A few months ago, I was interviewed by Lonely Planet’s Martin Heng for the 2019 edition of their Accessible Travel Online Resources guide. One of the questions he asked me was what were some of my travel hacks, and I immediately responded with my cell phone apps. Thanks to several companies in the travel sector and some enterprising developers, there are so many cell phone apps available today that make life so much easier for wheelchair travelers on the road or in the skies. Here are my recommendations for the best travel apps for wheelchair users.
There are so many aspects to air travel that wheelchair users have to get right if we want an even halfway decent flight experience. One of the most important aspects, in my opinion, is seat selection. I generally need a bulkhead seat because I have MS and spasticity in my legs is a big problem. If I can’t stretch out my legs, I can get bad cramps, and being in pain is no way to enjoy a 14 hour flight to Asia. Other people need to sit in a row that has an armrest that can fold up or push down because they can’t transfer over it. Lucky for wheelchair users, there is SeatGuru! with this app, you can type in the name of your airline, your flight date, and your city pairs to determine what type of aircraft you will be flying on. It then produces a seat map with detailed information for every seat on the plane. It will tell you if you’ll be dealing with noise from the galley, people constantly walking past you to get to the lavatory, or people bumping into you on the way to their seats. It will also tell you if there is limited recline, if your seat is in an exit row, and the type of entertainment available on your flight. If you are picky about your seat on a plane or have specific needs about where you need to sit, then definitely get this app.
I’m fortunate that in addition to English, I speak fluent Spanish and enough French to keep me from getting arrested. I can say hello and thank you in 15 languages, but that’s not going to help me if I need to haggle with a vendor in Budapest or ask for directions to the Metro exit in Hong Kong. Google Translate is an absolute gem when you are in a foreign country where you do not speak the language. Better yet, you can now take photos of languages that use something other than Roman characters, like Cyrillic or Chinese, and it will automatically translate that for you. Like any other automatic translator, sometimes it doesn’t get it right. I would avoid using it for deep philosophical conversations and stick to short phrases, like does this come in blue, or will the raw octopus make me sick?
Like all apps that belong to a large general category like air travel, some are going to be better than others. However, I would highly recommend downloading the app for whatever airline you plan to fly on. With most, you can get flight updates, information about delays, and some will even let you track the location of your luggage. Considering that some airlines tag and scan wheelchairs now — especially since there is a new law on the books in the US requiring airlines to track damage to wheelchairs — these apps can be more useful than ever if your wheelchair gets lost.
Most people have at least heard of Uber, even if they’ve never used it. I always suggest that people have the Uber app on their phone in case they are visiting a city that happens to have UberWAV, or wheelchair accessible vehicles that can be hailed using the Uber app. Several cities in Europe use the MyTaxi App, which can also be used to hail a wheelchair accessible taxi if they are available in that city. Sydney, Australia even has Zero200, which is used exclusively for hailing wheelchair accessible taxis.
It almost goes without saying that Google Maps is the best way for finding your way around in a city you’re unfamiliar with. However, the best feature of Google maps is that in some cities, it will even highlight a wheelchair accessible route for you — which sometimes is considerably different than the walking routes it suggests. On top of this, for many US cities and even some foreign cities, Google maps will let you know if a store or restaurant or business has a wheelchair accessible entrance, and sometimes if it has a wheelchair accessible bathroom. This feature has a long way to go, but it’s certainly a welcome option that didn’t exist just a couple of years ago.
Public Transportation Apps
Many cities around the world will have apps dedicated to their bus and/or metro systems. Some of them will even let you know what stations are wheelchair accessible, which ones have elevators, and if any elevators are currently out of service. I’m a fan of bus apps because bus systems are so intricate that I find them extremely intimidating. Having an app tell me exactly which line I’m supposed to take to get from point A to point B, where I can find that bus, and what time it’s arriving is incredibly valuable. Before you travel, just do a Google search for your destination city to determine if they have an app for one of their public transportation systems.
For my fellow Americans, this is an app that was developed by the U.S. State Department to help you report your travel plans to the local Embassy in case of an emergency through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). You can also select any country, and the app will tell you what the security level is for that country, where you can find embassies and consulates, as well as visa requirements. There are also sections for safety and security, local laws, and health issues. You can find all of this information on the US State Department website for travel, but it’s really convenient to have it in app form, especially if you didn’t get a chance to review all the information before you left home.
Cruise Line Apps
Just like airline apps, those that you download for cruise lines vary in quality. However, in some cases, these apps will be your lifeline to the outside world. Generally speaking, cruise line apps allow you to use the ships Wi-Fi for free to obtain information strictly about the ship, and sometimes to chat with your fellow passengers and stateroom mates. I love them because I can see the daily shipboard schedule at a glance without having to drag the daily newsletter around with me. It also lets me communicate with my parents and my kids if we split up. On some cruise ships, this is how you will access the Internet if you purchase an Internet package. Sometimes you can even make reservations for spa appointments and specialty dining through the ship’s app.
Units Plus Converter
It’s pretty easy to find a good currency converter, but I like units plus because it also allows you to convert things like length, electricity — which is crucial for power wheelchair users who are worried about voltage changes — weight, and temperature. If you are flying, chances are at some point you will have to provide the weight and dimensions of your wheelchair to the airlines or some other transportation company. If you don’t know the conversion from inches to centimeters or the other way around off the top of your head, you will find this app extremely useful. If you’re like me and live in a country that uses Fahrenheit, it’s also nice to have an app that will convert the temperature for you, or the other way around.
People who know me well also know that I am at least moderately OCD. Especially when it comes to travel, I need everything to be organized, and easy to find in one place. The TripIt makes this so easy, and I love being able to just open an app and see all of my reservation information for the entire trip. When you receive a confirmation email from an airline, hotel, or other travel supplier, all you have to do is forward it to email@example.com and the system will automatically add it to your itinerary. It knows how to extract times, dates, addresses, pretty much everything. I hate dealing with paper, and it can be hard for me to access printed travel information in my backpack or even in a stack because I don’t have much dexterity in my fingers. I love that if a taxi driver needs an address, I can just pull it up off of my TripIt itinerary.
If you’ve never heard of WhatsApp, you will if you ever travel abroad and work with taxi drivers or tour guides. This is basically a free texting service, and it works so well for texting people internationally. I know a lot of younger people who use it just for texting normally here in the United States, but I didn’t realize how prevalent it was abroad. And it makes total sense because tour guides are usually working with foreigners who have sometimes very long distance phone numbers. Your texting number is the same as your cell phone number, but you don’t have to pay any fees to communicate with someone that has an international phone number. It’s super convenient and easy-to-use, and I’ve worked with it on almost every trip I’ve taken in the last year.
Are you ready to use some of these apps during your next wheelchair accessible adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!