Why Budget Travel is Hard for Wheelchair Users (and How to Do It Anyway)

One of the most frequently asked questions I get as an accessible travel blogger is how I can afford to travel so much. I answered that question in detail in this blog post, but to put it succinctly, I have a military disability pension, and I also run two companies that bring in additional income. However, many wheelchair users don’t have the privilege of much disposable income to travel. While I can afford regular travel, it doesn’t mean that I don’t look for and know how to find good deals. The less I spend on travel arrangements, the more money I have for souvenirs, food, etc. In this post, I will break down different aspects of accessible travel and how you can save money on each as a wheelchair user.

Selecting an Affordable Destination

One of the biggest determining factors in setting the budget for an accessible vacation is selecting your destination. If you’re trying to save money, then it’s probably best to scratch places like Dubai or Oslo off your list. That doesn’t mean that big or capital cities are automatically a no-go. However, it’s a delicate balance. You will often find better wheelchair accessibility in more modern or larger capital cities, but those also tend to be more expensive to visit. Sometimes large cities with high tourist traffic have bigger competition between hotels, air routes, and attractions, which can mean lower prices. Certain parts of the world are also less expensive to visit. Selecting a city that has numerous direct flights to other parts of the world can also help save you money if you don’t need a connection to get there.

My very affordable visit to Slovenia in 2017.

I have found that Las Vegas is one of the cheapest American cities to visit, and also one of the most wheelchair accessible US cities. There is an incredibly wide selection of hotels to choose from for every single budget, and you can find some amazing deals on accessible accommodations depending on what time of the year you visit, and even the day of the week that you visit. Eastern Europe is considerably less expensive than many of its Western European neighbors, and you can save a ton of money visiting accessible cities like Ljubljana, Budapest, or Prague. Southeast Asia and Central and South America are also very inexpensive to visit, but lack good wheelchair accessibility if you have many needs in that department. Strong manual wheelchair users with assistance can benefit the most from visiting places in those two regions.

Seeing Jennifer Lopez in concert in Las Vegas in February 2017.

How to Find Deals on Airfare

So many books and blog posts have been written on the subject of saving money and finding great deals on airfare. However, many of those deals don’t take into account the special needs we have as wheelchair users trying to fly. Many of us can’t fly on the most budget airlines because the seats are too uncomfortable, or we need to pay extra for bulkhead seats for comfort, or we need long layovers to allow time for our wheelchairs to be returned to us during connections. Some airlines also won’t allow wheelchair users to travel alone, or have airplanes that can accommodate larger power chairs in their holds.

This being said, there are still several ways that wheelchair users can save money on airfare. My go-to phone app and website for airfare deals is Skyscanner. This will allow you to find the best airfare between city pairs, and will let you find the best deals from your home airport to cities around the world for a given timeframe. Using this Skyscanner feature, I was able to find round-trip airfare on Delta between Orlando and Shanghai this past April for only $386.

Visiting Shanghai in April 2019.

Some airlines are also cheaper than others, although beware that you are not sacrificing too much comfort, safety, or the well-being of your mobility device. Southwest is a fantastic budget airline in the United States. EasyJet and Ryanair are two popular budget airlines in Europe. Also beware of airlines that offer what sounds like an amazing base fare, but then charges you for everything from carry-on luggage to a bottle of water. Some airlines in certain countries, like Canada and Australia, offer discounts to caregivers traveling with wheelchair users, So make sure you ask about this. If you don’t want to pay extra for a bulkhead seat, you can always request one on the day of travel, as they are often blocked off for people with disabilities. This is a risk, because if other people have paid for them, there may not be any left when you ask.

Flying a direct nonstop route can usually save you money, and you can combine this with train travel or bus travel to reach your final destination. I visited Belfast, Northern Ireland in August 2018, and I saved almost $1000 by flying direct from Orlando to Dublin on Aer Lingus, then taking a 2-hour train ride on IrishRail from Dublin to Belfast. The time of year when you fly to certain cities can also make a big difference in airfare. Summers tend to be the most expensive in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. Flying to Europe or Scandinavia during the colder months might be less physically comfortable, but will save you a ton of money. I usually find a happy medium by visiting these countries in early spring or late fall.

On the train from Dublin to Belfast in August 2018.

Using Trains as an Alternative

I absolutely love train travel, especially in Europe. Yes, it takes a bit longer sometimes than air travel, although often not much, and it’s considerably more scenic. It can also save you a ton of money when moving between cities. Almost every European country has its own rail system, which can be confusing and frustrating to buy tickets sometimes. Every train service also has its own requirements for booking wheelchair seating and arranging for ramps to board and disembark. Some systems allow you to book wheelchair tickets online, but for most you have to call or send an email. However, on pretty much every occasion, I have received a steep discount on train tickets as a wheelchair user, making any inconvenience well worth it.

Taking the train from Vienna to Munich.

There are some exceptions. While the Amtrak rail system in the United States is very wheelchair friendly, it is very slow and not always reliable. It also tends to be expensive, and sometimes more expensive than air travel. Our train infrastructure is not set up to be anywhere near as robust or efficient as Europe, so I would only rely on American train travel for short distances between cities within the same state where it is significantly cheaper than air travel.

Affordable Accessible Cruises

I have a bit of an addiction to accessible cruising, and for good reason. Wheelchair accessible cruises are, in my opinion, the easiest way for wheelchair users to travel and see multiple destinations in just one trip. You also only have to unpack once, and you have the same room to go back to every night for the duration of your trip. There are cruise ships and itineraries to fit every personality and every budget. If you live anywhere near the US East Coast or West Coast, there are multiple cruise ports available to sail from. Southhampton in the United Kingdom has numerous budget cruise line sailings, as do Rome and Barcelona on the Mediterranean.

Certain cruise lines are known to be considerably less expensive than others. If you are cruising on a budget, take a look at Carnival, which has sailings around the world, P&O out of the United Kingdom, and MSC and Costa in Europe. The itinerary can also make a big difference in price. Caribbean cruises tend to be the cheapest itineraries, especially shorter cruises to the Bahamas from Florida. Most cruise lines also have sales throughout the year, but most commonly between January and March where you can get offers where children sail free, or there’s a 50% discount off of the second guest. Working with an accessible travel agent is the best way to find out when these cruise deals are available.

Aboard the Carnival Liberty.

Cruises can be inexpensive, but if you don’t plan correctly, certain costs can add up. Your meals and basic beverages like coffee, tea, and juice are included in your cruise fare. However, you have to pay extra for things like soda and alcoholic beverages. You are allowed to bring a limited amount of alcohol on board the ship, so check with your accessible travel agent or cruise line to determine what these limits are to help you save some money. You also have to pay extra for shore excursions. However, it is possible to choose an itinerary with ports of call where you can simply roll around the local area in your wheelchair, or use public transportation close to the port in order to explore.

Affordable Accessible Hotel Accommodations

You’ve heard the saying that location is everything, and that is certainly true when it comes to the price of hotel accommodations. The top priority for wheelchair users, of course, is the accessibility of the hotel room itself. After that, it’s most convenient to have a hotel room that is either close to accessible sights and attractions, or close to public transportation that can get you there. It’s easy to understand that the farther away you stay from the city center, the more money you will save on hotel accommodations. However, this may cause you problems if you have no way to get around. This is problematic in the United States, where wheelchair taxis are unavailable in many locations, and public transportation systems are not as robust as they are in other parts of the world.

My amazing and very inexpensive accessible room at the City Hotel in Ljubljana.

In the United States, all hotels, regardless of price, are required to abide by the Americans With Disabilities Act. However, for many reasons, some hotels are better at this than others. I have found horrible accessibility in the most luxury hotel rooms, and some of the best accessibility in budget hotel rooms. Generally speaking, the newer the construction, the better your odds are of getting a room that is reasonably accessible. Some budget US hotel chains that generally do well with accessibility and cleanliness include Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn, Fairfield Inn, and Best Western.

Hotel stays in Europe, especially Western Europe, can be expensive. Saving money often requires using local hotels that are more difficult to find and to book. Finding budget hotels in Europe good wheelchair accessibility can also be quite challenging. However, there are some chains like Premier Inn in the United Kingdom that are very affordable, have good wheelchair accessibility, and have dozens of locations around major UK cities. Again, I would recommend using a local travel agency in Europe or accessible tour company that can provide some guidance with finding an accessible hotel in an affordable location. The good thing is that in Europe, accessible transportation options tend to reach farther out from the core of larger cities. You can save a good bit of money staying in the outskirts of cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen, or Amsterdam and taking the metro to the city center.

My excellent and inexpensive accessible room at the Hotel Modra Ruze in Prague.

Timing is everything when it comes to accessible hotel stays. Just like flights, hotel prices will be cheaper off-season, meaning cooler or wetter times of year. Check the holiday calendar for your destination to make sure you won’t be visiting during a national holiday, or trying to book a stay during a major local festival, sporting event, or college graduation.

Taking Advantage of Public Transportation

Luckily for wheelchair users, some of the biggest advancements in accessible travel are being made in public transportation around the world. Not every subway or Metro system world is wheelchair friendly (as exemplified by the system in New York City), but many are, and often in some surprising places. It’s unfortunate that many cities don’t have wheelchair accessible taxis, but often have public transportation systems that will get you anywhere you need to go, including to and from the airport. It’s also common for wheelchair users to travel on public transportation for free or at a very steep discount.

Every Metro system is different, and the main thing you need to find out about your chosen destination is whether or not you can get on and off the trains. In some cities, like Shanghai, there is only a very small gap between the Metro trains and the platform, meaning you can just roll on and roll off with ease. In other cities, like Hong Kong, you need the conductor to place a ramp at each station to help you bridge the gap. You’ll need to do the research on the Metro system in each city you plan to visit so you know whether or not this will be a public transportation option for you.

On the metro in Seoul in October 2018.

Bus systems in most modern cities are accessible, which is great for wheelchair users. Some have ramps that automatically slide out, like in Gibraltar, and other ramps need to be manually unfolded by the bus driver. You can save a ton of money by using buses to get around a instead of wheelchair taxis, if they are even available. Take a look at the availability of day passes or multi-day passes that are discounted for wheelchair users.

Free or Cheap Sightseeing and Tours

One of the most expensive aspects of accessible travel for wheelchair users is accessible tours or shore excursions. Sometimes we have to pay three or four times as much as our able-bodied peers because we need a lift or a ramp to take us to the same places. There are definitely some destinations where taking, and paying for, an accessible tour is a necessity to visit a specific place. However, there are some destinations where you can be your own tour guide with just a little bit of help from the Internet.

Several cities offer self-guided walking tours where you can download the route map from their website, as well as detailed information about each stop on the route. Cities like Frankfurt, Germany and Venice, Italy even have barrier-free sightseeing routes available for free download. One budget option for a guided tour is using Tours by Locals. These are best used in cities where you have a really good chance of wheelchair accessibility on your route. However, it doesn’t hurt to reach out to a potential tour guide and ask if they can either check their established routes for accessibility, or work with you to customize a barrier-free tour.

Taken during a guided barrier-free tour of Frankfurt that only cost 20 euro.

Many museums and sights in Europe and Asia offer free or steeply discounted entry for wheelchair users, and often a discount for caregivers. If they don’t automatically offer you the discount, make sure you ask about if there is one. Sometimes they require proof of disability, no matter how disabled you actually look. This is easier for Europeans to provide, but we don’t have standardized disability ID cards in the United States. If you have a blue disabled parking placard, bring that with you. Otherwise, you can try bringing a letter from your physician. It may seem like extra trouble to go through, but if you are visiting a lot of museums, it can save you a good chunk of money.

If you live in the United States, you can get an Access Pass from the National Park Service that will allow you to visit all national parks for free. While most American museums do not offer a discount for wheelchair users, virtually all museums on the National Mall in Washington, DC are free for everyone to visit. Guided tours of government buildings in the US, like capitols and city halls, are usually free and wheelchair accessible by law.

Do you have any tips or tricks for saving money as a wheelchair traveler? Please leave your suggestions in the comments!

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  1. Vince

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. Traveling solo is already more expensive than traveling as a couple, but traveling solo in a wheelchair can be even more expensive!

  2. Dean

    I really like your blog. I enjoy traveling. I do have a question. Have you ever tried to rent a wheelchair accessible van with hand controls in Europe?

    I like to drive and experience Europe. I am a quadriplegic with upper mobility function.

    1. No, I travel alone, and rental companies don’t provide accessible vans that the wheelchair user can drive.

  3. Earline Leiss

    I traveled to Niagara falls twice and found it essy to get around. I use a walker with a fold down seat as my issue is more that I need a place to sit and rest as a lot of walkin is a problem. I can ascend a few steps by myself. We purchased a very nice tour through our hotel that privided me with a wheel chair and went to the falls and on the boat tour. I was pleasantly surprised at how great that worked out for me. It wss on my bucket list.

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