Everyone knows that at least a little planning has to go into every vacation. Even intrepid European backpackers have to decide how to get to their next destination. However, wheelchair users have to plan and prepare much more thoroughly than even a large family heading to Disneyland. We have to take into account not only how to get around in a new location, but how to tend to our medical needs while we’re there. As a result, many wheelchair users hesitate to travel because they’re not sure how to go about it. Below is a basic step-by-step guide to help you get out and exploring!
1. Pick a destination. This sounds almost ridiculous to point out, but just deciding where to go requires a considerable amount of research for people who use mobility aids. Google will be your best friend here, using simple searches like “wheelchair access” and the name of a location. You can also check out one of the numerous disabled travel blog lists of accessible locations around the world, including mine. Things you should look for are the accessibility of sights you want to see, like museums, as well as the availability of hotels with accessible rooms, whether or not sidewalks have dropped curbs, the availability of wheelchair taxis, and how easy or difficult it would be to get into restaurants and shops.
2. Decide to use an accessible travel tour specialist or go on your own. Fortunately for us in 2017, there are more travel agencies than ever that specialize in travel and tours for people with various kinds of disabilities. You can book anything from a simple shore excursion on a cruise to a full three-week getaway in many parts of the world. They can handle booking your accessible hotel rooms to transportation to sightseeing tours. However, using these tour companies can be very expensive. It saves you a considerable amount of time and effort, but you have to decide if that fits into your budget.
3. Select a hotel. In my experience, picking a hotel, especially abroad, has been the most crucial – and the most challenging – task associated with planning a trip. Within the US, the American with Disabilities Act says that all hotels are supposed to allow travelers to book wheelchair accessible rooms online, but that isn’t always the case. If you’re able to do that, make sure the room description clearly says if it has an accessible tub or a roll-in shower (depending on what you need). If not, you will have to call the hotel. For international reservations, depending on the country and the hotel chain, more likely than not you will have to call the hotel to book a room. You can save some time by doing a Google search of “accessible hotels [city]” to find some lists, either through a blog or city tourism board. When you call, make sure you explain exactly how many beds you need and YOUR definition of a roll-in shower and accessibility. Remember that their idea of accessible may not be equal to yours.
4. Book your flight. There is no doubt that some airlines are better than others when it comes to its treatment of disabled passengers and mobility aids. When selecting an airline, make sure you find their web page that details the services they provide to disabled passengers. You may also have to call the airline separately from your online reservation to let them know the details of the assistance you will require, or fill out a form for them. Do some research on the airports where you will be arriving and/or passing through so you know what to expect with regards to disembarking the plane (will there be a jet bridge?) and moving between gates. When selecting your seat on the plane, use Seat Guru to view the layout of the planes you will be on. Be aware that domestic flights usually do not have aisle chairs on board to take you to the lavatory. I recommend getting an aisle seat in the center section of a long-haul flight so you can more easily transfer to the aisle chair, and so no one has to climb over you.
5. Check your destination’s electricity setup. Whether you need to charge a cell phone or mobility chair, it’s very important to know what the current is and what the outlets look like at your destination so you know what kind of adapter to bring with you. Make sure your chargers accommodate variable voltage (~110-220) so you won’t blow something up or set anything on fire. Know the difference between a plug adapter (small and cheap) and a voltage converter (heavy and expensive), as well as the electricity needs of your mobility device so you’ll know what you need.
6. Get travel insurance! I can’t emphasize this enough. You can purchase this to cover airline tickets and cruises, or you can buy an overall trip or annual policy through companies like AIG and WorldNomad. Especially if you have special medical needs, you really need to know you’ll be covered if you become ill or have an accident while you’re away from home – especially if you’re in a foreign country.
7. Know what to expect, and plan for the unexpected. It’s easy to get an idea of what you want to see when you arrive. You can also figure out ahead of time how you will get around, either via taxi or public transportation. Information about the accessible options for transport are available for most major cities online. However, despite our best attempts to plan everything out, something unexpected usually pops up. Know this will happen, and have the attitude going in that there is always a way to figure things out. Bring extra medication. Bring a list of wheelchair repair places at your destination. Bring an umbrella or rain jacket. But most importantly, bring a positive attitude and a sense of adventure!