the placement of grab bars, roll-in shower layouts, etc. can be all over the map. Just because a hotel or restaurant or transportation provider says something is wheelchair accessible doesn’t mean it will meet your expectations.
Airport services for wheelchair users vary from country to country, and often from city to city. Some of the best wheelchair service in Europe, in my opinion, is in the Lufthansa hub city of Frankfurt. Some of the worst is in London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle, two incredible high volume airports. Airport size or a country’s economic status doesn’t make much difference because I’ve had amazing and modern service in small and less wealthy Eastern European destinations. Just remember that even though much of Europe falls under the Schengen Agreement, that doesn’t mean there’s any standardization for air transportation laws when it comes to handling disabled passengers. If your flight is destined for the US, regardless of the carrier, you do have rights under the Air Carrier Access Act, so make sure you’re familiar with those.
Flights to Europe can be VERY long. Give your legs a rest with this inflatable foot rest to help your circulation: STYDDI 2 Pack Inflatable Foot Rest Pillow Cushion
City transportation options for wheelchair users vary greatly. Some European cities have amazing accessible public transportation, like Barcelona, Vienna, and Frankfurt. Some have plenty of available wheelchair taxis, like London. However, other cities like Paris and Budapest have metro systems that are mostly inaccessible to wheelchair users. Fortunately, bus services in most major European destinations offer wheelchair accessible buses with ramps, although taking the bus may not be the most desirable way to get around.
Many hotel employees and reservations agent don’t know what ‘accessible’ means. Because it’s rare that you can book an accessible hotel room online using a European hotel’s website, chances are you’ll be booking one via email or over the phone. I highly recommend doing this by email because it helps minimize (at least a bit) the language barrier and allows you the opportunity to explain more clearly what you need. Use pictures of your wheelchair and a bathroom setup if necessary. You will then also have an email chain with names and hotel contact info in case something isn’t right when you arrive. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee anything with regards to the actual accessibility of your supposedly accessible room, and you can’t sue or do much more than complain if something is wrong. Just do the best you can when reserving a room to make your exact needs known.
Check out this nylon “ladder” that helps me pull myself up in hotel beds and at home: Stander BedCaddie – Sit-Up In Bed Support Assist Handle with Adjustable Nylon Strap + Three Ergonomic Hand Grips
Every single train system in Europe has different booking and boarding procedures for wheelchair users. In some cases, like with Irish Rail, you can book a wheelchair spot online. In others, you need to make a reservation for a wheelchair seat over the phone, by email, or at a train station. Some lines offer discounted tickets for wheelchair users and others don’t. Every line also requires a different amount of prior notification for providing you with a ramp to board the train and disembark at your destination. In the Netherlands, you have to call or notify the station in person at least an hour before your departure, and the phone system is automated only in Dutch. Other rail lines need 48 or 72 hours notice. Make sure you look online or call to make sure you know exactly what the requirements are for wheelchair users.
Don’t make non-refundable reservations assuming all your accessible travel needs will be met. I get incredibly frustrated (and sad) when I see that a fellow wheelchair user has booked non-refundable plane tickets to somewhere in Europe, then starts asking for recommendations for wheelchair accessible transportation, medical equipment rentals, accessible hotels in tiny/obscure/rural towns, etc. As forward thinking as some of Europe is, you can never assume that you’ll just figure these things out when you arrive. For example, Frankfurt’s accessibility as a city is fantastic. However, ask me how many wheelchair taxis there are in the city. There are two, you have to book them several says in advance, and there aren’t any at the airport. Successful wheelchair travel to Europe requires a lot of research and advance planning, and you’re setting yourself up for a huge challenge if you try to wing it.
Cobblestones are EVERYWHERE. No country in Europe is immune, although some cities are definitely better than others. In Copenhagen, they’ve made an effort by laying down two parallel paver tracks over the cobbles for wheelchairs and strollers. However, if you’re a 3-wheel scooter user like me, you’re screwed in this scenario. Vienna has ripped out much of its old cobbles and replaced them with flat pavers, and many other European cities are doing the same. But if you’re visiting Stockholm or Tallinn any time soon, make that chiropractor appointment as soon as you get home.
Most restaurants and stores will be off-limits. I always take notice of the entrances to restaurants and stores in European pedestrian-only (i.e. tourist-heavy) areas, and in every city I’ve visited, the majority have at least one step to enter. This is nothing to say of the lack of accessible toilets in a European restaurant even if you can sit inside. The good news is that most major European cities have tons of outdoor seating options when it’s not too cold, and many souvenir shops have wares and kiosks on the sidewalks outside the store fronts. Many large hotels in tourist areas have accessible restaurants and toilets that you can use when out and about, as do European shopping malls.
Many amazing parts of Europe are only one step up, and can be accessed with a small portable ramp. Consider bringing this one (the one I use) with you the next time you travel! EZ-ACCESS Suitcase Singlefold Graphite Fiber Ramp, 51 Inch, 17 Pound
Bring an electrical outlet adapter. European current is 220 volts, as compared to 110 volts in the US. Make sure your power chair charger uses variable voltage (it will say ‘110V~240V’ on the charging block sticker) so you don’t have to bring a converter. Your smaller electronics like your phone, tablet, and laptop use variable voltage chargers. Leave your hair dryer and flat irons at home!!! Your hotel will likely provide a hair dryer, or you can buy an inexpensive European version for less than 20 euro.
Make sure you can plug in your variable voltage power chair charger when you travel abroad! Here’s the international plug adapter I use: icyber Worldwide Travel Adapter
You’ll be eligible for discounts or free entry in many places. Tons of museums across Europe offer free or discounted entry to wheelchair users and their caregivers. Some require that you present a special kind of ID that “proves” your disability, and most American wheelchair users don’t have that. However, ticket takers usually know this and will give you the discount anyway.
Most Europeans are largely indifferent to wheelchair users, but are very kind and helpful. This is a situation where indifference is a good thing! Few things are worse than traveling in a wheelchair and having the locals stare at you – sometimes with hostility or disgust (I’m looking at you, Hong Kong). But wheelchair users are common enough in most of Europe that the locals won’t take much notice of you, other than to politely give you some space. They will also help you in a pinch if you get stuck (um, that metro/platform gap?) or need a nudge over an obstacle. I’ve also had many a shopkeeper make a sale with me from their doorway when I couldn’t enter after seeing something i really liked in the window.
There are new accessible tour companies offering services every year. I have been fortunate enough to work with amazing accessible tour companies in places like Ljubljana, Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Budapest during my European travels. Many companies also offer accessible shore excursions for wheelchair users going on cruises to Europe. As an accessible travel agent, I work with these companies as a traveler who has personally used their services, and can now help offer them to my clients. Working with a tour company in Europe can help alleviate a lot of stress when you know your accessibility needs are being taken care of by locals.
Are you ready for a wheelchair accessible European adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so I can help you start planning!
Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these companies, and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.