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10 Common Accessible Travel Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

For the past two years, I have been working as an accessible travel agent. For almost 4 years, I have been working as an accessible travel writer. This means that I have been asked or have seen others ask questions regarding accessible travel planning that often confuse me and frustrate me. Regular travel planning can be frustrating, and even more so for wheelchair users — especially if they have never traveled as such. I see way too many mistakes being made with regards to accessible travel planning, and these mistakes, while they can simply cause delays or simple frustration in able-bodied travelers, can result in significant disappointments for wheelchair users. Here are the 10 most common accessible travel mistakes I see occurring today, and my tips for how to avoid them.

1. Purchasing airfare without a travel plan. Plane tickets can be really expensive, especially if they are for overseas travel. Because of this expense, the vast majority of travelers purchase airfare that is nonrefundable. You can imagine my shock when I see wheelchair users claim they have already purchased airfare to a destination without knowing the accessibility of where they’re going. I’m not sure if this happens as a result of little experience with accessible travel, or some assumption that other places will be automatically wheelchair accessible. Either way, I highly recommend purchasing your plane tickets last after you have thoroughly researched the accessibility of your destination in general, as well as the availability of accessible transportation and hotel options.

2. Booking a cruise without knowing if the ports of call are accessible. Booking a cruise only requires a deposit, so this isn’t potentially as big of a financial loss as booking plane tickets. However, I have seen many wheelchair users who have completely paid for a cruise and are getting ready to leave within a matter of weeks when they finally ask if their ports of call are accessible. Many don’t even know if they can get off the ship because some of those ports of call on their itineraries are tender only. I highly recommend doing extensive research on the cruise itineraries you are looking at through your cruise line. Find out if the ship docks or if the port of call requires the use of a tender boat. This often precludes wheelchair users from disembarking. Many ports of call in certain parts of the world’s don’t offer accessible shore excursions or independent transportation. Working with an accessible travel agent can greatly help you with this research process.

On the Celebrity Edge tender boat.

3. Not determining the availability of accessible transportation. Every wheelchair user has different needs and abilities. Many manual wheelchair users have more flexibility when it comes to transportation, as they can often transfer into a regular taxi and stow their wheelchairs in the trunk. However, travelers who use large power wheelchairs are completely dependent on either accessible public transportation or accessible taxis. Many destinations around the worlds, including in the United States, have no wheelchair accessible taxis, so visitors are entirely reliant on public transportation in order to explore. Too many times I have seen wheelchair users indicate they have booked hotel rooms and purchased plane tickets, only to ask how they can get from the airport to their hotel, or around a very large city. It breaks my heart knowing that in some cases, there are no accessible transportation options for them, and they may end up having to cancel their trip. Please make sure you do the research to find out if you can actually get from point A to point B in your mobility device at your destination prior to making any financial commitments.

On the public bus in Portland, Maine.

4. Buying train tickets at the last minute. One of the cool things about traveling in places like Europe or Asia is that regular travelers can just show up at a train station and buy a train ticket to virtually any destination. While wheelchair users can technically purchase train tickets this way, most train services require some advance notice from wheelchair users in order to have the personnel and equipment available to get them on the train at the departure station and off the train at the arrival station. Some stations only require an hours notice, but others require as much as 72 hours. If you plan on taking the train anywhere, but especially in Europe, make sure you find out what the policies are for wheelchair users for that specific train company so that you’re not left at the station without a way to board your train.

5. Booking flights with short layovers. Many wheelchair users who have no experience flying as such don’t know that they are always the last one off the plane. They also don’t know that it can often take a very long time to be reunited with their wheelchairs during a layover, even though laws in certain parts of the world require that their wheelchairs be returned to the door of the plane. Dealing with this during a layover that is too short can result in wheelchair travelers missing their connecting flights. For domestic flights, I always recommend at least a 90 minute layover, and for international flights, I recommend at least two hours, preferably longer.

6. Not knowing your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act. Any flights originating or arriving in the United States, regardless of the carrier, are subject to the rules under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). While the ACAA isn’t perfect, it does outline what your rights are as a passenger who uses a wheelchair or other mobility aid. Some examples include your right to have your wheelchair returned to the door of the plane in a timely fashion, your right to board the plane first, and your right to have an onboard wheelchair available in case you need to use the lavatory. So many wheelchair users are afraid to complain or don’t know the process for filing a complaint if their rights are violated because often they don’t know what their rights are. Please use the link above to my blog post on the ACAA, and print it out and carry it with you if you are flying to, from, or within the United States.

7. Not having an equipment backup plan. If you were to arrive in a foreign country tomorrow with a wheelchair that is damaged beyond repair, what would you do? If your answer is I don’t know, then you’re going to be in for a world of hurt if the worst-case scenario happens. Sometimes the answer is as simple as waiting in the airport for the next flight home, although no one wants that as a solution. Are you traveling with a repair kit and spare parts for your wheelchair? Do you know how to contact a local wheelchair or scooter rental business at your destination? Do you know what the processes is for filing a complaint with the airline to get your wheelchair repaired as quickly as possible? Your options may not be so great, but you need to have a backup plan when you travel for situations like wheelchair damage or dead batteries.

8. Not being prepared for electricity and battery requirements. Do you know the electrical capacity of your wheelchair battery? Do you know the voltage rating for your power wheelchair charger? If you don’t, this is something that could keep you at home instead of boarding a plane, or could completely ruin your ability to charge your medical equipment. Airlines around the world have restrictions when it comes to the types of batteries they will allow on their planes, and particularly so with lithium batteries. If your batteries exceed the maximum rating for watt hours, which is usually 300wH, then you probably won’t be able to fly. If you don’t have a variable voltage charger or it doesn’t match up with the voltage at your destination, something is going to burn, blowout, or pop. Please read my guide to batteries and electricity when you are traveling abroad as a wheelchair or scooter user to prevent these things from happening.

9. Expecting US accessibility standards abroad. You would be amazed at how many Americans travel abroad expecting other countries to have their own version of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’ve been fortunate to have visited many countries around the world who have accessibility standards even better than those in the United States, but that is rare. The truth is that most countries — surprisingly, even Canada — don’t have federal/national standards regarding wheelchair accessibility, particularly in the travel sector. I get very frustrated when I see fellow wheelchair users in foreign countries complaining that a toilet is too low or a grab bar isn’t in the exact spot it should be, etc. This is why flexibility and adaptability is key when you are traveling the world in a wheelchair. You are probably not going to come across American accessibility standards in other countries, but there’s a chance you may still be able to make it work. Allow others to help you or make adjustments when possible, and unless you are going to risk injury, try to see first if you can make it work for you.

A supposedly accessible bathroom in Mexico.

10. Expecting a universal definition of the word “accessible.” Most wheelchair users learn pretty quickly that non-wheelchair users often have little understanding of what accessibility means. So many times I have heard anecdotes from other travelers who have been told by hotel managers that their properties are accessible, simply because they only have one step to enter. Or they have employees that can help carry the wheelchair user up a flight of steps. Or because they have one random grab bar on the wall in the bathroom. The truth is that even in the United States, unless they are a wheelchair user, most people don’t know the true definition of accessibility. Especially when booking a hotel, ask a lot of questions — preferably by email to reduce any miscommunication in language translation. Asked if there is a step-free entrance to the building. Ask for photos of the bathrooms and for the height of the bed. Ask if there is step-free access to the elevators (I swear, this is a problem), and if the elevators are large enough to accommodate a wheelchair user and at least one other person. Most people in the travel industry want to help you, but they need to know exactly what your needs are since they likely don’t understand. Go into your travel planning with the assumption that they have no idea what “accessible” means, and communicate clearly what it means for you.

Would you like some help planning your first, or next, accessible travel adventure? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel and we’ll get started!

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3 thoughts on “10 Common Accessible Travel Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

  1. Hi
    Thanks for the wheelchair article. I am a walker user but don’t know if they are too wide to use on the plane to get to the bathroom? ???? Flying
    several airlines to Hawaii August 1st.
    Any suggestions?

  2. FANTASTIC ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!! You hit the nail on the head that non wheelchair users really have no idea of what “accessibility” really means and how individual the word is for each person. Wonderful tips, thank you!

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